Friday, June 20, 2008

One Hundred Pioneers (3)

The explorer who recapitulated the history of Japanese mountaineering and broke trail for Nihon Hyakumeizan

Much as a wave cloud hangs above Mt Fuji, the spirit of Kogure Ritarō (1873-1944) hovers over Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan 's most famous mountain book. He bushwhacks his way up Hira-ga-dake in 1920 (Chapter 26) and puts in an appearance on Hiuchi (Chapter 34). He wages a campaign to rename Tanigawa-dake as Twin Ears (Chapter 30), and discovers that Naeba is the most distant mountain visible from Tokyo (Chapter 32). We take our leave of Kogure underneath Mizugaki (Chapter 69) at Kanayama, where he is commemorated to this day with a bronze bust and an annual memorial service.

If Kogure's ghost pervades Nihon Hyakumeizan, that should be no surprise. For his life recapitulated the whole history of mountaineering in Japan , from the monks and mystics who first scaled the country’s peaks to the modern sportsmen who climb for fun.

He was born in 1873 at a village in Gunma Prefecture where mountain-centred sects still held sway. His own family belonged to the Ontake faith (see also The gateway) and introduced him to the mountains at an early age. His grandmother took him up Akagi-yama at the age of six. At 13, he climbed Fuji with a neighbour who belonged to one of the mountain's sects, and his father took him to Bandai and Oze. Above all, he got to know his local mountains, the Chichibu range.

He also had time to study, and with effect. From a middle school in Tokyo, he went on to Sendai’s No.2 Higher Normal School (which later became Tohoku University). In 1893, the same year that he went up to Sendai , he traversed from Myōgi-san via Asama to Tateshina and then climbed Ontake with fellow members of his home sect. If Kogure needed any further encouragement in mountaineering, he found it in 1894 when Shiga Shigetaka published Nihon Fūkeiron (see Inventing the Japan Alps), with its call to arms for young alpinists.

Two years later, Kogure went over Hari-no-ki and across the Kurobe valley to Tateyama. The same year he climbed Norikura, Ontake, Kiso-Komagatake, and Kaikoma, as well as traversing from Kimpu over Jūmonji-tōge to Kobushi-ga-take. Even today, with the help of bullet trains and expressways, that would make a respectable haul of mountains for a single year.

After graduating from Sendai, Kogure entered Tokyo Imperial University but soon dropped out to pursue a literary career. Around this time he teamed up with Tanabe Jūji (1884-1972) to make a series of expeditions into Chichibu and the Northern Alps. This was the era when Japan's new generation of mountaineers set out to re-discover peaks that only hunters and mystics had previously visited. The spirit of that pioneering age is captured by Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan:-

"It was Kogure himself accompanied by Fujishima Toshio who, in 1919 (Taishō 8) first forced his arduous way to the top of Sukai, a hitherto virgin peak. In those days, we still had mountains in Japan that nobody knew how to attempt, where you had to find your own way by trial and error, fighting your way through or under the greenery, and so finally winning the summit. In short, we still had mountains where you could still taste the true joys of mountaineering."

After joining the Japan Alpine Club in 1913, Kogure edited its journal, "Sangaku", for several years. This, of course, was in addition to his day job at the Tokyo municipal archives. He became the president of the JAC in 1935 – the same year that Fukada Kyūya was elected – and continued in office for nine years. Increasingly, his writings sounded a warning note about what would now be called environmental concerns.

Kogure could wield a mighty pen, especially when he deployed it in the service of his beloved Oku-Chichibu range. Here he is on Kinpu-san (as quoted in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 68): "This is a splendid mountain. It rises in solitary state above the rest of the Chichibu 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 a strength of character that makes it a mountain among mountains, compare it where you will."

Kogure chose to write about mountains as if they were people. Half a century later, in his Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada Kyūya followed this lead, a stratagem that won him the prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature in January 1965. As it happened, the panel of judges included a former climbing companion, the literary critic Kobayashi Hideo. He explained his advocacy as follows:

"This is one of the most original works of criticism that I've seen in recent years. The objects of critical thought are, in this case, mountains. The author has chosen to write about mountains as if they were people. To do so, he must have engaged with them face-to-face, so to speak, in all the remotest corners of our land."

Besides borrowing a literary device, Fukada also referred extensively to Kogure's "Sangaku" articles and such other works as "Mountain Memories". In this light, we may need to turn around the simile that heads this article. The wave cloud is Nihon Hyakumeizan. Like some luminous epiphenomenon, the book floats above the rugged expeditions and writings of Kogure Ritarō and his peers.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in the forthcoming translation as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan"

Hyakumeizan no Hito by Tazawa Takuya (TBS Britannica, 2003), a full-length biography of Fukada Kyūya

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) for a short biography of Kogure Ritarō

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chasing the dragon

The crater lake on Washiba-dake in the Northern Japan Alps betrays the nature of the forces beneath, although not to us

How can a mountain with a pointed summit also sport a volcanic crater? This was the question that exercised me as we walked up the ridge towards Washiba-dake (2,924m), the Eagle Feather Mountain. Perhaps the so-called crater lake we’d heard about was just a corrie carved by some long-vanished glacier. Anyway, in a few minutes we hoped to see for ourselves.

We’d spent three days wading and walking up the Kurobe river. A passing typhoon had harassed us, but the sky had cleared overnight and, across the valley, the sun was rising over Yarigatake. For a few minutes, the summit of Washiba glowed yellow in the dawn light. Then the fogbank below us stirred into life. In minutes, the vapour surged up the slope and robbed us of our view. So we never saw Washiba’s crater, even though we walked right past it.

Fortunately, the weather was better one summer day in 1907 when Shimura Urei passed this way. Looking down from the summit, he immediately recognized the crater for what it was: "I saw a small pond below and to the south, for all the world like an eruption crater … this crater on Washiba is probably a surprise for the world."

The savants were soon on the case and proved that Shimura’s first impressions were correct. Six years later a geologist named Katō Tetsunosuke reported that the banks of the crater lake comprised two layers of lava. However, he thought that the crater was too small to be the lava’s source and was formed instead by the slumping of the molten rock as it cooled. A thin layer of ash and volcanic bombs was found scattered about, further confirming the crater’s fiery origins.

That deepened rather solved the mystery of Washiba-dake. For the mountain’s summit, just a hundred metres or so above the crater lake, is not volcanic. On the contrary, it is made of a coarse-grained granite, as we could see for ourselves even in the drifting mists. We crunched through its speckled, off-white fragments as we passed by Washiba’s invisible peak.

The fog surrounding the mountain’s split personality was partially dispelled by a later generation of geologists. The granite and tonalite body of the mountain, they say, congealed about 190 million to 170 million years ago from a deep-seated magma reservoir. Much more recently, these rocks were uplifted – we may imagine them rising gracefully from the depths like a Wurlitzer organ from the pit of an old-time cinema – and then revealed by erosion to grateful mountain-climbers. So their credentials are impeccably alpine: Mt Blanc was formed in much the same way

By contrast, the crater is a parvenu. It blew (or slumped) onto the scene a mere 6,000 years ago, as a last hiccup of the volcanic activity that wracked the nearby Kumo-no-daira tableland from about 300,000 to 100,000 years before present. Much in this account remains obscure, though, notably the source of the lavas that form Kumo-no-daira. Today, dense forest and boggy alpine meadows draw a veil over the volcanic past, but the terrain lets slip a few hints here and there. Washiba’s crater is one and another is found in the plumes of sulphurous steam that still vent from Io-zawa a few kilometres to the southeast.

Two years later, we went to Washiba again, reaching the summit in cloud and driving rain. Once more the mountain kept the secret of its crater to itself. According to the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya, the lakelet was known in feudal times as “Dragon Pond”. Somehow, we seemed to have offended the beast, perhaps by doubting the volcanic origins of his crater.

We were never able to make a third attempt but, surfing a Ginza gallery one lunch hour, I did find a woodblock print that shows the pond. In front of it, under a starry sky, two Taishō-period mountaineers are sitting round a campfire. Their antique habit and the pristine scenery call to mind Fukada’s closing words about the crater. “In that pioneering era, such unexpected discoveries were not uncommon in the Northern Alps. Today, mountaineering is much more convenient but it has lost this element of surprise and wonder.”


Nihon Hyakumeizan, in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Hyakumeizan no Shizengaku (Nishi-Nihon) by Shimizu Chōsei, Kokon Shoin 2002

Woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi, from Twelve Scenes in the Japan Alps series (1926), published in The Complete Woodblock Prints of Yoshida Hiroshi, Abe Shuppan

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The creeping pine question reloaded

Is climate change raising the treeline in Japan ’s Southern Alps and driving the creeping pine into retreat? Somebody should go and take a look at Tekari-dake (日本語要約は下にあります)

Are forest trees invading the summit of Tekari-dake (2,591 metres), the last high mountain in Japan ’s Southern Alps ? And is the creeping pine, the alpine shrub that previously covered the summit, now retreating? After a previous post raised these questions, some new photos* clearly show that tall trees surround Tekari's summit marker. Half a century ago, the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya describes the area as the southernmost point in Japan – or, indeed, Asia and the world – where creeping pine (haimatsu, Pinus pumila) grows.

So, what is happening on Tekari? To answer that question, somebody needs to go and take a close look at the summit. What is the extent of the forest trees and where did they come from? Maybe the staff of the nearby Tekari hut can shed light on those questions – do they remember when the forest trees appeared? Or have they always been there? Is there any creeping pine left? And where along the ridgeline does the forest stop and the creeping pine begin? It would help also to find a photo of Tekari’s summit in Fukada’s day. Fukada mentions in Hyakumeizan that his companion, a botanist, took such a photo. Maybe other photos exist.

Why does the creeping pine question matter? Well, it might just be an early sign of a rising tree line in the Japanese mountains. That would be significant, given that vegetation zones are expected to rise – and indeed are rising – as the climate warms up. Creeping pine won’t be the only loser, by the way. Japan ’s temperature-sensitive beech forests are also expected to retreat. Isolated pockets of beech, like the one in the Amagi mountains, will presumably die out.*

Might it be that Tekari is the front line in this ecological upheaval? It is too soon to leap to conclusions. Even if the forest trees can be proved to have replaced the creeping pine, the mechanism might not be global warming but something local – the haimatsu may have succumbed to a forest fire or the erosive feet of Hyakumeizan-baggers, for example. That said, the few scraps of evidence on hand are suggestive. “Thus it was that Tekari became a mountain of botanical significance,” says Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan. Now it is again, and more than ever before.



光岳のハイマツ問題 - 地球温暖化の前兆か

深田久弥の日本百名山は昭和39年(1964年)に刊行された。深田久弥が南アルプスの最南端である光岳を訪ねた時、頂上は典型的な高山植物であるハイマツに覆われていたという。このハイマツは、結局、日本だけでなく、世界最南端のハイマツであるとのことだった。しかし、現在となって、光岳の頂上にハイマツはほぼあるいは全く見られなくなった。その代わりに、頂上付近は普通の森林樹木に覆われている。これは地球温暖化のせいか、それともほかのメカニズムがもたらしたものなのか。"国破れて山河在り" と中国の杜甫は詠ったが、地球温暖化の時代に入ると、山河も破れる恐れあり、か...



Nihon Hyakumeizan in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

*in Saishinpan Nihon Hyakumeizan, Asahi Visual Series, 2008 May 18 edition, No.16, Hijiri/Tekari (Many thanks, Kawamata-sensei!)

The Potential Effects of Climate Change in Japan, Center for Global Environmental Research, National Institute for Environmental Studies, Environmental Agency of Japan – see Chapter 3: Climate Changes and Forests

Ecological Status of Pinus Pumila Scrub and the Lower Boundary of the Japanese Alpine Zone by Osamu Yanagimachi, Hosei University, and Hiroo Ohmori, University of Tokyo, paper in Arctic and Alpine Research, Vol 23, No.4, 1991 – establishes the lower and upper limits of creeping pine as temperature-sensitive.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

One hundred pioneers (2)

The monk who climbed Yari and the guide who saved his life

It was a late summer weekend in Japan's Northern Alps, perhaps the last before the snow came down. We were marching down the wooded path towards Kamikochi when we overtook the monks. Alerted by the clink of climbing hardware in our packs, one of them turned as we approached. It was an unforgettable moment. To top the ensemble of his black vestments, rosary, and straw sandals, he sported a razor-sharp pair of blade sunglasses. The monks and the mountaineers fell to talking. We had just done a route in Takidani. They had been singing sutras to the memory of Monk Banryū atop Yari-ga-take. The memorial service is performed without fail every year, the monks said.

Fukada Kyūya would have approved: “Banryū was a great alpinist. His achievements are recorded in the masterly biography by Hokari Misuo, but his role as a pioneer of the Northern Alps deserves to be known to a wider public,” he writes in “One Hundred Mountains of Japan” (Nihon Hyakumeizan). The monk appears twice in Fukada’s book, in the Kasa-ga-dake and Yari-ga-take chapters.

Monks and religious mystics opened up many of Japan’s greater mountains and Banryū was the last great representative of that tradition. Indeed, a popular history of Japanese mountaineering elevates him to a pantheon of just seven climbing monks – the others are En-no-gyōja, said to have ascended Fuji in the seventh century; Taichō, the eighth-century pioneer of Hakusan; the roughly contemporaneous Jikō of Tateyama; Shōdō (735-817), who first climbed Nantai; Hasegawa Kakugyō (1541-1648), founder of a sect centred on Mt Fuji; and Fukan (1731-1802), who did the same for Ontake.

Banryū was born in Ōyama-machi in what is now Toyama Prefecture, in 1782. By coincidence, it was in the same year, the second of Tenmei, that Monk Nan'ei from Sōyuji temple in nearby Takayama made the first authenticated ascent of Kasa-ga-dake. Forty years later, Banryū followed in Nan'ei’s footsteps, as Fukada records in Hyakumeizan:

After reaching the top in June of the sixth year of Bunsei (1823), he persuaded some local people to build a path. On August 5 the same year, eighteen people with Banryū at their head climbed the mountain again. As they watched a bright halo floating in the clouds, Buddha the Merciful appeared to them three times, causing them to weep tears of adoration while they paid their devotions. Banryū left a detailed account of this episode in his Record of the re-dedication of Katagadake. The following year, on August 5, Banryū led sixty-six people to the summit in honour of Buddha Amida. Again, the halo in the clouds was seen several times. It was on this occasion also that Banryū saw the noble form of distant Yari-ga-take and resolved to climb it, later achieving the mountain's first ascent.

The bright halo mentioned in this account must be the brockenspectre. This is a phenomenon caused by optical scattering that is often seen in the Japanese mountains. There’s a good write-up and some excellent photos in a blog post by CJW. The brocken in the photo above was seen on Kita-Hodaka, a 3000-metre peak just across the valley from Kasa-ga-dake.

Three years after the Kasa ascent, Banryū made his first attempt on Yari. Again, the story is taken up in Hyakumeizan:

Banryū came to the village of Ogura in Azumi-gun of Shinano province and put up there with the headman, Nakata Kyūzaemon. Nakata agreed to the monk's request and they forthwith started to prepare for the journey. With Nakata's brother-in-law, Matajūrō, who knew the mountains, they set out for Yari. Crossing Ōtaki-yama and Chō-ga-dake, they descended into Kami-kōchi, then followed the Azusa river up to a cave in Yari-sawa (now known as the Bōzu Iwagoya or Monk's Cave). Making this their base, they made a foray towards Yari itself, with Banryū chanting the nenbutsu as he went. However, that year they did no more than spy out the ground.

Undaunted, pious Banryū spent the next two years travelling through the provinces and collecting alms until he was ready once more to incline his staff towards Yari. This time, he bore on his back statues of the Amida Nyorai, Kannon Bosatsu, and Monju Bosatsu. Committing himself to their protection, he finally attained the summit of Yari-ga-take on July 28 of the eleventh year of Bunsei (1828). Having achieved his aim, he set up the three statues on the summit and sent up an oration of thanks to the Buddha for his mercies.

Banryū returned twice more to Yari, improved the path there, cleared the summit, and encouraged his disciples to make the ascent. He would also have safeguarded the ascent of the rocky spire with iron chains but for certain villagers who prevented him because, at the height of the Tempo Famine (1830-34), they blamed his mountain-climbing for their bad harvests. Only when better times returned did they grant his wish and allow chains on Yari …

There’s more to the story of Banryū, as we discovered on a ski-tour one Golden Week. On our way towards the west ridge of Yari, bad weather detained us at the Sugoroku Hut. Fortunately, our host, Koike Hisomu, maintained a goodly library for the use of his guests. As the spring storm buffeted the hut’s timbers, I lit on a book by Hokari Misuo and read with fascination about the monk’s third visit to Yari-ga-take.

Five years had passed since he first reached the summit and, in the meantime, hard times had fallen on the surrounding region. In August 1835, the year after the Tempo famine ended, Banryū set out for Yari again, hoping to make the ascent route easier for future pilgrims. He made his way up to the familiar cave in Yari-sawa together with Nakata Matajūrō, who had stocked it with rice, flour and a cooking pot. Then Nakata left the monk to his devotions.

Once more, Banryū was alone with Yari-ga-take. He meditated, waited for a fine day, climbed to the summit, and perhaps again saw the mystical, Buddha-like halo in the clouds. But August was now drawing to a close. Frost covered the ground every morning and the monk was now melting snow in order to cook his rice or barley. Intent on his rites and sutras, the monk paid no heed to the looming onset of winter.

Meanwhile, the five disciples whom Banryū had left in the valley were anxious. They broached their fears to Matajūrō, who immediately set off up the mountain. Arriving at the cave, he found the ground covered with new snow and Banryū debilitated by seventeen days of austerities. Sometimes carrying, sometimes dragging his friend, Matajūrō succeeded in bringing him down to Ogura in the last stages of exhaustion. He wanted to summon a doctor but Banryū refused, preferring to rely on the Nembutsu. In the end, he lost two toes on his right foot to frostbite.

Banryū stands out in several ways. He brought the tradition of mountain asceticism to the highest, most difficult peaks. And, unlike the other pioneers mentioned above, who belonged to more esoteric schools, he adhered to the popular Jōdo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism, with its emphasis on everyday good works and saving others. Although a layman, Nakata Matajūrō was also faithful to Jōdo principles. He selflessly supported Banryū and carried out Japan’s first high-altitude mountain rescue. He should be remembered too.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru ka (人はなぜ山に登るか), Taiyō Bessatsu, Autumn 1998 – a summarized history of Japanese mountaineering

Banryū (槍岳開祖播隆) by Hokari Misuo, Shin-Shinshū-sha, October 1963

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Crack babies

Novice alpinists get loose in Takidani, a seminary for mountaineering skills

In the Taishō period, Hodaka became the arena for alpine and winter climbing, records Fukada Kyuya in “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”. In the seminary of mountaineering skills formed by its four three-thousanders, the youthful elite of the university mountaineering clubs ... vied to open up new routes.

Those who indulge in the Kool-Aid of alpine romanticism should watch out for the third cup - the one that, as the Japanese proverb has it, drinks you. In this case, I let a frontispiece go to my head. The grainy black and white photo showed dark rocky towers soaring out of drifting cloud. Why is hard to say, but the image was bewitching. But where was this place? I leafed through the Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains Volume VII, where the photo appears, and found that it depicts the western cliffs of Kita-Hodaka, a prominent 3,000er in the Northern Japan Alps.

So this was Takidani, the Valley of Waterfalls. We gathered that it had a certain reputation in alpine circles. As soon as we could skive off work for a few days, we boarded the night bus for Kami-Kochi. The following afternoon we arrived at the Kita-Hodaka hut, which perches more or less atop our chosen climbing area. The hut crew gave us a warm welcome, but dinner was the standard fare – a smidgeon of scorched fish and a pinch of seaweed to help the rice down. Could we really survive a week on this?

Next morning, the hut was wrapped in drifting cloud but we set off anyway. In west-facing Takidani, you start at the top of the mountain and go down to the foot of the climb. So you sink into the shadow and climb back into the light. There’s something metaphysical in that. Approaches can be more testing than the climbs. B-Gully, which we were now descending, impressed us. The stones we dislodged at every step cascaded down the chute ahead, making a continuous rattle that sounded as dry as our throats. And, though we had our eyes fixed on our footing, we didn’t need to look up to sense the menace of the teetering pinnacles and boulders poised above our heads.

Had we but known, these gullies – labelled from A through D – are instinct with Japanese mountaineering history. When Yuko Maki ascended the Eiger’s Mittelegi ridge in 1921, the first major triumph by a Japanese alpinist abroad, he touched off an explosion of climbing exploration in his home country. On an August day four years later, two parties, one each from town and gown, started up Takidani from the valley. After clambering over three high waterfalls in the lower reaches of the sawa, they parted ways. The Waseda men went right and the Rock Climbing Club left, gaining the main ridge via the gully next to ours. They were the first to enrol in this seminary of alpine skills and I wager their throats were as dry as ours.

Leading to the start of our climb was a ledge that looked as if it would soon part company with the cliff. We edged nervously across it. According to the savants, Takidani is composed of granodiorite that originated in a pluton, a bleb of molten rock from the depths. In this, it resembles the granite cliffs of Yosemite or Mt Blanc. But there the kinship ends. Perhaps because the Takidani batholith cooled quickly, cracks seam its rocks. This makes them handy to climb but, by the same token, exposes them to the ruinous attentions of frost and water.

After the horror show of the gully, we were mildly surprised to find ourselves enjoying a climb on not altogether degenerate rock. Put up in 1932, Crack Ridge is one of Takidani’s easier classics. Some scrambling leads over a small gendarme onto “Kyu-megane Col” (maybe somebody’s glasses got smashed here). Soon afterwards, leaders must decide whether to play scissors, paper, stone for the privilege of leading the Janken Crack - or simply grab this Grade IV treat for themselves. A few more pitches led pleasantly up to the door of the Kita-Hodaka hut. We had been admitted to the seminary.

We emerged from the shadows in time for lunch in the sun. The morning mists had cleared and, below us, cumulus tops sprouted from a cloud sea. We spent the afternoon talking to Tsugita-san, a weatherbeaten guide, who pointed out other notable routes in the area. With one pitch of Grade IV under our harnesses, we felt a bit like brash young Skywalkers being instructed by the Jedi master. “What’s that gully like in winter,” I asked. “That gully is hell,” came the succinct reply.

Dinner was at five. An appealing concoction of choice meats and fish was waiting for us, with fruit for dessert. But we noticed that the other guests were eating the same standard fare as yesterday. What was going on? Fujimoto-san, our hut warden friend, murmured something to the effect that, as this was our second night, variety was the spice of life.

Next day, we decided on No.4 Ridge, the longest route in Takidani. Again, the way to the climb led down a rubble chute overhung by walls of spalling rock. Halfway down, we had to abseil a bad step. Then we had to attain the ridge itself, via a pitch of boulders embedded in a steep sandback. After that, several rope-lengths of aery ridge took us to a “Tsurum” – later we realised that this is the German word for tower in katakana-speak. Some Grade IV climbing up a headwall and an awkward move around a block saw us to the hiking path across the Hodaka range.

Dinner at the hut was memorable: larks tongues to start, followed by asparagus wrapped in parma ham, the whole presented in a sauce of maître d’hôtel Ono’s invention. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only a bit. M. Fujimoto hovered discreetly in the background, offering now and then to recharge our bowls.

That night, Typhoon 19 arrived like a motorbike gang riding into town. It was time to cultivate the gentle arts of the fester. Fortunately, Richard had brought with him “Seven Years in Tibet”, by Heinrich Harrer, the Eiger first ascensionist. Strange how that mountain runs through this tale.

In mid-morning, the door swung open to admit two very wet mountaineers escorting a dripping convoy of six obasans. The leader turned out to be Hasegawa Tsuneo, the first to climb the three great north faces of the European Alps – including the Eiger – solo and in winter. Curious to find foreign climbers on Kita-Hodaka, he brought his bottle of whisky over to our table. The level dropped steadily while he regaled us with tales of alpine derring-do.

Next morning, we had what Eric Newby would caption as a “hideous awakening”. The typhoon was still raging, not only outside but also in our heads. Nothing daunted, Hasegawa-san led his obatarians out into the rain. As we’d run out of reading material – the red hordes having booted Harrer out of Tibet – Richard decided to go down while I opted to take the air on the Dai-Kiretto. Out there, conditions were like Brighton Pier on a day when the Met Office has guaranteed there will be no hurricane. At times, rain came driving upwards in sheets. I overtook Hasegawa-san’s party somewhere underneath Minami-dake, then ran for shelter at the Yari-daira hut down in the valley.

Next month, we came back to do another route. I’d been reading “Yamagutsu no oto” by Yoshino Mitsuhiko, another Eiger north face man. Once again, we may have taken a sip too many of the alpinistic Kool-Aid. Under its influence, we decided to attempt a route that Yoshino had pioneered on the Grepon, a rock tower. So, for a second time, we found ourselves edging our way down a crumbling canyon.

It was as well for our nerves that neither of us had read Inoue Yasushi’s “Hyoheki” (Ice Wall). In this novel, the plot revolves around a mountaineering accident based on a real-life case. In reality (although not in the book), the disaster happened in Takidani. Like many a famous work of fiction, “Hyoheki” was first published chapter by chapter in a newspaper. This may have led Inoue to engineer a somewhat hasty denouement when the contract ran out. In any case, he eliminates his hero by sending him on a solo mission to Takidani. After climbing from the valley, Uozu Kyota reaches D-Gully. This is the last entry in his fictive diary:

3:30pm: entered D-Gully – frequent stonefall – thick ‘gas’ (mist)
c4:35pm: hit by a stone underneath the “Turm” – I’m hurt – take cover beneath an overhang under some ridge coming down from Karasawa-dake – must have lost consciousness.
7pm: awake again – have lost a lot of blood from my leg. Lower body as if paralysed, no feeling. Still thick fog. Losing it now and then.
The reason for this accident is that I went on despite the fog and didn’t take account of the unusually bad stonefall. In short: negligence.
Quite a few famous climbers have lost their lives in avoidable accidents. Now I’m following in their footsteps.
No more fog, now bright moonlight. It’s 2:15am. No more pain, I’m not cold.
It’s quiet. Infinitely quiet.

The Grepon reared like a stone cobra over our heads. We uncoiled the rope and set about the first pitch, a loose and grassy rake. Immediately, we had a problem. Our previous routes in Takidani had been so well furnished with in-situ pitons that the wedges and camming devices we’d brought with us had seemed superfluous. So this time we’d left most of the gear behind. Only to find here that pitons were far and few between, not to mention rusty and unreliable. Keyed up by the lack of protection – the rope hanging free for adventurously long spans between the pitons – we climbed straight ahead where we should have forked right.

This mistake left me standing on a pedestal below an overhang. This the guide book sanctioned as an A0 move – one justifying a pull on the in-situ pitons. I did not have much time to regret pulling on the loose knife-blade peg before entering free fall. This was bad. Hitting the sloping ledge below harder than I’d ever hit anything before was, in a sense good, because a fall into space would certainly have ripped out the rusty pitons to which Richard was belayed. Then we would both have gone to the bottom of the cliff. When I recovered my senses, I found that I couldn’t move. This was, again, bad. A few seconds later, though, I realised that the paralysis was caused only by the rope having wound itself round my limbs. This was better than it might have been.

I rejoined a worried Richard at the belay ledge and we improvised some bandages for a cut hand. Apart from that, the damage was light. Then we made three abseils from dubious pitons and rock spikes back into the shadows of C-Gully. The reason for this accident is that we strayed off route and didn’t take account of the poor in-situ protection. In short: negligence. Quite a few famous climbers have lost their lives in avoidable accidents, and we nearly followed in their footsteps.

We went back to Takidani several times after that, but usually to address routes on the Dome. These are close to the hut and one can abseil into the start of the climbs. Although the climbs themselves may be steeper than Takidani’s ridge routes, they feel safer – almost a soft touch – because they don’t involve a descent on foot into those crumbling gullies. And the Dome’s ledges are aery places. From them, the resting second can sweep his gaze over the distant rainhat of Kasa-ga-dake, then glance down more than a thousand metres to the white thread of the Gamata river. Altitude diminishes the roar of the thundering torrent to the faintest murmur. “On belay,” sounds from somewhere above and the reverie is over. One more pitch and we will climb back into the light.

One August, we camped in Karasawa, the cirque below the Hodaka range, and set out before dawn to do a climb in Takidani. We were still on our way up to Kita-Hodaka when the sun rose into a narrow slot between the horizon and a cloud deck. Having dyed the cliffs ahead a deep shade of blood-red, its rays were soon quenched by the encroaching stratus. The hint was taken – red sky in the morning – and we decided on a shorter route. Crack Ridge might do. Again we delivered ourselves into the maw of B-Gully. “This is a dangerous place,” Fujii-san kept muttering as the stones rattled down ahead of us, and I felt guilty at bringing a father of three here.

Then it got worse. The suspect ledge leading to the base of the climb had vanished, fulfilling its threat to part company with the mountain. This forced us to climb the gully’s wall, then abseil into the start of the climb. By now the clouds had come down – thick ‘gas’ – and it was snowing. But continuing up the ridge was still preferable to B-Gully. Fujii-san led the Grade IV crack without drama but seemed to take a long time setting up the belay. Cold water seeped into my shoes as I listened to the merry ring of a peg hammer from above. Clearly, my companion didn’t trust the in-situ pitons. Sensible man. For a moment, the mists parted and we glimpsed the neighbouring rock towers, clouds swirling around them. The scene looked familiar. So it should have. Once again, I was looking at that frontispiece to Volume VII of the Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains. Only this time we were right inside it.


By the outbreak of the second world war, most of Hodaka's ridges, faces, and gullies had been explored. As Matsukata Saburō wrote, "Some nook or corner of the mountain still concealed a narrow ledge, a dance floor for a tengu, defended by sheer precipices on three sides and backed by a cliff, inaccessible to all but the true alpine adept. And, if you could only get there, the edelweiss would be blooming in sheets all around. Those were the kind of day-dreams we indulged in." Yet only a mountain on the sheer scale of Hodaka could harbour dreams like these. (Nihon Hyakumeizan)


Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains Vol. VII Yari-ga-take & Hodaka-dake
(日本登山大系/槍ヶ岳、穂高岳)− top picture is from this book

Hyoheki (氷壁) by Inoue Yasushi, also translated as “Die Eiswand” by Oskar Benl, bless him

Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyuya, in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Climbing Guide Books 6: Hodaka (穂高岳の岩場) Hakusan Shobo