mizugaki-yama is the quintessential Japanese mountain; high spires of teetering granite, gravity-defying conifer trees, trickling waterfalls and narrow gorges emerging from a sea of quiet deciduous forest and layers upward drifting mist. straight from an old ink painting, Mizugaki is as much an icon of Japanese-ness as it is of serious climbing. whilst crowds flock to Ogawa-yama, Mizugaki to the south remains quiet, the trails still faint and hundreds of lines still unclimbed.
esoteric and quiet; Mt Mizugaki is a good location for finding the soul of japanese climbing
more accessible than Kaikomagatakes alpine faces and less confronting than the big routes on Byu-bo Iwa, Mizugakis spires and walls are home to multi-pitch routes that link cedar covered ledges via long granite cracks and bold faces, making it an obvious choice for summer multi-day routes staged either from the base or wall-style, bivvying on the ledges. mizugaki is a good place to learn and refine alpine technique, with only the short stuff bolted, leaving the bigger routes either totally free or relying on just ancient bits of dubious iron-work.
alpine-style climbing on Mt Mizugakis longer routes; getting fluent in the methods that will be applied to bigger things
most of Mizugakis climbing is at the harder end of the spectrum with a lot of 5.12s & 5.13s. big routes stretch to around 11 pitches, with a lot of pitch-length cracks and deep off-widths – which combined with the hard grades make for a good Clean Aid training ground.
steep lines and hand-width cracks; Mizugakis granite spires has hundreds of options for training and development
no heavy gloves, down jackets, frozen hands, sharp tools or icy ropes; to make winters efficient theres a lot of preparation thats easier done in summer.
packing & carrying in all the gear is one thing, using it is another; alpine aid is a fine balance between resources and skill, with complex routes needing a wide of applied abilities
days & nights on the route; when routes get long the ability to live happily in adaptable conditions equals the ability to climb
summer climbing trips up onto Mizugakis faces tend to be relaxed, staying in caves and on pine needle-softened ledges. being at cloud level at about 1900m makes for ever-changing conditions as mist and cloud swirls between the spires, the sun bakes the exposed granite and views down the valley open up.
a long way from winter; long days mean early starts and time to take things in. sometimes getting the coffee right is as important as chosing the route.
of course there are casualties: the testimony to great rock is often the effect it has on your gear
to climb seriously requires training, and of that an amount needs to be on-wall. a gym and weekend sessions are fine, but real progress is made with enough specific sessions and the problem here is finding a partner. if youre lucky you will have an accomplice who will belay for the long hours required to get the volume in, but if you dont – or dont want one – then a system of soloing is needed. bouldering? it will only get you so far. when reality comes in +/-50m pitches you need long enough sequences to function.
despite a bad reputation, roped soloing need not be the game of russian roulette its made out to be. both solo leading and solo top roping – if done right like anything – can be safe. theres even a train of thought that removing as many people from the equation reduces human error.
for the moment this is about top rope (TR) soloing for training. it differs from recreational TR soloing in that its meant to be hard, which means falling, which means having a system both bombproof and easy to use. yes, it will work for recreational TR soloing too, but the same cant be said for the reverse scenario – a lightweight recreational system is the wrong idea for training.
this system uses 2 independant ropes, both ideally around 10mm for safety and ease of use. it is assumed the ropes have bombproof, independant anchors at the top of the route, and are weighted but not secured at the bottom. wandering or overhanging routes may have the rope redirected via regular quickdraws.
the basic process has the climber climbing from the bottom along a static rope which feeds fluidly thru the safety devices. falls are arrested with minimal impact shock loading to the ropes and safety system. escape from the arresting system is both safe and fast.
it is recommended the route is rappelled before climbing to check for risks like loose rock, ropes running over edges, direction of pull on anchors, direction of fall etc.
the system: belts-n-braces safety yet easy enough to use for relentless training sessions
the nuts & bolts
2 x 10mm ropes or doubled single rope
chest harness (rigged or manufactured)
capture or oval locking karabiners
Petzl Micro Traxion rigged with an extender cord to the toothed cam
additional gear includes a safety tail and prussick loops/ascenders
all up its not a cheap set up, tho all devices also fulfil many other functions. other versions like Gri Gris and lead solo devices can also work, but have been found to be both not as smooth, as easy to manipulate or as low-bulk/low weight.
how & why
this set up uses a Trango Cinch as the primary arrest device because of its smooth rope action due to having a less acute curve that the rope passes thru to arrest. it also sits better when suspended with a chest harness and is clipped between the harnesses loading loops. as a secondary arrest device a Petzl Micro Traxion is used because of its ease for disengaging when rigged below the Cinch. both devices are attached via capture or oval biners so to minimize cross loading.
in use, the Cinch takes the primary loading as it moves up the rope above the Micro Traxion, which, unsuspended, trails below by gravity. when loaded by a fall the Cinch grabs the rope, taking the majority of the load, whilst the Micro Traxion usually grabs a minor part of the load that is engaged from rope stretch. the Cinch arrests by a camming angle that locks the rope when loaded. it doesnt use sharp teeth, so is considered less potentially damaging to your rope. the Micro Traxion does have teeth so grabs aggressively, but is considered fine for a back up if the Cinch were to fail. under load the Micro Traxion requires another device (the Cinch) to assist in disengaging. the Cinch itself requires no disengaging, being the device also used to rappel off the route.
at no time is the climber completely disengaged from the rope
the ease of flow of the Cinch is the key to this set up. as the climber ascends there should be no need to pull rope thru the device, even if the device has been weighted, assuming there is adequate weight at the bottom of the rope. minimal play in the movement of the Cinch means little shock loading can occur, and gravity has the Micro Traxion trailing far enough below the Cinch to avoid entanglement.
rigged for TR solo: note the coiled rope used to weight the bottom, the directional quickdraw at the base of the overhang and the bomber tree for an anchor
CLICK TO ENLARGE
occasional upward yanks can be applied for ‘watch me’ moves, to further reduce slack in the system and minimize loss of height gain if rests are taken. likewise paying small amounts of slack into the system for overhanging or wandering routes is easy to do one-handed by tilting the orientation of the Cinch and disengaging the Micro Traxions teeth with the pull cord.
training means falling. and falling on this TR solo system is little different to falling on a belayed top rope. the use of a Cinch suspended from a chest harness entails very little impact, and the high center of gravity hugely reduces the chance of inverted falls or inversion from a swing.
disengaging the system under load
lets say you peel off a hard move on an overhang and are left suspended in space. you dont need purchase against the wall to disengage the system and rappel to the ground. begin by checking and arranging the loaded pieces to confirm everything is fully engaged and locked (ie no nasty surprises once you disengage something). if the system feels dubious, tie an alpine butterfly backup knot 1m below on the same rope the Cinch is on.
once confirmed, grab the rope running downwards thru the Micro Traxion and pull it upwards using the action of the pulley for leverage, simultaneously disengage the Micro Traxions teeth by yanking on the extender cord attached to the biting cam and lock it open. note it only takes a second of applied strength to do this. remove the Micro Traxion from the rope.
this will leave you suspended from the engaged Cinch, which is then used to rappel the rope. note: at this point confirm the correct rope (the one going thru the Cinch) is used to brake the rappel.
TOP ROPE SOLOING FOR TRAINING
a system like this makes it as easy as it ever will be to get realistic training time beyond the limitations of bouldering. applied structurally within a smart training program TR soloing is good for 4X4 and endurance sessions that few belayers are enthusiastic about, along with projecting hard sequences and testing things like aid placements, new gear and speed. in the end the set up here with a 60m rope is a smaller load to carry than a mat and opens up far more options. the more fluent you are with the system the more fluid the training session can be. expect to spend one or two sessions working it out and a few more getting comfortable, after which the gains in vertical-time are big.
the system here works just as well for drytooling as it does for aid and free. ice? thats not impossible; the angle of function of the Cinch and the grab of the Micro Traxion makes this as good a set up as can be for the medium. as with any pursuit on ice, its the effect of cold on ropes and hardware that adds the extra element of risk, and tho this system has been used on ice its a scenario needing extensive specifics before recommending.
note: all the usual stuff applies. copy this at your own risk. iceclimbingjapan and the people who represent it are not responsible for the outcomes of using these or similar methods. top rope soloing carries risks associated with height, impact forces, entanglement, equipment failure, friction, rock fall and a multitude of other factors, of which the outcome can include death or serious injury. anyone using these or similar techniques accepts this, and acknowledges that the use of equipment in this way may contravene the expressed recommendations of the manufacturers.
yes, you read that correctly: dry tooling.
demonized in many places where its been mispracticed in the past, drytooling has a bad name amongst many climbers. destructive when done incorrectly in the wrong place (ie with double points and alpine tools on revered summer routes and/or fragile geology), drytooling is also an important aspect of mixed climbing, worthy of being done right.
thankfully, Japan has a liberal attitude towards drytooling with no one getting upset unless real damage is being done. along with this japan has huge tooling potential due to the vast amount of volcanic rock thats not great for rock climbing but is ideally steep, fissured and accessible.
in the right place and with the right tools drytooling is athletic, highly skilled and unique as a climbing form and bears no threat to popular climbing formations. ‘real’ drytooling makes use of features unsuited to regular climbing – hairline fissures, tiny pockets, vertical seams in roofs. not relying on friction too, drytooling can be done on grimey, slick and moisture affected rock, as its can also be suited to sharp and highly textured conglomerate too scatty to climb on with hands and offering no natural protection. true drytooling takes place where other forms of climbing cant (except possibly aid).
the Devil’s Work – drytool training on self-belayed top rope:
so, with next winter already orienting towards hard mixed climbing, drytooling makes up a significant part of the preparation process, meaning several tooling sessions over each training cycle, which means quite a bit of volume, which means getting the equation right so as not to damage somebody else favourite climb.
the keys to sustainable drytooling are:
- train properly: no mindless scratching around for no reason – climb within your ability (or at the edge of it) or go away. get good at placements before getting onto subjective routes.
- train on top rope: OH MY GOD! drytool AND top rope in the same sentence! yes, to get good takes volume and you need to take the falls and rest on rope instead of scratching around. its not the devils work, its respect for the geology.
- use the proper tools: not alpine tools and ideally not even pure ice tool – the right tools with the right picks have better geometry so rip less often, meaning fewer crap placements and a greater ability to rely on the thin/tiny stuff normal climbing doesnt
- use the proper crampons – or not at all: tooling is easier with crampons, so forgoing them and just wearing stiff boots is actually better training in many ways. keep your crampons for the right time, and when you use them, use monos as they do 50% the damage.
- train other aspects: weak climbers scratch about more. get strong, understand what youre doing and aim to be refined and focused. watch good toolers and you will see they do almost no damage because they make direct, precise placements. they dont flail about kicking chunks off the rock. good toolers switch up, reducing the number of placements and impact. simply put – the better the climber the less impact they make.
- understand how tools work: mixed tools have a wide spectrum of applications, not just hooking. the better you understand them the more you can shift from reliance on pockets and features that can rip.
- use your hands: theres no rule saying you must use tools 100% of the time. watch guys like Josh Wharton climb and see how they switch between hands and tools.
done right, drytooling is the missing link that helps keep progress between ice seasons. its also a discipline in its own right with a lot of skills that dont make it into ice climbing. getting good at tooling transfers over to other aspects of climbing by developing new ways of applying strength, power, balance and endurance.
summers peaked and it seems autumn is a bit early, so after a
long, hot season thoughts are shifting to winter projects.
spliced together from forgotten topos, conversations with some of
Japans top climbers, old photos and ideas from around the world, this winter is
looking like it will be all about alpine walls.
winter aid routes on big granite walls: the foundation of Japanese alpine climbing
we spent the last few seasons following leads to locate routes
that formed japans best climbers. despite the names attached to them, many of
these routes have slipped into obscurity – to the point that besides japans
elite and a generation now in their 60s, most young climbers wont have heard of
them. and its not that the routes were superceded by anything other than shifts
in climbing trends, as indoor, bouldering and weekend locations like ogawayama
as far as walls go these are not the biggest, not the coldest and
not the sketchiest, but they are some of the most obscure. between 300m and 525m,
Japans alpine walls are similar in length to the South and West faces of Yosemite
and most of the routes in Zion, but getting vastly less attention still rate
due to their obscurity and risk – theres no scenic tourist road at the base of
any of these. tho some routes go back to the 1930s, most were initially aided
in the 60s during the early summer, on nasty gear and little of it, using fixed
ropes for mini-sieges, then forgotten about as climbers turned to more sport
oriented routes. these days they are still remote, with often difficult access,
and most of them nothing more than rusted lines of rivets and pitons described
sparingly in long out-of-print topos. a handful have become esoteric summer
free routes, but the vast majority are nothing more than dotted lines on hand
drawn topos. most will never have seen winter repeats.
digging up these old routes is a mix of history and cryptography.
little is recorded and what is uses obscure descriptions of things that may
have changed. in the decades since these routes were recorded conditions have
changed, and in most cases winter conditions were simply not factored in.
several recon trips have turned up just how unvisited these walls
are, with trails long washed away and the few remnants of climbing debris being
weathered beyond identification. in some places we found old tools, biners and
hardware worn down after decades of snow and ice tumbling them. a common relic
was the rings from Japanese split rivets that had been stretched into oval
shapes by winters of snow slowly pulling them out.
cryptic and beguilingly simple. Japanese topos are exercises in understatement.
in winter these are routes not to be taken lightly. most are above
2000m and cold, with several meters of snow and access down narrow ravines on
frozen streams. most areas see almost no visitors between November and April
when the rivers freeze.
japan has lots of granite, which means a mix of ice-scoured, seamless gullies and sharp, complicated roofs. note this is the A2 roof shown in the 5 pitch of the topo above, simply described as ‘hanging’.
most are decent granite, with complex crack systems and sets of
roofs that show testament to japans active geomorphology. several walls are
high up and exposed, sitting above big couloirs with +2000m drops to the frozen
streams in the valley floor, and many have gullies ground smooth from ice and
rain to leave tiny seams only passable with the thinnest of gear.
50 years ago japan was fairly isolated in the climbing world. the
pre-war climbing tradition that had Japanese teams climbing all thru the Himalayas
– often under the radar disguised as Buddhist pilgrims – had been dormant
during the decades of conflict with Russia, china and the west. whilst the west
got busy after the war, sending expeditions to the Himalaya, japan was
rebuilding, taking almost 2 decades before it was affluent enough again to take
climbing seriously. tho some serious routes were put up in these years, it was
the cultural explosion of the mid-60s – fuelled by glimpses of what was
happening in Yosemite and the Alps – that galvanized a new generation of
climbers. most were young, motivated by a new economy and inspired by the
Americans and pushed deeper into japans mountains looking for walls. still
isolated culturally, but with a long mountain tradition of their own, these
guys put up routes on homemade gear, sometimes scrounged from maritime supplies,
that seem crazy in retrospect. whilst Chouinard and Robbins were spawning the
future of American hardware, Japanese climbers were aiding entire 400m walls on
hooks, wooden chocks and iron-mongery made for farming tools. the death tolls
for places like ichi-no-kura where much of it was tested speak for itself, with
about 30 deaths a year for much of the 60s and 70s.
by the 80s Japanese climbers were taking their version of climbing
back to places like the Karakoram, Pamir and Tibet. meanwhile the remote alpine
walls theyd grown up on were becoming overlooked as new climbers took to the
booming climbing phase more in the gym and bolted short routes close to the cities.
occasional trips went out to free some of this near-forgotten lines, with a
surge of interest in the early 2000s, and its worth noting that the few that
got converted did so at grades in the 5.11/5.12 range, some by no less than
Yuji Hirayama and Yasuhiro Hanatani.
mid 90s photo on the lower pitches of one of the classic alpine walls in the Northern Alps
our aim here is to expose the element of hard Japanese climbing
actually inside japan. everyone knows
about the Giri Giri boys, the north side of K2, Japanese routes at Trango and
in Alaska – so its time to show the crucible where a big part of the Japanese alpine
mentality was forged.
its serious work. organizing and gearing up for this series of
trips isn’t just a matter of jumping in the car. not knowing the condition of
the routes means rethinking whats there and being prepared for everything from
clean aid and big wall methods to steep ice, alpine mixed and lots of hauling
loads. in piecing it together weve found more info on Tajikistan, Antarctica and
Baffin island than we have on Japans hard alpine routes….
byou bo iewa. not the usual image of Japanese climbing. image found on shizennnonakade.com
expressions of interest are welcome, but this is not for everybody.
despite the modern conveniences of Japan,
once off the grid these objectives are as much uncovering history as they are
breaking new ground. the skill set for these routes is broad, demanding
familiarity with more than just roadside ice and climb-by-numbers route following.
a functional ability in the dark arts of skyhooking, seam-nailing, guerrilla mixed
and winter ledging is a basic prerequisite.
trips to these walls will be done micro-exped style, requiring a
minimum of about 10 days – all totally unsupported, in temperatures down to
teams will be small, so numbers will be limited, but anyone excited
by old topos, exotic places, rediscovered routes and serious climbing is
encouraged to get in touch.