Sawanobori - James Pearson on Climbing Waterfalls in Japan

On Wednesday 20th March, UKC hosted the London launch of The North Face Speaker Series 'Sawanobori' film, featuring TNF athletes James Pearson, Caroline Ciavaldini, Matty Hong, Yuji Hirayama and Toru Nakajima. These athletes weren't climbing rock or ice, but something in-between: waterfalls. Sawanobori is the Japanese art of climbing a mountain river to its source, involving scrambling up gullies, ravines and waterfalls. As a sport, sawanobori has been practised for over 100 years, but rivers have long played a crucial role in Japan's mountainous jungle regions as the paths of least resistance for transit. Waterfalls are also sacred places in Japan, believed to be the dwellings of gods. James Pearson was present at the launch as the evening's speaker.

Yuji Hirayama and James Pearson discuss the route ahead.  © The North Face
Yuji Hirayama and James Pearson discuss the route ahead.
© The North Face

Traditionally, climbers wore woven straw sandals (waraji) and robes, but today, participants are fortunate to benefit from modern equipment: waterproof shells, 'ninja boots' (as James calls them) with felt soles and hoof-like toes, and rubber kitchen gloves (better than the expensive purpose-built sawanobori gloves, Toru reportedly advised James). Despite all this gear, the likelihood remains that you'll get a more than a bit wet...

Typically, climbers avoid wet rock, so how did a team of some of the world's top rock climbers get persuaded to take part in such a pursuit? James initially heard about sawanobori during his first ever The North Face Athlete Summit, back in 2007. Greg Child proposed a canyoning trip, which didn't come to fruition. A little later, a Japanese athlete came to him and suggested he should try going up the canyon instead. 'We all thought he'd misunderstood canyoning!' James remembers. 'How wrong we were!'

Sawanobori imagery at The North Face Regent Street.  © Natalie Berry
Sawanobori imagery at The North Face Regent Street.
© Natalie Berry

Almost 10 years later, James met Toru, who practises sawanobori in the summer. 'I thought it sounded fun,' James recalls, 'and when he showed me pictures I told him I'd come over to Japan to try it sometime.'

James proposed it to TNF as a throwaway expedition idea. 'It was probably my shortest, least detailed expedition proposal as I was stealing somebody's wifi outside their home whilst away on another random climbing trip in Canada,' he explains. 'They liked the idea, and then it was selected as one of maybe 5 trips out of more than 100! I was really happy, but then quickly a little nervous as I still had no idea what it might actually entail!'

Fast-forward to August 2018 and the trip has been successfully planned and completed. So what is sawanobori all about? The film shows the team preparing and getting to grips with the kit, before taking on the biggest waterfall in Japan: Shomyo Falls in Toyama, standing at 350m tall. The team are thrown in at the deep end on their practice waterfall, experiencing the variety of climbing that sawanobori can offer, from small boulder problems to big-wall like pitches, all while navigating the surprisingly powerful water gushing down the falls. Yuji speaks of the unexpected dangers that distinguish this activity from conventional rock climbing - the loose rock, which is hard to hear due to the sound of the water and the slippy vegetation. He describes Toru's unspoken fear of taking on a gigantic leap across a gap on Shomyo, which he undertakes with composure and focus. 'But in the end, it's not that different to mountaineering,' Caro explains in the film. 'We put ourselves in this situation, but we don't master everything. There's a small part of the risk that you can control, and a huge part that you can't.'

Natalie Berry interviews James Pearson at the Regent Street The North Face store.  © Yvette Casallas
Natalie Berry interviews James Pearson at the Regent Street The North Face store.
© Yvette Casallas

In a lecture and Q&A session after the film screening, James regales us with stories from the trip as well as his thoughts and feelings about expeditions in general. 'Why do crazy, different things like this trip?' he asks. 'What is the point of it all?' Referencing Lionel Terray's 'Conquerors of the Useless', James explains his struggle to find purpose and worth in his occupation as a professional climber, as opposed to being a doctor, teacher or anyone directly contributing to society. What is his adventurous path leading towards, and how can it be of greater benefit to the planet? 'Climbing makes me happy, and if I can share that happiness in some small way with other people and make them happy, then that's something positive,' he tells the audience.

James shows off his pink water wings in Japan.  © The North Face
James shows off his pink water wings in Japan.
© The North Face

James continues by leading us through his story so far, from his roots as a baby climbing everything in sight - furniture, brick walls - to his teenage self intent on repeating and establishing some of the Peak District's hardest grit boulder problems and trad routes. The Groove, Walk of Life, Rhapsody - gradually, James's ascents spread further afield, and further still when he met wife-to-be, French sport and competition climber Caroline Ciavaldini in Turkey in 2010. James taught Caro to trad climb, while Caro taught James how to train, resulting in his first 9a sport redpoint. Drawing on one another's strengths, together they travelled the world to climb in remote and exciting destinations, from South Africa to the Philippines.

Caroline Ciavaldini samples sawanobori.  © The North Face
Caroline Ciavaldini samples sawanobori.
© The North Face

But, James stresses, these adventurous expeditions didn't come all of a sudden: he took baby steps by jumping out of his comfort zone, little by little. 'Adventure is attainable,' he explains. Behind the committing expeditions are years of teaching and learning experiences, many of which he owes to Caro's influence. 'Climbing is personal,' continues, 'the human elements, discovering new places, going towards an unknown, dealing with failure, it's all part of what I enjoy.'

James Pearson addresses the audience at the Regent Street Sawanobori launch.  © Natalie Berry
James Pearson addresses the audience at the Regent Street Sawanobori launch.
© Natalie Berry

Recently, the pair have had to face their biggest adventure yet: parenting their 3-month-old son, Arthur. 'Having a kid was a terrifying decision,' he explains, perhaps their most terrifying yet. Baby step by baby step, they're now taking on the challenges of parenthood.

For those wishing to go on an adventure of their own without much experience, James outlines five key points: 1. choose your partners carefully; 2. pack light, consider what you really need; 3. embrace the process of learning and giving back to others; 4. know how to use your kit; 5. think outside the box. James praised the open-mindedness of the Japanese climbers he has encountered over the years. After all, who would think to climb a waterfall?

photo
James displays his Summit L5 Gore-Tex Pro sawanobori attire.
© Yvette Casallas

The Q&A runs smoothly, with lots of hands in the air. Although not discussed in the film, Caro was a few months pregnant during the trip, which may ring alarm bells for some people, but James explained that they managed the risks carefully and that Caro opted out of the more committing sections. 'Did you sense the spiritual aspect of the sport?'; 'What are the gloves you were wearing?'; 'Will baby Arthur be joining you for another waterfall trip sometime soon?'; 'Have you put into practise the open-mindedness learned from the Japanese climbers since returning from the trip?' James concludes that he is no longer so cynical of different aspects of and approaches to climbing. As he explains in the film: 'They're all walls, each a vertical playground for us to explore.'

The team enjoying their The North Face sawanobori expedition to Toyama, Japan.  © The North Face
The team enjoying their The North Face sawanobori expedition to Toyama, Japan.
© The North Face

Watch the film:


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1 Apr

I was convinced at first that this was another April 1st joke... it seems so implausible!

1 Apr

Well played.

This isn't an April Fools!

1 Apr

Ha, ha. Nice try Natalie!

1 Apr
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