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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Thoughts from a bivouac ledge

Excerpt from the novella Bergfahrt by the Swiss author 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 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

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The seasons of Shibutsu

Unexpected perspectives from a spring ski-tour in a forest

The beech woods, as we skied through their bare arcades, looked somehow familiar. We were back in Tokyo before it came to me. Those cloister-like perspectives fading into shadow, the gaudy figures flowing through them, these came straight out of a painting I’d seen. Only, instead of admiring the Hunt by Night on a gallery wall, we'd traded places with the very courtiers that Paolo Uccello once painted. Or so it seemed for an instant.

Shibutsu is a mountain of unemphatic charms. Its time-worn layers of serpentinite can’t compete with the volcanic sprezzatura of Hiuchi, just across the valley.

The reason some Hyakumeizan fans save it till last, writes Wes Lang in his guide to Hiking in Japan, is that the characters of its name (至仏) mean “go to the Buddha”. This makes the summit an auspicious place to end a quest for all One Hundred Mountains.

In Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada Kyūya pours a dash of cold water on this idea. Probably, the mountain’s original name had nothing to do with Buddhism, he says. Instead, the characters were just used to spell out a local place-name in an ad-hoc way. “Be that as it may,” he continues, “the name Shibutsu both sounds and looks good. It strikes an almost literary note.”

For Fukada, the worth of Shibutsu lay in its views. “I believe that was the first time I had ever looked down on the fabled plain of Oze," he recalled after climbing up here in the autumn of 1926. "The lambent, ochre-coloured expanse stretched away to the foot of Hiuchi’s pyramid in the distance. I thought myself a happy man to have seen the beauty of Oze for the first time from the summit of Shibutsu.

On a grey March day, the plain of Oze is not in the least lambent. Under its blanket of waterlogged snow, the marsh looks more like a deserted carpark. Those beech woods, though, in their winter dignity, they might, if you’re lucky, let you ski for a moment through the depths of a Renaissance panorama.

Paolo Uccello's "Hunt by Night", courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Three takes on Harinoki Pass

Images-and-ink accounts of a historic mountain crossing

Climbing a snow valley at Harinoki, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)

I. From A Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan by Sir Ernest Mason Satow and A. G. S. Hawes (1884)

From Nagano to Toyama over the Harinoki Pass.

The greater portion of the following itinerary and of the description given below must be regarded as approximate only, the difficulty of keeping communication open across so rugged a country being peculiarly great. There is no possibility of crossing the pass before the yama-hiraki, or "mountain opening", on the 20th June. Even during the summer months, communication is often entirely interrupted, and none but the most experienced mountaineers can hope to succeed in forcing a way for themselves.

Difficulty is sometimes experienced in obtaining the services of hunters to act as guides, the Harinoki-toge being now seldom crossed even by the natives, and the huts formerly existing on the way being nearly all destroyed, whilst the central portion of the original track has, owing to avalanches and landslips, been practically effaced. Still, the route remains one of the grandest, as well as one of the most arduous, mountaineering expeditions in Japan.

II. From A Diplomat In Japan Part II: The Diaries Of Ernest Satow, 1870-1883, edited by Ian Ruxton

July 23. Left Noguchi at 5 a.m. The clouds gradually rose, and disclosed Yahazugatake, Rengedake or Gorokudake. Jiigatake and Tsubeta or Tsumeta, going from left to right. The Harinoki pass, over which we go, is just north of Rengedake Pass, through Oide, which is on the left bank of Takazegawa and across a stream which does not flow out of the three lakes. Then over a moor covered with woods for a long distance.

Hemerocallis flava (Wikipedia)
Ex-voto on trees, either inscribed "In honour of the mountain god'', or else two rusty iron spear heads, this kind of thing several times. Left the valley of the Takaze and continued up that of the Kagawa at the head of which our pass lies. Immense quantities of Funkia ovata, Hemerocallis flava, Magnolia hypoleuca. Through over-luxuriant brushwood, tall umbellifers and itadori over twelve feet high to the house at Shirazawa, where one can easily pass the night.

Here the river has to be crossed to the right bank, and the path goes on continually ascending thro' woods; large adenophera and yellow Tricyrtis (?) abundant; proceeding on, we shortly crossed the bed of the torrent. Here I found a (species of?) dianthus in quantities, a large arenaria and a hypericum.After this a splendid specimen of Lilium cordifolium in full flower, over six feet high, and another tall lily, unknown.

Lilium cordifolium (source ?) 
We then came to the hut called Kuroishizawa, where is an excellent little stream of pure cold water. Some time after this we arrived at the foot of the snow, and started boldly on it, but after a while, perceiving a path on the bank, we betook ourselves to it again, & ascended until said path disappeared under the snow. At this point, which is 5,500 feet above the sea, found Schizocodon Soldanelloides [ko-iwa-kagami], two kinds of vaccinium Diewilla in bud and a bed of what is Glaucidium palmatum. Birch just struggling into leaf.

Schizocodon Soldanelloides (Wikipedia)
We ascended the snow to a point where it seemed to end, and took our lunch, about 6,500 feet. After this, we did a little more snow, and found ourselves on a very steep zigzagging path, which led up to the summit ridge by the side of the snow, which filled the bottom of a narrow watercourse. Great variety of new & curious species along this path & and most of all at the top, anemones. Ranunculus, saxifrage, vacciniums. Height about 7,500 or 8,000 ft. It began to rain. We had been nearly I0 hours getting to this point, being much kept back by the baggage coolies …

Roofs at Ohmachi: looking towards Harinoki-toge
(illustration from Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps)

III. From Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, by Walter Weston (1896)

During the first few years after the path – such as it was – was opened, several parties of foreign travellers, including Satow, Chamberlain, Atkinson and others, crossed the pass without much difficulty. Soon, however, the ravages of those influences we call the tooth of time began to tell; avalanches and landslips, with the heavy autumn rains, before long had battered the track out of all recognition, and the Harinoki-tōge became a mere wreck of its former self. For practical purposes, it was soon abandoned – indeed, almost buried – and its epitaph has been already written Tōge fuit….