Some trips give you what you want, some beat you down, and some give you what you need. A trip to Japan last winter did all three. Our team was strong: Sarah Hueniken, fresh off winning comps and climbing M14, photographer John Price, Ed Hannam (perhaps originally Australian but now permanently living in Japan) and me. Ed also runs the website Japan Ice Climbing, one of the few English language sites on the subject. I love Japan–it’s more mountainous than Switzerland, and the culture is endlessly engaging.
Our opening missions, near the industrial city of Sendai, were frustrating. Ed had promised dozens of new mixed and ice possibilities in the Futakuchi area, but it was too warm–we could only watch would-be first ascents fall down among the beautiful cedars. In Canada we have signs warning of bears, but here they warned of monkeys–which we promptly saw leaping through the snow. On our second day of flailing through the slop we met a famous local ice climber, Eiichi Chiba, who spoke limited English but communicated well in broad smiles and obvious mountain understanding. He invited us to try climbing at the Zao Ice Garden with him the next day, which was possibly colder.
Zao has a ridiculous amount of snow, but we didn’t have skis. Always bring skis to Japan: it’s heaven. But we had snowshoes, and still enjoyed the trek into Zao. I’ve seen a lot of ice, but this place is magic. Forty metres of overhanging ice and huge columns, all nicely supported by a broad and well-iced up base? Yes please!
Sarah and I agreed the climbing looked steep and real, but nothing about it said climbing it would nearly kill us. Sarah is generally more conservative than I am, so we stamped a safe belay for her, and I started climbing. About 15M above the ground and almost where my free-standing pillar attached to the rock but just before I could place a safe first screw I heard an endless but fast, “Crack,” and felt myself moving downward. Shit! But my tools were still in the ice, my feet solid, what was up? It hit me that the whole pillar was moving downward, and then I saw a fracture line splitting sideways like some B Grade Hollywood earthquake movie. Even though Sarah was 30 feet to the side, a huge icicle broke off and started falling toward her. She instinctively locked the belay off and started running backwards to get out of the way, but the snow was waist deep and the icicle hit and started sliding toward her. The rope went tight on my waist, and Sarah, still flailing downhill, disappeared in a powder debris cloud as both my feet blew off the ice and the rope went hawser tight on my waist. I squeezed my tools and did a superman then it was silent.
The van-sized icicle stopped half on Sarah, but stopped sooner than it might normally due to the deep snow. It didn’t crush her because the snow was so soft she just wiggled out of the way. Eventually she was able to give me slack, and after I figured out she was mostly uninjured, I had time to look at what would have happened if the rope had of pulled me off. Before I started climbing I’d done what I always do and made a plan of where I would try to jump if the whole pillar collapsed, but in the heat of the moment I hadn’t been able to do that. I’d just held on–I always look for solid placements on lead, and fortunately they were this time. If they hadn’t of been I’d probably have fallen 15M onto the hard ice shield at the base. Maybe if the whole thing had of fallen down instead of just settled I would have had time to think and jump, but the line between life and death for both of Sarah and me was whipping around like a broken cable, and we didn’t get to chose what happened next. A tiny ice tool had started a giant cascade of events way out of our control. I hate it when that happens, and can honestly say it’s only happened a few times in my climbing career.
We were alive, but knew we had made a serious error, been rejected, and only had a few more days to climb. It was a grim march back up through the sulphurous wind and deep snow.
The mood back at the hotel that night was not optimistic, so it was time to soak the bad day away in the hotel’s natural “Onsen,” or Japanese hot spring. Onsen use is a beautiful ritual in Japan. It’s not about getting clean as you already are clean before you get in, it’s more spiritual cleansing, a break from life. The hot water soothed the sting of almost dying, but we’d travelled thousands of kilometers and burned six days of our trip to climb exactly 15M of ice. Ed said he would understand if we hated him for sucking us into chasing ice unicorns. Global warming is getting personal.
When things get weird I’ve often found it useful to slow things down and have a rest day to think. But we couldn’t really rest, so Sarah and I ran laps on an old steel bridge to stay fit. It was ridiculous to be drytooling a steel bridge in Japan (the locals clearly thought so but were amused, and we didn’t get arrested), but the fun and laughter soothed our minds.
The next day it was back to Zao, but I wasn’t about to storm up and climb the main feature–if it cracked again I wanted no part of that experience! I went to the top and rapped in. The ice was well-bonded to the rock with the colder temperatures, but even on rappel the whole thing kept making these groaning musical noises. Then it hit me–the solution to my stress over almost dying, the Onsen, was also the cause of the problem. It was the warm water in Japan! We were on a volcano (sulphur smells, lava flows and all) that had blown up in this century, and the ground water was actually warmer than usual. I think it was flowing under the huge piece of ice at the base and eating away at it; it was unlikely to fail catastrophically given its size, but warm water made the creaking and groaning understandable. Or so I told myself. When I led it I felt pretty small, and we made sure Sarah was even farther back than before. It was one of the finest ice pitches I’d ever done, the kind of thing you know you’re lucky to be on. After that we bolted a mixed line I had tried to start earlier, and I figured out that you had to bolt into the cobbles in the congealed lava/mud mixture or the bolts were junk. If the cobbles are well frozen then the bolts are good, right?
We named the mixed route Fun Chimes given the continuous noises, and that the start of the route was like climbing the pipes on a beautiful hanging wind chime set. There was only one rock move, the rest was really fun overhanging moves on broken-off icicles and small blobs, just great mixed climbing. The grade? If we followed current Instagram posing protocol I would have rated it M15 WI 7+, but I believe in some realism in grading so I called it as I saw it: M9, and one of the best I’ve ever done.
After endless discussion about what to do with our last day we went back into Futakuchi. It was colder, and after two hours of snow beating we found a stunning line–thin eyebrows and delicate ice blobs stretching up a wild volcanic flute. Stunning, but the huge dagger at the top was also getting sun… Maybe tomorrow would work? But we didn’t have another day.
In frustration I tried to walk around and rap down, But it was a climb-around, and by the time I’d cleaned a few things up and put some bolts in I’d discovered the route was over 100M high! When I hit the ground in near-darkness I proposed that rather than cleaning the route now we would get up at uncivilized hours the next day, finish bolting the route, climb it, and then still make the presentation in Tokyo that night. The route was simply too cool to just leave! Sarah said, “Ridiculous,” but if we could pull it off it would make the trip!
At 0-dark-thirty we walked in, and started climbing some of the wildest ice I’ve ever been on. Beautiful crystal clear eyebrows, jewel curtains, golden blobs, just brilliant technical ice movement. There wasn’t enough ice for ice screws, and I’d done a rather run-out job of placing the bolts in my hurry to finish the route, but there was just enough to make it all work! The first pitch was one of the best I’ve climbed, and the second took everything I had. I love super-tech ice climbing, it’s a crystal dance that is more about imagining non-existent placements into reality than pulling hard. Sarah decided the blobs and eyebrows were too fragile for her tools, so she just crimped down and used her hands. It worked, and we both led the awesome last pitch onto a giant hanger of an icicle 70M above the ground. Done, now it was race to Tokyo!
As we ran down the trail and started the race to Tokyo we all knew were incredibly lucky. Break a mustache of ice? No time to try again. Slightly warmer weather? No route. If the icicle in Zao had a bit more speed? No Sarah. We had walked a line we couldn’t even see, and found two more we had to imagine until they were real. The road signs read, “Fukushima,” and Ed said we were less than 10K away, but the fields were turning green and the people living life. As we came into Tokyo I realized we were literally driving along six stories above ground, then more than that under it for over an hour. The highway, the trip, the routes, they were all lines I didn’t even know existed. Life is lines, boundaries, lines so fine and stacked so closely that they turn into shades of grey. Sometimes we draw our lines, sometimes they are drawn for us, but it’s always about the possibilities of lines, and finding new ways to imagine them.
There is a lifetime of amazing ice, great skiing, and exploring a culture I greatly admire in Japan. We made some good friends, and will be going back in 2017. If you climb, ski, or just like hot springs, good people and good food, find a line to Japan, it’s worth it.
A large thanks to Arc’teryx, Scarpa, Chiba San, Ed, and the many people in Japan who helped make our trip happen. Thank you.