Japanese Ice

For skiers the Japanese Alps are already a well known paradise. The strong winter in Hokkaido, the most northern island of Japan, offers loads of powder and cold temperatures. This should actually make it a perfect ice climbing spot as well. However, there is very little information around Europe about Japanese ice and the possibilities to actually climb there. A trip to a land, where you virtually can’t communicate, where the normal course of life is totally different than the one you are used to,  and on which you are furthermore searching for climbable ice, is a real adventure. But eventually this is what Markus Bendler, Hermann Erber and I wanted to face up at the end of this ice climbing season.

A leap in the dark

After long preparations for this journey one thing came clear immediately: Without any help of a local or someone who speaks Japanese and is familiar with the Japanese culture and mentality you are going to be totally lost over there. Therefore I tried to contact the local ice climbers and asked them for help. This came out to be a real challenge because in Hokkaido there is only a bunch of ice climbers and most of them don’t speak English at all. As well, as I had to find out, it is not in the Japanese mentality to answer any question with “Sorry, I do not know”. This fact didn’t make the preparation any easier. In the end it took me about two months to find few climbers who where actually capable of understanding the questions we had. With only little knowledge about what was going to happen to us in Hokkaido we jumped on the plane with direction to Sapporo on February 26th.

Planning, together with the friendly locals

When we arrived in Japan we experienced the totally different world and mentality of the people more than once. When we picked up our RAV4 at the car rental we already caused the first sensation. The woman at the rental office couldn’t believe her eyes, when she found out that we weren’t able to speak any Japanese and that we were actually searching for the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car.
Sebastion Nault, who turned out to be the most helpful contact over there, picked us up from the airport and supported us the whole time in Hokkaido. On the next day he invited the whole local climbing scene and his students for outdoor education to his flat. With a spontaneous slide show we talked about former adventures and while having sushi and beer we planned our time on the island together with the friendly and hospitable locals. Although we landed in Sapporo during a huge snow storm, the ice climbing season was reaching its end as well in Hokkaido. We decided to start off with the warmer spots at the coast, leaving us the possibility to climb on the cooler spots in the centre of the island in case of a thaw period.

Sucessfull start - first ascent of "Lector" WI7

Our first climbing destination was a coastal spot called Raiden. Directly on the sea side we climbed Nairu WI6 and Runzee II WI5. I wasn’t only satisfied with the fact that the salty air on the seaside was having a soothing effect to my sustaining cold, but even more that we had a lot of fun climbing on the challenging Japanese ice already on our first day.
At the weekend Genki Narumi – one of the Japanese ice freaks – joined us and showed us a mixed climbing crag in Chiyosubetu where the hardest mixed routes of Japan with routes up to M9+ can be found. On the way to the crag we were attracted to a stupendous persistent ice formation sighted right in the middle of the mixed routes. When we had a closer look we decided to skip the mixed routes for then because we wanted to have a go on this ice monster with its giant natural ice roof at the exit. The third pitch had incredibly steep ice and we had a hard struggle in red pointing it. Because this tough formation taught us a lesson in waterfall ice climbing we named the line Lector and graded it WI7.

Sounkyo - the center of ice climbing in Hokkaido

After these intensive days we chose to relax dawdling around in the high-tech world of Japan`s big stores. At the same time the snow storms were coming to an end and springtime was about to come – so we were headed to Sounkyo, the actual centre of ice climbing in Hokkaido. With temperatures around -10°C we climbed some classic routes, as well as the impressive line Little princess. This 200 meter climb offers varying climbing around M8+, A1, WI5+. Including the photo shooting we spent a whole day in this demanding route. As usual when you’re having fun time was running too fast. At the end of our trip we wanted to visit the spots at the east coast and to explore a peninsula for new routes.

Spring is coming up - time to leave

Directly on the sea side we climbed on the scenic sea cliffs of Abashiri, surrounded by several sea eagles and tons of ice drifting in the sea behind us. This is a really special place, but sadly it was already too late in the season and the temperatures were too warm that we could only climb one route. At the peninsula we had to cancel an attempt doing the first ascent of the Furope-waterfall due to these warm conditions – only a few meters next to us a big ice roof broke down and so we were forced to leave the place immediately. Spring was finally arriving as well in Hokkaido; before we started a long journey back to good old Europe, we drove back to Sapporo and explored the Japanese night life, which turned out to be as different and unique as everything else over there.

© 2020 Mag. Albert Leichtfried - Meteorologe - Bergführer - Extremkletterer
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