Climbing a snow ridge on a mountain that rises far above its altitude
As its name suggests, Tsurugi has all the sharpness and rigour of a sword .... Defended by its iron citadels and snowy moats, the summit was long held to be inaccessible. (From Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 48, by Fukada Kyuya)
May 2, 9pm, Hiyoshi: a weatherbeaten Subaru is parked athwart the station entrance. This is Tokyo, so nobody gives us strange looks as we clamp four pairs of skis atop Yamada-san’s car. We cram four expedition-sized packs into the back and drive off into the warm evening. When the destination is Tsurugi, it’s good to be prepared.
May 3, 5am, Ogisawa: awake from a bivouac at the tunnel bus terminal to find heavy flakes of snow falling. This is no weather for heading into the avalanche arcade of the Kurobe valley, so we drive down to Ohmachi, the big town in Shinano. The ‘fester’ (an off-day in the mountains) was invented in Scotland, but it has been refined to perfection here.
We soak and sleep away the day at the municipal onsen, then return to Ogisawa. There we pitch our tents in the tunnel system; no point in braving the outdoors until we actually have to.
May 4, 6am, below Kurobe No.4 Dam: in the shadow of the great concrete barrier, we snap Koflach boots into the ski-bindings and strain to lift our packs. Each is now heavier by the weight of a two-litre keg of Kirin beer. Our patron from Gunma, who holds a degree in brewing, doesn’t believe in thirst. Anyway, this is a Golden Week ‘gasshuku’ or training camp. It’s all about suffering. And drinking, of course.
10am, en route: we’re suffering: the slope is too steep to ski up, so we’re now carrying the skis on the packs, or – déclassé, I know – trailing them on a lanyard. The sun is starting to soften the snow, so that we plunge deeper with every step.
Of course, we could avoid this effort by taking the cable car up to the top of Tateyama, then skiing more or less downhill into the Tsurugi valley. But then we wouldn’t suffer enough.
3pm: with the skis sinking grievously into the late-afternoon mush, we top out on Hashigo-nokkoshi. Suddenly, Tsurugi fixes us with his gaze – that might seem a strange way to put it, but such is the spell that this mountain casts. Frowning down like a bouncer barring the way to a night club, the mountain plants three buttresses, a massive knuckle, right in front of us. Do we feel lucky? Well, do we?
5pm: Tsurugi-sawa is deep in evening shadow as we pitch our tents. We’ve chosen a site tucked defensively under a buttress, in case there’s a repeat of yesterday’s snowfall. Huge avalanche tracks bear witness to the hazard. Then, tent by tent, we light the stoves and start cooking, crouched in the doorways to evade the growing chill. While we eat, the ridge above us congeals into a featureless but menacing silhouette. We’re too tired to care: we’ll deal with it tomorrow.
May 5, 5am: tomorrow is announced by the blittering of electronic alarm watches. As the grey half-light steals into the valley, we’re crunching our way over hard-frozen snow towards a shadowy indentation in the buttress. Our patron knows the way: like most of Japan’s Himalayan veterans, he learned his trade on Tsurugi. Indeed, the ridge we’re heading for helped to shape one of Japan’s Himalayan pioneers.
Look in the authoritative Nihon Tozan Taikei (Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains), and you’ll read that the first ascent of Genjiro One (Ridge) was made by Imanishi Kinji on July 9, 1925 – though Imanishi records the year as 1926. Either way, Imanishi was in his early student years at Kyoto University. He’d chosen the College of Agriculture rather than the more prestigious science school, so that he’d have more time for climbing. Mountains and natural history were his twin passions.
It should be no surprise to find Imanishi’s name in the guidebook. As the scion of a silk-weaving family from Kyoto’s Nishijin district, famous for its fine brocades, he must have had a good eye for a line. Genjiro is the most logical route to the top of Tsurugi from this side, a ridge that vaults in two aery bounds from valley floor to summit.
Right now, though, an ugly-looking wall blocks the magic line and we rope up in anticipation. On a closer look, the obstacle isn’t so difficult: ledges lead up to what the guidebook describes as a 草付き(grassy) zone, where stunted birch trees can be grabbed for support. Meanwhile the haimatsu affords secure footing for our crampons, so that the scent of pine wafts up as we pass.
“Don’t fall off here,” warns Rob, as he disappears over the top of the wall. Soon I see why: a short but knife-edged section of ridge awaits. When walking a tight-rope, it’s best to concentrate on keeping everything as normal as possible. So I try to channel a stroll along Ginza 4-chome as we inch our way over the aery gulf. When I dare to look up, Rob is already tackling a steep snow tower.
Himalayan-style, we’re now pausing every few metres, though it’s the deep snow, not the altitude that slows us. The scale of this ridge starts to impress: “The pure white of the snow glitters amid those towering pinnacles to create the most emphatically alpine scenery in all Japan,” says Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan. We haven’t read him, but we wouldn’t disagree.
When Imanishi Kinji came this way, Japan’s golden age of mountain exploration was over. By then, the Japan Alps were mapped, and all the major summits climbed. Now the game was to find “variation routes” via more difficult ridges or faces. Some had even bigger ideas. Having honed his rock-climbing on Tsurugi, Yuko Maki made the first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi Ridge in 1921, a feat that fired the imagination of Japan’s mountaineering activists.
Imanishi set his sights still higher. A few years after his Genjiro ascent, he founded the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto with the aim of tackling Himalayan peaks. The path was strewn with obstacles: the AACK’s plans for Sikkim and K2 were scuppered by Japan’s international isolation. So, instead of the Himalaya, the AACK cut its teeth on expeditions to Karafuto (1932), the ferociously cold winter mountains of northern Korea (1934), Inner Mongolia (1938), and Micronesia (1941).
World events also forced Imanishi (left) to keep re-inventing his academic career. He started out as an entomologist, before morphing into a pioneer ecologist, ethnographer and, finally, primatologist. He got his Kyoto University professorship at the age of 57. Meanwhile, he held fast to his Himalayan ambitions. In 1952, he was finally able to take a reconnaissance party to Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain. This paved the way for the successful Japanese summit expedition of 1956, headed by none other than Yuko Maki.
One shouldn’t push these Himalayan associations too far. Excellent training for the greater ranges though Tsurugi may be, nobody suffers from altitude sickness here. Alas, immunity is not so easily guaranteed from that other mountain affliction, the Foaming Tankard Syndrome. When an acute case of FTS hits us on the slopes of Genjiro’s second tower, we can soon think of nothing but those two-litre kegs of beer cooling in the snows of base camp. Surely the summit cannot be far?
It can. Topping out on the second tower, we see the ridge fall away in front of us. A precipitous gap separates us from the main body of the mountain and, by extension, from our beer. Now what? Had we read Imanishi, we would have learned that “downclimbing the second tower is too difficult; abseil necessary”. We soon come to that conclusion ourselves, helped by some urgent gesticulations from Yamada-san, who is already on the far side of the gap.
Morning gives way to afternoon while we’re backing delicately down to the stance – the usual rusty pitons and faded slings – and faffing about with the rope. We only notice that the sun has moved on after we’ve touched down on the snow 20 metres below the tower. At last, the way to the summit (and the kegs) is open.
The view opens out as we move higher. To right and left, we’re flanked by the Chojiro and Heizo snow gullies, named for mountain guides of the golden age. Genjiro-one was also named after a guide, in this case Saeki Genjiro, who built the first hut in Tsurugi-sawa. It is said that Imanishi named the ridge for Saeki when he learned that the guide had found a way up the ridge a year or two before his own ascent.
Later in the afternoon than Imanishi, we reach the summit. Today being the Boys’ Festival, somebody has planted a pair of carp streamers that flutter in the breeze. Behind us, a miniaturised Fuji lifts its head over intervening ranges. Clouds drift over lesser ridges far below. Westwards we see nothing but blue air; our mountain towers above all. Tsurugi, the map says, is just 2,998 metres high. Maps can be very misleading.
This post is too long already to include a riff on how science and mountaineering go together. But anybody who wants to research that topic should take a look at the extraordinary life of Imanishi Kinji. The article by Matsuzawa and McGrew (link below) covers both his scholarly and his mountaineering careers, while the second article, by Frans de Waal, describes how Imanishi's thinking continues to be influential today.
Imanishi Kinji and 60 years of Japanese primatology, article by Tetsuro Matsuzawa and William McGrew
Without walls: article about Imanishi Kinji by Frans de Waal (New Scientist)