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    • Spring
      • Onbashira Matsuri Japan Nagano Festival

        Onbashira Matsuri

        Watch one of Japan's most dangerous festivals in Nagano in 2022. The Onbashira Matsuri is an ancient festival dating back more than 1,200 years.
        Eating Wild in Japan

        Eating Wild in Japan

        Winifred Bird's latest book is an introduction to the world of sansai (mountain vegetables) and foraging in Japan.
        Niseko flying Hokkaido

        Bird’s Eye View of Hokkaido

        Get a bird's eye view of Hokkaido with Ben Kerr, a Niseko-based pilot.

        Northern Tohoku’s Top 5 Spring Hikes

        Chase the cherry blossoms north and enjoy five of Tohoku’s best hikes this spring.

        Spring Escapes: Outdoor Activities in Japan

        Check out these spring escapes this season and enjoy outdoor activities throughout Japan.
    • Summer
      • Washi Papermaking Kochi Shikoku Outdoor Japan

        Following the Paper Trail in Kochi

        Discover the traditional art of washi papermaking in Kochi with artist Rogier Uitenboogaart.
        Climbing Mt. Fuji Outdoor Japan

        Peaking in 2021: Climbing Mt. Fuji

        Thinking of climbing Mt. Fuji this summer? We talk to Mt. Fuji guides on best practices for scaling Japan's highest mountain.

        Japan Camping Guide

        Check out our picks all the way from Hokkaido to the Okinawa Islands and then plot your perfect Japan camping adventure.
        Japan's Digital Nomads Van Life in Japan

        Japan’s Digital Nomads

        Adventure couple Ruth Aisling and Bappa Shota explores Japan by van.
        Iriomote Yamaneko Outdoor Japan

        Iriomote’s Endangered Wildcats

        Iriomote Island, one of Japan's last untouched wild places, is home to the endangered yamaneko wildcat.
    • Autumn
      • Pow Bar Founder Megumi Scott

        Beyond the Brand: Pow Bar

        An interview with Megumi Scott, the founder of Niseko brand Pow Bar.
        Churamura Okinawa Sea Turtle Marine Conservation

        Churamura: Footprints in the Sand

        Churamura, an NPO in Okinawa, work to conserve marine life and protect endangered sea turtles in Japan's southernmost prefecture.
        Kawazu

        Fall in Love with Kawazu

        Enjoy waterfall hikes and hot springs, beautiful beaches and delicious seafood in Kawazu on the western coast of Izu Peninsula.
    • Winter
      • Indy Pass Outdoor Japan Tohoku

        The Resistance

        The Indy Pass arrives in Japan to bring avid riders to local resorts that punch above their weight class and offer varied terrain.
        Shinano Town Outdoor Japan

        Go Deep into Shinano

        Discover Snow Country in Shinano Town in northern Nagano, popular for its deep powder but also its mountainous winter scenery.
        Evergreen Outdoor Center Japan

        Japan Snow Guide: Winter 2022 Events & No...

        Check out the latest news and winter events held at ski resorts all over Japan in 2022!
        Protect our Winter POW Japan

        Protecting Japan’s Pow

        Professional snowboarder and environmentalist Goro Komatsu fights climate change with Protect our Winters Japan.
    • Near Tokyo
    • Near Kyoto
    • All Regions
    • Article Map
    • Ocean and Beach
      • Churamura Okinawa Sea Turtle Marine Conservation

        Churamura: Footprints in the Sand

        Churamura, an NPO in Okinawa, work to conserve marine life and protect endangered sea turtles in Japan's southernmost prefecture.
        Kawazu

        Fall in Love with Kawazu

        Enjoy waterfall hikes and hot springs, beautiful beaches and delicious seafood in Kawazu on the western coast of Izu Peninsula.
        Kaiyu Kochi Shikoku Outdoor Japan

        Snorkeling, Surfing and Sustainability in Koch...

        Enjoy the clear waters of Kochi by snorkeling and surfing while staying at a refurbished hotel committed to sustainability.
        Outdoor Japan Shimoda

        Blue Waves and Black Ships in Shimoda

        Shimoda may be famous for its white sandy beaches and surfing, but it also played a major role in shaping the Japan we know today.
    • River and Lake
      • sawa nobori wakasa fukuivideo

        Sawa Nobori, High Above t...

        Learn about the uniquely Japanese activity of sawa nobori, navigating up rivers and waterfalls, in the Wakasa region of Fukui Prefecture.
        Iriomote Yamaneko Outdoor Japan

        Iriomote’s Endanger...

        Iriomote Island, one of Japan's last untouched wild places, is home to the endangered yamaneko wildcat.
        Iriomote Outdoor Japan

        Iriomote Activity Guide

        A guide to Iriomote's outdoors, hiking, diving, cultural experiences and accommodation.
        Niseko flying Hokkaido

        Bird’s Eye View of Hokkai...

        Get a bird's eye view of Hokkaido with Ben Kerr, a Niseko-based pilot.

        Spring Escapes: Outdoor A...

        Check out these spring escapes this season and enjoy outdoor activities throughout Japan.
    • Mountain and Land
    • Sky
    • Snow and Ice
      • Indy Pass Outdoor Japan Tohoku

        The Resistance

        The Indy Pass arrives in Japan to bring avid riders to local resorts that punch above their weight class and offer varied terrain.
        Shinano Town Outdoor Japan

        Go Deep into Shinano

        Discover Snow Country in Shinano Town in northern Nagano, popular for its deep powder but also its mountainous winter scenery.
        Evergreen Outdoor Center Japan

        Japan Snow Guide: Winter 2022 Events & No...

        Check out the latest news and winter events held at ski resorts all over Japan in 2022!
        Protect our Winter POW Japan

        Protecting Japan’s Pow

        Professional snowboarder and environmentalist Goro Komatsu fights climate change with Protect our Winters Japan.
    • Travel
      • Shinano Town Outdoor Japan

        Go Deep into Shinano

        Discover Snow Country in Shinano Town in northern Nagano, popular for its deep powder but also its mountainous winter scenery.
        Protect our Winter POW Japan

        Protecting Japan’s Pow

        Professional snowboarder and environmentalist Goro Komatsu fights climate change with Protect our Winters Japan.
        Onbashira Matsuri Japan Nagano Festival

        Onbashira Matsuri

        Watch one of Japan's most dangerous festivals in Nagano in 2022. The Onbashira Matsuri is an ancient festival dating back more than 1,200 years.
        Market Watch Onomichi Market

        Market Watch: Omicho Market

        Discover Omicho Market in Kanazawa, Ishikawa for the best of seafood and local vegetables in Japan.
        sawa nobori wakasa fukuivideo

        Sawa Nobori, High Above the Wakasa Waters

        Learn about the uniquely Japanese activity of sawa nobori, navigating up rivers and waterfalls, in the Wakasa region of Fukui Prefecture.
    • Food and Drinks
      • Shinano Town Outdoor Japan

        Go Deep into Shinano

        Discover Snow Country in Shinano Town in northern Nagano, popular for its deep powder but also its mountainous winter scenery.
        Protect our Winter POW Japan

        Protecting Japan’s Pow

        Professional snowboarder and environmentalist Goro Komatsu fights climate change with Protect our Winters Japan.
        Onbashira Matsuri Japan Nagano Festival

        Onbashira Matsuri

        Watch one of Japan's most dangerous festivals in Nagano in 2022. The Onbashira Matsuri is an ancient festival dating back more than 1,200 years.
        Market Watch Onomichi Market

        Market Watch: Omicho Market

        Discover Omicho Market in Kanazawa, Ishikawa for the best of seafood and local vegetables in Japan.
        sawa nobori wakasa fukuivideo

        Sawa Nobori, High Above the Wakasa Waters

        Learn about the uniquely Japanese activity of sawa nobori, navigating up rivers and waterfalls, in the Wakasa region of Fukui Prefecture.
    • Races and Events
      • Evergreen Outdoor Center Japan

        Japan Snow Guide: Winter 2022 Events & No...

        Check out the latest news and winter events held at ski resorts all over Japan in 2022!
        Onbashira Matsuri Japan Nagano Festival

        Onbashira Matsuri

        Watch one of Japan's most dangerous festivals in Nagano in 2022. The Onbashira Matsuri is an ancient festival dating back more than 1,200 years.
        Yuji Hirayama Urban Base Camp

        Yuji Hirayama’s Urban Base Camp Opens in Shinj...

        One of Japan's top rock climbers Yuji Hirayama has opened Urban Base Camp, a new bouldering gym in the heart of Tokyo.
        Photo by Noriteru Ino

        2021 Summer Music Festivals in Japan

        Camp and listen to great music in the outdoors at these summer music festivals across Japan.

A Dream of White Horses

Glancing down to check my footing, I tried to ignore the forty meters of rope snaking down below me without a single piece of protection securing it to the steep snow of Mt. Shirouma’s famous headwall. I knew that Michael was anchored to a good piton in a solid rock protruding from the snow but, if I fell here, it would be a big one. 

Spreading my weight and thinking light thoughts, I kicked a few more steps upwards to just below the overhanging cornice that marks the transition from the East Face to the summit. I then unclipped the snow stake from my harness. It went in like a hot knife through butter…probably not much use here, but it would have to be enough. “Breathe,” I told myself, savoring the jaw-dropping exposure of this moment I’d been dreaming of for month.

How did this moment come to pass? As so many plans do, it started with a photo in a book and a name on a map. At 2,932 meters, Mt. Shirouma (白馬岳), or “The White Horse,” is the queen of Hakuba’s giants: the chain of peaks that runs north to south on the eastern edge of the North Alps of Japan. This is big snow country, and people flock here in winter to ski the famous powder resorts on the flanks of the mountains.

As luck would have it, there is a direct route to the summit up the main ridge of the East Face. In summer it is so steep and loose that it would be madness to go near it, and in winter the deep snow rules it out. But in April, when the spring temperatures arrive and the snow consolidates, a window opens up for those with the right skills and experience to pass through.

I first became acquainted with the main ridge, Shu-ryo (主稜), of Mt. Shirouma while perusing the “Challenge! Alpine Climbing” guidebook. The color photo on page 27 was a side shot of climbers pitching the headwall at the top of the East Face. The image grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. What would it feel like to be up there, adrift, with the whole East Face dropping off below your boots? There was only one way to find out.

Shouldering heavy packs full of camping and climbing gear, Michael and I began the short hike from the Sarukura Trailhead in the late afternoon. An hour later we chose a safe site for our tent at Shiroumajiri and began leveling out a platform. We had deliberately chosen the day before the start of the Golden Week holidays for our ascent, and were pleased to be the only tent. The ridge would be ours alone.

After a quick breakfast we donned harnesses and crampons and set off in the darkness, crunching our way up the firm lower slopes to gain the ridge. It pays to set out early on snow routes like this, to get as far up the ridge as possible before the mid-morning sun wreaks havoc. As the sun rose behind us, we hit the start of the ridge proper. 

The Shu-ryo is a series of rising peaks and bumps, numbered in sequence from P8 at the top of the approach slopes all the way up to P1—the summit itself. Connecting these peaks is a thrilling knife-edge snow ridge, with a total height-gain from basecamp to summit of approximately 1,400 meters. In places the ridge is overhung on one side with huge whipped cream cornices. We took care to stay well away from these.

At P5 things opened out and began to steepen, and we could feel our excitement rising. Conditions were perfect, and we made quick progress. By mid-morning we were front-pointing up the final knife-edged arête to the top of P2, the last resting spot at the foot of the infamous headwall. As Michael pulled over onto the small flat perch, I unpacked the rope and contemplated the line I should take. The headwall is approximately sixty meters high and exposed on all sides to enormous drops. Our rope was fifty meters long, so it would take two pitches. Twenty minutes later I was reaching up with my ice axe to begin hacking out an exit through the fabled cornice. 

As I pulled over onto the flat summit, I felt elated. Walking several meters back from the cornice I sank the shafts of both axes into the snow, equalized them for an anchor, and shouted to Michael to take me off belay. As he climbed the pitch, I couldn’t resist whipping my camera out to take the classic shot of him on the headwall, the whole East Face sweeping down below him.

Temperatures were now quite high, and we jogged down the Daisekkei in our base layers, anxious to minimize our time in the avalanche zone. After striking camp and packing up, we looked back at the perfect route we had just climbed. Bidding farewell to The White Horse, we headed back down in the direction of our car and wherever the next dream might lead us.

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