Friday, July 1, 2016

Chronicle of deaths foretold?

An attempt to mark the anniversary of the Somme leads to an alpine mystery

One grey autumn day, during what may soon be remembered as our belle époque, we made our way up to the Forno mountain hut in the Swiss Alps. The place, we learned, was a favourite haunt of Christian Klucker (1853-1928), an alpine guide active during the decades leading up to the First World War.

The Swiss Alpine Club's Forno Hut, about 1900 (lithograph: source unknown)

Klucker, a local man from the Val Fex, turned to guiding to eke out his living as a smallholder. Despite unpromising circumstances – he had to break off his apprenticeship as a wheelwright to take over the debt-ridden family farm – he became the most famous guide that Switzerland’s Engadine region has ever produced. No client in his charge was ever lost or injured.

On one occasion, he came close to tarnishing this exemplary record. And the incident, as related in Klucker’s memoirs, Adventures of an Alpine Guide, seems to raise an intriguing question – whether what starts on a mountain might, one day, end tragically in a completely different arena.

During the beautiful summer of 1886, Klucker met a tall Englishman at the home of the classical philologist, Johann Caviezel, in Sils Maria. “General Haig”, as Klucker calls him, was consulting the Swiss scholar about the Romansch language, the guide’s own mother tongue.

At the end of July, the Englishman asked Klucker if he would accompany him and another guide, Jacob Ufer, to Monte Disgrazia, a mountain on the Italian side of the border. The plan was to spend the night in a hut near the summit, after a long day’s climbing. At first, Klucker was hesitant:-

I could not help pointing out … that as a rule I did not undertake the longer and harder mountain climbs before knowing the capabilities of my companions, and that furthermore, I considered it rather risky to spend the night on the summit of the mountain in view of a possible sudden change in the weather during the night, and the fact that the difficulties of the descent all lay concentrated below the hut. I told him that such mousetraps at that altitude – where a human being might at any time become the plaything of the forces of nature – were not to my liking.

But the confident Englishman, playing “the role of a seasoned mountaineer”, overbore all the guide’s objections. Reluctantly, Klucker gave his consent. On August 4, the party set out over the Forno Glacier, heading for a crossing on the Swiss-Italian border. On the frontier summit, Klucker pointed out the gathering thunderclouds, but was laughed at for his pains. The predicted storm overtook them during their descent into Italy. Nevertheless, they decided to continue.

The ascent over the Piola Glacier in slushy afternoon snow was “very unpleasant”. What concerned Klucker more was the Englishman was demanding halts more and more frequently. The guide suggested that it might be wiser to descend to the Cecilia Hut and try for the Disgrazia on the following day. The weather was getting worse too. But the Englishman wilfully insisted on continuing the ascent. It was already clear to Klucker that they couldn’t now hope to reach the Disgrazia hut by daylight.

As night started to fall, with the party still far below the hut, the Englishman collapsed in the snow, “as if struck by a deadly bomb”. Klucker was at his side at once, and was able to assure himself that his client was alive, albeit with a very rapid pulse. It was obvious, however, that he would not be in marching condition for hours to come and that, if a snowstorm should set in, “the dread catastrophe would not be long delayed”.

Klucker needed to act fast – leaving his colleague to look after their client, he climbed rapidly up a snow ridge to the hut, where he snatched up two blankets and the cooker. Harried by snow showers, he then climbed carefully back down to his companions. Putting up one blanket as a makeshift shelter, the guides lit the spirit cooker and brewed up “a kind of mulled wine” that they forced down their patient’s throat. Then they wrapped him in all his spare clothing and the other blanket, anchoring the whole package to a rock spike with their rope.

Around one in the morning, Klucker was awakened by a peculiar and unintelligible muttering:

I asked my colleague where the sound came from, what was the trouble, and whether he was not feeling well. To which he replied in a tearful voice that ·he was saying his Paternoster. And then he began to blubber like a schoolboy with his ears boxed, lamenting that he should never see his dear wife and children again, because we were certainly doomed, and our Herr already near breathing his last. This behaviour of my colleague annoyed me intensely. I gave him to understand that although unmarried, I also had poor relatives to support, but that my trust in God and myself was such that I did not regard our situation as so desperate as he did, and that I preferred to leave the blubbering to schoolboys. Finally, I suggested that he was demanding of the Madonnas and Saints far too great a feat of strength, if he expected them to help us unhurt down the walls of the Disgrazia.

Only after upbraiding Jacob Ufer did Klucker notice that they were both covered with drifted snow and his boots had frozen hard as flint. Ufer remembered at this point that a full bottle of cognac had been packed up with their provisions. “The deuce there is,” said Klucker, “That’ll make us a fine grog.” The result worked wonders: their client too swallowed the hot drink with avidity.

At daybreak, the guides prepared a fresh portion of grog and made ready for the descent. The young officer was unwrapped from his covers, and Ufer led the way downwards, clearing snow from the previous day’s steps. The officer followed, crawling backwards, while Klucker brought up the rear. It took three hours to reach the foot of the Disgrazia. Then they crossed a pass back into Switzerland, reaching the village of Chiesa late in the evening. On the following day, they returned to Maloja, their starting point.

When the time came to part, the Englishman turned to Klucker and said, “You were right: one should not set out on difficult undertakings with tourists whose capabilities are unknown.”

Some thirty years later – in fact, exactly a century before the date of this blog post, on July 1, 1916 – more than 100,000 British infantrymen left their trenches and advanced into in what became known as the Battle of the Somme. Within hours, 60,000 had been killed or wounded.

Although the offensive would attain few or none of its objectives, it was prolonged until winter, as if in a spirit of “transcendent stubbornness”. In the end, one million European soldiers died during this single campaign. The architect of the catastrophe was Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

By all contemporary accounts, Haig was well suited to his appointment as Winston Churchill, for one, thought highly of him: “He had obtained every qualification, gained every experience and served in every appointment requisite for the General Command … The esteem of his military colleagues found a healthy counterpart in his own self-confidence….”

His own self-confidence! The parallels with Klucker’s account are compelling, almost irresistible: the guide’s client overestimating his capabilities on a mountain, the same character traits resulting years later in a military disaster of epic proportions.

Alas, a compelling thesis is not the same as a conclusive one. In 1886, the real Douglas Haig had barely joined the Army. He was decades away from his promotion to a general’s rank. And history relates that he was playing polo in America during the August of the Disgrazia incident – a near-perfect alibi – although he did visit the Engadine twenty years later, to recuperate from an illness.

So who was Klucker’s “General Haig”? Instead of an anecdote that sheds a dramatic and ominous light on the psyche of a famous military leader – one with a fateful connection to today’s date – we seem to have stumbled on a small-scale alpine mystery.


Christian Klucker, Adventures of an Alpine Guide, translated from the third German edition by Erwin and Pleasaunce von Gaisberg. (Black-and-white images are from this book)

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General, HistoryNet.

The Pre-War Life and Military Career of Douglas Haig, PhD thesis by Gerard de Groot, Edinburgh 1983.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Images and ink (28)

Image: View of Amakazari-yama, Sosaku woodprint, artist unknown

Ink: On Amakazari-yama, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

A mountain should leave an impression on one’s heart, somebody has said. Certainly, my memories of a mountain are all the deeper if it has to be attempted several times, rather than succumbing at first nod. For me, Amakazari is that kind of mountain.

An Echigo man later told us that, according to one old hunter, the stone buddhas on its summit were carved by no less a personage than Monk Rakan, who carried them laboriously up the mountain on his own shoulders. If mountains do have a front and a back, then the front side of Amakazari belongs to Echigo.

As for the origin of the name, an old woman whom we fell in with on the way to Otari hot springs called the mountain “Amakasan”. I have pondered if there is a link between Amakazari and Amakasan, but cannot find one. On Aō Tōkei’s map of Echigo, published in the Bunsei era (1818-1829), the mountain appears as Amafushi-yama. Whether this may be a mistake for Amakazari or if it is the mountain’s true name, I cannot fathom. But the question is moot. For Amakazari is a name full of character and elegance.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Thoughts from a bivouac ledge

Excerpt from the novella Bergfahrt by Ludwig Pohl, translated as Ascent by Donna Stonecipher:

The most important matter, the most difficult activity, of this night, was, as already mentioned, the fight against sleep. (For if he had fallen asleep, either he would never have reawakened or he would have awakened in such a state as to make any further action impossible.) And out of this endless struggle he emerged a victor, mostly. For there were tiny moments in which he did fall into a kind of half-sleep; no, however small the moments were, it was real sleep; for he dreamed. Such a dream lasted perhaps only seconds, and then his hard will battered him again from outside.

Thus he suddenly found himself in a warm, familiar chamber, remembering with sympathetic astonishment how he had just fancied himself to be exposed, freezing to the marrow on a narrow strip in a monstrous cliff wall; with the impenetrable blacks of the depths, with cliffs and glaciers jutting into the zenith of the heavens, as if he were caught in the throat of an unimaginably large animal, whose teeth were the towers and corner pillars; the dark abyss was its gullet, the stars its eyes.

And then there were the other moments, that were no longer dreams but a mix of waking and dreaming, exactly what one calls a hallucination. In such a moment he had suddenly found the definitive answer to the often asked question: "Why climb a mountain?"

For all of the usual answers were insufficient. For one's health? But there must certainly be other, and less costly, means for that. For the height? But what about funicular railways, aeroplanes? Because it's an especially substantial kind of sport, which, even if only in narrow circles, earns you a particular degree of kudos from an elite: that was better, but also insufficient. Now, this was it:

To escape from prison.

... And now?


Bergfahrt by Ludwig Pohl, translated as Ascent by Donna Stonecipher, Black Square Editions, 2012.

Image: "Das Biwak" ("The bivouac"), oil painting by Maurice Gallay in the collection of the Swiss Alpine Club Museum, Berne © - Photo Boissonnas, Geneva

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Images and ink (27)

Image: View of Kita-dake and Ai-no-take, woodprint, by Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950)

Ink: On Ai-no-take, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

While Kita-dake and Nōtori form well-disciplined peaks, Ai-no-take sprawls limitlessly like some great oaf. With its great bulk, Ai-no-take is well qualified to be the junction peak between the Shirane mountains and the Akaishi range. Three great rivers rise in this enormous massif, the Mibugawa, the Hayakawa, and the Oikawa. Its contours may be gentle and its ridges broad enough to suggest easy strolling terrain, but once the mist comes down, the way becomes hard to find. This is not a mountain that lets one take liberties.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Forthright exchange

From an interview with legendary Polish climber Voytek Kurtyka in Alpinist 43

“I'm really into people who are sensitive to beauty. To me, beauty is the door to another world. Don’t ask what world, because it will f*** up the whole conversation.”

(Quoted from The View from the Wall, interview by Zbyszek Skierski)

From the Letters page in Alpinist 48

A More Delicate Vocabulary

Like Clay G. (Letters, Alpinist 45), I was shocked by the language in Alpinist 43. In my experience, climbers are never so crude. Even in critical situations, they maintain decorum. For example, recently my friend Leonard Forthwith was leading me up Yosemite's famous Nightmare Crack. Encountering unexpected difficulties, he exclaimed, "Bosley, I fear I am about to topple over. Kindly guard the rope for me." I did so, although in fact Leonard regained his balance.

I offer you some future guidelines for propriety:

Crevasse fall: "Dear me, it is chilly down here."
Stove won't start: "How unfortunate. But we can still suck icicles."
Rappel rope doesn't reach: "This is surely a dilemma. Have you some extra Jumars?"
Dropped gear rack: "No doubt this was meant to be."
Forced to bivouac on an icy ledge: "Dawn is a mere twelve hours away."

I am certain that Voytek Kurtyka's regrettable adjective on Page 68 was a mistranslation of the original Polish. 

 Bosley Sidwell, Pokhara, Nepal

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

But who was first?

Mountain ascents can be traced to the dawn of Japanese history if not beyond

A luminary of the American Alpine Club recently got in touch to enquire if there is any evidence of "prehistoric" first ascents in Japan. Another AAC member, no less than Royal Robbins, once said that every first ascent is a creation, in the same sense as a painting or a song. That’s why alpine historians and guidebook writers alike take great pains to establish who was first on a particular mountain or route.

Taicho Daishi: the first high-altitude monk?

Records of mountaineering creativity go back a long way in Japan, thanks to the country’s great relief and a tradition of historical writing that dates back to the eighth century. According to the Hyakumeizan author, Mt Fuji was first climbed as early as the year 633, by the mountain mystic En no Ozunu, making this the highest peak in the world to have been scaled at that time.

Alas, the claim needs to be treated with a pinch of salt. Not only is En no Ozunu as much a semi-legendary as a historical figure but, in some accounts, he is said to have skimmed magically up the mountain every night. Perhaps he did it for the frequent flyer miles.

Summit shrine on Hakusan
In the Hakusan chapter of his most famous book, Fukada Kyūya puts forward a more credible early ascent. When the 2,702-metre volcano was opened in the first year of Yōrō (717) by the monk Taichō, it became the first high mountain in Japan to be climbed for religious ends, he says. Again, though, caution is in order. As Fukada grew up in its shadow, he would have lent a partial ear to any claims of priority on Hakusan’s behalf.

And sceptics might question if Taichō made his ascent at all. A modern scholar warns that “much of the story of Taicho's career is certainly fiction, yet enough details of his life correspond to information in other, more reliable sources to conclude that certain aspects are in all likelihood true”. Whether Taichō’s ascent of Hakusan is documented by one of those more reliable sources is a question that will have to be left for another time.

Moreover, there are rival claimants to the title of first Japanese ascent for religious ends. According to Wolfram Manzenreiter, Iide-san (2,105 metres) was opened in the second year of Hakuchi (651), by the monk Chitsū. However, in the relevant chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada makes no mention of Chitsū. Instead, he quotes from a shrine "testimonial" to the effect that the mountain was first climbed by none other than En no Ozunu – perhaps using up all those air miles.

Jizo figure on Iide-san (Wikipedia)
What can’t be contested is that, from the earliest historical times, monks roamed far and wide among Japan’s high mountains. Kūkai’s account of Monk Shōdō’s ascent of Nantai (2,484 metres) in 782 has the ring of real-life experience. In an inspired comparison, Fukada Kyūya likened the ageing monk’s feelings of joy and grief, when he reached the summit fifteen years after his first attempt, to those of the Himalayan pioneer H W Tilman atop Nanda Devi in 1936.

Less accessible mountains waited longer for first ascents. Situated far from the capital and wracked by violent eruptions through the Jōgan era (859–878), Mt Fuji probably kept all its suitors at bay until the eleventh century. Remoter still, the 3,000-metre peaks of central Honshū – later to be rebranded as the Japan Alps – remained outside the ken of literate folk until feudal times. The first recorded ascent of Yari-ga-take (3,180 metres), again by a monk, took place as late as 1828.

Proof of priority: the sword and staff from Tsurugi-dake
The monks got everywhere, though, leaving few or no first ascents for modern alpinists to claim, at least on Honshū. When, in July 1907, a party of army surveyors reached the summit of Tsurugi, the most rugged peak in the Japan Northern Alps, it turned out that they were not the first to visit what they had assumed to be an untrodden peak. In fact, the mountain had been climbed long before, as the surveyors realised when they discovered on the summit a spearhead and the tip of a priest's staff.

The relics on Tsurugi do raise an interesting question. Could the origins of mountain religion and mountain ascents be traced back even further, beyond the dawn of history? After all, some of Japan’s mountains have clearly been sacred from ancient times. For instance, burial mounds at the foot of Mt Miwa in Nara Prefecture show that the hill was revered for centuries before writing reached Japan. But what exactly the mountain stood for must remain for ever obscure.

Indeed, the obscurity of ancient traditions lies like a cloud over Mt Miwa and other sacred peaks. Because they left no records, we will never know what people of the pre-Asuka periods believed about mountains, and whether they climbed them. Is that what Princess Nukata was hinting at in the lines – possibly Japan’s oldest set of mountain verses – that the seventh-century poet and priestess contributed to the Manyōshū, Japan’s earliest poetic anthology?

O sweet-wine
Miwa Mountain
Until blue-earth
Nara Mountain's mountain crest
Should come between
And you be hidden in behind,
Until road-bendings
Should pile back upon themselves,
To the very end
I would have kept you:
O my mountain,
What right
Have heartless clouds to cover you?


Do you dare to hide
Miwa Mountain in this way?
At least you, O clouds,
Should have greater heart than that:
What right have you to cover it?

(translated by Edwin Cranston)


Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Mikael Adolphson, Edward Kamens, Stacie Matsumoto, Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries

Wolfram Manzenreiter, Die soziale Konstruktion des japanischen Alpinismus: Kultur, Ideologie und Sport im modernen Bergsteigen, Vienna, 2000

Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume One: The Gem Glistening Cup, Stanford University Press, 1993

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Images and ink (26)

Image: View of Yari-ga-take, oil painting, by Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950)

Ink: On Yari-ga-take, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Fuji and Yari are the type mountains of Japan. A pure pyramidal form rising ineffably from its base defines the Fuji type; a sky-piercing spire the Yari type. And in deference to this convention, every province can boast mountains with "-Fuji" or "-Yari" tacked onto their names. 

 Whenever we go to the mountains, we are apt to hear a jubilant voice exclaim "Ah, there's Fuji!" or "Ah, there's Yari!". Recognized at a glance, that distinctive spire is hard to miss. The sharp wedge of its summit stays the same from any viewpoint, a lonely spire pointing into the sky.