Weather Update – ICJ Change

Looks like there has been some snow and temps to minus 2 at 2200m.

I’ve also been watching Ice Candy being built. Looking at this seasons wall; there’s a lot of lower angle stuff in there…

Perhaps to be more beginner friendly? Some Seminars? Might be worth going during the week to avoid crowds.

Also wanted to update, ICJ’s Ed has traveled back to Australia for a while. Jason, spent a lot of time with Ed last winter here in Japan, and will be taking over assisting clients this winter.  The spirit of iceclimbingjapan, will not change. Our focus is still on logistics and finding the right climb for the right client. We are not focused on teaching you how to swing an axe, but putting you in the best and most interesting places in Japan to climb.  Don’t hesitate to email if you have any questions or wish to talk about climbing this winter.

ICECLIMBINGJAPAN (AT) HOTMAIL (DOT) COM

YATSUGATAKE: THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN

daytime temperatures are hovering around 12c at 2200m and hitting 0c on the 3000m peaks, so with the shortest day soon things will get cold fast. being in the cold sink between peaks and in the shade, as usual the ice forms fast, with the first alpine routes doable in about 4 weeks and Ice Candy ready to go in about 6 weeks.

inadvertently by tradition, we are usually the first and the last to climb on it, having earned a bit of approval over the winters. time to start making plans now.

yatsugatake’s Ice Candy ice wall: seems like only a week ago when they pulled it down

GOLDEN WEEK – BE CAREFUL

golden week is here. the highways are jammed, the trains are booked out and the carparks are full.

Yatsugatake’s Ice Candy. perhaps in Honshu’s most stable winter environment at 2200m in a shaded amphitheater, its usually still pretty solid in late April. photo from the Akadake Kosen blog.

every year it seems winter gets a bit shorter – certainly shorter than when the aging guidebooks were written – so those old favorite late spring routes are now really early summer ones. every year sees a few more accidents as climbers find out the hard way. the snow pack isnt what it once was, the slopes arent as stable as they once were, the rock isnt as frozen as it usually is, the 24hr  temperature fluctuation can be broader.

add to that the undeniably weird weather over the last winter and theres real unknowns out there. be careful where you camp. be careful where you climb. be careful of the bigger picture.

2015 / 16 WINTER THAT WAS

2015/16 was a strange winter. conditions were strange, the atmosphere was strange, the locations were strange. it may be part of a greater cycle…or maybe its not.

to go with the strangeness, we spread ourselves over a large spectrum this winter. avoiding being too focused in a season that had a large degree of unpredictability from the start. we avoided some places we usually focus on and spent a lot of time in areas with a lot of untapped potential. we didnt get everything done we had planned, but we did set in motion the wheels for the next phase. fresh back from Tibet, we entered the winter with a bigger perspective and with trips to Iran on the horizon we had another objective to channel things towards.

unusual weather meant some places had easier access as the streams froze. a rare convenience.

FUJI

we really consolidated things on Fuji this winter, with a lot of trips over a very short period. at the peak of it we did nearly 13,000m of ascent in 11 days in winter conditions.

the South West face of Tanigawa-dake. theres a reason people dont know about this place.

ICE

some people called it a ‘bad ice year’. we thought it was excellent. late arrival meant no trash ice in the mix, so what formed was lean but clean. in some regular places no ice formed at all, whilst other icefalls formed the best weve ever seen them,perhaps due to the widely oscillating temperature variations.

we also worked hard on the ice we had, fortifying what we could do with straight volume sessions. this winter we were simply better climbers.

Will Gadd’s WI7 route Frozen Gold in Sendai. setting the new bar high for the possibilities in Japanese winter climbing

MIXED

modern mixed is where japan’s biggest winter potential lays. effectively so little has even been thought about the possibilities are unlimited, no less as the season is also longer and the summer can be spent working the hard bits.

the big event here was Will & Sarah coming over to prove the point, putting up the two hardest routes in the country while they were at it and identifying dozens more. this is exactly what Japanese winter climbing needs before it sputters to a halt.

Espresso Wall at Kaikomagatake. the short, sharp, powerful dose of mixed climbing Japan needs.

ALPINE

as a low snow year this was the time to head to places like Tanigawa-dake’s more esoteric aspects. having been away from the area for a few years it was valuable to return with a fresh outlook and get into places wed overlooked before. what we found was big, daunting, quality and profound and will become a new focus for us, tho it will take time to get it right.

the faces at Mitsutoge became one of our favourite mixed alpine locations.

IN GENERAL

this was the winter to reset directions and launch into new ideas, tho it took several years of accumulated experience to make it  go. as expected we proved to ourselves that motivation and derring do backed up with preparation made it work. new frontiers and climbing goals are needed in Japan and we have done what we could to get things rolling – and the right people have responded.

winter 2016/17 is already falling into blocks. get on board fast.

THE SORRY STATE OF WINTER CLIMBING IN JAPAN

white dragon wall: hard mixed routes like this cover large parts of japan

japan has a good reputation for hard rock climbing, hard bouldering. well known climbers regularly put up world class efforts across japan and foreign climbers often come and repeat them. when japanese climbers go overseas they take this with them and do things like speed records in Yosemite and vanguard boulder problems likewise japanese alpine climbers and mountaineers put up consistently hard routes in the big ranges and pull off impressive mountaineering stunts. its a rare year for the Piolet D’or to not include japanese names.

but at home, in japan, the state of japanese winter climbing is dire.

during the 60s, 70s and 80s hard japanese climbers put up thousands of serious routes across the country. from horrorshow death routes in places like Tanigawadake to desperate short mixed routes in the north. with over 20 peaks above 3000m and another +30 over 2500m – most with >1500m of prominence – plus a massively carved topography exposing spires, walls and ravines – there was a lot to choose from. over this time an attitude of hard climbing intent fomented as teams and individuals, often connected with universities, bounced off each other to put ever more committed lines, often in remote areas. that many died cannot be denied and a visit to the granite boulders around the base of Ichi-no-kura is a sobering experience, where dozens and dozens of brass plaques are placed directly below the face of the mountain claimed to have the highest death toll in the world. with research some of those names will also be found listed as the first ascents of lines and variations throughout the country, as well as in places like the Karakorum and Patagonia. for over 20 years climbers in Japan pushed the standards of difficulty wherever they went, and of those who survived many can still be met in the mountains, climbing well into old age.

directly from this era sprang the likes of the Giri Giri boys, Hirata & Taneguchi, Hanatani and Manome and the other ‘last generation’ of Japans elite alpinists, now all in their 40s and wondering what comes next. these climbers brought Japanese style out of the reputation for siege tactics and suicide routes by rebelling against an earlier tradition of climbing hierarchy that makes the battles for Yosemite appear trivial in comparison. consistently and daringly they took what they learned in Japan and reinvented it for the international stage with stunning success. in the mix with the Eastern Europeans, Italians and Americans they were climbing at the edge.

the roof at  Mizugaki: dozens of horizontal mixed lines to match the Canadian stuff.

but some time around the turn of the millennium it all ground to a halt. the attitude lapsed and within Japan the idea of climbing hard stuff evaporated. overseas Japanese climbers still did good stuff, but it was the same names getting better – no one new was joining by coming up thru the ranks. there were no wonder-kids like Will Sim and David Lama, no precocious teenagers wanting to tag along. within Japan these days its rare to hear about serious new alpine routes, variations and hard repeats. despite an explosion of gear shops, outdoor media and busy car parks at the trailheads, the locations of Japans serious climbing areas are quiet, guidebooks are out of print and the trails to access where the good stuff have been forgotten. its like one day the notion got turned off. the old guys stopped telling and the young guys stopped asking.

the issue isnt that Japan ran out of hard climbing options. a visit to any of these places reveals decades of new climbing still to be done, not to mention link ups, variations, winter attempts, free versions, faster versions, solo versions, non-stop versions and new interpretations of existing routes. climbers like Hanatani and Hirayama have done isolated versions of some of this, but the idea itself hasnt gained traction. unlike in Europe and North America where the spirit of alpinism burns hot and fire-brand young climbers compete (sometimes suicidaly) to put up edgier and edgier routes, cheered on by and enraging their mentors of the generation before whos ideas they are extending. the energy in places like Vail, Black Rock, the Ruth Gorge and Lofoten is palpable and real – and no doubt parallel to what went on in Japan when things were moving forward. that it all fizzled out is the dropping of a baton that effects climbing everywhere.

what happened is a multi-faceted thing that at one end is a young climbing scene without the idea dangling before them, and the other end is a community of older climbers with a dead tradition behind them. between the two is a large climbing media – local and international – that does NOTHING about it. in climbing centers elsewhere the associated media acts as a recorder, collator, distiller and deseminater of the sport of climbing. sometimes cloaked with a thick layer of advertising and hyperbole, at other times dryly documented, it is considered fundamental to push to idea of climbing better and better. in Japan this process is pale and ill-directed. that foreign climbers know nothing of japans climbing potential is only in accordance with the lack of knowing within japan itself. talk to any aspiring Japanese alpinist and they know far more about the exploits of Ueli Steck and Tommy Caldwell than they do of the hard climbers at home.

thin, desperate and  high: areas like White Dragon Wall have a unique Japanese style

of course the easy blame goes on ‘lazy kids of today’, risk adverse cultures and long work hours – but other sports arent suffering. hiking, skiing, surfing and trail running are exploding off the shelves, as are other forms of climbing – its just winter alpinism thats failing and that anomaly points the finger at the players. what could be happening is that the elements that oversee the climbing scene, the media, the retailers, the top climbers and the gear companies – same as everywhere – promote the idea of serious climbing. instead they pander to an introverted, exclusionist crowd have already decided climbing hard is not for them. the very idea of seeking out aspiring young climbers doesnt exist as an aging scene of mediocre guidebook junkies chooses not to see them. the process where young climbers have the inspiration and opportunities before them to get better and more creative is not cultivated nor seen as interesting.

where the international climbing scene fits in is in its lack of recognition of a significant contributor to world alpinism. both foreign and japanese climbers are to blame. when international climbers visit japan they do nothing of interest, maybe a day at a crag between awkwardly translated presentations at the Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear stores. it can be counted on one hand the number of sponsored climbers who have actually come here to climb, despite the good reports. the exotic culture and language divide these days is not enough excuse – plenty of hard skiers can do it. the japanese climbing media is a large part of the problem, bottle-necking anything about climbing in japan and denying what happens in japan exposure outside. the external outlets that could cover japanese climbing simply dont and the people whos job it is to collate it are not doing their jobs.

why it matters is that world alpinism , like any scene, is a constant interplay of ideas from disparate elements opening up new possibilities. in the 80s Japanese climbers brought unique ideas to world climbing that saw major efforts on the worlds hardest routes, and tho not all had perfect outcomes they were a huge part of the climbing-scape that was the cauldron from which contemporary climbing emerged. perhaps second only to the Polish, japanese expeditions filled a crazy outer edge that pushed possibilities ever higher in places like K2 and the Latok group and the eastern Himalaya.

Kaikomagatake: crucible of Japanese hard alpinism, dozens of ice, mixed and wall routes awaiting new ascents.

whats this got to do with foreign climbers? for decades Japanese climbers have contributed to the evolution of climbing around the world. as a world sport its always been the way for ideas from different countries to catalyze another, and on this is built the world of climbing. right now japan is at a low ebb and needs resuscitating. international climbers that come here will find a unique climbing world that is well entrenched but not overrun. despite generations climbing, japans mountains are not crowded and sold out to tourism. unlike climbing meccas elsewhere the effects of attention havnt damaged the very thing climbers come to see. most foreign climbers are astounded at the lack of permits, fees, camping restrictions and inflated prices. the flip side of this is that Japanese alpine areas are undeveloped by western standards. very few cable cars bring the peaks down to size, climbing here is still usually a matter of multiday efforts. in the years since japanese hard climbing went into hibernation the alpinists world has moved on and evolved, and japan has been distant to a lot of it. standards in mixed, wall and style have exploded, rendering a lot of serious japanese climbing ripe to be picked up on. in some ways things were pushed as far as they could go 30 years ago, to a threshold that ability, gear and ideas couldnt breach at the time. right now Japan is ripe for things to fire up again.

Oyafudo: some great routes done – many more waiting

what can be done about it?

the problem needs to be addressed from both sides; make Japan more accessible for foreign climbers and foreign climbers need to harden up and come here. in turn this will spur interest from the young locals. iceclimbingjapan knows thru years of experience that foreign climbers are treated warmly everywhere they go and the thirst for interaction from the young Japanese climbers is enormous. winter after winter we talk with Japans top climbers and the very idea that foreigners want to climb here stirs a significant climbing scene to know more. the goal is to rekindle the process of Japanese hard climbing before it blinks out. the landscape, the culture, the logistics are already here – whats needed is the fire. the goal in not to transplant the climbing fervor of Alaska, Chamonix and Scotland, but to bring some of the attitude from those sorts of places to show the young japanese a way forward. like everything here, the ideas will be fused, rewoven and spat out in their own peculiar way and winter climbers everywhere will benefit.

 

 

YATSUGATAKE: IS THE ICE CANDY WALL OPEN?

conditions at Yatsugatake have finally stabilized and the Ice Candy ice wall is fully functional. as usual the shape has been altered a bit for the season, and its still thin – but as the ice is less picked out and still forming our opinion is its at its best. now is the time to head out and get your couple of hundred meters of top-roped volume in to get in fighting form for the mid-season hard climbing. dont let this season slip by.

fat enough to be fun, lean enough to be interesting. Akadake-kosen’s Ice Candy wall on Dec 20th.

JANUARY 2015 JAPAN ICE CONDITIONS UPDATE

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.

 

ON ITS WAY: JAPAN ICE CONDITIONS

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

FULL METAL ALPINISM: JAPAN IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK

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

walls

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.

rock

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.

ice

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.

classic alpine

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.

mixed

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.

culture

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.

the future

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.