NAGANO – Japan has for several years seen growing interest in alpine trekking and rock climbing among young women, but a growing number are starting to pick up axes to tackle the more dangerous and demanding sport of ice climbing.
Among them is Miyuki Yamamura, 30, who in early March with two friends took part in an ice climbing event for beginners at a site on Mount Yatsugatake in Nagano Prefecture.
Ice climbing used to be the preserve of expert climbers, because frozen falls and other challenging ice wall terrains are too formidable for the less-experienced. However, the recent advent of artificial ice walls has made the sport more widely accessible.
In past summers, Yamamura had explored Japan’s Northern Alps, among other areas, joining the ranks of the so-called “yama” girl fad coined after a surge in female hikers. But this was her first attempt at ice climbing.
“I got really stiff arms, but I enjoyed myself, thinking ‘I can do it!’ ” Yamamura said.
The beginners’ event, held every Sunday in winter, is held with the held of a 15-meter artificial ice wall near the Akadake Kosen lodge.
Climbers use special ice axes and spikes to climb the wall while attached to a safety rope. The lodge rents out equipment, including axes, spikes and helmets.
The artificial wall was first created in 2003 to provide accident prevention training. It is a temporary facility available only in winter, from early December to late March.
At first, the ice wall was mostly used by middle-aged and older people, but it has drawn a growing number of younger people for the past three years or so amid a climbing boom, said Taiki Yanagisawa, the lodge’s manager. Climbers in their 30s, particularly women, are increasingly taking on the tough challenges of ice climbing.
Although the artificial ice wall is open to beginners as well as expert climbers, the climate at the site, more than 2,200 meters high, is harsh. On some days, the temperature plunges to minus 20 or even lower.
Ice climbing is alluring because it provides “an extraordinary sense of achievement” and the firsthand experience of “the grandeur of nature,” Yanagisawa says.
However, he cautions against going on reckless adventures because these have led to serious accidents, including the death of a novice climber who was attempting to scale a frozen waterfall.
“You should try a real fall only after gaining the skills and knowledge acquired by climbing artificial ice walls,” Yanagisawa said.
While aware of the risks of ice climbing, beginner Yamamura isn’t shy about giving it another go.
“I’m afraid to try a real waterfall, but I want to do this again where the equipment is well prepared,” she said.