weve said all along this winter was a good one for ice, and now after the first quarter its time to update
裏同心 Ura Do Shin F8: weve never seen this in before. in the old days it was WI4, this year about M5. a very rare opportunity
as the ice has fattened with an early weather pattern that brought mid-winter freezes occillating with warm spikes to form the best ice in years, recent snow dumps have covered some areas already, the well known Yatsugatake area especially so. where early freezes had made the ice good, associated early snow has covered it up meaning some areas are already choked, avi-prone and over-baked. oh well.
gully routes in some places that look like this in the first week of December…
….look like this now. thankfully most other places are not the same.
the good news is that other areas have had little of the bulk snow, but just enough that combined with the early freezes to make ice forming well in places weve not seen it before. in these areas lots of esoteric and quality ice up to several pitches high presents itself as a rare objective.
so far the weather patterns have been accurate to about 85%, and ahead looks like more deep freezes. heading towards mid winter the conditions for less-frequented stuff look excellent though colder than normal. beyond that into the second half of winter we are expecting the fattest ice yet for peak season.
fuji, where we have been focussing, is covered in a total layer of hard ice that starts well below 1400m. again, unusual.
you couldnt ask for better: rain and melt then a sharp drop into deep freeze. what weve waited all summer for.
already theres been two significant freezes and now the definitive freeze is on its way. a bout of rain and snow in the days before then a plunge into serious cold.
compared to previous years this comes a few weeks ahead of the norm, with temperatures colder and the precipitation between more consistant. add it all up and this could be the best early season ice in almost a decade with lower ice forming well before the shortest days and the snow really arrives.
with 14 weeks of winter ahead its time to nail down a plan and make it happen. dont say you didnt see it coming
simply put; the world knows almost zero about climbing in japan. even the most educated climbing geeks struggle to name a single route in japan, with even the names of japans peaks eluding them.
the mark of a climbing culture is what its members achieve out in the world of ‘big’ climbing – ie on vanguard routes where their climbing peers can evaluate just how good the climbing is – and tho Japanese climbers have a history of high end results, the climbing that formed them is largely unknown.
can’t read Japanese? then chances are Japan’s alpine climbing is a totally unknown world to you
a degree of this hole in the climbing worlds collective knowledge goes down to language; japans climbing information is mostly written in Japanese of course, but the real reason is the Japanese attitude towards climbing. the climbing industry is simply quieter in showing it. indeed Japan has sponsored climbers and significant producers of sponsoring companies, but the heroes of Japanese climbing are not athlete-celebrities telling us what to wear on Vimeo. so, in an attempt to answer the many emails iceclimbingjapan gets asking ‘what is Japanese alpine climbing all about?’ a condensed version is provided here.
Kaikomagatake: more than one climber has noted how its not what they expected of Japan’s mountains
first off, Japan has a lot of climbing. +/-80% of the country is covered in mountains, with dramatic topography hewn by a blend of volcanic, erosive and seismic activity that lends itself to rock types and formations that cover most climbing demands. japan has 21 mountains over 3000m with another 33 over 2500m, most with starting base levels below 1000m giving a lot of climbing in excess of 1500m height gain.
being a deeply featured landscape with profound weather conditions, Japan’s mountains are complexes of ravines and narrow ridges, hiding a huge area of ice and alpine potential. few peaks have an obvious set of faces and approaches, more often having dozens of options that follow an array of features deep into rarely visited regions. its normal for even the most-visited peaks to have entire faces and sides that go unaccessed for years.
approaches in Japan can be the decisive factor: steep, complex topography keeps Japan’s alpine objectives remote and esoteric, requiring more than just a passing degree of interest
japan has about a dozen walls of +250m, with a handful reaching 450m. tho little of these rank as the common idea of big walls, most of them sit within alpine topography that makes them closer to an Alpen or Alaskan comparison than to Yosemite. huge approaches lead to exposed granite faces that go to summits via complicated routes. theres little of the developedment that surrounds famous wall areas in the US and Europe, most japanese walls are remote require total self-sufficiency.
below Japans walls is a large cannon of multi-pitch routes dispersed across the entire country. routes between 3 and 12 pitches cover the huge amount of stripped faces from high alpine buttresses to the endless sea cliffs. routes are found in nearly every corner of Japan, with an impressive collection of 5.13 upwards routes put up by Japans core of hard climbers. Japan has relatively little of the focal valleys as found in Europe, being closer to the US style that centers climbing around peaks and the UK version of isolated crags. despite a huge amount of attention go to places like Ogawa-yama, most of Japans rock potential is untapped, with enormous possibilities in all across the country for new routes. even Mizugaki-yama on the back side of Ogawa-yama sees minimal attention considering the vast amount of rock of exceedingly good quality and easy access. if japan is known for any sort of climbing its bouldering, with guys like Dai Koyamada doing as much at home as he does around the world. every weekend finds a legion of pad-carrying boulderers jamming up the train carriages out to the bouldering areas, draining the 7-11s of coffee and onigiris on the way.
that Japan is barely known as an ice destination is an anomaly. with the right climate, latitude and topography it should be obvious to anyone looking at a map that Japan ticks all the boxes. from remote valleys and alpine faces, to road-side cascades and ice-park style areas, ice can be found all over the upper half of the archipelago between November and April. as an untapped repository of ice routes, Japan conceals areas comparable to the famous locations in Europe and Nth America with comparable areas to Lofoten, Hyalite, Alaska and parts of the Alps – minus the crowds.
the connected alpine routes of japans high ridges and buttresses are an entire culture onto their own, having been the center of Shinto and Buddhist activity for centuries. even the hard technical routes are usually approached to some extent via ancient trails that lead to shrines and ascetic practice areas, with some peaks like Kaikomagatake retaining some of the active Shugendo facilities.
classic mixed ridges and gullies flank dozens of Japans alpine peaks, ranging from suicidal lines to straightforward semi-technical routes.
the Yatsugatake massif: one of several centers for Japanese Alpinism. photo: Kylie H.
more than once Japanese mixed has been likened to Scottish mixed – tho with better weather and more reliable temperatures. strafed and rimed rock on exposed buttresses with no bolts are all over Japan. this tho belies the ‘athletic mixed’ climbing also found yet barely developed that awaits exploration across the winter-affected regions. volcanic geology and cold conditions results in endless extreme rock formations that are connected with sections of ice. much of it is unclimbable in summer, making for true mixed lines.
Japanese climbing culture is relatively free of the bickering and aggressive navel-gazing found elsewhere. the culture as a whole is both respectful of climbing as a pursuit, and tolerant of new ideas on style. perhaps the absence of industry pressure to define ‘climbingness’ alleviates the egos that flare over matters of style and apparent ethics.
despite having climbing concurrent to the rest of the world, Japanese climbing is still very ‘Japanese’. a degree of recent climbing styles have been copied from the west with many Japanese climbers having travelled to climb, but much of the base culture is deeply rooted in Japans own attitude to the mountains.
Japan’s mounatins have been active places for centuries, going into and climbing them has a cultural element different to the West
even amongst teenage boulderers, an attitude of organic attachment exists to the mountain geography – for many Japanese being in the mountains is as important as what happens in the mountains, and the sense of being out there is to be cultivated with certain ways of doing things. the Japanese don’t try to extend their ultra-urban attitudes into the mountains by bringing home with them, they recognize ‘mountain time’ as being almost the default setting. this is noticed in all sorts of ways, from the attention given to eating when in the mountains, to the distinction between where the mountains begin and civilization ends. many Japanese climbers have distinct psyches they switch into when in the mountains, sometimes seen as a ‘purer’ version of the self, with appetites and reactions allowed to flow more organically than the weekday Tokyo personas they so dilligently maintain.
international attention on Japan as a climbing destination is still a fair way off. Japan is not a 3rd world destination needing a hand from the western climbing industry to develop and exploit its potential, and nor is it a place with nothing else to offer. Japan is more than happy to remain obscure, with its climbing available only to the few willing to find it. foreign interest indeed exists, with a small number of motivated climbers dropping by each year happily knowing they dont have to compete with hustlers and crowds to climb what they want. japan is free of difficult redtape, extorionate fees and the climbers bubble that exists elsewhere. despite world-class climbing the usual accompaniments that go with it are happily absent and for those who like that its a true alternative.
being able to climb hard with minimal hassle gets rarer and rarer every year, making Japan an ever-more valuable destination to escape the pressure of a climbing world saturated with exploitation and the race-for-the-prize. that entire vallys of alpine climbing remain unspoken of and intact speaks as much for the blinkeredness of the worlds climbing media as it does for Japan’s ability to keep things well managed despite trends elsewhere.
leashes suck. but theres 2 things that suck more; dropping a tool into the void where you cant get it back, and dropping a tool into the void where it hits someone else.
its training season which means its not about giggles, its about work. there are things to be acheived and that means doing stuff that doesnt always work and tools get dropped. the current project location is a longish roof/lip that sits in a tier above a 30m face thats very popular, and which also means dropping a tool is either a pain in the ass or potentially fatal to people below. so, hot on the heels of the already talked-about top rope belay system, is this leashless rig. most set ups have ‘biners and junk that get in the way, and most tools have less-than-perfect interfaces for leashes but this solves much of that. really, its like no one has put 2 and 2 together on this. add to this the way leashes twist around each other and theres a matrix of problems that never seems to get resolved. it annoyed me like it does many others, but function demanded a result and having a rack of leashes i sorted it out.
simple, elegant & functional
those are Blue Ice Boa leashes hitched to the swivel and hitch sling from a Black Diamond Double Springer. the Fusions (reknowned for having dubious attachment options) simply have 2mm cord hitched around the pommels with loops hanging off. the loops from the Boas hitch into these, via looping over the head of the tool. no little biners, no drilling into metal, nothing requiring tools beyond the scissors to cut the Springer leashes off the swivel. find a better system. you can even re-rig it to the heads of the tools in seconds for piolet stuff.
the interfacing bits: nothing fancier than some girth hitches, clove hitches and double fishermans
it is expensive. you need to spend on 2 sets of leashes unless you rig from other bits. but its more than worth it if leashes drive you crazy on the times when you have to use them.
note: this rig by no means is said to support a fall. anecdotally it has, but none of the parts is rated for such
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.
Interest in Sendai’s White Dragon Wall is gathering for next winter, with about half of the prime season already booked. interest is coming in from around the world as the project expands and the buzz of quality routes in an exotic location gathers.
this is Japanese climbing distilled to its essence – streamlined, hard, esoteric and bold.
a section of the weird volcanic fluting that hides ice in each shute
when is the season?
iceclimbingjapan will devote late-January to mid-February almost solely to the White Dragon Wall area. During this time we will run regular trips in there, keeping a consistent presence and equipment in the area, climbing as much as possible.
whats the climbing like?
Mostly hard, ranging upwards from WI4 on thin ice, to M9 and above and whatevers beyond that. most walls are steep and overhanging, with the ice very good quality but wind-thinned and featured – tho some routes have monster, fat icefalls. much of whats there is in multiple pitches spanning multi-stepped escarpments. theres dozens of pillars, hanging features and isolated wedding cakes. the rock its all on is chunky conglomerate in most places, volcanic, and excellent for tool placements. in many places the icefalls are weird colours. most pitches have good trees for anchors. bolting is a possibility.
approaches are between 10mins and 1hr from the valley floor, mostly steep. until late season snowshoes are not needed. some river crossings are required. primary access is along established roads and trails.
this is not the place for beginners. the potential for first ascents is near-unlimited.
what gear is needed?
agressive tools, mono-points, double ropes and binoculars. a good selection of short screws (10 & 13cms), spectres and 60cm slings. rock gear would center on beaks, short blades, tri-cams & wires. as yet theres few if any bolts in there.
trips are days out from a basecamp so a large pack for hauling in then a day pack for climbing. the wind can be howling in some valleys so shell layers for there. nights are about -10c.
for the 2014/15 season iceclimbingjapan is providing an INTERNATIONAL CLIMBERS SERVICE where you can basically show up and climb. Fly in with your hand luggage and we will have waiting a full set of gear ready to go – crampons & helmet to salopettes & down jackets.
whats in there?
mile after mile of steep and profound ice. a lot of the routes are inside the fluting of bizarre volcanic formations, others are dripping from overhanging walls. both sides of all valleys are iced.
some routes are +150m seams of ice, others are classic alpine mixed, others are North American-style wedding cakes. Many are scary to even look at, being very exposed at the top of the ravine walls. currently there are about 30 routes logged – most from over a decade ago. conservative extimates put the number of potential routes at about +150 – not including mixed and dry lines.
how much is it?
￥99,000 per climber for 3 days/2nights
International Climbers Service ￥25,000 per climber (sizes and stocks apply)
trips to White Dragon Wall and the surrounding valleys are being limited to about 6 over the 2014/15 season, with the minimum trip being 3 days. maximum group number is 3 clients. additional days (maximum of 5) are ￥35,000 ea
this price includes
- all specialized gear
- 24hr trip support & organization
- qualified and experienced instruction
- all trip logistics
- transport from rendezvous to trailhead
- translation & communication
- permits, registration & site fees
- specific winter camping equipment
- cooking equipment & gas
WHAT IS NOT
- personal clothing (unless using the INTERNATIONAL CLIMBERS SERVICE)
- personal food & drinks
- transport to the rendezvous
- personal gear rental (packs, sleeping bags, insulated clothing etc)
- personal insurance
‘White Dragon Wall, Sendai, Japan 2015’ T-shirts will be available for ￥3500 if pre-ordered (designs to be announced)
whats the big deal?
its rare to have access to a truely world class, emerging climbing destination in its formative days – especially one thats so high quality and so easy to get to. with so much potential for first ascents of quality routes, places like these usually stay amongst in-circles for decades, only being talked about once all the definitive stuff has been done.
for anyone whos wanted to climb ice in Japan, this is the window.
where is it?
accessed from Sendai, Miyagi. White Dragon Wall’s location is being kept quiet for now. Due to where it is and the people involved a high volume of traffic is not what is wanted up there, being neither the infrastructure, contingency or development yet to have the place flooded with outsiders. Having a short season and being dangerous in some areas, things need to be sorted out before more than a few parties can be in there at the same time. It would compromise a lot of hard work to upset the status quo with an accident or unwanted behaviour right now.
one of dozens of options along White Dragon Wall – unseen, unclimbed, unnamed
iceclimbingjapan bookings & contact
the entrance to O Take tani, showing the start of White Dragon Wall
after the seasons first trip to Miyagi we were revved up to get back onto the White Dragon Wall (Haku-ryu Heki, 白竜壁) again. conditions had evolved since the first trip, warming up but also clearing, letting us recce more of the wall and stay at its base.
the view along part of the White Dragon Wall from camp
part fun, part development for next year, time was spent working out where to base from to have best access to the wall. having north and south facing walls, the valley has dozens of options, requiring extended time to see more than a single area. with ice falls every few meters along kilometers of valley logistics is pretty much determined by what the topography allows – in our case forming a ledge to stay on in the steep valleys side.
the base tent nestled into the lee of a convenient boulder; afternoon sun loosened the snow that shed down the slopes
we returned to Shimo-jiro to find it fattened out nicely, tho a bit bleached from the longer days. Shino-jiros left hand sister route (potentially called Wan Wan) had also thickened out well, as had the pillar and upper cascade that formed the second pitches.
…compared to just over 2 weeks earlier
the flip side of great weather was that afternoon sun meant we had to be off the wall and slopes by about 12:30, as ice and snow came down in a process of shedding that had some hairy moments. with a cold plunge predicted this could be a good thing, cleaning out crap ice from early in the season and snap freezing the recent melt into good (but probably thin) lines. over the couple of days we got most of next winters access and planning sorted out, stay tuned for winter 2014/15s revised schedule.
Dave enjoying the good things in life as conditions warm up: life is simply more colourful with espresso
‘incredible’ is the word.
a long planned trip to Northern Honshu to coincide with a tiny climate window nailed it. all the waiting and hardwork came together to put us at the right place at the right time for glorious first ascents in truely esoteric territory.
campsite at Futakuchi: not the most inspiring but close to the climbing
a long drive to the depths of the Tohuku mountains between Miyagi and Yamagata got us finally to the lonely trailhead. a year of waiting, planning and re-planning centered us on the ideal climate for the areas low altitude and fluctuating weather.
inside is considerably nicer: my favourite bit of new climbing gear
after +40 nights this season in spartan bivvies, a BC tent we didnt have to haul gave us the comfort level we wanted for forays up into the cold valleys. whilst always honing skills with the obvious tools for ice climbing, comfortable conditions meant we could develop other skills that affected the outcome – like making espresso from snow melt.
the strange volcanic fluting that characterizes the south-facing side BanJi Yama escarpment in the Natori valley: note most of those routes are about 150m high
the main feature of the lower valley is the huge collection of fluted pillars that house ice and mixed lines in almost every grotto. dozens of lines – some connecting some not – that run the length of the main valley, all high and steep.
whilst the north-facing escarpment has several 150m, fat ice falls
far up on the other side of the valley huge, fat ice falls drop down the escarpment.
further along the valley: endless ice, steep, streaked and thin. line after line of pure and mixed routes, almost none of it climbed
the far end of the escarpment that runs about 3km ends in a huge buttress thats streaked with countless thin lines around its faces. higher and more exposed theres enough hard climbing for years of first ascents
the other side of BanJi yama: more ice of course
the headwall and farther side of the buttress hide lots more routes that connect between overhung rock bands
part of White Dragon Wall: +60m, steep and perfect ice and rock – and almost totally unclimbed
the northern valley has different rock formations, with the fluting giving way to steep, bare walls. less visited than the southern valley, the walls are covered in thin but exceptional quality ice in vertical and delicate formations.
further along White Dragon Wall
most sections have overhanging moves connecting thin shelves with fragile veils that are actually much better quality than they at first appear. the rock between is pocketed conglomerate perfect for hooked placements.
protecting it all tho, needs creativity….
more steep and thin ice: note the time signatures between this and the previous image – lines like this go on regularly for miles.
Shimo-jiro Left & Right (lower pitches) 50m, WI4+
we decided on this elegant, fragile corned route to start on, an obvious allusion to the White Dragon Wall nomiker. whilst not appearing hard, protecting it was going to be all about thin stuff and time spent in stances threading abalakovs, chopping, cleaning and tying off short screws – all of which turned out to be the case.
close up of the ice in Shimo-jiro (right): thinly plastered, globules & thin columns – what earns it its ‘+’ grade.
topping out on the first pitch of Shimo-Jiro….
….to find upper pitches that were steeper, thinner and overhanging. next time.
from a good belay we were surprised to find at least another pitch above us – much more serious looking than the first. even getting to its base wasnt a simple transition, and with the snow getting heavier and a complicated rappel ahead off us we called it for another time. not an easy decision.
the return was a game of finding our trail in ever deepening snow, arriving at camp to rapidly deteriorating conditions. being a long way out on far-from-primary roads and over a mountain pass we made the call to leave while we knew we could, getting back to town just before the biggest snow storm to hit the Pacific coast in 35 years. a night in sendai greeted us with an overcast following day, only to find the freeway closed which meant several hours on uncleared secondary roads. theres always a price.
these things dont come easily: the Tohoku freeway closed from a snow storm. a further 4hrs to get home, but easily worth it.
between the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido lays a huge, mountainous region with ideal ice forming condition – its just little ventured into during winter. all across the region we have come across reports of isolated icefalls that only the locals know about and amongst these is an area near Sendai.
it took a lot of looking and trawling thru old guidebooks but we found it: the area map