At the end of last month I took a trip up to Hokkaido to get in one last lot of climbing before the winter season draws to a close. I headed up there with Chris (of the blog i, cjw - see the 'Stuff you should check out' sidebar) who I'd been looking forward to climbing with for some time. He turned out to be an excellent climbing partner as well as a superb photographer. Many of the photos in this post are his, so thanks Chris!
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It takes a day to get to Sounkyo from Kyoto. I flew out of Kobe airport early in the morning and via Sapporo New Chitose airport, Sapporo city and Asahikawa I eventually made my way there. I arrived late afternoon and met up with Chris at the hotel.
The hotel was, as promised, completely insane. Being the off-season, prices are absurdly low but the quality of the room and service isn't. 7,000 JPY per person per night gets you a huge traditional room (with bathroom, toilet, fridge, A/C, etc), two buffet meals per day and access to the onsen (hot spring baths).
That night we wandered into the (tiny) town to check out the Sounkyo Icefall Festival. I'm sure the novelty value was lower for ice climbers but it was still pretty neat. Good firework display, too, plus cheap amazake (weird drink containing rice and hot sake that looks a bit like chunky vomit and doesn't taste a whole lot better).
|An ice shrine.|
|A shot across some of the festival area.|
|Chris, risking his life for the shot. I'm actually fairly sure this place wouldn't be allowed under Health & Safety in the UK...|
|One of the many ice sculptures.|
Day 1 was a corker. Of course it was started off with a buffet breakfast - makes a change from instant ramen! We walked down into the gorge from town and within 15 minutes or so we were at a big car park - this is about as far as the tourists get! Across the river we could see our first climb... but if course we had to get to it first.
|Not a bad way to start off a day of climbing|
Cue taking off our boots and socks, rolling up our pant-legs and wading across a FREEZING cold river. Agony! If anyone is wondering if you can get the hot aches in your feet, the answer is yes, you can.
|Chris having an existential crisis halfway across. Note the Japanese guys who brought Wellington boots!|
|My turn - not fun!|
After a short walk in we were at the base of our target for the day - Ginga-no-taki, WI4, 120m, 4 pitches. Spectacular!
What followed was 4 pitches of superb climbing in a stunning position. Beautiful. It was bitterly cold (they were saying -16C in the morning - "feels like -32C with windchill" - and I don't think it climbed much above that all day) and there was a strong wind which hammered us with spindrift at regular intervals.
Pitch 2 began with a snow ramp which became a steeper ice section. After daggering my way through the snow I got onto the ice and as my hands warmed up I got the worst hot aches ever (despite my absolute best efforts), which was an unpleasant surprise. After 5 minutes of swearing like a trooper while my calves burnt up from resting on front-points and smashing my fists into the ice, I set off again. Ah, the joys of winter climbing...
|The only other party on the climb setting off up Pitch 1.|
|Chris leading up P1.|
|Looking happy at belay stance 1.|
|Coming up the snow ramp on P2 while getting hammered by spindrift.|
|Chris on P3.|
|Finishing up P3.|
|Chris having far too much fun at the third stance.|
|View from stance 3.|
|Topping out on P4 (final pitch) after pulling the crux moves.|
|Abseiling back down the route.|
|Looking back up.|
After coming back down and sorting things out we crossed back through the river (joy!) during which time I managed to drop a boot in the water (double joy!) then headed back to the hotel to clean up, warm up and eat up.
|Buffet and a beer - not a bad end to the day either!|
Day 2 started off much the same. This time we elected to bag our feet on the river crossing to stop water ingress, which was a total failure and just resulted in damp boots and humiliation...
The day didn't really improve much from there. We couldn't find our chosen climb (most likely it was just completely banked out with snow) so we went back to the start of the gorge to try out luck there. We ended up back on Ginga-no-taki for a bit of messing around on the first pitch - top-rope step-cutting and the like, which was a terrible idea. Moving on, the falls next to Ginga-no-taki had water absolutely pissing down underneath the ice, plus large holes in the structure, so they were a no-go as well.
|Chris enjoying some old-fashioned step-cutting on Ginga-no-taki...|
|Not in condition!|
|Chris struggling his way up a snow bank. Snowshoes were a huge help but conditions were still nightmarish.|
Deflated and, frankly, completely knackered from a day of snowshoeing through powder, we decided to head back. Then we made one or two poor route-finding decisions and it took way longer than it should have done. To add insult to injury, the river level had come up a lot during the day, making the crossing back quite hairy.
Eventually we staggered back to the hotel and resolved to make the last day a better one...
For day 3 we decided to head down to the far end of the gorge and see what lay there. We did this by taking a taxi ride, during which we nearly got totally ripped off by the driver - a rarity for Japan! Oh well, we got there eventually...
This end of the gorge is phenomenal. Huge basalt columns on both sides, overhanging the gorge, capped with precarious-looking snow mushrooms. Really stunning.
Snowshoeing here was much easier going due to the easier terrain (we were walking on an abandoned road surface). However, the snowpack got worse as we went on. Inches of wind-blown slab overlying loose powder snow. Perfect avalanche conditions - not ideal for us!
|Traversing a nice avalanche-prone slope.|
|Incredible scenery! I'm bottom-right, for scale...|
|I really think the gorge is one of the most amazing places I've ever been. No exaggeration.|
Alas, disappointment struck again when we saw our chosen climb for the day - Raiman-no-taki, WI4 (apparently). The bottom half was banked out with snow (probably avalanchy, too) and the top showed clear signs of a large collapse. Brilliant. Clearly that wasn't in so we set our sights on neighbouring Kinshi-no-taki (WI4, maybe) instead.
|Fresh avalanche debris. Not the best place to be!|
|Raiman-no-taki. No way is that top pitch WI4 - it looks like the entire right side had recently collapsed.|
|Kinshi-no-taki, WI4 and absolutely gorgeous.|
|Kinshi-no-taki again, looking steeper from here!|
|Chris on P1.|
|The view from the base, showing all the looming snow mushrooms...|
Our time on Kinshi-no-taki didn't last long. As Chris set off up the first pitch, we heard a loud boom. Not a good sign. More and more avalanches started pouring off the cliffs around us - mostly snow mushrooms collapsing as the temperature increased. One minor one poured down our line and that was it - we bailed before completing a single pitch. Going was slow because the ice was bullet-hard and this wasn't a good place to linger, so we called it and moved on. A shame, but a climb I'd love to come back and complete sometime. Next year, maybe!
Keen to get something done (aything!) before our time ran out, we moved down the gorge some more (keeping as far away from avalanche paths as possible!) and soon came to a low piece of ice with varied lines ranging from WI3 to perhaps WI5, with some funky (loose...) mixed stuff to one side. We threw up a couple of top-ropes on here and had a good mess around on some lovely plastic ice for the rest of the day. Perfect. A good way to practice, unwind (aside from a brief bear scare) and at least climb something!
|Checking out the potential of our little 'ice bouldering' spot.|
|Some of the steeper lines.|
|The spectacular views continue down this end...|
|Walking back out towards Kinshi-no-taki.|
And, well, that's it. After a relatively uneventful walk out, we got the taxi back to the hotel for a final buffet dinner (and breakfast, naturally), an opportunity to sort out and dry kit and relieve our aching muscles. And then came the whole-day return journey...
The first day was clearly the best. However, the second day was interesting in that we worked out what works, what doesn't and where things are. And hey, a day in the great outdoors is never wasted! The third day was scuppered somewhat by the warming conditions but we still got some decent climbing in, just on much shorter lines (lovely ice though).
I'll be back next year, for sure. I want to climb Ginga-no-taki again (it's fantastic), I want to actually climb Raiman-no-taki and I'd like to finish off Kinshi-no-taki as well. So there's three aims already!
Alas, that's the end of the winter season for me, I think. No more ice until next year (unless I can get a trip in somewhere outside of Japan - we'll see about that!). Now to look forward to several months of hopefully fine Japanese rock and alpine climbing...