Monday, August 8, 2016

The river is never the same (1)

How two sawa-nauts learned respect for the Kurobe

The weather wasn’t to blame: the forenoon sun, roaring down from a cloudless sky, was bleaching all colour from the landscape. Nor was our pace; yomping under ferry-weight packs, we’d easily make the boat across the lake. If the two of us weren’t fit enough for the Kurobe River, we never would be. Yet still something was bothering me.



We’d left Shinjuku at 2am to start the five-hour run to the Northern Alps, the weatherbeaten Subaru lurching out into Kabuki-chō’s rush hour. Caspar had come straight from a bar: strictly business, he explained. I wasn’t afraid that lack of sleep would affect him – a few months back, he’d helmed a yacht through a particularly knockabout iteration of the Sydney-Hobart race. No, it was more the attitude that unsettled. I mean, if the Kurobe River and the Southern Ocean have one thing in common, it’s that nobody disses them.

On the once-a-day boat across the lake, we were the only passengers. This too gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, too much company might diminish the majesty of the wild Upper Corridor, the river gorge through the corrugated heart of Japan’s Northern Alps. On the other, if anything happened, the nearest hut was a day away and the mountains would muffle any bleating from radios or phones – not that we were carrying either. Time, though, was pressing – we were both due to leave Japan soon, and this was our last chance to explore the great river.



Two hours later, we’d gone as far as paths would take us. From here, it was us and the river. We swung our packs onto the river-smoothed gravel and assumed the guise of sawa-nauts; in my case, UV-faded polypro mountaineering clothes hiding a sawn-off wetsuit; a natty banana-hued ensemble for Caspar. Felt-soled sawa shoes replaced hiking boots. We put on climbing harnesses too, but no helmets – they drag your head down when filled with water.

The Upper Corridor of the Kurobe River lures you in gently. Like the immaculately raked approach to a shrine, an expanse of white cobbles leads towards the layered cliffs of Kuro-pinga. We walked to its end and crossed the river in water that was barely knee-deep. Perhaps this would be easy.

Soon we were disabused. Dry land ran out in the cliff’s shadow, where the river bends sharply and pinches down into a gorge. The river had to be crossed again, this time above a cheese-grater set of rapids that promised to punish any slip-up. Level with us, the river slid by like a green slab of steel on some monstrous high-speed production line. In its headlong drive towards the Japan Sea, the Kurobe didn’t seem to leave much scope for negotiating a crossing.

I doffed my pack again, uncoiled the dayglow pink rope, and tied it unhastily into my harness loop. To tell the truth, I wasn’t in a hurry to try conclusions with this river. When Caspar had taken up what I hoped was a firm stance behind a boulder, I waded into the racing green waves, eyes fixed on the far bank to avoid disorientation, and launched myself across the channel, like a human rescue rocket. As the rope twanged taut, dragging me off my footing, a bowshock of green water smacked me in the face.


Struggling to my feet and wiping the water from my eyes, I found myself in the shallows, back where I’d started. A second try, and again the river swept me contemptuously aside. Like I said, nobody disses the Kurobe, but the sentiment isn’t necessarily reciprocated. Yet we had to get across if we wanted to reach our bivvy site before nightfall.

Something different was needed. Forget the rescue rocket; instead, I would angle myself like a paravane, getting the current to swing me across the channel. Warning Caspar, I walked into the river again. When the green firehose hit, I felt the rope stretch, as if soaking up the shock of a climbing fall – it thrummed with the strain – but the ploy worked. Staggering up the opposite bank, the river cascading from my gear, I set about finding a belay.

Now it was Caspar’s turn for the laundromat. As he lurched to his feet at the end of the rope, water sluicing from all freeing ports, I saw respect in the eyes of a man who had faced down the yacht-smashing waves of the Southern Ocean. “You know,” he said, after he'd sufficiently recovered himself, “when you kited yourself across the river, the rope was slowly dragging me over the boulder. The friction of my kneepads was the only thing still holding us.” It was my turn to be thoughtful.

(To be continued)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Meizan from Hell

On volcanoes and the wave clouds of Venus

Project Hyakumeizan was charmed to see that the savants from the European Space Agency have discovered “gravity waves” above the mountains of Venus. Gravity waves are what we ordinary folk call “wave clouds”. Island peaks such as Mt Fuji are virtuosos at producing them.

Maat Mons, the highest volcano on Venus
Image, courtesy David P Anderson, Southern Methodist University 

Alas, the wave clouds of Venus couldn’t be seen directly. Instead, they were detected as a bunching-up of the atmosphere’s water vapour over the Aphrodite Terra, a four and a half kilometre-high band of high mountains around the planet’s midriff.

Lording it over the Aphrodite mountains, although standing somewhat aloof from them, is the highest volcano on Venus, which rises some eight kilometres above the surrounding desert – if that is the right word for an infernal plain where the heat would melt lead and the sulphuric smog presses down heavily enough to crush the average submarine.

Although humans are unlikely to visit this summit soon, they have already named it Ma’at Mons, after an Egyptian goddess of the underworld. And when meizanologists get round to selecting the One Hundred Mountains of the Solar System, this “Venus-Fuji” will surely make the front rank of candidates.

Wave clouds over the one and only original Mt Fuji
Those gravity waves, though. How will we ever know if they stack up, aesthetically, against the original Mt Fuji’s masterly cadenzas of cloud? Pending the time when ESA can scrape together the funds for another Venus spacecraft – regrettably, they let their last one burn up in the planet’s upper atmosphere – perhaps they could rustle up a computer simulation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Meizanology: towards a definition

Heck, the word keeps popping up on this blog – and even on some others. It might be time for a formal definition, just in case the folk from the Oxford dictionary or Webster’s happen by. So here goes:-

Meizanology /ˌmeɪzəˈnɒlədʒi; NAmE -ˈnɑːlə-/ singular noun: the study of the meaning and cultural significance of mountains.

DERIVATIVES: meizanological (adjective), meizanologist (noun), a harmless drudge who studies the meaning and cultural significance of mountains.

ORIGIN: early 21st century, from Japanese meizan (名山), a mountain of note, and back formation -ology from the Greek suffix -λογια (-logia), speaking, from λεγειν (legein), "to speak".


Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Love of mountains"

Excerpt from the short story "Love of mountains" by Uno Kōji

The Amasake tea house, Hakone, woodprint by Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915)
And yet, what strange things mountains are. Why do they seem to possess such charm, not only for those born in villages surrounded by mountains, but even for people like myself, born and raised in a grimy city? And I believe that I am no exception, either.

Who do you think could walk, on a clear autumn or winter day, in the Yamanote district of Tokyo without stopping and gazing with astonishment at the Chichibu and Nikkō mountain ranges or at the purple slopes of Mount Fuji and Mount Hakone emerging suddenly between the houses and the flatlands? Few indeed!

According to a certain European scholar whom I read recently, this feeling stems from the intimacy with mountains that our primitive ancestors knew and passed down to us through the subconscious from generation to generation.Seen in this light, you see, I do not mislead you gentlemen when I say that the pleasure of looking at the snow-clad mountains across the lake from the western window in the inn was akin to the nostalgia of seeing one's home village again after a long absence.

Later, I was surprised to learn that those mountains, which seemed to be at least ten thousand feet high, were, next to Mount Fuji, the highest mountains I had ever seen.

Reference

“Love of mountains” (Yamagoi) by Uno Kōji, in Love of Mountains: two stories by Uno Kōji, translated by Elaine Gerbert, University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

“I noted the situation was serious”

Investigating the literature of near-death experiences in the mountains

“Up and About”, Doug Scott’s recently published autobiography, shows that the Himalayan veteran still wields a deft pen. Within the first pages, there’s also more than a hint at why so few of Scott’s peers got to write their own life stories:

"This reminded me of when I was avalanched on Mazeno Peak in Pakistan. Rattling down a 500-metre gully, with time suspended, I found myself observing everything I experienced, as though from a bubble. There was no fear, just a series of impressions: tumbling down over rock and ice cliffs, wondering at how resilient the human body is and that I was still alive, turning this way and that, my whole weight bouncing off my right ankle. There was no pain, but I noted the situation was serious. I was then in space, clearing a step, sliding with the snow but unaware of the speed of my descent; I had time to register it was like being up with Leo Dickinson in his hot air balloon, not aware of the wind because we were moving at the same speed. I bumped gradually to a halt, partially buried on the glacier below but able to clear the snow away from my face, release the waist belt on my rucksack and breathe more easily."

"Aufstieg I" by Ferdinand Hodler, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern

Unlike many a hard-climbing contemporary – Douglas Haston, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker are just a few names that come to mind – Doug Scott has survived to tell his tale. With the passage quoted above, he therefore becomes the latest contributor to a select genre – the corpus, if that is the right word, of mountaineering near-death experiences.

“Time suspended … no fear, just a series of impressions … no pain”: the essential elements of Scott’s experience on Mazeno Peak are widely confirmed in this literature. Take, for example, the accident that befell Albert Heim (1849–1937) on the Säntis, a mountain in eastern Switzerland, in 1871. Then a doctoral candidate in geology, Heim was leading a party down a steep snowfield when he lost his footing and slid over a cliff. During a fall of more than sixty feet, he felt no pain – that came later – yet all his thoughts remained coherent and very clear. And time slowed to a crawl: “What I felt in five to ten seconds could not be described in ten times that length of time”.

Albert Heim
Heim had ample leisure for practical decision-making on his way down. He chose to keep hold of his alpenstock, as it might still be of use, and he thought of taking off his glasses, in case they shattered. He also decided to call out to his companions immediately, should he survive the fall, so that they wouldn’t unduly hurry their own descent down the dangerous cliff. But that was by no means all:

"My next thought was that I would not be able to give my inaugural university lecture that had been announced for five days later. I considered how the news of my death would arrive for my loved ones and I consoled them in my thoughts. Then I saw my whole past life take place in many images, as though on a stage at some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the performance. Everything was transfigured as though by a heavenly light and everything was beautiful without grief, without anxiety, and without pain. The memory of very tragic experiences I had had was clear but not saddening. I felt no conflict or strife; conflict had been transmuted into love. Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united the individual images, and like magnificent music a divine calm swept through my soul. I became ever more surrounded by a splendid blue heaven with delicate roseate and violet cloudlets. I swept into it painlessly and softly and I saw that now I was falling freely through the air and that under me a snow field lay waiting. Objective observations, thoughts, and subjective feelings were simultaneous. Then I heard a dull thud and my fall was over."

After the impact, Heim lay unconscious for half an hour. His companions had to carry him down to the nearest alp huts. Yet, five days later, he gave his inaugural lecture on schedule, and apparently to good effect.

Two years later, at an extraordinarily young age, Heim was appointed professor of geology at the Zurich Polytechnic (now the Federal Institute of Technology). His approach to science would be far from blinkered. Besides elucidating the structure of the Alps, he found time to investigate topics as diverse as water-divining and sky colours. And, in due course, he returned to the subject of consciousness during near-fatal mountain accidents.

"Absturz IV" by Ferdinand Hodler, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern

The question Heim asked was, quite simply: in a mountaineering fall, or similar accident, what did the victim experience in the last seconds of his life? After collecting the experiences of other accident survivors, he presented his findings to the Swiss Alpine Club’s Uto Section in Zurich on February 26, 1892. The paper was subsequently published in the club’s yearbook as “Notizen über den Tod durch Absturz”. An English translation, “The experience of dying from falls”, appeared in a 1972 edition of Omega, a journal that is somewhat lugubriously dedicated to “the psychological study of dying, death, bereavement, suicide and other lethal behaviors”.

Heim's conclusion was remarkable: in practically all individuals who faced death through accidental falls, a similar mental state developed:

“There was no anxiety, no trace of despair, no pain; but rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance, and a dominant mental quickness and sense of surety. Mental activity became enormous, rising to a hundred-fold velocity or intensity. The relationships of events and their probable outcomes were overviewed with objective clarity. No confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded. The individual acted with lightning-quickness in accord with accurate judgment of his situation. In many cases there followed a sudden review of the individual's entire past; and finally the person falling often heard beautiful music and fell in a superbly blue heaven containing roseate cloudlets. Then consciousness was painlessly extinguished, usually at the moment of impact, and the impact was, at the most, heard but never painfully felt. Apparently hearing is the last of the senses to be extinguished.”

Whymper on the Matterhorn: alpinism's first NDE?
Most of the case histories examined by Heim were drawn from Switzerland or nearby. Mentioned but not quoted are two British exponents of alpinism’s “golden age”. These are the physicist John Tyndall, who was avalanched on Piz Morteratsch in 1864, and Edward Whymper, who fell 200 feet down an ice-gully while exploring the Matterhorn’s south side two years earlier. In describing this latter accident, Whymper produced what may be the Magna Carta of mountaineering near-death literature – although, in keeping with the buttoned-up conventions of the Victorian era, he demoted the experience to a mere footnote within his best-known book:

“As it seldom happens that one survives such a fall, it may be interesting to record what my sensations were during its occurrence. I was perfectly conscious of what was happening, and felt each blow; but, like a patient under chloroform, experienced no pain. Each blow was, naturally, more severe than that which preceded it, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, if the next is harder still, that will be the end!” Like persons who have been rescued from drowning, I remember that the recollection of a multitude of things rushed through my head, many of them trivialities or absurdities, which had been forgotten long before; and, more remarkable, this bounding through space did not feel disagreeable. But I think that in no very great distance more, consciousness as well as sensation would have been lost, and upon that I base my belief, improbable as it seems, that death by a fall from a great height is as painless an end as can be experienced.”

In a sense, Heim had no need to call Whymper to the witness stand. For the Englishman’s experience tallies almost exactly with the patterns later identified by the Swiss scholar. The absence of pain, the “multitude of things” rushing through the victim’s mind and Whymper’s conclusion all accord with Heim’s analysis. Only the radical compression of time mentioned by Heim and perhaps his “blue heaven containing roseate cloudlets” are missing from Whymper’s account.

Speaking of those roseate cloudlets, is it possible that Albert Heim was guilty of overselling death by falling? He presented his findings to a section of the Swiss Alpine Club that had been founded less than a decade before. By encouraging more people to participate, the activities of mass-membership clubs such as the SAC unavoidably raised the mountain accident rate, even as they strove, in many ways successfully, to improve safety standards. In concluding his paper, Heim mentions that his observations had been a comfort to a mother who had lost two sons in falls. So it would have been only natural for Heim to emphasise the consolatory aspects of his findings.
"Absturz III" by Ferdinand Hodler, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern

Or it may be that different people experience things in different ways. After all, Heim himself said only that his findings applied to “95 percent of victims”. That leaves some room for variation.

Frank Smythe
Half a century after Heim published his paper, a young English mountaineer by the name of Frank Smythe scaled a difficult overhang in the Dolomites. Perhaps carried away by the euphoria of the moment, he then failed to set up a safe belay before allowing his companion to start climbing. Thus, when a hold broke away under the second climber, Smythe was dragged off his stance. As he fell into the void, he assumed that he was “as good as dead”. Yet he found himself insensible to bumps and blows, “as though all life’s forces were in the process of undergoing some fundamental evolutionary change, the change called death…”

So far, Smythe’s account cleaves closely to Heim’s findings – almost as if underlining how well these have stood the test of time. What follows, though, departs in some details from the Swiss scholar's playbook, or even goes beyond it:

“For how long I experienced this crescendo of power I cannot say. Time no longer existed as time ... Then, suddenly, this feeling was superseded by a feeling of complete detachment, indifference to what happened to my body ... Had the tenant already departed in anticipation of the wreck that was to follow? Was it merely a mental effect due to a sudden and intense nervous strain? It is not within my province to discuss that which only death can prove; yet to me this experience was a convincing one; it convinced me that consciousness survives beyond the grave.”

In hindsight, Smythe was better qualified than most to describe a near-death experience in the mountains. Surviving this youthful mishap almost unscathed, he went on to become equally prolific as an alpinist, writer and photographer. Among other feats, he put up two hard new routes on the south side of Mt Blanc, made the first ascent of a Himalayan peak that was then the highest mountain ever climbed, and took part in three of the pre-war attempts on Everest.

On one of these expeditions, climbing at his physical and psychological limits close to the summit, Smythe saw hovering above him two bulbous objects with “what looked like squat, underdeveloped wings, whilst the other had a beak-like protuberance like the spout of a teakettle. They distinctly pulsated... as though they possessed some horrible quality of life."

"Absturz I" (detail) by Ferdinand Hoder, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern
This was not the only occasion when Smythe met with mysteries that are not revealed to ordinary mortals. His biography notes an episode of automatic writing and, during a visit to a Scottish glen, a vision of ghostly figures which convinced him that he had been “vouchsafed a backward glimpse into a blood-stained page of Highland history”.

If Frank Smythe brought a greater-than-average sensibility to the experience of falling, it should be no surprise that he got more out of it than others have done. In this respect, the literature of near-death experiences resembles any other branch of travel writing – that what you see and hear depends a great deal on what you take with you on the journey.

References

Doug Scott, Up and About: the hard road to Everest, Vertebrate Press, 2015.

Albert Heim, “Notizen über den Tod durch Absturz”, Yearbook of the Swiss Alpine Club, 1892, translated as “The experience of dying from falls” and introduced by Russell Noyes and Roy Kletti, Omega, vol 3, no 1, February 1972.

Edward Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps in the years 1860-69.

Tony Smythe, My father, Frank: Unresting spirit of Everest, biography of Frank Smythe, 2013.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Images and ink (30)


Image: View of Kashimayari-ga-dake, woodprint by Tsujino Sadahiko.

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

Kashimayari is one of my favorites too. Whenever I gaze at the long line of the Northern Alps from some high viewpoint, the first thing I seek is its double-headed peak. I never tire of looking at the exquisite composition of the northern and southern peaks, linked by the slightly lopsided curve of the ridge that hangs between them.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Images and ink (29)


Image: View of Azumino and Jōnen-dake, woodprint from the Hyakumeizan series, by Kogure Shinbō.

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

Unlike most of the remoter peaks in the Northern Alps, the beauty of the scenery around Jōnen's base matches that of the mountain itself. This is yet another reason for artistic souls to acquaint themselves with it. ...  
Seen in winter season from the train that runs between Matsumoto and Ōmachi through the fields of Azumi, Jōnen is the lambent, glittering pyramid soaring above the foothills. Every time I see this sight, I vow to myself that I will climb the mountain again in the coming year.