on 3/26 ken noda died in a fall on yarigatake in the northern alps. an outstanding climber right at the tipping point of his career with first ascents in peru only the summer before, ken was also the nicest, most shy and unassuming guy around.

photo from www.yarigatake.co.jp

over several seasons hanging out at Akadake-kosen, where Ken was the icewall manager, he became a touchstone for anyone who climbed beyond the usual stuff. ken was the real deal and always someone worth asking about, just as he was always interested in what others were doing. his death leaves a big gap in the larger climbing community and an even larger gap in the small community centered around Akadake-kosen.

an article here (in japanese, but good photos) showing kens routes in Peru.



steep, fun and easy: ice climbing doent always have to be prolonged alpine ordeals. when rare conditions exist to just play on good ice is smart to take them

its been at least 5 winters since the ice at Minoto-guchi has been in decent condition. usually thin veils of fragile and bleached icicles, this seasons fantastic ice conditions combined with the late, massive dump of snow, has left fat blue ice long after its usually frazzled and collapsed.

accessible pillars of clear blue ice

quiet, fat, easy cacades: beats the hell out of busy icewalls for a day of fun

as easy as access gets in Japan, Minoto-guchi is a 10 minute walk up a nice valley, with good anchors and easy cliff top access making it perfect for easy days out (even tho some of the ice is steep and theres some hard mixed lines). its not huge, but whats there is fun and the whole scenario more relaxed than the bustle of Akadake-kosen.


The last quarter of winter sees a sudden rush of requests about ice, alpine and fuji trips.

I could understand the timing if everyone came from the same part of the world, but they don’t.

Late winter requests are interesting because its people thinking ahead and preparing themselves. Its not tourism. ‘late winter types’ ask about what they can do before they show up, and see the time spent with ICJ as an indicator rather than a holiday.

neoshell &insulated gear VE25

Whats useful about getting in at this stage (besides getting the pick of the schedule) is by preparing they can maximize on their time and money. Its no secret that many people have unrealistic expectations on ice climbing – A diet of Will Gadd videos and mammut commercials feeds the mind – but allowing time to prepare is the only real way of bringing the fantasy anywhere close to the reality.

So, with 9 months on the table before decent ice is assured, heres 10 things to do while its warm and easy.

①     Get realistic: if you’ve left preparation till now youre doing ok. The guys that spent all summer in the mountains dangling from ropes will have the head start. Its hard to catch up, but immersing yourself in rope work and stress you will be minimizing nasty surprises on the early ice. all that indoor climbing, fun tho it was, probably wont mean much beyond clipping gear faster, tho the campus boarding wont have hurt. Running up mountains, lumping packs and shivering in cold water would have been more meaningful.

②     Stop cross training: its time to get specific. For the time you’ve got and whats needed to make a difference, spending half of it on anything other than alpine-specific is not in your favour. If you spent the last 6 months building a good endurance base, strengthening and injury proofing yourself it now time to cash in.

If you didn’t. too late. But do what you can.

③     Start moving under load. Triathlons and marathons in just a shirt and shoes will have served your cardio, but your load bearing structure wont have benefitted. Pick up weight, throw on heavy packs and pull up your weight with that extra 10kg of winter gear strapped to you.

④     Sort out your gear. Think seriously about what hurt last winter and how you can avoid this time round. Things like cold digits, sore backs, numb forearms and aching calves are not mysteries, being traceable back to often inappropriate gear choices.

Get a thin set of gloves so you don’t soak your warm ones on the approach. Insulate your tools so you hands don’t freeze pioleting. Get some down booties to save wearing your socks 24hrs a day and risking your toes. Get a better thermarest to stop back pain. Make a hanging stove so you can make coffee lying down. get insoles for your boots.

Rather than thinking another $500 jacket or shaving 100g is the answer, think from the bigger picture and stop trying to fix your problems at the end of the process. that $500 jacket will work even better if you have the right baselayer under it.

⑤     Practice your ropes. Put your biggest gloves on and mess about with simplifying things.

Learn the one handed clove hitches and alpine butterflys, get slick with a munter, learn the slip-bowline.

Nail your systems for anchors using 3, 4, 5 & 6 bits of gear. Grab a polystyrene box and practice your v-threads. Practicing deconstructing the whole lot too.

Measure your arm span for paying out ropes, learn from a canyoning guide how to pack ropes away fast. this year think about a silnylon rope bag to minimize all the endless coiling.

⑥     Get good at abseiling. People die doing this, expect to hear one or two reports over winter.

Don’t expect to back it up with a prussick every time. Guides the world over don’t use them, so learn to get it right and reserve it for when things are bad. Standing about at belays is dangerous, reduce time spent fiddling with rope one-handed as well.

Learn how to rap with a munter, the firemans belay, how to pass knots, to drop ropes down the face, to build blocked anchors and use a tag line.

⑦     Learn how to prussick. Really learn. How to tie them one handed, to nail the length, to get by with only one, the best diameter for the rope you use, the muscles needed to make it easy

⑧     Learn how to simu-climb and cover ground up to about WI3 independantly (depending on the scenario of course). Often climbers are exhausted by the approach simply from all the rope work and getting cold belaying – taking it out of the equation with the confidence to scale easy ice without the full set up. Stop thinking of this as soloing and think of it as a matter of access.

Learn how to not fall so you can escape the victim curve.

9   factor in a session or two of late, easy ice to tune back in. ideally at an ice wall, on top rope, where you can hack away and get over the wanderlust that every season starts with.

10  learn how to sleep on the ground. winter nights are long, the ground is frozen, you wont have a pillow and the only warmth in the frozen wilderness is inside that sleeping bag. being comfortable in a tent in winter is not about luck, its about knowing how to do it. multiply by ten if its a portaledge, by another ten if its a bivvy. sort what you need so once you get in your bag you can stay there. practice pissing into a bottle. get a balaclava so you dont breathe into your sleeping bag. get a mesh bag so everything you dont want freezing keeps from becoming a puzzle everytime you need your headtorch.


just back from another great early season trip to yatsugatake.

this time was spent testing the latest Neoshell products from Teton Bros by getting onto some of the more obscure routes that are only accessible early in the season and climbing fast to see just how well these textiles and designs really perform: and lets just say they are impressive.

the key to breathability isnt just the textile, but the design – vents in the right places, cuts that allow humidity to be dumped, features that let you custom the way things flow. Teton Bros is good at nailing all that, and even before Neoshell came into the equation had designs that let trapped heat escape when and how you wanted it. combine the two and you have a very good bit of gear.

click here to read the full review, and here if you’re interested in getting your hands on one yourself.

good gear needs good places to test it, the routes it all got tested on being more examples of fine japanese ice sat along beautiful frozen streams thru conifer forest in some places, or up steep snow blown gullies in others. all great routes and all leading to alpine pillars and mini-cirques of more ice that are still yet to peak in form. its great knowing theres still so much of winter left ahead!

yatsugatake ice climbing shuangqiao

yatsugatake ice climbing shuangqiao

yatsugatake ice climbing shuangqiao

some of the linked ice falls in the Sansahou Runze, yatsugatake.

ice climbing shuangqiao

and some of the lower ice below the snow line

and meanwhile, back at Akadake Kosen, evenings were spent discussing Pakistan and China logistics with no other than Yasushi Okada from the Giri giri boys. i try generally not to be one to name drop – but hey, when its a giri giri boy whos picked up a piolet d’or and he wants to talk Pakistan

in from the cold (testing, training, talking & terrific times)

yatsugatake ice climbing japan

the Yatsu-ga-take volcanic range. a great part of the world, almost 3000m high, cold and easy to get to. the arrow is pointing towards the escarpment between Io-dake and Amita-dake that conceals lots of the ranges routes.

long stints out at yatsugatake are always revealing. 10 days straight of climbing ice and mixed alpine every day and living in the cold starve out some of the deeper aspects of what winter climbing is all about. its not hard just getting by for a night or two, but after about day 7 any failings are becoming obvious.

a few things that start to poke thru the weave are:

  • calories – are you losing weight, getting too cold or having mood slumps?

  • hydration – are you keeping on top of your water intake? what colour is your piss?

  • sleeping systems – are you waking from the cold every night?

  • moisture – how are your sleeping bag, insulating layers, tents ventilation and boots going?

  • body function – are you getting cramps, taking regular dumps, keeping an appetite, having aches and pains, getting numb fingers and toes, craving fat or sugar?

  • basic efficiency – are you wasting fuel, still messing with crampons, letting your water freeze, losing your gloves or waking too late?

  • climbing systems – are you moving better on harder ground? refining your ropework? developing your team symbiosis? increasing your confidence?

these are all things that should get more refined and become second nature with time. success on expeditions and long trips arguably rests more on these factors than actual climbing performance – its not much use being able to pull M10 moves or lift 3 x body weight if you cant survive effectively enough to employ it.

ice climbing japan rope systems

rope systems, efficiency, confidence, teamwork, functionality – are you getting any better as time goes by? a lot of the elements of winter climbing can only be learned and appreciated from long stints in the mountains where any weaknesses will show thru.

this last series of trips was also a testing period for Teton Bros new insulation designs. some of these ive played with before but the new 800 fill down jacket and  Primaloft gillette in combination with other Teton Bros garments was interesting to test out – no less because Nori was in Utah at the Outdoor Retailer show at the same time exposing it to the greater market.

teton bros

the new Teton Bros 800 fill down jacket: note how well it sits over a helmet and zips high over the face, all without lifting at the shoulders. also too the Revision ballistic glasses that have become my favourite thing this winter (saving my right eye not long after this photo was taken). and thats Rob ‘international man of mystery’ in the baselayer behind.

as for actual climbing, a whole spectrum of weather made for good times with Rob, Benjack and Damian as we nailed and attempted all sorts of routes in all sorts of conditions ranging from Mine-no-matsume in both full sun and knee-deep snow, Ura-do-shin in both cold-&-clear and whirling snow (including the upper mixed sections in a crazy race to ascend and down climb before visability totally went), O-taki in full sun (which meant screws didnt do much), the San-sa-hou runze in truely dangerous avalanche condtions (forcing us to get the hell out before the sun hit) and many hours on the ice wall (where i took a chunk out of my face from a big bit of ice – my first ever ice climbing accident, thanks Rob for patching me up).

ice climbing japan o-taki ice fall

Rob leading O-taki as the sun comes onto it: steep, pumpy and dodgy for screws

on top of all this i spent most evenings discussing ideas with Yasushi Okada for future trips everywhere from Kaikomagatake to western Sichuan in China to the north side of K2 to the Charakusa in Pakistan. hes one of the nicest guys around its a rare thing to get a glimpse into the style of a true elite climber.


January had perhaps the best winter weather window in the last 5 years, where we clocked up 22 climbing days across half a dozen locations. after a brief Tokyo hiatus to get office stuff done it was back out for 9 days of expedition development and making the most of the winter peak conditions.

ice climbing japan  gear up

another addition to our Car Park Gear-Up photo collection: getting a lot of stuff into shoulder-able loads

kaikomagatake ice climbing

lumping it all in: Kaikomagatake has broken many a team, often over the approach/load equation

ice mixed climbing kaikomagatake

steep ice and mixed climbing isnt rock climbing: getting good at the hard stuff requires a lot of time on top rope doing things you wouldnt risk on lead

ice climbing kaikomagatake

by the time you get onto the deep fat stuff you should be well honed and climbing well within your zone

ice climbing japan kaikomagatake

single pitch stuff is a no brainer, but multi-pitch routes soon become about the transitions between climbing, linking icefalls and rigging/derigging belays. staying warm and tangle-free over 8 pitches of varied climbing is about much more than clipping ropes and changing gloves, especially in a group of 3. the risk managment as the days goes on and complexity increases escalates – especially when you also need to rappel the route too.

ice climbing kaikomagatake

ice climbing amidadake

a shift to Amidadake across the valley bought a change in style, this time faster, lighter and covering double the distance

ice climbing amidadake

after enough time working it out and building confidence, short steep stuff becomes solo-able and a much faster (ie warmer) process getting to the bigger stuff further in

alpine climbing amidadake

the ice is of course what we come for – but its usually the snow between that gets the pulse up. 12 pitches over several kms makes for a lot of transitions between low angle trudging and steep agility.

alpine aid training tanzawa

after 9 days in the cold relocating to a lower, warmer place to focus on alpine aid basics was a welcome change

alpine aid climbing training tanzawa

alpine aid is a stripped down and guerrilla version of ‘true’ aid; racks are lighter, theres less cams and moving parts, rope systems simpler and clothing heftier – all better developed somewhere comfortable before being used high up

alpine aid climbing training tanzawa

…especially things like high-stepping onto hooks in big boots

aid alpine training backwards toucan

…and using gear in ways that push the design; yes, thats a Pika Toucan touqued in backwards

alpine aid stacked micro wires

stacked micro-wires are another thing best worked out on top-rope before done on lead…

alpine climbing japan

mixed alpine climbing is about a varied skill-set executed with confidence and focus. it takes time to develop and needs attention and committment. getting to the top is one thing, getting home is another.

all photos by ‘Green Machine’ Cam Bowker & ‘Aero-press’ Rob

Cams blog with lots more photos at http://cameronbowker.com/japan-2014/


first big trip of the 2013/14 season heads out in a few days. this ones a complex & exciting blend of big wall training and remote alpine walls just before winter gets serious. covering several locations – each with its own focus – means organizing gear for rock, ice, alpine mixed, big walls and unsupported access. this aint a weekend chipping away within sight of the car.

winter wall climbing gear japan

theres gear and theres gear. some of the stuff needed for a multiweek jaunt across multiple locations, climbing styles and weather conditions.

yes, thats 2 portaledges. the bags on top contain about 2/3 of the rack and the trunk  in front is some of the food.


fellow Yatsugatake frequenter, evening fire-side companion, recent father and inspiration to us all, Hana-sans recent trip to Kyashar’s South Pillar  has just had its write up in the English-speaking press.