For the last couple of months I haven’t had a chance to get anywhere to the big mountains, but we kept ourselves quite busy on local crags with my company friends, building up skills on the rock, practicing various multi-pitch and alpine techniques and in the process, we also naturally started threading some plans together. Yoshida-san, the man responsible for climbing gear in our company, once again proved to be a great source of knowledge about Japans’s free climbing areas as well as initiator of this year’s spring climbing trip to the lovely island of Shodoshima.
Although the island sits just a couple of hours ride by ferry from Kobe, it possesses remarkably distinct atmosphere. Just the moment I set foot on the Sakatekou pier and saw the cliffs behind, it felt more like I had just been transported somewhere to the Bora Bora in the Pacific. It reminded me of how few I have seen from Japan’s spectacular natural variety and how much more there is, still waiting to be explored. And then there was the pleasant sweet and sour smell of shoyu, along with olives, the main product Shodoshima is famous for.
Our company consisted of eight members on this trip, out of which six were climbers forming three rope parties.
I was sharing the rope with Asahi Rebouffat, climbing on the front line. “The Wild boys”, as we started calling ourselves because of the same Wild Country T-shirt both of us wore.
Seki-san with Suzuki-chan formed the second party. Seki-san turned out to be the man of all skills, showing remarkable talent for all kind of activities, from cooking to playing music by the campfire. Just by the looks he is kind young father and family guy, but among us, he was the only one able to climb 5.11 and still make it look like the most natural thing.
Yoshida-san with Yuki-chan were securing the tail.
The first day’s climbing objective was about 120 meters high cliff called Oyayubi-iwa, meaning The Big toe rock. Just the moment I first glimpsed it from the car made my heart jump. But in a pleasant way. It was a mixture of excitement, uneasiness, expectation and worry.
Sheer vertical face, seemingly impossible to climb. It looked magnificent! I have always been dreaming about being able to challenge something like this.
Funny and stupid as it was, we messed up the approach so bad, that we technically climbed to the top of the mountain without even encountering a single rock on the way. Well, the views were nice and it was awkwardly funny, but one could not but wonder how such a huge navigation fail could had happened. Anyway, we had time and in the end all was well. 30 minutes later we were all preparing ourselves to start climbing at the base of the wall.
The route was called ‘Akai kurakku’ aka the Red crack and it was supposed to be five pitches of continuous 5.9 grade.
Asahi-san led the first, about 30 meters long pitch through a diagonal crack giving name to this route and then over easier terrain to the first belay point. I joined him moments later, gave him the only one backpack we carried and took the lead for the second pitch.
First I wanted to start traversing diagonally to the left, where I could see a long diagonal crack looking like a way forward, but for some reason I gave up on the idea and started climbing straight up over a small outward-leaning slab, where I could see some old ring bolts. Just some 6 meters higher, I knew this was leading nowhere and I had to traverse to the left anyway. But this time there were no steps. Just a tiny 5 centimeters wide ledge, barricaded in the middle by an outward bulging rock drum.
My heart was not beating how scared I was while making the long step to the other side, last piece of protection 3 meters bellow, holds consisting of bare vertical flakes one coud only push to the side. But I did not fall off and after another 10 meters traversing further to the left I cut the pitch on a secure perch among some bushes.
Soon after bringing him up and swapping the backpack, Rebouffat disappeared somewhere above, leading the third pitch. He pushed it far and high, over 50 meters. Fortunately we were climbing on 60 meter ropes. Although I was just following, I didn’t like this pitch. It was a bad slab, old and covered with dirty dry, slippery lichen, which seemed just happy to always fall in ones eyes when touching any holds above head. And I desperately needed to go ‘sanban’, a word we use at work, meaning one goes to the restrooms.
Fortunately the belay point was on a wide terrace with lots of bushes to the side and I was thus saved.
Fourth pitch was mine to lead again. We were on a kante right now, kind of rock ridge, and after climbing just a bit up, I saw it would be possible to follow it probably all the way to the summit, but something inside, a hunch, told me I should check the face behind the corner to my left. The mistake I made right here was of thinking about it just as a check and placing one short quickdraw in such a bad way, that it produced immense rope drag from there on. Look over the corner revealed a band of flakes and holds, that led me in one long traverse right to the middle of the face. When I saw the next belay point, I was screaming with joy and enthusiasm. It was a meter wide ledge in space. Up and down there was nothing but blank vertical walls with immense exposure. Dreaming about the big walls of the world, for me it felt like standing on a portaledge somewhere in the middle of El Capitain.
No communication was possible with Rebouffat, who was now long way behind several corners and it took him a while to join me. Later he told me he had problems unclipping the damned short draw, because I was pulling too much on the ropes and he had no way to tell me. It is always unpleasant for the second to follow on a traverse, because if the leader pulls, you get pulled out of your holds.
In the end we reunited on this ledge safely and took our time to enjoy the atmosphere, peeking over the precipice and discussing the next move.
Asahi-san led the last pitch up and further to the left, finishing the climb over the eastern kante. Our topo suggested another 40 meters to the top, but in fact less than 20 meters remained.
On the summit we moved to the edge of the wall, resting and watching Seki-san with Suzuki-chan finishing the fourth and fifth pitch. There were no signs of Yoshida-santachi to be seen or heard. The situation from Seppikosan in autumn was repeating itself. We tried to establish communication via the short-wavelength transceivers we carried, but to no avail. After two hours waiting and getting cold, Asahi and I decided to descend and have a look at the face from below.
They were still fighting at the end of their fourth pitch, now seven hours on the wall already. As it turned out, Yoshida-san didn’t have enough draws and after using up all of them he had to lower down to retrieve some in order to climb back up and continue.
Together with Rebouffat, we stayed watching over them and waiting, while Seki-santachi went forward to establish the camp near the Yoshida city and prepare extremely delicious curry rice for us.
In the end all of us reunited safe and unharmed, ready for the next day’s adventures.
We left the camp early with Rebouffat and the sunrise saw us already uncoiling ropes below the Yoshida dam. The whole ‘Yoshida no iwaba’ area offers countless opportunities for one pitch sports climbing, but this morning, we were up to the ‘Manki firippu’ route, 4 pitches of slabs and one squeeze in chimney.
The day dawned beautiful and we were blessed to climb in fantastic morning light. The route suited our respective styles perfectly. I let Asahi lead the lower pitch over the slab, because that is the type of terrain he enjoys, and kept the chimney for myself. We had our 60 meter ropes and thus were able to cut the route into two pitches. Well, funny thing is that the official second pitch starts with the crux in the shape of steep, round and smooth slab, but doesn’t offer even a single bolt for protection all the way to the next belay point. I was glad Asahi went first.
My pitch was all on removable protection and I was very excited about it. Not often do I get chance to place my friends, rocks and hexes into such a beautiful cracks like here. It started with a gradually steepening broken slab, then came the difficult block of about 2,5 meters high, almost blank rock, which I eventually flanked over the right corner and finally the chimney. The description said a ‘squeeze in chimney’, but most of the time I climbed on the outer side of it. Several horizontal cracks along the way served well as protection placements. Where the chimney ended with a roof, I followed one crack to the right and topped out without any problems, quite secure, happy and excited.
When Asahi joined me, we rappeled down to the road by the dam and sat there in the morning sunshine, watching the others, who came in the meantime, climb.
The day turned lazy and only after lunch did we return back to the iwaba to play a bit more on some 5.10a graded rock.
I left Shodoshima with lots of positive emotions. The trip was succesful, the members fun, the island beautiful, the weather clear, the dinner and lunch fantastic, the night outside calm and warm… it all felt much longer than just two days.
All the return journey on the ferry we sat on the deck with Yuki-chan, talking for hours while watching the sun set over the Seto sea.
I certainly hope to come back some day, if only to hear the ‘Futari wo musubu’ song on the Jumbo Ferry.