This describes a typical day of winter cragging in Japan. I posted it a couple of days ago on another forum, but I'm not sure how much the readership overlaps. If you've seen it before - ignore.
As stated when I first posted this, my partners for the day, Colin and Sean, have not had the opportunity to comment; if anything's wrong, it's my fault, not theirs.
Finally, a comment about grading. The grades in this post come from the most recent guidebook for the Kanto (Tokyo) area. I haven't climbing at the Gunks in a long time, so I can't really say how the grades would compare. My best guess is that a Gunks 5.8 is probably a Makuiwa 5.9. I never led a Gunks route harder than 5.8. I was at the beginning of my trad leading career at the time - still am, actually - but I remember it being as much excitment as I needed.
The alarm goes off at 5:30, and I roll out of bed. No need to be quiet, since my wife and daughter are off visiting her brother in Germany. I'm a ten day bachelor, with even his royal highness at the doggie hotel. Today is Thanksgiving Thursday - coincidentally Labor Appreciation Day here in Japan, and I'm appreciating it by going cragging.
The apartment is chilly, but my polypro is already laid out, and I wiggle into it, plus some fleece and my favorite BD rockbottoms. Snarf down a couple of mini oranges and a banana, lace up the boots and throw the pack on my back - heavy today with a full rack and sixty meter rope.
The sky is just starting to lighten up, with mixed clouds and clear spots. A few early morning walkers eye my helmet, bumping on the outside of my pack, as I clump over to the local seven-eleven. Buy some rice balls, canned coffee, energy gel and energy bars. Around the corner, feed some cash into the slot, grab my train ticket and I'm off.
Sit on my butt, change trains, sit on my butt, get off, and there I am in Yokohama, and Colin is waiting for me on the platform - perfect. We're a few minutes early, so we shoot the breeze and look at the route guide until our train pulls in. We get lucky and score some seats. Sitting on our butts again. I drink some coffee.
At Sujito, Sean gets on, right on schedule, and our group is complete.
We pull into Yugawara at 8:14 and thud down the platform stairs. Hit the station bathrooms for a shot at their Japanese-style crouching crappers, which are reliably cleaner than the ones up at the trailhead. Nonetheless, good balance is at a premium. Hop in a cab and ten minutes later we're there.
Not even two hundred yards up the trail is the first outcropping of rock of the Makuiwa area, one of the closest and most popular winter cragging destinations for Tokyo climbers. This first outcrop is called Tentomushi Rock - Ladybug Rock - and among many others it's got a handy lineup of three moderate, bolted one pitch routes that I hit just about every trip up here, just to blow the cobwebs off. The rack will come out later.
The first route is a gentle 5.7 face climb - some edgy foot placements lower down, then pockets and smears a bit higher. Colin takes first lead, runs up it, rigs an anchor and leaves the draws in place. We pull the rope and Sean runs up it. We pull the rope again and then I go, lowering off with the anchor still in place, but cleaning the draws as I come down.
Right next to the first route is our second route, a 5.8. The crux is right off the ground, with a right hand side pull and slightly off balance step up onto a left foot smear, and then another sidepulling step up from the smear to reach the first real jug. I pass the draws to Colin, who again gets first lead. He's been here before and runs up the route. Again we pull the rope and Sean leads; pull the rope and I do.
At the top of the route, I take a minute to soak up the view. Makuyama Park is a regional park, a long, deep valley laced with hiking trails. When I turn my back to the cliff and look out, the valley runs from left to right in a slow, rising diagonal. In late February, the ground will be a sweep of white plum blossoms, and hanging here will be like standing above the clouds. Today, the fall colors are beginning to show, and I can see the blazing red of Japanese maples, as well as the gold of gingko trees and other unknown varieties.
To the far left is a vague gray haze that afternoon sun will reveal as the Pacific Ocean, with islands silhouetted on the horizon. Then there's the town of Yugawara, where our train arrived - a hot spring resort, but unfortunately not immune to the sprawl and cheap construction of many Japanese towns. Above, the park and its valley begins, with a small river running down the center. There's little noise except the rushing of the river and quiet conversation and clinking gear coming from a couple climbing further over on Tentomushi Rock. Once again, we've succeeded in leaving Tokyo behind, if only for a few hours.
I call "lower", and clean the draws on the way down once more. The next route is rated 10a in the guidebook, but both Colin and I think it's more like a 9. Colin's been scooping all the first leads, and this is Sean's first visit here, so he gets first shot at this one. Sean is a Canadian, recently arrived in Japan - an English teacher who climbed and taught in Taiwan. He saw my posts on RCU and dropped me an e-mail when it began to look like he might come to Japan. Colin is an Australian, software wiz and client turned climbing partner and friend.
I hand Sean the draws and he ties in and heads up. The first section of the route runs twenty feet up a steeply angled chute of rock, with deep, vertical walls on either side. A crack and various notches at the juncture between the chute and the right hand wall give access to the first bolt, and then to a ledge just below the overhang that caps the chute. Sean clips the overhead bolt that protects the overhang, finds the crucial edge for his left hand, works his feet up and pulls through. No problem. Clips the next bolt and waltzes to the anchor. He agrees that 5.9 sounds closer than 10a. A big smile marks the fun of pulling the little roof on sight. Colin's turn. Then mine.
While belaying, I've been cheerfully babbling about the route that runs up the right hand wall of the rock chute, then follows the arete to join the upper section of our just completed line. It's fairly graded at 10b, although the hard part is just the first few moves. I surprised myself by onsighting it last winter, and haven't been on it since. Sean now takes me aback by announcing that he wants a shot at it before we re-locate. Damn - now I'll actually have to try to climb the thing again.
Sean has first lead, however, so I leave the anchor in place once more, lower off and pass him the sharp end.
The crux is just after the first clip, and requires a huge, off-balance right foot high-step to smear a slightly flatter spot on the otherwise blank lower bulge of the arete. The hands are a small notch in the wall for the left hand and a right hand side pull on the arete itself. Pull up onto the right foot smear, set the left toe in the notch vacated by the left hand, work back up to a standing, balanced position, and the worst difficulties are over (give or take some further thin moves on the arete itself). Sean is taller than me, and maybe a bit less flexible, and he has trouble getting his foot up to the necessary smear. He works the move a few times unsuccessfully, then lowers off and Colin invites me to put my money where my mouth is.
Thanks to a lot of stretching and the short legs of someone only five foot four, I'm able to get my foot up and pull the crux smear. Unfortunately, I end up in an awkward, off balance position and spend a desperate few seconds working my hands up the smoothly rounded arete, scrabbling for purchase, before I can get my weight back over my feet. Clip. Go. Whew.
Colin's turn, and he puts us both to shame with a neat hip pivot that puts his foot easily on the crucial smear despite his six foot height. He stands up smoothly and cruises the rest of the route. Then it's revenge time for Sean, and this time he sends; knocks down the anchor and lowers grinning off the permanent gear.
The three of us have now led four routes each (albeit short, one pitch lines), and it's not yet noon.
Unfortunately, I manage to eat up a bit of the time we've saved by overshooting the approach to our next goal, so that we have to double back to find it. We get there eventually - a one pitch, gear protected line called Route No. 1. None of us have ever been on it, but reputation has it as a great crack route (two stars in the guidebook). If I can do it, it'll be my first ever 10a on gear, something I've been daydreaming about for quite a while.
There's a fifteen meter ramp of five-easy leading up to the scrubby ledge that begins the meat of the route, and someone has strung a hand line on it. We batman up the hand line, and leash ourselves and our packs to miscellaneous vegetables while we sort out the gear.
I try to be cool about asking who wants the first lead, but I guess it's obvious that I've been daydreaming about this one, because Sean and Colin are nice enough to give it to me. Sean builds a bombproof belay anchor, and I rack up and set off. The first moves are up a rightward slanting crack that offers a great finger lock and a solid placement for a number one camalot. Then it's a traverse left across a blank section to get to the main crack and its adjoining flake. Some kind, although politically incorrect, soul has slammed a pin into the blank space which I thankfully clip, then lean way left, standing on tiny but positive edges, and lock the first joints of my fingers into the thin beginnings of the flake. Walk the feet and hands up until I can jam a toe and set my next piece.
The crack and flake lead me by jams and edges up surprisingly steep ground to a decent ledge, and I waste strength copiously getting in gear when I should be climbing through to the few available rests. By the time I make the ledge, my arms are burning. Above me are a few final hand crack moves, then a sloping, narrow, awkward looking ledge followed by a bulge broken only by about ten feet of finger crack, which begins vertical, then arcs off left into a horizontal line.
I plug a bomber number seven rock into a constriction in the hand crack, step up and set a number two forged friend. Step up again, foot still in the wide section of crack, and now I'm trying to get up a couple more feet to a stance on that ugly looking ledge, while my hands work to find purchase in the finger crack above.
Damn, this thing is THIN. I'm getting my fingers in only up to about the first knuckles, and now my forearms are really screaming. I crank up, hoping for a decent finger lock, or a stable position for my feet that'll let me get in another piece, but the damn bulge is pushing me out away from the stance, which sucks to begin with, and the crack isn't giving me a thing.
Look up. Look down. That friend down there, a bit below my feet, suddenly looks very far away. Doesn't matter - there's just a second to make sure the rope is out from behind my leg and to yell "falling!"
I don't even have time to feel weightless before I'm hanging on the rope - thank you Wild Country, your cams work great. A moment of relief at being alive (falling on gear is still a fairly novel experience for me), and then I'm swearing about my lost on-sight and trying to shake out a killer pump.
Swear and shake, shake and swear. Work back up, past my previous high point, and hand traverse across where the crack angles left. Find a tenuous stance and sink a blue alien right handed into the vertical section of the crack - the only piece on my rack that's small enough to fit. Pump out again, yell "take" and hang on the piece, which holds. Shake out some more, work left onto easy ground, sling a passing tree for my final piece and cruise to the summit tree to build an anchor. My first 10a on gear - with two falls, but I'll take it.
Colin's turn is next, and he cruises the first part of the route, beautifully efficient with his gear selection and placement. He's had a lot more experience on the sharp end of trad routes, and it shows. He salves my ego, however, by finding the crux section equally difficult, and taking a virtually identical fall. He then follows my example with the blue alien, polishes off the route and lowers off spouting incomprehensible Australianisms, of which about all I can catch in my endorphin-stunned state is "bloody steep" and "fantastic route". I agree.
And so does Sean who gets the last shot and is smart enough to get the blue alien in before getting too high up the final crack section. He hangs on the piece, but avoids the air time that both Colin and I enjoyed. Shakes out, cruises to the anchor and lowers off the permanent gear.
We rap down the lower ramp, and I am grinning like an idiot.
Our next target is a pair of nearby, gear protected 9s. But all three of us suddenly notice that we've hardly eaten anything all day, so it's time for a break, sitting on a giant block overlooking the valley, munching and sipping. By the time we're done, the sun is still over the far rim of the valley, but I can see it won't be for too much longer.
We pull ourselves up through undergrowth to the routes, only to discover that wasps have built a nest the size of a Dana Terraplane under the overhang of our left hand choice. We deem this a reasonable basis to opt for the right hand route.
I have onsighted both of them the previous year, and am feeling pretty relaxed after accomplishing my main goal for the day, while Colin still has that hungry look. So he gears up and goes for it, knocking off a sweet onsight, including an awkward shift from one crack system to another that involves leaning tenuously left around a rib of rock to get gear in the flaring crack on the other side.
Wasp avoidance and afternoon lethargy have taken their toll, and the sun is well below the far hills. The light is graying. Sean and I yell up to Collin to just lower off on the fixed gear, but he suggests a quick top rope for anyone who's interested. There's only time for one of us, and Sean jumps on it, breezing up the route with one slip that could legitimately be blamed on bad light, general fatigue or both.
We pack up the gear and stumble down the approach trail by headlamp (at least I do - Colin and Sean do without, but their eyes are more than ten years younger than mine). A phone call from the base brings us a cab, and within a half hour we're indulging in that most luxurious of Japanese cragging traditions - cold beers and munchies as the train grinds us back to Tokyo.
It's been a pretty fine day, and as the cognac flask passes and the talk gets silly, I think that sometimes living in a big city ain't so bad. But next time, I want the redpoint.