The innate desire to explore the space between what is real and what exists only in our dreams has been part of the human condition since we stepped out of the proverbial ice cave. A group of European climbers landed on Hokkaido’s cold tarmac with crampons ready and ice axes sharpened to lift the veil on ice climbing in Japan.
While collecting information for an ice climbing expedition to Japan, I felt like the hero of Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote,” futilely fighting windmills with his knave; the difference between the meditative idealist and the misguided fool was getting difficult to distinguish.
After several weeks of intense preparation for this journey, I felt only slightly more knowledgeable about Japanese ice than at the beginning of the investigation. It’s not surprising if you consider there aren’t that many ice climbers in Japan, and it seemed taboo for Japanese people to answer my questions with “no” or “I do not know.” Getting a hold of useful info was difficult, yet instead making me feel frustrated, the insecurity made the trip even more intriguing.
We were about a land where we would have trouble communicating, and daily life would be totally different from what we were used to in Austria. Our search for climbable ice would be a challenge, but it was late February, the end was drawing near to another climbing season, and Markus Bendler, Hermann Erber and myself were ready for one last adventure.
Snow and Ice
Skiers and snowboarders are well aware Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps on Honshu have great ski conditions. The cold temperatures on Japan’s northernmost island make it a perfect candidate for ice climbing as well. We landed in the middle of this snow-covered landscape and soon found ourselves amid the high-tech pulses and electronic gadgets in the streets of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. We Europeans had a hard time getting used to the bright shining, blinking things all around.
With little information in Europe about ice climbing in Japan, I still had numerous unanswered questions. Most local climbers did not speak any English and we needed someone familiar with the culture, so we would not be totally lost.
After two months, I found a handful of climbers capable of understanding some of the questions we had. I luckily stumbled across Sebastian Nault, a Canadian living in Hokkaido for several years who speaks Japanese. Sebastian was great help.
We arrived in Hokkaido during a huge snowstorm, and he picked us up at the airport so our first adventure wouldn’t be navigating the icy roads. He was there when we had any problems during our trip.
More than once we had to laugh about how different things were in Japan. When we picked up our RAV4 rental car, we caused a minor stir with the woman at the rental office as we initially looked for the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car and then told her we didn’t speak any Japanese.
The next day Sebastian invited, what seemed like, the entire local climbing scene as well as some of his outdoor education students to his apartment for a great dinner of various Japanese delicacies (some of which we didn’t know what we were eating), including lots of sushi and beer. We talked about past adventures during a spontaneous slide show, and then made plans to find ice with some friendly locals.
Breaking the Ice
Although you couldn’t tell by the snowstorm, the ice climbing season was reaching its end in Hokkaido as well. We decided to start with the warmer spots on the coast, leaving open the possibility to climb colder spots in the center of the island in case of a thaw period.
Our first destination was called Raiden. By European standards, the drive was supposed to be quite short, just 120 kilometers, mostly on the motorway. But after hearing about harsh penalties for speeding in Japan, we went slowly and it took us nearly three and a half hours to get to the spot.
When we finally arrived, some wonderful waterfalls greeted us glimmering in a perfect blue. We quickly unpacked our gear, anxious to get on our first Japanese waterfall. We climbed two routes directly on the seaside, “Nairu” (WI6) and “Runzee II” (WI5). I was not only having a lot of fun on the challenging ice, but also the salty air was having a soothing effect on my cold. Genki Narumi – one of Japan’s ice freaks – joined us that weekend, showing us a mixed climbing crag in Chiyosubetsu, where some of Japan’s hardest mixed routes (up to M9+) are found.
On the way to the crag, a magnificent ice formation right in the middle of the mixed routes caught our eye. After a closer look, we decided to skip the mixed routes and have a go on this ice monster. When we reached the bottom of the wall, it became clear the line would be a hard fight, so we decided to take our light gear, our Black Diamond Fusion (pickaxe) tools and competition shoes.
The giant route featured a huge natural ice roof at the end of the third pitch. The ice was incredibly steep and exhausting; we had to fight hard for the “red point” ascent. It was a successful day, and we named the route “Lector” and graded it W17 because this tough formation taught us a lesson.
After such a noble day, food and drink in adequate proportions was in order. Genki brought us to a traditional Japanese guesthouse near the climbing area. When we entered, the owners seemed scared of these strangers carrying weird weapon-like gear (such as ice axes and crampons). Only after sharing a few cups of sake did they warm up to us, and then it turned into a long celebration even though neither of us could understand a word.
After these intense days on the ice, we took a break and ventured back into some of Sapporo’s high-tech stores. Anything imaginable was available here, a stark contrast to the Spartan lifestyle of people in the countryside. After some hours in the shops, we felt strong again and ready for more action on the Japanese ice. The snowstorms were ending, and springtime would be coming soon, so we headed to Sounkyo, the center of ice climbing in Hokkaido. With temperatures around -10 ° C, it was much colder here than the coastal spots.
In this scenic gorge, we climbed some classic routes, as well as the impressive line called “Little Princess.” The Princess, however, was not as small as her name suggested. Classic mixed climbing was the key to succeed on this royal route.
We climbed the well-formed crack-corner, but we also had to use frozen moss, frozen mud and roots on the way up.The 200-meter climb was first ascended as an aid climbing route (using fixed protection ascend) more than 20 years ago. It offers a range of climbing difficulty (M8+, A1 and WI5+) and styles, so it seemed like a little journey from early times to modern mixed climbing. We spent a whole day climbing and shooting this demanding route.
When we arrived at the car, it was already dark, but Sounkyo's ice festival was in full swing. It is a must-see event and quite different from the ice festivals in Austria. Hundreds of people dawdled around the impressive ice sculptures which must have taken months to build. The sculptures were floodlit with green, red, violet and orange lights accompanied by traditional Japanese music.
Markus and I did not take the “Don’t touch the ice!” warnings too seriously and managed to speedily complete evening solos on two of the sculptures. After dinner at our hotel, we saddled up our Toyota again and took off for the next adventure.
Far Eastern Ice
The east coast of Hokkaido is not really known for ice climbing, but we wanted to have a look. There‘s no shortage of ice though, as the area is famous for its seasonal drift ice which floats over from Russia. We came exactly at the right time; the sea was covered with frozen icebergs and ice blocks. We took a walk on some of the floating ice by some cliffs near Abashiri before focusing our attention to the vertical ice.
Sadly, it was already a bit too late in the season to climb here, as temperatures were much too high. Yet we managed a short but intense route from the beach just after sunrise before the waterfalls began to melt in the strong sun. We were joined by several sea eagles and tons of ice drifting in the sea behind us. It was a special place.
During the next few days, we wanted to be the first to discover climbable ice routes on the Shiretoko Peninsula. We had several waterfalls and cliffs plotted on our maps, the basics for finding good frozen waterfalls to climb. We planned to hire a boat, cruising down the coastline to have a better chance to find them and have easier access.
Sebastian wanted to hire a boat for us with the help of his friends in Abashiri, but he returned with a disheartened face. The drift ice made it impossible to explore the peninsula by boat. We would have to try our luck on the land.
After some exploring, we finally found a waterfall right by the sea. It was about 100 meters of strangely shaped icicles growing in every direction on a bay in the middle of a steep cliff. We were highly motivated to do the first ascent of this spectacular waterfall. After we chose our line to climb, we abseiled down into the abyss but, after a few meters of climbing, a rumbling sound shocked us, and the giant formation threw a monstrous load of ice against us.
An ice roof fell down and crashed some meters to the right of us into thousands of boulders. We discussed what would be best, and in the end we decided to play it safe and escape over the drift ice. We were disappointed about the lost fight but happy to have finished this day without any injuries.
Spring was now finally arriving in Hokkaido as a mild wind blew over the birch trees, and temperatures rose to double digits. We packed our stuff and tried our luck one last time in Sounkyo. We were pleased, and a bit surprised, to find good conditions in the gorge. We climbed two classic routes, “Kumoi no Taki” (WI4+) and “Vanishing Moon” (WI5/6). Hermann was visibly having fun on the ice after swapping his camera for ice axes as our time in Hokkaido was coming to an end.
We had one last adventure. Sebastian booked us a hotel in the middle of Susukino, Sapporo’s nightlife district, home to hundreds of bars. It didn’t take us long to discover Japan’s nightlife was as different and interesting as everything else we found there. We were satisfied with our ice adventures in Japan but were now ready to jump back into “our world” and the journey back to Europe.