Tuesday, May 30, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (3)

Continued: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

So the four of us held our peace, each of us sensing, in himself, the mood of the others. And we were well aware that what each of us was silently thinking about was the fate that would inevitably befall some of us when climbing mountains. While we’d been chatting after dinner just now, we’d fallen to talking about a companion we all knew, whom we’d lost last winter, and how the previous summer he’d been with us up here, in the rock cave, and we’d spent a pleasant few days together. And then, as if by tacit agreement, we’d dropped the subject and fallen silent. We went outside, sat ourselves down on the rock and fell silent.

Kita-Hodaka: photo from an early editon of Oshima's writings
So, until that moment, we’d all, each in his own heart, been focused on the same thought, as if on a single point of light that appeared in all our minds – when suddenly the sound of a stone falling from the crumbling heights of Karesawa-dake rang out, breaking the silence two or three times as it bounded from the cliff. Then that impenetrable silence descended again.

That was the moment. As if tired of thinking, somebody threw out a question.

“Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?”

Since we’d all been thinking about the same thing in the same way, it was as if we’d been looking for somebody to break the ice. Then these words were spoken. And, of course, they struck a chord. Up there on the high mountain, in the dark, we’d all been struggling to find the words to describe a new creed about these cruel “Gefahren”, the mountain hazards that could at any time rob us of our friends or even our own lives.

Somebody replied at once:

“Well, if you go climbing mountains, that’s what you’ve got coming to you.”

“Well maybe, but does that mean that everybody who climbs has it coming?”

“Not everybody, of course not. If you’re lucky, you can get away with it. There are people who climb and nothing ever happens to them.”

“And what kind of people are those that get themselves killed?”

“Come to think about it, they’re people like ‘One Day’ (Itakura Katsunobu). That’s what his older brother said to me, when we were on the train together to Toyama, after ‘One day’ was killed. My own brother was always saying to me I’d get what was coming to me in the mountains one of these days, so that was music to my ears. You could say his words caught my attention, although I was also moved by them. They reminded me of what Mummery said – it was something like this, I think: “It is true the great ridges sometimes demand their sacrifice, but the mountaineer would hardly forgo his worship though he knew himself to be the destined victim.” And so I talked with H. all night, so that I was completely exhausted the next day … But when you look at people like Mummery and One Day and see what happened to them. Well, they both got killed, didn’t they. But it’s not just this kind of person who gets killed in the mountains. People who behave recklessly or carelessly, they get killed too. But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem’s getting killed when you take care, you’ve done your homework and you’re sure of yourself. In that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering, he goes into the dangers in detail, and there are a whole bunch of them. But there are a whole bunch of ways of avoiding them, and so winning through. But then he says there’s no way that a mountaineer can avoid bad luck, and that’s when he comes up with the sentence I just quoted. That was what happened to One Day."

"In Mountains and skis, One Day says this: “As far as one can be certain of anything, if you make cautious and modest progress, step by step, then another aspect of the mountains, one you’ve never dreamed of, will gradually start to resonate in your heart.” Maybe that was what drove him; why he was killed. If you go that far, the rest is up to luck; I’m convinced it’s luck. For people like him, mountaineering is not just a hobby or a sport, is it."

These words came vigorously, without a trace of fatigue:

“A sport or hobby? Of course not. For me right now, mountaineering is much more special than a hobby or sport. I can’t say exactly what it is, but it befits me much more than either of those things.”

Sitting there in the dark, somebody else gave a terse reply to the previous speech. There was silence for a while. Then, “Anyway, when people recognize that you can die doing this, they’re not joking about,” murmured somebody, as if cutting himself off. It was one of our company who’d been with our friend when he’d died. Out of all of us, he was the one who’d had the most intense experience at that point. More than any of us, he knew the inner meaning of a disaster in the mountains. Yet, he’d never spoken about this, making no move to reveal his thoughts to the rest of us. But now he had just this to say: “Since then, I’ve had a hard time keeping myself away from the mountains. I loved Tateyama before, of course. But since then I’ve loved the mountain even more.” He said nothing further. Again, our conversation stalled and everyone was left to mull over his own thoughts alone.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

"Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?" This question, in the above passage of Ōshima's essay, leads to a discussion that leans heavily on the Edwardian alpinist A F Mummery's defence of alpinism in the last chapter of My Climbs in the Alps & Caucasus. As Ohmori Hisao points out, Ōshima refers to "that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering" - whereas Mummery actually wrote about the "Pleasures and penalties of mountaineering". This may explain why Ōshima's essay ends on a less positive note than Mummery, whose last words are these:-

But happily to most of us the great brown slabs bending over into immeasurable space, the lines and curves of the wind-moulded cornice, the delicate undulations of the fissured snow, are old and trusted friends, ever luring us to health and fun and laughter, and enabling us to bid a sturdy defiance to all the ills and time and life oppose. 

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