Monday, July 21, 2014

Mt Fuji at war

How Japan's mountain-top meteorologists rode out the dark years of early Shōwa

The war comes to Mt Fuji 
War came to Mt Fuji on July 30, 1945. For months, the meteorologists at the summit station had watched streams of enemy aircraft drone overhead on the way to targets elsewhere. And so they saw nothing unusual about the six-ship formation that roared past just after 8am. Until two planes peeled off from the main flock and came howling in towards them. Seconds later, the spent cartridges came spilling from the fighters’ wings and the air was filled with noise, shattering glass and flying splinters…

In retrospect, one might say that the road to war started in the previous decade, on another fine summer's day. It was on August 1, 1932 that Japan’s Central Meteorological Office commissioned its first officially funded observatory on Mt Fuji. Gathered round the small summit hut almost four kilometres above sea-level – yes, that’s Satō Junichi in the photo below, standing in the hut's doorway – the weathermen must have felt themselves as far above the era’s murky politics and foreign policy as “clouds from mud”.

Inaugurating the Mt Fuji observatory on August 1, 1932
Yet the events then unfolding in China would one day embroil these men too. Ten months earlier, the Japanese army had invaded Manchuria. In an act of insubordination that was swiftly termed “gekokujō” (下克上), the local army officers made their move without getting authorization from either the government or, indeed, their own general staff.

Whether or not the military had inspired them, the meteorologists were soon moved to stage an act of gekokujō for themselves. This was because the government had seen fit to approve just one year of continuous weather observations atop Mt Fuji, as part of Japan’s contribution to the Second International Polar Year in 1932-33.

As a single year’s weather readings would be scientifically of little worth, the government’s stinginess made no sense to the weathermen. So, in mid-December 1933, when the last approved summit crew were ordered to bring down the portable gear when they finished their month-long shift, they fell to plotting. How would it be, they mused, if they just sat out the winter in the summit hut, continuing their work in a kind of high-altitude sit-in strike.

No excuses were necessary
The team leader – not to say ring leader – in this enterprise was Fujimura Ikuo, who later went on to head up the observatory in a meteorological career spanning three decades. At first, he and his crew cast about for some plausible-sounding pretexts for disobeying their orders – for instance, the slopes would be too icy to let them bring down delicate instruments, and so they’d have to stay on at the summit to look after the kit.

In the event, they made no such excuses. On arriving at the summit, they simply told the outgoing shift that they would stay until summer and keep up the observations. With that, Fujimura handed over a missive to the Meteorological Office’s directors and, together with his rebel crew, shut himself up for the winter. Fortunately, his resolve wasn’t put to the test. On New Year’s Eve, a telegram arrived from Fujimura’s superiors: “Observations temporarily extended; you are instructed to descend when relief crew arrives.”

The following September, the funding crisis was eased when a foundation set up by the Mitsui zaibatsu stumped up seven thousand yen. A year later, in October 1935, the government switched the summit station’s funding to the regular budget, so that it could continue operating indefinitely. To mark this promotion, the adjective “Provisional” was removed from the observatory’s designation.

Mitsui comes up
with the cash
The government also granted funds to build a new and improved hut close to Ken-ga-mine, Mt Fuji’s highest point – the buffeting airflow at the old site had interfered with pressure readings. There was even talk of a cable car to waft the relief crews effortlessly to the summit, although these plans came to nothing. But the new hut was duly opened in 1937 and one more building in 1940.

By 1944, Japan’s early successes in the war had become a liability. Lines of supply were overstretched. In fact, even keeping in touch with far-flung units of the Imperial forces had become problematic. Thus, the summit of Mt Fuji was the natural place for the military to look when seeking a better way to communicate with the radio relay station on Hachijō-jima, an island about 300 kilometres south of Tokyo. Better still, there was no need to build a new shed for the radio gear – they could house it in the meteorologists’ old hut at Yasu-no-kawara.

Furnishing a power supply was the biggest challenge. The plan was to sling a high-tension cable on poles between the city of Gotemba and the mountain’s 1,600-metre contour. After that, the cable would run underground all the way to the summit. The work of laying the cable was assigned to a squad of five hundred soldiers, who used ‘human wave’ tactics to complete the job in a blistering two weeks.

The new power supply brought more than one benefit – it put an end to the worst job at the summit station; cranking up the generator in winter. When the frigid temperatures had congealed the lubricating oil to candy-like stiffness, the duty man might be spitting blood by the time he got the motor started. Or, if the generator refused to start, the batteries would run flat, forcing the weathermen to cook by the light of candles. Once at least, the candles ran out too and rush-lights were rigged to burn the cooking oil, all this in temperatures of minus 30°C.

Soon the summit crews had more to worry about than scanty provisions and the icicles that formed in their sleeping quarters. Yajima Hiroshi had only just joined them on the mountain when he was called up for military service. On December 3, 1944, in a ferocious blizzard – the wind was gusting at a hundred kilometres an hour – Yajima set off with two colleagues to fight his way down to Gotemba. After that, he shipped out to Io-jima and was never seen again.

On March 13, 1945, one of the weathermen climbed the observation tower above the hut and, looking westwards in the direction of Nagoya, saw a reddish glow in the sky, beyond the shoulder of Akaishi-dake. Soon the spectacle would be repeated, and in almost all quadrants of the compass. Feelings of despair overcame the summit crews as, night after night, they watched these false dawns.

On July 18, five men from the army’s own meteorological service came up to the summit to launch weather balloons. Their brief was to check if the incendiary balloons then being launched by the military were flying high enough to ride the jet stream all the way to America. In fact, the balloons were already doing enough damage for the US authorities to impose a news blackout. One device even cut the power supply to the Hanford plutonium plant in Washington State.

Hacking ice from the instrument tower
By chance, it was at the end of the same month that the two enemy fighters made their strafing attack on the summit observatory. By a miracle, nobody was killed although some of the weathermen suffered bruises and scratches from ricocheting debris. And, although the 50-calibre bullets riddled the observation towers and smashed an instrument box, most of the precious equipment was unscathed.

In the end, Mt Fuji itself was a far more dangerous adversary than anything the Americans could launch at the meteorologists. The first casualty came in a snowstorm in April 1944, when 19 year-old Imamura Ichirō lost the way during a routine ascent as a member of the monthly relief crew. He stumbled blindly down the mountain before succumbing to exposure near the fourth-station level. The rescuers found him propped against a rock, as if he’d sat down to rest and never woken up.

The next mishap occurred in December 1946, when Koide Mutsurō slipped and fell from the ninth station. He was just 28. It is surely no coincidence that, of the four fatalities during the summit station’s six decades of operation, these two accidents closely bracketed the war’s end. As if climbing the mountain in winter was not already dangerous enough, the deck would have been stacked higher still against the weathermen by short rations, the blunted ice-axes and crampons, and the lack of other mountaineering kit.

Were these sacrifices worth it? This blogger cannot say what the Mt Fuji station might have added to the sum of meteorological knowledge. But by proving that men could survive and work in the extreme conditions of the summit, the summit crew did pave the way for a yet more ambitious project than year-round weather observations – the mountaintop radar that went into service in 1965 with the aim of saving thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of Japanese lives. This, though, is another story.


Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992; also for images of summit hut, ice clearance and radar station.

Timeline for Mt Fuji's modern history, from the project to re-utilise the summit station.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Images and ink

Image: "The foot of Hodaka-dake" by Ōshita Tōjiro (1870-1911)

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

This shows that Hodaka has attracted reverence as a holy mountain from ancient times. Its ruggedness, however, meant that people preferred to adore it from a distance rather than make pilgrimages to its summit. Hodaka is so rugged, indeed, that it remained inviolate long after the summits of nearby Yari and Kasa-ga-dake succumbed to pious monks. 

It was not until the summer of the fourteenth year of Bunka (1817) that Takashima Shōtei, a doctor from Hodaka village in Azumi-gun, visited the mountain with a friend and sketched its topography. But judging from the written account that he left, the pair did not reach the summit...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summit of achievement

How Satō Junichi revived the dream of an all-year weather station on Mt Fuji

When, much against his will, Nonaka Itaru was rescued from his self-imposed ordeal atop Mt Fuji in December 1895, he did what any self-respecting Chikuzen samurai would do and composed a defiant tanka:

As the catalpa bow
Springs back, so will I;
Do not believe
That for long I go

Alas, the would-be meteorologist never did get the money together to build a better summit hut. Worse still, there were many who wrote off his efforts to take mid-winter weather observations: "Nothing of serious value resulted from his enterprise," sniffed Frederick Starr, an anthropologist and Mt Fuji devotee, writing in 1924.

Mr & Mrs Nonaka
(from a movie version of their story)
But this may be unfair. Nonaka and his wife Chiyoko, who loyally supported him during their 82-day sojourn, had proved that human beings could survive, if only just, on Mt Fuji in mid-winter.

And Nonaka’s goal – to take a year-round series of high-level atmospheric pressure readings – was one that would have been endorsed by any contemporary with an interest in the accuracy of weather forecasting. Indeed, one such contemporary was no less than a prince of the realm.

By profession, Yamashina-no-miya Kikumarō (1873–1908) was a navy man. He attended the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy and received a commission as a sub-lieutenant in 1894. At about the same time, he was sent to attend the staff college of the German navy, where he no doubt got to grips with the latest meteorological thinking. Back in Japan, he decided to make his own contribution to the science and, in 1901, put up the funds to build a weather station on Mt Tsukuba.

Prince Yamashina at the
battle of Tsushima
As all Hyakumeizan fans will know, at a mere 877 metres, Tsukuba is the lowliest of Japan’s One Hundred Mountains, and building an observatory on its summit was intended only as an interim step. For Prince Yamashina’s ultimate purpose was the same as Nonaka Itaru’s – to site the world’s highest year-round weather station atop Mt Fuji. But the Nonakas’ experience may have served as a caution not to be too ambitious at the outset.

A young meteorologist by the name of Satō Junichi (1872-1970) was appointed to oversee the Tsukuba observatory. Like the Nonakas, Satō was born in northern Kyūshū – the obstinacy sometimes attributed to natives of this region may be a not irrelevant character trait when it comes to siting weather stations atop high mountains – but, in 1893, he’d gone up to Tokyo to study at a scientific institute (東京物理学校).

In January 1907, twelve years after the Nonaka adventure, Satō scaled Mt Fuji to see for himself if it would be possible to survive up there in mid-winter. The weather was fine and the successful climb filled him with confidence. Then came an unexpected blow: in May the following year, the sudden death of Prince Yamashina deprived the Mt Fuji project of its main patron and sponsor. Satō was forced to look for alternative employment.

Satoh Junichi
In 1920, he shipped out to Japan’s recently acquired territory of Karafuto for a four-year stint as the head of the meteorological observatory. In his novel about Satō’s life, Nitta Jirō speculates that the meteorologist was attracted by the island’s extreme climate – in mid-winter, trees are said to explode with the cold. Indeed, the parallels between Sakhalin and the summit of Mt Fuji in winter cannot have escaped the would-be high-altitude researcher.

Two years after Satō’s return to Honshū, in 1926, a private benefactor (鈴木靖二) offered to fund the construction of a Mt Fuji observatory and Satō was appointed to lead the project. The following year, a small hut, large enough for Satō and a few government meteorologists, was completed at Yasu-no-kawara, a flattish area on the south-eastern rim of Mt Fuji’s crater. For the time being, though, observations would only be taken during the summer.

That would not satisfy Satō for long. And time was pressing – he was now 56 years old. In December 1927, he set off from Gotenba, accompanied by a few young meteorologists, to attempt another winter ascent of Mt Fuji. But the upper slopes were frozen so hard that their crampons wouldn’t bite, and they were forced to turn back. A similar attempt in December two years later also failed. Now time was running out.

On January 3, 1930, Satō set out again, this time accompanied only by the porter, Kaji Fusakichi (1900-1967), who would one day be famous for climbing Mt Fuji a record 1,672 times during his lengthy career. This ascent has taken on the stature of a minor epic within the annals of Mt Fuji.

Somewhere above the seventh station, in a storm of wind, Satō lost his footing and took a long, battering fall down the icy slope, knocking himself out on the way. But Kaji revived him, and the pair reached the summit hut as night was falling.

Once there, they settled in for a long stay. Too long, perhaps. Deprived of fresh food, Satō started to suffer from beriberi, a deficiency disease that probably increased his vulnerability to frostbite. Yet when Kaji urged him to retreat, he retorted that he didn’t want to become “a second Nonaka Itaru”. And so they held out until February 7 before descending. By that time, some of his fingers had been blackened by the frost back to the second joint.

Commissioning the summit observatory atop Mt Fuji
on August, 1, 1932
In the end, Satō did not risk his digits in vain. His exploit - and, no doubt, his gaman - had impressed the public and, even more importantly, the meteorological establishment. In the following summer, the summit hut was rebuilt, expanded and, on August 1, 1932, formally put into commission as the Provisional Mt Fuji Summit Observatory of the Central Meteorological Office.

On that August day, after the ceremonies and the group photograph, Satō prepared to descend the mountain. He was 61 years old; from then on, the station would be run by alternating monthly teams of young Met Office staff, year in, year out. He would no longer be needed.

Before he left, though, there was one more note to write up in the hut logbook: “Anemometer contacts are worn; need to be replaced.” And with that injunction, the old meteorologist set off down the burning slopes of the Gotenba trail for the last time.


Frederick Starr, Fujiyama: the Sacred Mountain of Japan, 1924

Chiyoko’s Fuji: Selected excerpts from the English translation of Fuyō-Nikki, 1896, translation by Harumi Yamada, 2013

Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992

Obituary for Satō Junichi from Japan Meteorological Society Journal

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Coming soon ...

... to a bookstore or a Kindle near you: One Hundred Mountains

One Hundred Mountains of Japan will be published by University of Hawai'i Press later this year. So, by Christmas, with luck, you'll be able to read your own copy of Japan's most famous mountain book, finally in English translation. O-matase shimashita; sorry to have kept you waiting.

Actually, the translation itself didn't take that long - about three years of evenings, often with a glass of red wine to wash down the dictionary work. Thank goodness for Google to look up those baffling alpine flower names. As for the classical poems that the Hyakumeizan author, Fukada Kyūya, liked to quote, they would also have been a show-stopper if the Sensei hadn't saved the day.

Then we had to find a publisher. This was the difficult part, indeed. Since Japan's economic bubble burst, vendors of Japan books in English have fallen on hard times. Two of the most prolific houses - Kodansha International and Yohan - closed their doors in recent years.

One day, a surviving one-man publisher did come up with an offer of £5,000, which sounded handsome - until it emerged that he was asking me to pay him.

While the rejection notes continued to pile up, I started this blog. The idea was to hobbyhorsically roam through the Japanese mountains and (especially) to write up the windswept and exotic personalities that historically bestrode them.

Then a funny thing happened. Pretty soon, the blog started to get attention from a new generation of windswept and exotic personalities, many of them English-speaking mountaineers living in Japan.

First to drop by was Chris White, whose hobby was bivvying out, solo, in the winter mountains. Then there was Wes, author of Tozan Tales from places never before written up in English. Then came Julian, whose fame is eclipsed only by that of his mountain-climbing terrier, Hana. And there was Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club, who provided many a post for this blog with his volcanic scoops. Many thanks, friends, for all your support.

When it comes to fellow Hyakumeizan bloggers, I shouldn't forget to mention Tom Bouquet, then sniffing fumaroles at the University of Kagoshima. And Peter Skov, mountain photographer, whose extraordinary rendition of the Japan Alps will grace the cover of "One Hundred Mountains" (see image). If the cover sells the book, Peter, this one will go far. As will your estimable images. And many thanks too to all the readers of this blog; your comments and encouragement have kept Project Hyakumeizan rolling.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here - we still had to find a publisher. Twice, I hopped on a plane to Japan. I dropped in on Yama to Keikoku, Japan's oldest mountain publisher, and introduced myself to Mr Fukada Shintarō, the Hyakumeizan author's eldest son - who helped decide the book's English title. Meeting in a Renoir coffee shop, we discussed whether "Meizan" should be translated as 'famous mountain'. No, we thought, and so One Hundred Mountains of Japan it became.

In the end, the publishing breakthrough came via the blog. East Asia historian David Fedman left a comment on a post about Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary who played a pivotal role in Japanese mountain matters. And maybe still does. Why not offer the book to University of Hawai'i Press, Dave suggested. And when we did, UHP said 'yes'.

There was a bit more to it than that. Academic publishers don't print anything until expert scholars have reviewed it. In this case, the imprimatur came from history professors Julia Adeney Thomas of Notre Dame, and Brett Walker of Montana State University. The book could benefit from a much longer, more thematic introduction, they recommended.

Thank you for your advice, Thomas and Walker-senseis: the book will be much the better for it. I'm also deeply obliged to Wolfram Manzenreiter of the University of Vienna, for letting me quote from his paper on what happened to Japanese mountaineering during the war. And I'm sorry that there isn't room here for a grateful mention of many other scholars for their pioneering studies of Japanese alpine history and literature.

Folk may think of translation as a solitary affair. But, as you see, this one has been more like an expedition, undertaken in the best company and washed down with many a flagon of good cheer. (Memo: don't try to outdrink history professors.) One day, good friends and colleagues, let us all go out and climb something together.

That same companionable vibe goes for One Hundred Mountains. When you get your copy, I hope you'll round up the usual suspects, stuff the book into the door-pocket of your weatherbeaten Subaru (UHP has specially designed the paperback to fit), and light out together for another of those splendid Hyakumeizan. As Fukada Kyūya said, this was a book that was written with a pair of mountain boots on. And it should be read in the same way.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mountains of character

On writers who choose to write about peaks as if they were people

"A mountain becomes great as a human personality does, by extending its influence over the thoughts, words, and actions of mankind." Such are the opening words of Ten Great Mountains (1940), a title that could not fail to attract the attention of a blogger dedicated to Japan's One Hundred Mountains.

One of ten
These ten great mountains were written up by Graham ("R L G") Irving (1877-1969). A teacher of French and mathematics at Winchester, the famous English public school, Irving took a select group of his pupils to the Alps every summer and led them, without guides, up difficult ridges and faces. It was on one of these ascents that George Mallory, the most brilliant of Irving's protégées, found the inspiration for his essay comparing a day well spent in the Alps to "some great symphony".

But we digress. In selecting his mountains, Irving had to answer the same question as a later Japanese author - on what criteria should they be chosen? In the end, it was "personality" that counted. As Irving explains, "Besides actual height there are many things that contribute to make a mountain great: its position, its form, its character, its history, everything that is embodied in the personality it has developed with the spirit of man." Finally, he settled on Snowdon, Ben Nevis, Mt Cook, the Matterhorn, Ushba, Mt Blanc, Mt Logan, Nanga Parbat, Kangchenjunga and Everest.

Is it right to attribute human characteristics to the natural landscape? The art critic and mountain aesthetician John Ruskin (1819-1900) thought not. To do so, he sneered, was to commit a "pathetic fallacy". But Ruskin was a repeat offender against his own stricture. In the same book that denounces the pathetic fallacy, he did not shrink from describing mountains as "lifted towards heaven in a stillness of perpetual mercy". Or glaciers as the last resting place of archangels.

For pathetic fallaciousness was rampant in those days. In a poem of 1897, Thomas Hardy sees the rugged character of Leslie Stephen projected onto the Schreckhorn's "spare and desolate figure". A pioneer alpinist, Stephen had made the Swiss mountain's first ascent a few decades earlier. As the editor of a London journal, he'd also been the first to recognise Hardy's literary talent; perhaps the novelist and poet felt he owed him one.

Imbued with the spirit of Leslie Stephen

Objections to the pathetic fallacy have never made much headway in Japan. After all, Shinto has always taught that mountains, trees and waterfalls have souls - or share in the universal 'kami' - just as people do. Be that as it may, few of the Meiji-era Japanese mountain writers felt any qualms about transposing the natural scene into human terms.

Here, for example, is the short story and travel writer Kōda Rohan (1867-1947) describing his first encounter with the Hodaka massif:

Beyond the broad declivity in front of us rose up a noble and lofty range, manly in aspect, inspiring both awe and joy. Caught unawares, I was moved almost to tears. A reckless urge to reach out for the mountain took hold of me. For a moment, it was hard to say whether I held the mountain in my gaze or the mountain held me in his.

Kogure Ritaro
Yet more anthropomorphic in his writing style was Kogure Ritarō, the archivist and pioneer alpinist. This is Kogure on Kinpu-san, a peak in his beloved Chichibu mountains:

This is a splendid mountain. It rises in solitary state above the rest of the range and it can hold up its head in the company of any mountain in all Japan. Just as we call somebody who achieves something from the ground up a man among men, so this mountain has strength of character that makes it a mountain among mountains, compare it where you will.

Not by accident, Kogure is one of the most-quoted authorities in Japan's most famous mountain book, the Nihon Hyakumeizan ("One Hundred Mountains of Japan"). That shouldn't come as a surprise, because, just like Kogure, the Hyakumeizan author aimed to humanise his subjects: "Mountains have character in greater or smaller measure, just as people do," wrote Fukada Kyūya in the afterword to his book: "And mountains, like people, must have character."

At times, it seems that Fukada's mountains soak up the character of the people living among them. Or is it the other way round? Here is the Hyakumeizan author explaining why Chōkai has always been accorded first place among the mountains of Tōhoku.

Taking somewhat after the region’s inhabitants, the mountains of the north-east come across as heavy and solid, if not downright lumpish. Chōkai, though, is untouched by this ponderousness. The mountain seems to soar. Viewed from Sakata, one would almost say that it cuts a dash. Only an isolated peak like Chōkai, no straggling ridge, could carry this off.

Except perhaps in Tōhoku, readers of Nihon Hyakumeizan liked the way that Fukada associated them with their mountains. Soon after the book came out in 1964, it won a major literary prize. "This is one of the most original works of criticism that I've seen in recent years," remarked one of the judges. "The objects of critical thought are, in this case, mountains. The author has chosen to write about mountains as if they were people."

In Japan, this was the moment when mountains of character went mainstream.

Friday, March 28, 2014

For what it's worth

A Taishō-era meditation on the meaning and worth of mountaineering

Is it worth it? This is the question that floats to the surface after a mountaineering accident. Following his epoch-making first ascent of the Eiger Mittelegi ridge in September 1921, Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune (1894-1989, picture left) returned to Japan and set about training up a new generation of Japanese alpinists.

At first, all went well. On March 30, 1922, he led a group of young ski-mountaineers to the top of Yari-ga-take. In the summer, he held a technical training camp in Karesawa, in the heart of the Northern Alps.

Then came nemesis: in January 1923 on Tateyama, one of Maki’s companions collapsed and died of exposure in a snowstorm. The victim, Itakura Katsunobu, was one of the most promising and experienced of Japan’s young alpinists. As the son of a former daimyō, he was also a scion of the aristocracy.

Explanations were needed, and responsibility had to be taken. Maki fulfilled both obligations in an essay entitled “On the death of Itakura Katsunobu” (板倉勝宣の死). In the opening passage, he also weighs up the meaning and worth of mountaineering itself:

The evolution from summer to winter mountaineering is a natural one. If we want to get to grips with ice and snow, we have to go to the mountains in winter. In the summer mountains, all that remains to be developed is climbing technique – that is, rock climbing or “klettern”, to use the German word. Now, if we were happy just to follow in the footsteps of our predecessors, there would be no particular problem – we would have no need to seek out any new paths for ourselves. 

But if we wish to build on the experience and knowledge of our predecessors and to push out the frontiers, even if only a little way, then we’ll always be seeking out new paths. That said, it’s quite permissible for a mountaineer to have ordinary, humdrum ambitions, as long as these don’t diverge from the true path. In any mountaineering activity worthy of the name, I believe that the people involved derive some value from it. 

In this particular case, however, I would deeply regret it if confusion were to be caused by my own failure or by the aspects of mountaineering that can invite misunderstanding. As Sir Francis Younghusband observed, one could look at mountaineering either as an art form or as the youthful spirit of a people finding expression in a sport. Yet, whatever one’s view or interpretation, mountaineering is a complex and multifaceted activity. 

As one might surmise from the existence of a word such as “oromania”, mountaineers have an undeniably compulsive disposition, one that couldn’t contemplate a life without mountains to climb. There are the delights they find in exploring the vast and beautiful mountain world of nature. There are the hardships they overcome or the tranquil state of mind they attain as they stand aloof from the world. Each mountaineer finds his own kind of satisfaction. 

One thing is constant, though; once you are dealing with the vagaries of mountains and weather, a certain level of risk is unavoidable. Some might say that it’s unwise to expose oneself to danger. I would say, rather, that one should oppose that risk by proceeding with both courage and the maximum degree of caution. To go forward not defensively but with resolve – this is surely the sound and substantial way.


Maki Yūkō, "On the death of Itakura Katsunobu", in selected essays published as "Mountain journeys" (山行).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Hyakumeizan of relative height

A philosophical attempt to upset the established order

Height above sea-level isn’t everything, I realised while musing on the difficulty of defining a mountain – a topic touched on in the previous post. I mean, if you climb to 4,810 metres in western Europe, you are standing on top of Mt Blanc, with the world laid out at your feet. But the same altitude in Tibet hardly raises you above the level of the dusty plateau.

The view from relative altitude

Fukada Kyūya made a nod towards that resolving that awkwardness in the afterword to his One Hundred Mountains of Japan. A mountain’s height, he suggests, is one thing; its stature quite another. In the end, though, his choice of mountains is purely personal, based mainly on their aesthetic and historical appeal. Thus the Hyakumeizan author neatly sidesteps the philosophical question of what constitutes a mountain.

Others have taken a more rigorous approach to the problem. The other day I happened on a list of one hundred mountains of the world ranked by their “primary factor” or prominence. Prominence here is defined as the minimal vertical drop from the summit one has to descend before one can ascend a higher peak. In effect, it is a measure of how far a mountain stands proud of its surroundings.

Relatively high

In this ranking, Mt Everest is still Top Mountain; indeed, it has to be, by definition, for no higher peak can be ascended. What is interesting about this ranking by prominence is what happens lower down the table. Aconcagua (6962 metres) vaults over the heads of numberless Himalayan peaks into second place. And Mt Blanc, as befits its lordly eminence over the lesser Alps, makes it all the way up into 11th place.

Clearly, it helps to be an “island peak” if you want to make a good showing in this table. As a result, big volcanoes do well – some might say disproportionately so. Even modest Mt Fuji (3776 metres) is promoted to 35th place. For their part, Kilimanjaro (5895 metres) is up there in fourth place, Damavand (5610 metres) in 12th, and Mauna Kea (4205 metres), the roof of the Hawaiian islands, in 15th.

Mention of Mauna Kea made me wonder, though. Isn’t this ranking by prominence just as arbitrary as the traditional ranking of mountains by absolute height above sea level? For, in reality, Mauna Kea rises not from the sea’s surface but from the sea floor, which on average is more than 4,800 metres deep in these parts. So the real Mauna Kea is a structure that rises almost 9,000 metres from its base – higher than Everest.

Top of the world?

This doctrine of “real topographical relief” could dangerously subvert the established order. And, in the hands of Koaze Takashi, a professor of geography at Meiji University, it does just that. Measuring from the depths of the nearby Japan Trench, reckons the professor, Mt Fuji rises a breath-taking 12,000 metres above its base. And, he estimates, Everest could only rival that elevation if the sediments in the Ganges Basin were excavated down to the offshore bedrock.

Could it be that, in terms of true planetary topography, Mt Fuji is now the highest mountain in the world?


The Earth: an intimate history, by Richard Fortey, for the maunderings about Mauna Kea.

Yama wo yomu (Reading mountains) by Koaze Takashi, Professor of Geography at Meiji University.