American-Japanese Climbing Exchange, Part I in Alaska. In February four Japanese came to Alaska, at the invitation of the Alaska Section of the AAC to climb ice. In October, an American (mostly Alaskan) team made a reciprocal, rock-climbing visit to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Alpine Club (JAC). For the Japanese part of the exchange, see the article published in the first part of this journal. Initially seeming perhaps an unlikely project, the exchange by its end was agreed by consensus to have been a spectacular success. There had never been a previous exchange with Japan by the U.S. or any other country, though British rock-climbing teams and individuals had been hosted in Japan previously. There was no precedent, in this country, for an international exchange to be organized and carried out by a Section. But enthusiasm and energy on the part of interested people in Japan and Alaska combined with superb climbing opportunities and vast goodwill. From tentative beginnings on an informal basis the visits themselves were fruitful, enjoyable and rewarding to all concerned and an ongoing Exchange program between our two Alpine Clubs coordinated at the national level has been started.
The initiation of negotiations was done by Steve Davis in 1984 when he was in Tokyo as a biologist for the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, discussing Alaskan fishing with the Japanese. Alaska and Japan have strong ties in trade and tourism already, and Steve found those in the JAC he talked to quite receptive to the idea of an exchange. The Japanese have substantial expertise in mountaineering and a new interest in technical ice climbing in parallel with their new interest in technical rock climbing. Though there are opportunities to climb ice in Japan, primarily on the northern island of Hokkaido, they are limited. Rock climbing in Alaska is similarly problematic because of poor weather, rock and access. Interest was sparked, but escalated very rapidly when the Japanese became aware of the incredible wealth of ice climbing in Alaska, primarily in the Valdez area. Located on Prince William Sound, Valdez now counts more than one hundred and sixty frozen waterfalls climbed so far, totalling something in the range of 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) of steep ice in the city limits or close nearby. The Japanese sent an all-star team of four, who were able to count more than a dozen major expeditions between them. Essentially all climbing professionals, they had vast experience, technical expertise, interpersonal and cross-cultural adeptness, energy and interest, appreciation and gratitude, and the ability to share those things. They were Masaki Matsumoto, Shomi Susuki, Yuwa Yamazaki and Shigeki Nakayama. Their first exposure to Alaskan ice was at Eklutna and Eagle River near Anchorage, but everyone knew that the week in Valdez would offer the best climbing by far, on big, steep and accessible routes. Everybody climbed more during the week in Valdez than we ever normally do in a month. In fact more new routes were done (seventeen) in one week, than in some entire years. This year was special though, with forty-eight new routes resulting from an explosion of interest and activity. The visit of the Japanese (February 9-21) coincided with the Third Annual Washington's Birthday Weekend Valdez Ice Climbing Festival, so that a cast of thirty or forty climbers from all over the state, as well as various members of TV crews, and newspaper reporters and photographers, were on hand to assure that the cultural experience, and the climbing, would be appreciated by a large group, and many people would have a chance to participate, both in climbing with the Japanese, and in meeting them.
Andrew R. Embick, M.D.