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.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A meizan of Austria

Wherever they live, people feel the same way about their local mountain

Introducing his own local mountain, Fukada Kyūya wrote that “A mountain watches over the home village of most Japanese people. Tall or short, near or far, some mountain watches over our native village like a tutelary deity … And however much our lives may change, the mountain will always be there, just as it always has been, to welcome us back to our home village.

As it happened, the Hyakumeizan author studied French literature during his student days. Thus, he could not have been acquainted with the works of Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868). Yet this passage, from a short story by the Austrian author, makes perfect sense to anyone who has a familiar mountain or “meizan” on their horizon:

"South of the village you see a snowy mountain with dazzling horn-shaped peaks, rising, as it seems, from the house-tops themselves, but actually quite far away. All year round, summer and winter, there it is with its jutting crags and white expanses, looking down upon the valley.

As the most prominent feature of the landscape and ever before the eyes of the villagers, the mountain has been the inspiration of many a tale. There is not a man, young or old, in the village who has not something to tell about its peaks and crags, its caves and crevasses, its streams and torrents – either something that has happened to himself or that he has heard about from others.

This mountain is the pride of the village, as though the people had made it themselves, and with due respect to their honesty we can't swear to it that once in a while they would not fib for the honour and glory of their mountain.

Besides being notable in itself, the mountain is actually profitable, since on the arrival of a party of mountain-climbers to make the ascent from the valley, the villagers serve as guides; and to have been a guide, had this or that experience, known this or that spot is a distinction which affords anyone great satisfaction. When they sit together in the common room at the inn, they are always talking about their feats and strange adventures, never failing to mention what this or that traveller said and how much he had given them for their labours.

The mountain also sends down from its snowy flanks streams that feed a lake in the forest, from which a brook emerges and flows merrily through the valley, driving the saw-mill, the grist-mill, and small machinery of various kinds, providing cleanliness for the village and watering the cattle. The forest tracts afford timber and also break the force of the avalanches.

Through subterranean channels and loose soil at these altitudes water filters and, coursing vein-like through the valley, comes to the surface in little fountains and springs from which the people drink. And as time and again they offer strangers this unrivalled, much extolled water, they never stop to think how useful it is, accepting it simply as something that has always been there."


From Rock crystal: a Christmas tale by Adalbert Stifter, translated by Elizabeth Mayer, Pantheon Books, 1945

Muhammad Ali on mountaineering

From The Times, obituaries section, 8 June 2016

Neville Shulman writes: I was in the Mayfair offices of the musician Yusuf Islam, formerly the pop singer Cat Stevens, in the summer of 1980, when Muhammad phoned. He wanted Yusuf to appear in an international concert with him. At that time, though he has changed his position subsequently, Yusuf had been advised that music was "decadent" and must be avoided, so Yusuf asked me to speak with Muhammad instead. As one of my heroes, I was of course delighted to do so and although he spoke slowly he was still coherent. He was pleased to learn that I was a mountaineer as he considered that this was a spiritual thing to do - he wished he had climbed mountains, but now could only lift his eyes to the heavens. Yusuf didn't participate in the concert, but later he told me what a missed opportunity that was.

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

Year of the one hundred sheep?

From an online write-up of the Nihon Hyakumeizan:

In Japan, people have felt attractive to Japanese mountain which they haven't known through this book, "The boom of 100 Famous Japanese Mountains" has broken out and it's still continued. Using this book as a bible for mountain climbers, you can seek your favorite Japanese mouton.