I saw out 2018 in cold Hokkaido Japan, ice-climbing frozen waterfalls (or sometimes, not so frozen). It was very cold, very beautiful, very chiaroscuro-like scenery, like a Chinese 水墨画 ink painting!
Wearing 19th century style leather climbing boots on my feet, with 20th century technology laminated jackets (that completely de-laminated and were saved by duct-tape); and the first time flying 21st century technology consumer drones with amazing video-editing soft-ware – exciting!
Cold, hard and painful, but energising. To all my friends – In 2019 let’s go chasing waterfalls!
𝟮𝟬 𝙮𝙚𝙖𝙧𝙨 𝙞𝙨 𝙨𝙝𝙤𝙧𝙩 𝙢𝙚𝙢𝙤𝙧𝙮
The first time I went ice-climbing was almost 20 years ago. I was then s̶u̶f̶f̶e̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ training with the US Marines, and during our Christmas break, my buddy Patrick McKinley and I, instead of resting our weary bodies decided to make a drive up to Smuggler’s Notch in upstate Virginia near the Canadian border to go ice-climbing. As the name suggests, the climbing was a narrow gully in the mountains where there were several good ice-climbs.
Being poor recent graduates, we slept in my jeep. Every night, we would drape all our gear (ice-axes, ropes, clothes, gaiters, boots, harness, etc.) around the car, and try our best to dry them.
And because the cabin wasn’t long enough, we had to use a bungee cord to hold the boot down, which couldn’t shut fully, so there would be 6 inches of snow on our sleeping bags every morning.
Every day, breakfast was a solid fruit-cake log, lunch consisted of cold combat rations, and dinner was the only hot food of the day. (And on the last day, we both jumped into the freezing cold lake … because)
Pat recalls: “Ah yes, Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont almost up in Canada. What a fantastically miserable few days. Too cold to camp in a tent, in the teens (Fahrenheit) I believe, but somehow not cold enough to completely freeze the waterfall. I think the water was still running too fast.
I remember punching through the icefall the entire way up the “Blue Room” in your photo. I was drenched by the time I topped out, and damn near hypothermic by the time you clawed your way up a better line. I remember ice cold water running down the inside of my sleeves to my core while trying to set screws on the upper portion. I just ended up skipping a few placements to get out of the ice bath. I could barely tie you off when you arrived. You had to set the rappel. I was done. It was a little too early in the season for climbing that’s why we went that far north in the first place.
Never-the-less a super memorable experience. I forgot about the polar bear plunge at the end. Unfortunately, no onsens in Vermont. I believe we came back to a week outfield after that, and chipping ice out of canteen cups to shave. Probably not the best respite plan.”
𝙄𝙘𝙚-𝙘𝙡𝙞𝙢𝙗𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙫𝙨 𝙍𝙤𝙘𝙠-𝙘𝙡𝙞𝙢𝙗𝙞𝙣𝙜
For those unacquainted with ice-climbing, it is a close cousin to rock-climbing, but not quite the same thing. For one, in rock-climbing, you know that the substrate you’re climbing on is stable, it is only your own personal weakness in fingers and arms that betrays you.
In ice-climbing, the ice itself is uneven. And beautiful. It changes with the weather, the people who came before you, every season is different. Too hard, and your ice-axe and crampons can hardly make a dent in the ice, and it is not stable. Too soft, and big chunks go flying, or it completely fails to hold your weight, or there is only an inch-thin crust before you hit rock.
And there is something surreal, and very alive, when your ice-axe punches through the ice, to reveal the actively flowing waterfall beneath. And as you throw your axe around with aggression, ice shards fly out explosively, in your face. If you’re belaying, huge chunks of ice come pelting down, thank goodness for helmets.
And of course, ice-climbing is COOLD, unlike most rock-climbing. So as you stand there belaying, your fingers and toes go completely numb and frost-bitten. Rock-climbing is highly tactile, fingertips caressing the stone, toes shod in ultra-tight boots that can sense millimetre changes in the rock. Ice-climbing is less … sensual. Fingers are cold, and wrapped up in rubber and plastic, and then contact with the ice is further mediated by ice-axes. Much less immediacy.
As you can tell by now, ice-climbing takes a certain abusive personality to enjoy, so not surprisingly, my buddy Pat subsequently ended up leading a Marine Special Operations company in Africa, before heading to Harvard for his graduate studies and has now spent time in NY and Silicon Valley.
For myself, it probably took me 20 years to get over that memory, before I went ice-climbing (not on a mountain) again.
𝙏𝙝𝙞𝙨 𝙏𝙞𝙢𝙚 𝘼𝙧𝙤𝙪𝙣𝙙
I had been fascinated by the idea of ice-climbing in Japan lately. The thought sounded beguiling – climb by day, and soak in an Onsen at night, with good food. No more 2 guys in a sleeping bag cramped into the back of a small jeep eating combat rations.
The waterfalls were beautiful, with evocative names like Milky Way waterfall and Meteor Swarm waterfall.
My guide Takao, had just turned 60. He began guiding in an era when it wasn’t something that you could make money on, and I wondered what his wife and parents-in-law thought of him. But he is a seriously tough guy, and one of less than 20 UIMGA certified guides in Japan.
Being Hokkaido born and bred, he knew the area really well, and lamented the impact of climate change that he had seen in his lifetime.
The challenge with both body and gear is that they are perishable.
My plastic boots had completely broken, so I rented these ca. 19th century type leather boots, that were surprisingly the best piece of gear I used on the trip. Very snug, reasonably warm and very stable.
My 20th century state-of the art laminated jackets and pants, by a top brand, unfortunately completely delaminated, so I had gaping holes down both sides, and across the front. Duct-tape to the rescue.
One of the new things I experimented with on this trip was to fly a 21st century drone DJI Mavic Pro. Loved it – an ability to see new perspectives, instead of the usual butt-shot that is the staple of any climbing photo. That combined with some video-editing, was really great fun.
Hard to imagine the convergence and power of consumer forces. Drones 15 years ago were massive military constructs, now we can fly consumer versions with top of the line lenses (though at -15 degrees, it is still difficult to pilot with gloves). Or in the opposite direction, scooters started off as toys, but are now serious mobility devices.
滝 𝙏𝙖𝙠𝙞 (𝙒𝙖𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙛𝙖𝙡𝙡 𝙞𝙣 𝙅𝙖𝙥𝙖𝙣𝙚𝙨𝙚)
The first day had 2 short technical waterfalls – including one that incorporated a mixed route – where one started on rock (dry-tooling = using ice-axes on rock), before moving onto the ice. By the end of the day, my arms completely pumped out. And as with rock-climbing, different lines on the waterfall had radically different difficulty levels, depending on the quality of the ice.
𝙉𝙖𝙠𝙖𝙩𝙖𝙠𝙞 (中滝) – 𝙈𝙞𝙙𝙙𝙡𝙚 𝙬𝙖𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙛𝙖𝙡𝙡
𝙊𝙩𝙖𝙠𝙞 (尾滝) – 𝙏𝙖𝙞𝙡 𝙬𝙖𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙛𝙖𝙡𝙡, maybe reminiscent of Yosemite’s Horsetail fall
The next few days saw us climbing multi-pitch waterfalls, with the weather getting colder and colder.
𝙂𝙞𝙣𝙜𝙖 𝙣𝙤 𝙏𝙖𝙠𝙞 (银河滝) – 𝙈𝙞𝙡𝙠𝙮 𝙒𝙖𝙮 𝙬𝙖𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙛𝙖𝙡𝙡 the snowfall was pretty heavy, and Takao recounted a story of how many years earlier, he had fallen from the very top when the anchor gave way. Thank goodness for heavy snow!
𝙆𝙞𝙣𝙨𝙝𝙞 𝙣𝙤 𝙏𝙖𝙠𝙞 (绵丝滝) – 𝘾𝙤𝙩𝙩𝙤𝙣 𝙬𝙖𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙛𝙖𝙡𝙡. This day was punishingly cold, and the ice started off almost too hard to kick in at the bottom, but on top, there was only a thin crust over the rock, and I could punch through to the flowing water beneath. Surreal.
Then an Onsen and early meal at the end of each day, in the snow, before heading out again.
Waterfalls recreate themselves every season, in similar patterns, but they never freeze in exactly the same way. Still lots of fun to climb each time around. Lots of waiting, lots of freezing, lots of patience required. When they are crumbly and weak, high sense of psychological danger. When they are stable, and the ice-axe sinks in with a satisfying “thunk”, you know you’re OK.
Let’s go chase some waterfalls!