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Watch Sawanobori | Plus & Exclusive Interview With James Pearson

Sawanobori follows James Pearson and a team of climbers as they take on Japan's highest waterfall

“The idea of climbing waterfalls to most people must be completely crazy, and you know, a year ago I would’ve thought the same.”

I’m sat down with James Pearson, a North Face climber of twelve years now. We’re at the brand’s Regent Street Store in London for the launch of Sawanobori, a film capturing his epic quest to climb Shomyo, Japan’s highest waterfall.

Sawa is Japanese for stream, nobori means climb. Sawanbori means stream climbing. Thanks Google. It’s apparently a common pursuit in Japan.

“It’s a tradition that’s happened for hundreds of years,” James tells me. “It’s its own little sub-sport of climbing, in the same way that bouldering or trad climbing is in the UK and US. It even has its own space in any of the outdoor shops in Japan with special shoes and wetsuits.”

James with Yuji. Photo: The North Face

It wasn’t always a pursuit or activity though. It began as a means to an end – it had a practical purpose you could say, as James explains.

“Japan is covered in a lot of very dense vegetation, and so going way back in time, the easiest way to move between little villages and settlements was often to go via the rivers instead of trying to battle through the jungle when roads or trails didn’t exist. Fast forward so many hundreds of years and it became an activity, and instead of walking along the edges of streams people started to look to scramble the rocky sections. Then modern climbing gear comes along and suddenly there’s this new sport. It developed at a very similar time as modern climbing did in Japan – to some degree it was Japan’s version of mountaineering. The adventurous climbers out there who’ll often be mountaineering in the winter will be doing Sawanobori in the summer.”

So how did he come across this somewhat obscure Japanese sport? “I came upon it when my Japanese friend, Toru Nakajma, who’s one of the best all-round climbers that I know of, told me he’d been climbing waterfalls in the summer,” James tells me. “I thought, wow if he’s done it, this has got to be something cool. I put together a really quick and short proposal to The North Face as a throwaway idea and they loved it. So with probably some of my least preparation ever I ended up having one of my most incredible experiences.”

Toru and his compatriot Yuji Hirayama joined the expedition, along with James’s wife Caroline Ciavaldini who’s also an athlete with The North Face. James reveals to me that she was in fact pregnant during the trip.


James Pearson takes on the final climb. Photo: The North Face
Yuji Hirayama who appeared in the North Face's Land of Maybe last year. Photo: The North Face
A long way away from the edges of the Peak District. Photo: The North Face

The main challenge for the crew, according to James, was learning how to climb on the soaking, slippy, moss-covered rock. “Climbers normally complain when there’s a little bit of wet seeping down the cliff,” he says, “but this was wet rock covered with running water, sometimes it would be like climbing under a firehose, if not even worse than that. It was just a ridiculous experience but also one that was genuinely worthwhile for my future climbing It made us completely reassess what’s possible.”

“It was just a ridiculous experience but it was also genuinely worthwhile”

And how did the climbs on this trip compare to the edges of the Peak District, where James’s climbing career began.

“Jokes aside, sometimes when the Peak District stone can be a little soggy, it’s got nothing to do with it and everything to do with it. Sawanobori is a completely different climbing experience but at the same time it’s very much trad climbing; you’re fiddling in some gear for protection, you’re trying to stay calm in some very dangerous situations and spending a long time on relatively short routes, and really trying to manage the risks and figure out what’s acceptable to you.”

I have a final cheeky question. Does he think this film will have him treading the Oscars red carpet like fellow North Face climber Alex Honnold? “Somehow I don’t think so. I’m not sure the world is quite ready for a Sawanobori Oscar, but you never know,” he says with a chuckle.

I guess at only 13 minutes long, it’s fair to say Sawanobori probably doesn’t quite fit the Oscar’s criteria. But still, it’s 13 minutes of brilliant viewing, that’s for sure. Give it a watch if you haven’t already, I recommend it.

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Watch The North Face’s Land of Maybe

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