Friday, May 20, 2016

“Are there really mountains in Japan?"

An appreciation of mountaineering mainly on Honshū – from a presentation to the Academic Alpine Club of Zurich

The title question came from a colleague on the way back from a ski-tour in the Swiss backcountry. It seems a good enough place to start. Be reassured: you’ll never run short of great relief in Japan. Only three of the 47 prefectures, circuits, or major cities lack summits above 1,000 metres. Some 21 peaks, mainly in the Japan Alps, rise above 3,000 metres.

Mt Fuji from Ohito, by Yoshida Toshi

From Tokyo, all three sets of the Japan Alps are within weekend reach – Northern, Central and Southern. Even closer to hand are the lower ranges of the Jōetsu, Tanzawa and Chichibu. One way to introduce their potential is to outline a year in the life of a Tokyo-based alpine club. Ours was affiliated to the Japan Workers Alpine Federation, one of two big national organisations. We called ourselves “Workmen Alpinists”.

A mountaineering year
We start in late November by tackling Mt Fuji (3,776m) as a winter training climb - by way of the south flank, shown in the woodprint above. This is an annual fixture for many mountaineering clubs. As Japan has no glaciers and precious few permanent snowfields, crampon and axe skills get rusty in the summer months. Once those skills are honed, there is ice-climbing within easy weekend reach, provided the waterfalls freeze. For winter climbing in the Japan Alps, you’ll need longer than a weekend, to allow for the long approaches and uncertain weather.

Winter training climb, Mt Fuji
Spring is the season for ski-tours. Unlike in Europe, mountain huts are far and few between. That’s why you might want to dig a snowhole on Karamatsu-dake (2,696m), above the Olympic ski resort of Hakuba/Happō-one. There’s even a Japanese Haute Route, which follows ridgelines in the Japan Northern Alps. Allow extra days for the changeable spring weather. Wind speeds can blow you away, and avalanches too demand respect.

Snow ridges are ideally climbed after the snow has had time to consolidate – typically, in April and early May. From the carpark to the summit of Shirouma-dake (2,932m) via the mountain’s Main Ridge you’ll raise yourself through 1,700 vertical metres. A more challenging ridge, including several abseils, is Yatsu-mine (“Eight Peaks”) on Tsurugi-dake (2,999m).

On Shirouma-dake's Main Ridge
Rock-climbing is possible all the year round at warm coastal locations. Small crags are plentiful within 1–2 hours of Tokyo. Near the city, you’ll often be climbing on outcrops of chert, such as Koesawa Buttress. The sharp edges make for good holds; they’ve also been known to cut ropes. We used to climb on double ropes. Further away are the granite faces and towers of Ogawa-yama, Japan’s Ponte Brolla, and the basalt sea-cliffs of Jōgasaki.

On Kita-dake Buttress: the charms of radiolarian chert
Alpine rock climbs have to wait until the snow has melted and the June rains have dissipated. No.4 Ridge on Kita-dake Buttress is a classic. Be aware that the top pitch fell off a few years ago, making the finish much harder than before. Refer to an up-to-date route description for details.

Summer is also the time for sawa-nobori. The Japanese art of river-climbing differs from European canyoning – instead of descending, the gully or gorge is followed up the mountain. Sawa-nauts can apply a whole array of specialised footwear, kit and techniques. River forays range from one-day trips in the mountains near Tokyo, to multiday expeditions where you may find yourself leading spray-rinsed slabs on étriers while wearing a wetsuit. There’s no accounting for tastes.

In the Kurobe River (day one), Northern Japan Alps
Early autumn, when water levels are low, might be the best time to tackle the Kurobe River. This is a lengthy excursion – the guidebook says four days/three nights – through the gorge that drains the Northern Japan Alps. The route takes you past one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But don’t get caught by a typhoon. And so a year goes by.

Sacred torii on Mt Fuji
Japan’s mountaineering history
By now, you'll have noticed the shrines that adorn many a Japanese mountaintop. They hint that mountaineering developed differently here. To simplify a bit, while science was the original impulse for mountaineering in Europe, in Japan it was religion. From the eighth century, most of the country’s high mountains were first climbed by monks or mystics. And monks are still to be met with on mountain paths.

Pilgrims on Mt Fuji, by Yoshida Hiroshi
Foreigners started to explore Japan’s mountains from the 1860s. One, a mountaineering missionary by the name of Walter Weston, suggested the idea of a Japanese alpine club along the lines of the British original, of which he was a proud member. The Sangaku-kai (“Mountain Club”), Asia's first, was duly founded in October 1905 by the banker and writer Kojima Usui and six friends. Women weren’t invited to join until 1949, but that didn’t stop them climbing both with and without the men.

Murai Yoneko vanquishes the Dai-Kiretto, August 1923
Soon Japanese alpinists were active in the European Alps. A breakthrough came in September 1921, when Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune and three Swiss guides made the first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittellegi Ridge. This feat spurred a new generation of climbers, especially university students, to start tackling difficult ridges and faces in the Japan Alps, Tanigawa-dake and elsewhere.

Samuel Brawand, Yuko Maki, Fritz Steuri, Fritz Amatter
Inspired by European models, academic alpine clubs were founded to pursue guideless climbing. The Academic Alpine Club of Hokkaidō (1926) became experts in ski-mountaineering. Their counterparts in Kyoto (1931) had ambitions in the Himalaya, although they weren’t able to get there until after the second world war.

Toshio Imanishi atop Manaslu, May 1956
We’ll break off this potted history on 9 May 1956, when Toshio Imanishi reached the top of Manaslu (8,163m) on an expedition organised by the Japanese Alpine Club and led by none other than Yūkō Maki, of Eiger fame. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the reconnaissance expeditions were conducted by the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto, realising their dreams at last. That brings us to:

“But dreams we must have and, all the time, I prefer dreams to memories,” said Gaston Rébuffat. We’ve touched on mountaineering in central Honshū, but that leaves whole ranges and regions unexplored. In particular, the northern island of Hokkaidō is another world. A winter traverse of the Shiretoko Peninsula would be a challenge of Alaskan dimensions, for example. With luck, the bears should be asleep.

Sōfu-iwa: stuff that dreams are made on (Wikipedia)
Or, if you seek sunwarmed rock instead of snow, you could sail 650 kms south of Tokyo (but remain within the city limits) to a volcanic seastack known as Sōfu-iwa or “Lot’s Wife” (99m). A first free climb awaits – the first ascent party in 2003 used some pitons, according to an obscure book that is subtitled “The book of secret islands in Japan”. I mention these places just to hint at the vast range of possibilities. The limits are set only by the imagination.

Akagi-sawa: in the deep mountains of Japan

Deep mountains
So, Japan does have mountains. But of what kind? A co-founder of the Japanese Alpine Club said that Japan has both high mountains and deep mountains. The high peaks, even rugged Tsurugi, have all been climbed, robbing them of their mystery. Yet that still leaves the deep mountains (深山), where “no roads nor even forest tracks can penetrate, where you find your way along paths as faint as dreams, or along narrow ways, clambering over rocks and tree roots – such are the rigours and the rewards of the deep mountains.”

Ladies and gentlemen of the AACZ, worthy academicians, I hope that you too will get the chance to tread those paths as faint as dreams, and reap the rewards of the deep mountains.


A hiking guidebook such as Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan will give you a good idea of what is where. The best and indeed only English-language source on alpine climbing is Tony Grant’s Ten Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan, available in print and as an e-book. And don't miss this perceptive take on Japan's alpinistic culture on the iceclimbingjapan blog. Last but not least, for the history and literature of the mountains, try Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Masters of the Mittellegi (2)

Continued: an attempt to follow Maki Yuko up the Eiger's northeastern ridge

“A storm is coming,” says the junior guide, though it’s not actually raining yet. Do we really have to give up so soon? I pull out my mobile phone but, with the dispatch of a patented Bergführer, Martin Burgener is already looking at his. The radar picture shows that the storm is an isolated cell and moving northwards. With luck, it’ll miss. We carry on, keeping a weather eye out.

Maki’s party was climbing a gully towards the ridge when the three-metre pole slipped from Brawand’s shoulders. The young guide launched himself after it, losing his footing just as he managed to grab the falling pole. Steuri, in turn, managed to arrest his tumbling colleague on the rope. Bravand was recovered intact, except for a scraped arm. Maki scolded him for risking his life, but they were all aware that without their secret weapon, the clawed pole, they had no hope of success.

Just getting to the ridge was a struggle – in one or two places, the leader had to stand on a colleague’s shoulders to get past an overhang. It wasn’t till shortly before five in the evening that they found a bivouac site, a cranny on the south side of the ridge, not far from the present hut. Ice-axes were used to rake gravel into a ledge. After supper, Maki lay down at the back of the recess while the three guides took it in turns to sit outside – only one of them could lie down at a time. The night was cold.

At six in the morning, they roped up again, leaving the blankets and bivouac gear in the rock niche. There was no point starting earlier; you had to see what you were doing. Now their way led out over a rocky knife-edge, views plunging into the abyss on both sides.

Again, ‘combined tactics’ were used – standing on each other’s shoulders – to get over rock steps. Scaling a 30 metre-high gendarme, they clambered into a notch at 3,500 metres. In front of them, the ridge reared up into the near-vertical “Aufschwung” that had so far rebuffed all attempts on the Mittellegi.

Full light now, the sunlight already playing on the summit snows – two small figures are striding down the ridge on the far side. They must have bivvied up there, says Martin. The sky is blue now – no trace of that pre-dawn storm – but strange waves and bars of vapour are forming. The foehn wind is strengthening.

Maki’s party took a break in the notch, bracing themselves for the struggle ahead. Three alpine jackdaws sailed past on an updraft, their unlovely screeches bringing home the rock barrier's rebarbative loom. As gusts of wind whirled spindrift in his face, Maki noted how the limestone strata tilted inimically downwards.

The men got to their feet. Now it was time to put the wooden pole to work. Steuri, the second man, drove the twin spikes at its foot into a crack and bore down on the shaft with his full weight to wedge it in place. Amatter, who was leading, looped the climbing rope through the hook at the top of the pole, to give himself some protection from above. Then, using his axe to chip out tiny footholds, he inched himself upwards.

Stone splinters rained down on the waiting trio below him, peppering their hands and faces with scratches. When the leader had found a stance, he brought the others up, and then the whole process started again. As the last man, Maki had to climb with one hand – with the other, he had to drag the pole after him. Often he dangled on the rope, looking past shreds of mist down to the green valley far below. By then, he’d lost all sense of time; fear too had long since faded away.

Like Maki’s party before us, we come to the foot of the 30-metre tower. The wind finds us now, blowing the rope’s slack into a billowing arc. Over my shoulder, while we wait for another party to clear the pitch, I glimpse a silvery UFO hovering over the Schreckhorn. Instead of snow, the gusts fling flakes of grit into our faces; our teeth grate on them...

The guides had just started on an almost vertical, 50 metre-high wall when – catastrophe! – a dark shadow flitted through the air, tumbling past Maki into the abyss. He grabbed the rope in alarm, only to hear Amatter’s calm tones: “Not to worry, Herr – I just dropped my sack, that’s all.” And then the guide got back to work, as if nothing had happened.

The wind is buffeting, trying to shoulder us bodily off the mountain. Overhead, the sky is bright blue, except for a long bar of cloud that lies athwart the ridge. Despite the gale, it stays magically fixed in place, cresting an invisible wave of air flowing over the mountain.

At last, the rock’s angle started to ease. They’d taken eight hours – from nine in the morning to five in the evening – to wrestle themselves upwards by just two hundred metres. And yet, to Maki and his guides, no more than an hour seemed to have passed, so intense had been their concentration.

Scrambling onto the top of the steep section, they realised they’d won. Yet nobody had the strength left to cheer. Without a word, Steuri scratched the date onto a rock – 10.9.1921. Then he snapped the wooden pole in two and tied his headcloth onto the shorter section. Amatter took the makeshift flag and thrust it into a cairn that he’d piled up in the meantime.

We realise we’ve lost when we cross a narrow gap between two towers. Stepping onto the tightrope fillet between them I feel the wind catch my pack and tilt me towards Grindelwald’s airspace. I grab a projection on the far side before I topple. Strictly speaking, you can’t take the so-called tour of the north face from here, because we’re not yet above that yawning declivity. But the difference will be academic if we get blown off the mountain. “The wind will be much stronger on the summit ridge,” says Martin, pointing out the obvious.

Moving like robots now, Maki’s party continued up the snows of the summit ridge, reaching the top shortly after seven in the evening. The cold drove them onwards after a five-minute pause. Roping up in a new order, Brawand bringing up the rear, the party started carefully down the western ridge – the day’s snowmelt had already frozen, glazing the rocks with ice as hard as enamel.

Amatter led downwards, lantern in hand. The light reached back only to Maki, leaving Steuri and Brawand to grope their way in the dark. After a while, they realised they’d gone astray – on one side was a sheer cliff down to the Eiger Glacier, on the other an equally sharp drop towards Grindelwald. Arduously, for an hour and more, they had to retrace their steps upwards and downwards, without making any real progress.

They were hungry: most of the food had tumbled off the mountain in Steuri’s rucksack. The water too was gone; only a little brandy was left. Steuri suggested licking butter to slake their thirst. To Maki’s surprise, and slight revulsion, the ploy worked.

In pitch-darkness, they stumbled onto the moraines of the Eiger Glacier, almost at the limits of their strength, reaching the Eigergletscher station at three in the morning. To their surprise, people poured out of the nearby restaurant to welcome them – they’d been expected.

Some hours after turning back, we’re sitting under a parasol on a café terrace at Kleine Scheidegg, sipping coffee with whipped cream, and looking up at the sombre recess of the Eiger’s north face. Shreds of cloud are scouring the summit ridge. If we’d gone on up there, we’d have been crawling across on hands and knees. “So how about it then – same time next year?” Martin asks. I nod.

On returning to Grindelwald, Maki was hoisted onto the shoulders of two Englishman, a tribute that the modest Japanese alpinist would probably have preferred to decline. For there was much to do. First, he had to write up testimonials for his guides: “When we were climbing on the Mittellegigrat from the side of Kallifirn,” Maki recorded in Sam Brawand’s Führerbuch, “he lost the wooden pole which was most important instrument for this climb. At this moment, he threw himself after the pole and got it back. Not thinking of a bit after his own safety! I couldn't keep from the tears came down.”

Then Maki invited his companions and their wives to a celebratory dinner in the Hotel Adler. And, to pay for the construction of the first refuge on the Mittellegi Ridge, he made a handsome donation to the local guides’ association. The new hut opened in 1924. The bill came to sixteen thousand Swiss francs, of which Maki provided the lion’s share.

A new hut, with twice the capacity, replaced the old refuge in 2001. It is still owned and operated by the Grindelwald guides. Maki’s old hut was helicoptered off the ridge and is now a tourist attraction at the mountain’s foot. As for the Mittellegi, climbers no longer need to take along a three-metre pole; fixed hawser-laid ropes take the sting out of the steep sections. The Eiger is still the Eiger. A week after our failed attempt, lightning struck a party of Czech climbers near the hut, killing one and injuring another.

Maki also set about purchasing top-quality alpine gear – ice-axes, crampons, rucksacks – for his university mountaineering club in Japan. The investment paid off. Inspired by Maki’s example, Japan’s alpinists raised their sights to big ridges that required technical climbing skills. Less than a year after the Mittellegi ascent, parties from Waseda and Gakushūin universities raced each other up Yari’s Kitakama ridge, opening a new decade of climbing exploration in the Japan Alps.

Alpinistic enthusiasm percolated up to the pinnacle of Japanese society. Maki returned to Switzerland in 1926, to organise a mountaineering summer for Prince Chichibu, the emperor’s younger son. Sam Brawand helped guide some of the warming-up climbs, although military duties prevented him joining the Prince’s traverse of the Matterhorn. Maki went on to make the first ascent of Mt Alberta in 1925, again with Swiss guides. After the war, he crowned his alpine career by leading the successful expedition to Manaslu, Japan’s 8000-metre peak, in 1956.

A year later, he was at Haneda Airport to welcome his old friend from Grindelwald. Brawand had meanwhile become a local politician and sat on the old Swissair’s board as the cantonal representative. In this capacity, he seized the chance to fly on the airline’s inaugural flight to Japan in 1957. The DC-6B took off from Geneva on 1 April and arrived in Tokyo on the fifth.

And there to greet him was a delegation of alpinists headed by Matsukata Saburō and Maki Yūkō. More old friends came to meet him at a reception hosted by the Japanese Alpine Club. Even Princess Chichibu was there, widow of the climbing prince. Brawand was so moved that the words in his old Führerbuch floated into his mind: “I couldn't keep from the tears came down”.

Memories of the Mittellegi linger in Maki’s homeland. On a recent count, there were at least 14 businesses with the name “Eiger” in Japan, including a maker of stained glass. And, for quite a few years after Maki himself passed on – this was in 1989 – Japan’s mountaineering traditionalists still favoured a distinctive kind of broad-beamed pack. These were known as “Kissling”, after the eponymous workshop in Zermatt that supplied the rucksacks for Maki’s student climbers. It's been years since I last saw one, though.


Prime source is Maki Yūkō’s account in his memoir, Sankō (“Mountain journeys”), which is still in print from Chuō Kōronsha.

A summarised version of Maki’s account was translated by Miyashita Keizō into German for Daniel Anker’s mountain monograph, Eiger: die vertikale Arena (AS Verlag, Zurich, 1998, revised 2000).

Additional reminiscences of the climb and subsequent events come from Samuel Brawand's memoir, Erinnerungen an Yuko Maki. Incidentally, Maki (and Miyashita) give the length of the wooden pole as six metres; Brawand, more credibly, says three metres.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Masters of the Mittellegi (1)

Following a pioneer of Taishō-era alpinism up the Eiger’s northeastern ridge

Pink is not my favourite colour, least of all when it lights up the night sky. Against this flickering glow, the Eiger brandishes his switchblade profile. We’re only an hour out, and already a fiasco looms, if not worse. Now, how did we get ourselves into this mess?

Ultimately, I'm inclined to pin the blame on Walter Weston - even if I have go back a ways to do so. In 1918, the mountaineering missionary was back in England after his Yokohama stint, but he kept in touch with mountaineering friends from Japan. One day, a student from Tokyo called to ask where he should spend his first season in the Swiss Alps. That was an easy question: Weston had fond memories of Grindelwald, where he’d done quite a few climbs in his pre-Japan days ...

Somewhere out beyond Grindelwald, a pink bolt stabs from cloud to ground. No accompanying rumble yet, but I stop trying to kid myself that a power line has shorted, or that somebody is letting off an early-morning fireworks display. This really is a thunderstorm. Now what?

The young Japanese mountaineer was Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune (1894-1989). The son of a Sendai newspaper proprietor, he grew up with both the will and means to climb. After travels with his parents introduced him to mountain scenery, he started his own climbing career with the big volcanoes. Mt Fuji was ascended in 1906, Yōtei-zan in Hokkaidō in 1909 and Aso-san in Kyūshū the following year.

Maki Yuko
In 1912, now in middle school, he made his first visit to the Japan Northern Alps. That ascent of Shirouma hooked him. After going up to Keio in 1913, he founded a university mountaineering club, Japan’s first. In the same winter, he went to Taguchi to take ski lessons – this just a few years after Major von Lerch had introduced the sport to Japan. Now Maki was a man with a mission.

In 1918, he crossed the Pacific to continue studying at Columbia University. At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, Maki found the atmosphere on campus so frenetic, after America’s entry into the war, that he couldn’t concentrate on study. So, counterintuitively, he kept going eastwards and sailed to England.

Mountains probably influenced this decision. Not long after his arrival in London, Maki dropped in on Walter Weston, who was always ready to help fellow members of the Japanese Alpine Club, and asked about a good base for climbing.

At last, Maki was there, lodged at the Hotel Adler at Grindelwald. In July 1920, he climbed several of the big peaks in the Bernese Oberland and made a traverse over from the Mönch to the Eiger’s summit via its west ridge. Already, though, it was the ridge on the opposite side of that mountain that interested him – the Mittellegi.

By this time, all the major alpine summits and most of the Bernese Oberland’s big ridges had been climbed. If there was a Last Great Problem, it was the Eiger’s Mittellegi. The ridge had been descended, using long abseils, but so far nobody had managed to climb up the steeper sections. From the grassy meadows of the Faulhorn, Maki studied the serrated ridge through a telescope and planned his campaign. A victory would greatly enhance the nascent traditions of Japanese alpinism…

Yesterday, I’d met up with Martin Burgener at the Eismeer Station, a railway stop hollowed out inside the Eiger. We walked with ducked heads through dripping tunnels to a portal blasted into the mountain’s south face. A delicate move down a corner of wet limestone saw us onto the glacier. A fine afternoon outside, though big bales of cloud were blowing off the peaks across the valley.

We roped up and set off eastwards across the snow. Let’s move smartly here, Martin said, tilting his helmet to explain why. I looked up – a block of avalanche debris, ponderous as a delivery van, clogged a gully above us. Yes, I agreed, that lot doesn’t seem to have our best interests at heart. Martin laughed, but set off at a swift pace. Welcome to the Eiger. 

We took off our crampons under a wall of compact limestone. Martin led a short chimney and then, short-roped, we meandered, carefully, across a series of ledges up towards the ridge, as if taking a slantwise stroll across a tiled roof, easy but aerily exposed. Thank goodness we don’t have to come back this way, I thought.

The Mittellegi Hut squats athwart the ridge, braced with steel cables to stop it blowing away. We dropped our gear and went in. The hut warden, bald and bearded, had a genial twinkle in his blue eyes. I didn’t notice for a minute or two that he was wearing a steel leg brace. When we came in, he ticked Martin’s name off on a slip of paper pinned on the back of the door. Only the guides were listed by name – Burgener + 1, Brunner + 1, Andermatten + 1, Bomio + 1, Brawand …

Samuel Brawand, Yuko Maki, Fritz Steuri, Fritz Amatter

Brawand! Sam Brawand would have to be the man. Maki’s 1921 season had started badly. His usual guide, Emil, went down with appendicitis and then, after Maki had done a few training climbs in Zermatt, the weather turned bad. When he returned to Grindelwald, the Eiger was dusted with new snow. Conditions looked hopeless, but he’d give it a go.

Maki had known Brawand since the winter of 1919, when the young guide had given him German lessons. And they’d climbed several high mountains together the previous summer. Now Maki invited him round to the Hotel Adler and explained his plan. They’d need some help, and so the two Fritzes, Amatter and Steuri, were signed up too. These were Grindelwald’s top men; Steuri had guided more than 400 ascents of 4,000-metre peaks while Amatter had made the first ascent of the Finsteraarhorn’s precipitous east face.

On September 7, Maki met with the guides in the hotel garden to discuss the final arrangements. Apart from the usual climbing gear, they’d need something extra and the village blacksmith was commissioned to knock one out the next day. This ‘secret weapon’ was a three-metre pole with a grappling hook at the top end and spiked feet at the other (see right).

They also amassed about thirty pitons, as well as two thirty-metre and one sixty-metre rope, each braided with the red cord that showed it met the standards of Britain’s Alpine Club. Bivvy gear had to be considered too – a spirit stove, two blankets, extra clothing, and sheets of newspaper for insulation. As for food, there would be raw eggs, roast chicken, ham, sausage, biscuits, bread, butter and jam, and brandy.

On the evening of the 8th, they went round to the blacksmith to collect the climbing pole. Now the tension started to build. From his room in the Adler, Maki watched the sunset steep the Eiger’s north face in roseate light and wondered if it was vainglory or ambition that was driving him into this venture. But, no, that wasn’t it. It was just that the mountain’s attraction was so strong, he had to climb it. Once he’d worked that out, his peace of mind returned, as it always did …

The evening sunlight flooded straight into the hut, untainted at this altitude by any reddish tinge. The western sky was clear; banner clouds still tumbled from the Schreckhorn’s summit opposite. The föhn wind was still blowing hard. We shovelled down macaroni cheese with apple sauce while Martin explained the plan – up at 4am, away half an hour later; no point going earlier, as you need to see what you’re doing when the ridge starts to steepen.

September 9th dawned bright; no clouds in the sky, just a wisp of snow pluming from the Eiger’s summit. The slanting light hinted that autumn was on the way. Maki and his guides stuffed gear into their packs, laced up their tricouni-nailed boots, and double-checked the kit-list.

The Adler’s landlord shook Maki’s hand forcefully; his wife said to come back in one piece, and the maid promised to say a prayer for him. They all came to the station to see him onto the 8.15am train.

At the Eismeer station, the party met up with Steuri, who’d come on an earlier train with the three-metre pole, and made their way down the tunnels. Then they roped down onto the snow and set off across the glacier.

Nobody notices when the stars fade out – we’re too busy watching our footwork as we scramble up and down small rock towers. At 4.30am, we’d left the hut under a starry sky. The air was warm, the rock dry and the plan still looked good. Sign up with a guide – expensive, yes, but this is the Eiger, famed for its suboptimal outcomes – and follow in the footsteps of a pioneering Japanese alpinist. It's a sound plan - what could possibly go wrong?

Now, there it is again – that pink flicker, guttering out beyond the switchblade ridge. A young guide comes clattering down the ridge towards us. Probably an aspirant, he’s yet to master the hallmark imperturbability of the patented Bergführer. “A storm's coming in,” he says breathlessly …

(To be continued)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Climb Japan!

Book review: how the 10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan were scaled and selected

For five sweaty hours, unforewarned that a bridge and much of the path had long ago collapsed, we struggled along a gorge called the Tenjō (Heavens Above!). And this was just the approach to our climb. Alas, Kindles didn’t exist in those days. If they had, we could have downloaded Tony Grant’s 10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan and saved ourselves a world of hurt.

Recently released as an e-book, Tony’s book points you up some memorable routes. Just as importantly, it tells you how to get to and from the climbs safely. If you want to scale Yari’s Kitakama Ridge, for example, you’d be well advised to avoid Tenjō-zawa and, instead, to make a slightly less gnarly approach from the east. Naruhodo; had we but known…

Experience is needed to write a guidebook like this. Tony arrived in Tokyo with more than a decade of mountaineering behind him. Starting with a Plas-y-Brenin rock-climbing course in Wales, he gained multi-pitch experience in Poland’s Tatra mountains during a posting with the British Council, a cultural agency. While with the Warsaw University Alpine Club, he took a winter mountaineering course with a Himalayan veteran, who habitually free-soloed icy gullies alongside his roped-up students.

Tony Grant
By way of short postings to Bangladesh and Azerbaijan, Tony arrived in Tokyo nine years ago. He now supervises the development of English-teaching apps for the British Council. Despite the Council’s best efforts, though, the English language has yet to seep far into the Japanese climbing scene. So, when Tony arrived, he found next to no resources for foreign climbers either in print or on the web.

Unfazed, Tony did what many gaijin climbers do. He got in touch with one of the Tokyo-based international hiking clubs, and started cragging with two of its leading rock-climbers. He also hooked up with well-known mountain bloggers, Chris White and Hanameizan. Not all these early forays were successful: “In my first few years in Japan,” he recalls, “we’d often be scrabbling around at sunrise for the start of the climb and finding ourselves up the wrong gully.”

One breakthrough came when Tony met a Japanese musician and alpinist on a hike. A few days, later, the British Council’s receptionist called Tony to say a gentleman had left a carrier bag for him – which proved to be full of old guidebooks. These were eye-openers to what Japan has to offer in the way of alpine climbing. At the same time, there were some gotchas – the books were in Japanese, route descriptions were outdated, or said little about those all-important approaches and descents.

Shirouma Main Ridge - a classic 

Such lacunae led, at least once, to harrowing episodes. Topping out of Tanigawa’s classic Nanryō route, Tony and his companion decided to climb onwards to the ridge above. They thought it would take an hour, at most. Vertiginous rakes of slippery grass, head-high weeds, slimy fixed lines that might or might not hold, and rock steps forced them to triple that estimate and more. “Never again,” says Tony.

To save others from repeating such epics, Tony distilled his experiences into a blog, Climb Japan. And the blog, in turn, has flowed into his e-book. (There's now a print version too.) As you'd expect from the blog, the route descriptions are well illustrated, complete with strategic arrows overlaid on images to point out key turnings and directions. Excuses to find yourself fossicking in the wrong gully at sunrise just got fewer.

Astride Kita-dake Buttress (photo courtesy Chris White)

How did Tony pick out the ten routes from the much greater number he’s climbed? “Apart from the three routes on Tanigawa, a lower mountain,” he explains, “they’re huge natural lines that run right up to the top of peaks that rise past or close to 3,000 metres. They’re all lines that any mountaineer would want to climb.”

Also, he adds, all ten are on mountains that belong to Japan’s famous One Hundred Mountains. If you need to know what the Hyakumeizan are, Tony has added a brief explanation within the “Japan Extra” sections of his book. These are ten essays that accompany the guidebook chapters, each focusing on a special aspect of the Japanese mountains. The monkeys, snow ptarmigan and kamoshika get mentions, as do practical matters such as mountain huts and hot springs to soak in after your climb.

Guidebook author in his natural habitat.

If Tony ever expands his book, there are quite a few more classics he’d like to include – among them, the Genjirō, Komado and Yatsu-mine ridges on Tsurugi, and the Hida Ridge on Hodaka’s Gendarme, another of those compelling lines to the sky. And then there is the unique Japanese river-climbing sport of sawa-nobori – one famous river gorge, that of Oren-dani on Kaikoma, does make an appearance in Tony’s book, albeit as an ice-climb. But the next project, he hints, might be a guide to climbing on Yatsu-ga-take, a rugged extinct volcano near Tokyo best known for its winter routes.

Ice is nice too.
Nobody would dispute that routes such as Kitadake Buttress or Tsurugi’s Chinne – both feature in Tony’s book – are magic lines. Even their names– Chinne as in Gross Zinne, Buttress as in Lochnagar – invite comparison with European classics. But such comparisons might be misleading, Tony suggests. For, if you choose to climb the Japanese classics, don't expect to waft by cable-car onto retro-bolted tracts of sun-warmed granite.

“Chamonix this isn’t,” says Tony. “The rock is often poor quality, and it tends not to take trad gear, leaving you dependent on crummy pitons. But once you’ve got a handle on it, it develops a character of its own – horrendous in situ pro, tatty slings, grassy slabs, and huge runouts are among the recurring motifs. Anyone coming from abroad will be guaranteed an intense cultural experience.”

Now, thanks to Tony’s efforts, the Japanese alpine climbing experience can be downloaded by a new generation of foreign climbers.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

On writing and climbing

Wisdom from the latest edition of Alpinist magazine

It is not possible to write well without reading well. They go hand-in-hand like rope and rock. And, just as it is not possible to climb well without climbing meticulously, it is not possible to write well without writing meticulously, which inevitably requires many drafts. This is the craft. To refine over and over. To distill. Sloppy writing is as abhorrent and doomed to failure as sloppy climbing. 

What matters most in the mountains is economy. Moving quickly, efficiently, and thoughtfully. So too in writing. Occam's Razor should shave every sentence. And just like a good hand jam, you can feel a good sentence. It is secure, unadorned and moves the reader forward with unaffected grace. 

Strunk & White is right: the elements of style are clarity, precision and a reliable ear. You acquire these by years of reading and revising until the rhythm of your sentences becomes as natural as footfalls along an alpine path. "Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit."

Similarly, writing maxims, which we writers regularly fail to live up to, apply equally well to climbing. For example, replace the word "writing" with the word "climbing" in the following literary axioms: don't talk about what you're going to write, write it; what's wrong with your writing is what's wrong with you; don't take your writing too seriously, lightheartedness is its own salvation; finish what you start; practice, practice, practice.

Mark Jenkins, The Bighorn Writers Convention, Alpinist 53

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Images and ink (25)

Image: View of Mt Fuji, by Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950)

Ink: Preface to "Fuji-san" (2012) by Randy Taguchi:

What do the Japanese cherish and protect as a spiritual sanctuary? For a great many people, the answer is Mount Fuji. 

Mount Fuji occupies a strange and wondrous place in the Japanese imagination. When you set your eyes on its shining, majestic beauty, you feel a sense of gain for some reason. You can't help but tell someone that you saw the mountain today, and that it was lovely to behold. The beauty of Mount Fuji lifts your spirits, telling you that everything is all right, telling you to choose life. I wonder how many lives have been saved in this way. 

How many Japanese hearts Mount Fuji has inspired with hope for so long now. I wrote this anthology of stories as an expression of my veneration and appreciation for this life-affirming mountain; it is my personal tribute to Fujisan. 

Even as the times change, Mount Fuji continues to remain divine and awe-inspiring throughout the ages. We keep looking up at it with genuine gratitude in our hearts. And this simple act, I believe, is in itself a true way to pray.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Being with the mountain

On December 21 last year, one of Japan’s top alpinists fell to her death from a winter climb on Kurodake in Hokkaido. Besides a glittering Himalayan track-record – for which see Ed Douglas’s tribute in the Guardian – Kei Taniguchi left behind a remarkable testament to her philosophy of mountaineering. This took the shape of an essay in Mountain 52, published just days before her death. Thanks to the generosity of Katie Ives, the magazine’s editor, you can read the full article online. It was the closing paragraphs that especially caught my attention:-

After decades of visiting the great ranges of the world, I've learned that I care most about the mountains of Japan. Each season, they reveal different faces. In winter, they wear only snow and ice and rock. They become luminous and quiet—although it's not easy to reach their heart in the deep drifts and the storms. A meter of snow can fall overnight. A swift blizzard can trap you. You inevitably have to face your weakness. How will you overcome it? The answer lies somewhere between the austerity of nature and your own ability. It's as if the entire scheme of existence plays out in a brief period of time. This harsh grace helps me grow the most.

From spring to autumn, there's an abundance of life. It's then that I like to be in the mountains by myself, catching fish, drinking stream water and picking mushrooms, nuts and wild grapes. I long to cross range after range, to venture ever deeper into the cradle of the wild.

The mountains have taken some of my friends' lives. But they have also shown me new life: the births of animals; the budding of flowers; the spreading of the vast, open air. The new dreams of lines and art that some- one might create—those are also essential elements of this vitality. For a climber, if there is no artistry, no beauty in alpinism, then there is no life.

In Japan, people have worshipped mountains since ancient times. These days, I enter the hills wishing to be accepted by the
yama no kami, the mountain gods. I ask to return safely, to be given some experience of beauty and to be taught some good way to shape my own life.