Visiting Yari-ga-take in November, we follow in the footsteps of a pioneer winter soloist
“Shinu-ze! You’re gonna die,” said the grizzled mountaineer, though there was a twinkle in his eye. A lot of snow had fallen for early November and we’d asked him if we could get up Yari without crampons. One of us didn’t yet own a pair of climbing irons and the other, out of solidarity, had left his behind. Yet it was too bright an afternoon to think of dying, and so we smiled back at the other party, and ploughed on up Yari-sawa, knee-deep through the drifts.
Waiting for Allan in the shadow of Sesshō Hut, I wondered who had named the refuge with the characters for ‘kill’ and ‘life’ and why. A rustling from above distracted me: rivulets of snow were tumbling down Yari’s sunward face. From this angle, the mountain really did look Matterhorn-like.
It was Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary, who first dubbed Yari the “Matterhorn of Japan”. But the comparison really doesn't hold. Yari barely tops 3,000 metres; the Matterhorn stands more than a kilometre higher, rearing over Zermatt like a cobra ready to strike. By contrast, Yari is a cheerful chandelle of rock, less an independent peak than a tall gendarme punctuating the main ridge of Japan’s Northern Alps. Presumably Weston wanted to promote his book.
An hour later, we were sitting round the supper table in the hut’s dark-timbered gloom. There were few guests – the hut on the col had already closed for the season – and all were here to climb Yari on this final weekend of the season. A Mr Morimoto was anxious that we appreciate the mountain’s heritage. We’d heard of Monk Banryū and Walter Weston, of course – whose pioneer ascents the English-language guidebook mentioned – but who was this Katō Buntarō (photo above left) that Morimoto-san was telling us about?
The Japanese climbers were surprised that we hadn’t heard of him – the Katō who’d blazed meteor-like through the firmament of early-Showa alpinism. Fortunately the evening was young, so there was time to remedy our ignorance. Katō Buntarō was born in 1905 in Hamasaka, a village on the Tango peninsula, north of Kyoto. The village children spent a lot of time at the beach: Buntarō dominated their underwater swimming contests; he could hold out longer than everyone else.
In April 1919, he joined the Mitsubishi marine diesel factory in Kobe as a trainee draughtsman. Making drawings for heavy machinery production was arduous, exacting work. To let off steam, Katō played table-tennis back at the dormitory. And so he might have remained, a ferocious and focused ping-pong player, had not somebody thought of organising a marathon walk along Mt Rokko, the miniature mountain range that rises behind the city of Kobe.
One by one, all the other participants dropped out along the 50-kilometre course, but Katō kept going, trudging home at 9pm. The mountain air had agreed with him. Now he started training in earnest, setting himself long road-marches all round the prefecture. Once he walked 100 kilometres at a stretch, coming back to the dormitory at 2am. Sometimes he walked home to Hamasaka, on the opposite coast.
At the same time, he was delving into mountain literature, raiding the library of the Kobe Walking Society and asking a senior’s advice about the Northern Alps. A strategy started to take shape; Katō did nothing on impulse. In 1925, he made his first foray to the mountains, a summer hike from Renge Onsen to Shirouma, followed by a Mt Fuji ascent. The same year, he made two autumn trips, to Ōdaigahara and Daisen. Two more years of summer and autumn hiking followed, as Katō tested out his new environment.
Then the pace quickened. In February 1928, he made his first winter foray, to Hyōnosen, the highest mountain within easy reach. In May, when the Japan Alps are still deep in snow, he went to Tateyama and Tsurugi, using skis for the first time, and carried on to Yari and the Hodaka mountains. The following year he went to Yatsugatake in January: Katō’s career as Japan’s foremost winter alpinist was under way.
All these journeys were solo. “As I’m not good at skiing or rock-climbing, parties that do those things wouldn’t welcome me as a member,” he explained (冬富士単独行) “And so I more or less have to go to the mountains alone; it’s not because I espouse some sort of rigorous ideology of solitary climbing.” That wasn’t quite the full story, though, as he admitted in another essay (単独行について): “If mountaineering is about gaining knowledge and hence solace from nature, then surely you gain the most knowledge and the highest degree of solace from solo mountaineering.”
Now came the great mid-winter expeditions that made his name – and they were expeditions, meticulously planned and executed, with equipment checked off against a list as it was packed. Some of the gear Katō invented himself: a celluloid faceplate, for example, that he slid inside his woollen balaclava helmet to keep the spindrift out of his eyes. He was also an original thinker when it came to food: his provisions included pasted-fish kamaboko for the protein, as well as karintō, a deep-fried pastry confection, and sweet natto beans for energy. (“You might try them yourselves,” suggested Mr Morimoto, nodding at us from across the table.)
Thus equipped, Katō set off in January 1930 to cross the Northern Alps from west to east. He managed this feat in ten days, starting at Sarudani, climbing over Yakushi and descending to the Kurobe river, then crossing Eboshi-dake before returning to civilisation at Shinano-Ohmachi. In February, he took in Kashimayari and Hari-no-ki, two more high peaks in the region.
All the while, he was noting the behaviour of weather and snow – how, in mid-winter, a three-day cycle sets in, of sunshine, cloud, and storm – and how to read the cues, perhaps a slant of cold wind after a storm, that signal when it is safe to start out. Avalanches were intensively studied: when snow started falling, it was relatively warm and cohesive, he observed, but the temperature then dropped. That meant that avalanches were most likely to come down right at the end of a storm.
This was fascinating, we agreed, but why had Morimoto chosen to invoke the memory of Katō just here? Well, Yari looms large in this story. Like some strange attractor, it was a pole around which Katō’s alpine wanderings revolved. It was to Yari that he headed in August 1926, on his second summer trip to the Northern Alps. After striding across from Tsubakuro, he climbed the spire-like peak on the same afternoon. Clouds hid most of the view as he and others on the summit raised a triple “Banzai”. Then he went down to the Sesshō Hut – which had started existence as a hunting lodge, hence its curious name.
He came back the following year, in mid-October. His new boots were too heavy, but at least they were good for kicking into the frozen snow on Yari. (Lacking crampons ourselves, we’d have to take a leaf out of his book tomorrow.) On the same day, he walked out over a pass to the village of Shimajima, getting there just before 10pm.
Now he had the measure of autumn, he felt ready to tackle the snows of spring. In May 1928, he visited the Yari-Hodaka range for the first time on skis. A few years later, he was confident enough on skis to head for Yari in mid-winter. Avalanches roared down from the sunward slopes as he entered Yari-sawa. On Yari itself, his crampons bit well into the hard snow; he preferred snow-work to rock.
Next day, an unstructured situation developed. On Oku-Hodaka, the highest peak in the massif, a blasting gale froze his eyes half-shut and he backed off – too late. Night fell as he was still skiing down the snowbowl of Karesawa, where a treacherous crust tripped him up at every turn. A torch might have helped, but he didn’t have one.
At 8pm, he picked a bivvy site beside a rock. Taking off his boots, he stepped into his rucksack, standing up all night so that his wet trousers wouldn’t cling to his legs and chill him. Luckily, it snowed heavily, keeping the temperature up; his clothes didn’t freeze and he got away without frost-bite.
Katō’s last visit to Yari was in January 1936. This time, a colleague, Yoshida Tomihisa, came with him. The abandonment of his solo ethos was not the only change in his life. A year or two previously, he’d got married. Now he came home every day to a real house instead of the grim company dormitory. “I’m back, Hana-chan,” he’d call out cheerily at the door. Soon he had a baby daughter to greet too.
In April 1934, he’d managed a week in the Northern Alps with Yoshida. They tackled the North Ridge to Mae-Hodaka, tunnelling their way up through a snow-filled chimney. What prompted Katō to climb with a companion? Marriage may have mellowed him, or he felt the need for a rope partner to tackle more difficult routes. Or, as Fujiki Kuzō suggested, he may have harboured ambitions for the Himalaya. If so, he might well have concluded that climbers could only succeed there as part of a strong team. British expeditions had recently returned to Everest, after the decade-long lapse that followed the deaths of Mallory and Irvine in 1924.
Whatever their dreams for the future, Katō and Yoshida overnighted at the hut on Yari’s col on January 2, 1936. Their immediate plan was to traverse the Kita-kama, the serious and committing ridge that extends north of Yari. A blizzard was raging when they woke the next day, forcing them to weigh their summit chances against their dwindling stock of food and annual leave. After breakfast, they went out into the driving snow and started up the ice-encrusted rocks. That was the last time that anybody saw them alive. When the bodies were found, in the deep valley on the far side of Yari, a newspaper lamented the passing of a life “like a national treasure”.
We slept well in the cold hut, waking to a bright, calm morning. After breakfast, we went out to climb Yari. In places, the snow had a hard glaze, and we used our axes to cut footholds or, ramming the picks into icy runnels, we belayed ourselves carefully over rocky steps.
This was our first trip to a high mountain. Later, we’d go on to climb in three different sets of Alps, in Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Great summits have this effect: they draw people to them and, for good or ill, alter the orbits of their lives. In the 1820s, Yari pulled in Monk Banryū, who made the first recorded ascent. Some decades later, it attracted the first generation of foreign climbers, including Walter Weston.
Then came the Army surveyors, closely followed by Kojima Usui and Okano Kinjirō in 1902. Their ascent led to a fateful meeting with Weston, who suggested to Kojima the idea of founding a Japanese Alpine Club. You could say that that Yari helped to shape the whole history of modern Japanese mountaineering. When it comes to stature and influence, Yari is every bit the peer of that other Matterhorn. Perhaps Weston wasn't so far off the mark to make that comparison.
One last move brought us up in front of the summit shrine, a lineal descendant of the one to which Kato Buntaro presented his business card one cloudy August day in 1926. Nobody raised a triple ‘banzai’, though Allan and I may have so far forgotten ourselves as to shake hands. Above us the sky was blue, yet veil cloud was already stealing up from the south.
Katō Buntarō, Tandokko (単独行)
See also Manifesto of a solo mountaineer
Photos of Katō Buntarō and his era are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)
Just as everyone wants to climb Fuji once, so anyone with a passing interest in mountaineering has to do Yari-ga-take. In the old days, one might say, Fuji was the summit of ambition, but the focus of modern mountaineering has now shifted to Yari. (Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan)