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Common Ground, A World Apart

“There are only three real sports: Mountaineering, race car driving and bullfighting.” —Ernest Hemingway


Hemingway was onto something. Whether it’s on a crimp and a prayer scaling a challenging sport route or letting it all hang out on an icy wall, the climber—like the Toreador and “speed demon”—pushes the limits of human endeavor.

I think “Papa” would have enjoyed exchanging notes with Yuji Hirayama and Leo Houlding, two world-class athletes from different corners of the globe who can usually be found high atop the world’s biggest rock walls. On this day, however, they were bouldering in western Tokyo, not far as the crow flies from Yuji’s home crags in Saitama. Excited to meet these two titans of rock, I got there early on an unseasonably warm, sunny day.

Yuji arrived next. He’s been an elite level climber for two decades, and his ability to climb hard and long routes has earned him serious respect throughout the international climbing world; in fact he’s better known overseas than here at home.

He’s sponsored by big hitters Beal, The North Face and Nissan and, although I’m a bit star-struck, he’s humble and friendly and quickly puts me at ease.

Yuji was the first climber from Asia to win the Climbing World Cup. In fact, he stood atop the podium twice (1998 and 2000). Last fall he and his climbing partner, American Hans Florine, broke their own world record for fastest ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The speed ascent covered 31 pitches and almost 900 vertical meters in an amazing two hours, 37 minutes and five seconds.

He owns the first and only ascent of Flat Mountain (15a), a literal translation of his last name (Hirayama), his route near his home in Saitama, as well as the first on-sight of White Zombie in Batzola, Spain, which was the first ever on-sight of a 14b route. Simply outrageous.

Soon Leo arrived. This globetrotting, jackof- all-trades outdoorsman has been a British climbing prodigy since age 10. He’s laid-back despite a hefty resume, which includes an alpine-style free ascents of the North Pillar of Fitzroy, known as the Casarotto Pillar in Patagonia, Argentina (crazy hard).

He’s a skilled slack-line walker, a base jumper (first to descend Naranjo de Bulnes in Spain) and has beaten Everest’s dangerous game of Himalayan roulette. The dude even has his own TV show (on Virgin TV called “Take Me to the Edge,” a couple episodes will be aired in Japan). His sponsors include Berghaus, DMM, Five Ten, Adidas Eyewear, Ford and Linde/Werdelin time pieces.

Although they know each other through climbing circles and had briefly met in “the valley” (Yosemite) a few years back, they’ve never had the opportunity to climb together. Yuji takes us to Ninja-Gaeshi (V6), a local bouldering classic along the Tama River in Mitake.

Leo is slowed by a serious knee injury he suffered during a sailing accident and walks with a slight limp. He then drags his bad leg like an overweight chalk bag as he on-sights the problem and some locals buzz and rubberneck.

Yuji works a few moves and does a bit of a hand traverse to finish up his attack. Big wall climbing and bouldering isn’t a perfect match, he explains. Yuji outlines his rigorous big wall training regimen. Training for big walls in Japan means pulling on plastic. Starting on or about a 10d and consecutively upping the ante a single grade until he hits the 14s.

He then works his way back down, rounding off about 30 routes in a row. This usually takes him two to three hours. My knuckles ache just thinking about it.

As they each find their comfort zone on the rock, they start talking climbing: The Japanese bouldering grade system, rock type, different local areas and so on. Each recalls having an admiration for the other before ever meeting. For Leo, Yuji’s discipline and determination stand out. Yuj admires Leo’s free-spirited approach to life and climbing.

I listen in as the conversation takes them 23 pitches up a free route in a far-off land. They are discussing a grab at a flake-shaped hold at the end of a sequence of hard moves, the standout crux pitch of a 1,000-meter classic. But the flake has since broken and made the move even harder.

What intrigues me now, more than their mutual accomplishments and individual style, is the precise detail of their dialogue. One is from Japan, the other from England, yet they can hone in on a delicate rock feature thousands of feet above the deck in Yosemite National Park in California.

A rare space shared by the rarest of sportsmen. Commonality and friendship found a world apart. Our day ends swapping war stories and tall tales at a local sushi bar. I forget the outrageous standards these guys share and simply enjoy the company of my fellow mountaineers.

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