Young, Strong, and Pushing Grades: A Deeper Look at 13-Year-Old Mishka Ishi’s Ascent of Byaku-dou (V15)

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Mishka Ishi working the first part of Byaku-dou (V15), which was first climbed by Dai Koyamada in 2003. 

Mishka Ishi working the first part of Byaku-dou (V15), which was first climbed by Dai Koyamada in 2003. 

[Ed. Miska Ishi’s responses have been translated from Japanese to English courtesy of Mei Nagasako.]

“My moment came all of a sudden,” Japanese climber Mishka Ishi says of her May 3 ascent of Dai Koyamada’s 20-plus move roof problem Byaku-dou, (V15) at Mt. Horai, about an hour outside of Tokyo. “One day the temperature dropped down a little bit and I felt that it was cold enough to give it an attempt. I just jumped on the problem and a few minutes later I found myself screaming on top of the boulder.” At thirteen years old, Ishi is now the youngest person in the world to send V15 and only the third woman to have climbed the grade.

In the 19 years since Fred Nicole, then 31, established the first V15, Dreamtime in Cresciano Switzerland, younger and younger climbers have been climbing the grade. In 2016, at 14 years old, Ashima Shiraishi became the youngest climber and the first woman to climb V15 when she made the second ascent of Dai Koymado’s Horizon at Mt. Hiei, Japan. The following August, after her fifteenth birthday, Shiraishi sent Sleepy Rave (V15) in the Hollow Mountain Cave in the Grampians of Australia. In the time between Shiraishi’s and Ishi’s historic V15 sends, only one other women has climbed V15. In May of 2018, Kaddi Lehmann, who was 18 at the time, became the second woman to climb a V15 problem with her ascent of Kryptos in Balsthal, Switzerland.

To become both the youngest climber and one of the few women to send V15 takes a special kind of drive and a deep love for climbing. Ishi has both of these traits. “I like climbing that’s enjoyable, but I become more addicted to this sport when I find something I can’t do,” she told Climbing. “It takes so much energy to push myself beyond my limits and that makes me try hard.” Ishi was always drawn to climbing. As a child she would clamber up buildings, trees, and anything else she could find. When she was six years old she discovered rock climbing on a trip to Mitake, a bouldering area near Tokyo. She immediately asked her mom, a non-climber, to take her back the very next day. Rock climbing has been an integral part of Ishi’s life ever since.

Ishi climbing as a child. 

Ishi climbing as a child. 

“I am always curious about what kind of view I will get to see when I get to the top of a boulder,” Ishi explained. “When I challenge myself it makes me feel like I’m on an adventure to open the door to a new world of climbing.” For her, solving boulder problems goes beyond beta, beyond even the thrill in being able to prove one’s own abilities through solving the problem. Instead this process is a journey upon which she embarks. Standing on the top of the boulder is the end of this journey. Ishi says that imagining getting to this destination “Makes me excited and makes me want to try hard.”

Both a sense of adventure and unwavering persistence were critical factors for Ishi’s success on Byaku-dou. In 2003, Dai Koyamada made the first ascent of the 22 move Byaku-dou, believing it could be as difficult as V16. In 2015, Motochika Nagao repeated Byaku-dou and confirmed its V15 grade. This boulder problem traverses a 40-60 degree overhanging roof and can be broken into two sections. The first V13 section involves tricky, technical movement, and is followed by a second V12 section that requires a dyno at the crux. After sending Bachelorette (V13) in February 2018, another roof climb that shares the redpoint crux of Byaku-dou, Ishi decided to work on the harder line. She often disregards climbs’ difficulties, preferring to work on what she thinks are the ”coolest” problems, the ones that she says, “Make me want to get to the top.” Before Byaku-dou, Ishi climbed four V13s, including Bachelorette, and Dai Koyamada’s Nyu-Metsu (V14).

A sense of adventure is something that Ishi brings to every climb.

A sense of adventure is something that Ishi brings to every climb.

The way that Ishi pushes herself has caught the attention of her fellow climbers. “She climbs outside and tries super hard problems not because anyone lets her but because she wants to. She always says ‘I want to try,’” says her climbing partner Jun Shibanuma, who has climbed V15 himself with a 2018 ascent of Babel (V15) in the Shiobara area of Japan. Shibanuma met Ishi when she was nine and had already started climbing outside. Her proclivity for rock impressed Shibanuma, who said, “In Japan there are so many strong youth climbers in the competition scene, but few engaged in outside climbing.”

Ishi spent approximately 20 days working on Byaku-dou over the course of the 2018 and 2019 seasons. During the first season her height of about 4 feet 9 inches meant that she couldn’t use the same footholds as Koyamada and Nagao. She also couldn’t reach a critical toe hook needed to get through the first crux. After numerous efforts, Ishi found a small, triangular shaped hold that she could use instead of the toe hook. However, the minute size of this foot made it hard to hit. On her best effort, Ishi moved through this first crux and into the redpoint crux. She made a huge dyno off a mono-pocket and started to cruise to the finish but slipped off. It was late in the season, which meant heats, bugs, and rain. The muggy conditions coupled with the fact that Ishi had a heavy school workload at the time lead to the decision that this last, almost successful attempt at Byaku-dou would be the final one of 2018. She left the problem happy and excited to return. Byaku-dou was possible for her.

When Ishi finally returned to Byaku-dou in January 2019 she expected it to be easier than it had been before. She had grown taller, now measuring just over 5 feet, and hoped that added height would make sending easier. Her extra length had the opposite effect though. “I hopped on the crux, but the beta I had was now too scrunchy for me and didn’t work,” she said. “It was shocking; I was back to the start of finding all the different sequences again. The good foot holds that people use were still a little bit too far for me even after getting taller.”

“This was probably the hardest moment that I dealt with while projecting Byaku-dou,” Ishi says, “It was of course physically hard because my fingers hurt from crimping so hard, but not being able to do all the moves that I spent so much time figuring out was much harder to handle. The top of Byaku-dou looked further than before.”

Ishi demonstrating what try-hard looks like. 

Ishi demonstrating what try-hard looks like. 

Ishi’s resolve kicked in and she kept working the problem despite the difficulties of a growing body. After receiving some beta from Ryuichi Murai, another Japanese climber who has sent many V15s, she came close to her previous highpoint. However, the temps started to rise. She and her mom would show up at the boulder at 4:30 a.m., so that Ishi could project before the heat of the day had set in around 8 a.m. They would then wait until dark so that she could get a few more attempts in before heading home. The tenacity that Ishi demonstrated while projecting Byaku-dou is consistent with her personality. “She never gives up,” says Shibanuma, “She keeps thinking of solutions for sending problems, and find her own moves.”

Though Ishi worked a gym problem that simulated the crux, most of her physical training involved simply working the crux move. The largest part of her training was mental though. “The most important thing was my mind set,” says Ishi. “I was always imagining myself climbing on Byaku-dou.”

Now that Ishi has sent she isn’t sure what she will do next. “I don’t have any specific goals. I am not aiming to send high-graded problems, I want to climb the lines that make me want to get to the top,” she says. Ishi is also interested in learning other disciplines of climbing besides bouldering, including trad and multi-pitch. Wherever Ishi’s path takes her one thing is certain though: she’s worth keeping an eye on.