Fuji in the cold season continued: the first mid-winter ascent was made by a young samurai-meteorologist who wanted to build a weather observatory on the summit
“I had already essayed Mt Fuji in summer but, to achieve my stated aims, I now felt it necessary to inspect the condition of the summit by making a mid-winter ascent. Having so determined, I left Tokyo on foot on January 2, Meiji 28 (1895).” Thus begins Nonaka Itaru’s account of his mid-winter climbs, the mountain’s first ever, which he later described in his Guide to Mt Fuji (富士案内).
On January 3, the day after leaving Tokyo, he reaches Tarobo, at 1,400 metres on Fuji’s Gotenba route. He decides to stay in the hut used by summer pilgrims, because he won’t be able to find firewood further up. The night is cold; he leaves the hut at 3.30am and soon finds that this is a different mountain – the terrain looks unfamiliar under snow and he keeps losing the trail.
At 4am, he’s at the second station, where he takes out his thermometer: the mercury’s already five degrees below the zero mark. An hour later, he allows himself his first rest and makes two unwelcome discoveries: the rice-cakes in his pocket are frozen, so he has to eat bread.
Much more serious is the state of the snow – it’s frozen as hard as glass, and ridged up into sharp edges like knives – sharp enough to cut his lip when he breaks off a bit to taste. Now is the time to put on his nailed boots or perhaps attach a nailed leather sole to his winter boots – a primitive substitute for crampons.
Then he rams down the fireman’s hook that he’s pressed into service as an ice-axe – it barely marks the iron-hard glaze – and carefully planting one foot at a time, makes his way up the steepening slope. “One mis-step here,” he notes, “and you wouldn’t stop until the snow runs out.”
At 6am, he’s at the third station and it’s minus 7.5°C. He’s warm, almost too warm, in his six layers of clothing, and he tries to take some off. That proves to be a mistake. Hastily, he puts his outer layers back on. Now the rays of the rising sun are starting to glint dazzlingly off the snow and he dons a pair of blue-tinted spectacles.
The ice is so hard now that it’s difficult to get the iron-tipped fire hook to bite – or to pull it free when it does. Then, disaster strikes: a few steps below the fifth station, the shaft of his makeshift axe breaks. He tries replacing the head of the fire-hook with a knife, but it won’t support his weight.
Worse still, some of the nails in his bootsoles are bending under the strain. In the lee of a hut, he gazes up at the summit – still so far above – and decides he must go down. It’s 10 minutes past 10.
Most accidents happen on descent, they say. Half way between the fourth and third stations, he slips and tumbles several hundred feet down the merciless ice before, by a miracle, fetching up against the snow-covered roof of a hut. By another miracle, he’s more or less unhurt.
Picking himself up, he continues the long march down to Gotemba. He's no longer thinking about the ice in cool, detached scientific terms: now it is quite simply “the enemy”. As he walks, he muses on the weapons he’ll bring to bear on it next time round. The blood of a Chikuzen samurai is up; he’ll be back.
On the evening of February 15, 1895, he returns to the broken-down hut at Tarobo. Fuji’s upper slopes were hidden in cloud as he walked in from Gotemba and now the wind picks up to a gale, shaking the hut. Rain pours through the leaky roof and quenches the fire. To keep warm, Nonaka improvises a stove from an empty oil-can. Despite these distractions, he manages to record the temperature every hour. The hut is left as soon as the rain stops, at 6:30am the next morning.
The rain and wind – perhaps this is the “haru ichiban” – have melted the snow for quite a distance above Tarobo. It’s much warmer than last time. This is a mixed blessing: when he reaches the snowline, he plunges through an icy crust into deep slush at every step. He’s forced to rest after every twenty paces. The broken crust is so sharp-edged that he’s afraid of cutting his legs on it. At 8am, progress slows to a rest every ten paces.
He’s sorely tempted to give up. But there’s a lot riding on this expedition: to pursue his vocation as a meteorologist, he’s dropped out of preparatory studies for a medical career, against his father’s wishes. He’s already 27; he’s married, he has a two year-old daughter, he has to make a name for himself in his chosen field, and soon.
It’s an exciting time in this new science: a Frenchman has just invented the "isobar" and meteorologists have recently started drawing up so-called synoptic charts of air pressure measured at ground stations. But to fully understand - and predict - the weather, you would also need to plot the pressure of the air at high altitudes. That’s why observatories have recently been built on top of Mt Blanc, Ben Nevis (below) and other mountains abroad. But no observatory as high as Mt Fuji has been manned all the year round.
Nonaka hopes to borrow the instruments for his weather station from Japan’s Central Meteorological Observatory. He’s won the support of Wada Yuji, head of the Observatory’s weather forecasting division. Wada-sensei has recently returned from the Paris Observatory, a centre of meteorological expertise.
The French government started to take weather forecasting seriously after a freak storm tore through its ships during the Crimean war. Wada will be aware how useful accurate forecasts would be for Japan’s own navy - which, at this very moment, is moving in for a final reckoning with the Chinese fleet at Weihaiwei.
Seen this way, Nonaka’s mission is one of national significance. And to fulfil it, he first has to prove that Fuji can be climbed and survived in winter. Right now, however, it’s a less exalted thought that urges him on. That is, if he turns back, he’ll have to wade through that vile ice-crust again. So he keeps going up.
Somewhere above the second station, he passes a torrent of meltwater, a rare sight on Fuji. The temperature is still a few degrees above zero. But the snow is starting to firm up; hope is restored. He grants himself a few minutes rest and gazes down at the clouds covering the Hakone mountains.
Now is the time to tighten the laces on his leather climbing boots – the soles of which he’s studded, this time, with ten nails apiece. Towards 9am, he’s climbing into a blue sky and a freshening wind; little snow-devils are whirling down the slope towards him. Ice crystals sparkle like miniature prisms from the snow, a beautiful sight. By the seventh station, the temperature has fallen to minus 10.5°C and he’s attacking the hard ice with his “tsuruhashi”, a workman’s long-handled pick-axe. This time he will prevail.
One last steep gully through the summit crags, and he’s arrived. It’s just before 1pm and the temperature is 18.2°C below zero. Hastily, he takes shelter in the lee of a rock in order to eat his bread and meat. After lunch, he goes up to the rim and inspects the crater walls with his telescope.
It’s too bad that he has no camera with him because his eyes are the first to see the crater of Mt Fuji in mid-winter. Huge icicles depend from the russet and ochre walls of lava opposite him.
The scenery is as novel as, say, the high arctic ice floes that Dr Fridtjof Nansen is, right at this moment, inspecting from the deck of the Fram under the pale green light of the aurora. You might say that 1895 is a vintage year for extreme scientific exploration. Unlike Nansen, though, Nonaka is on his own. He’s soloing Mt Fuji because the budget doesn’t include money for a “goriki” or guide. He’ll pay for the construction of the summit hut (below) out of his own pocket.
The lack of a camera doesn’t stop Nonaka making careful observations. The snow at the rim is no more than two feet deep, he estimates. That’s important for his plans to build a hut. The wind-blasted rocks of Ken-ga-mine, the highest crag, are bare of snow. So is a patch of ground near the place that the pilgrims used to call Sai-no-kawara, the Buddhist limbo for the souls of children. The ash here is warmed by Fuji’s last flush of volcanic heat; in summer, you could heat up your flask of sake or even a bathful of water here.
He’d like to walk round the crater but the wind is strengthening from the southwest and the weather is turning. At 1.15pm, he starts down, carefully retracing the steps he cut on the way up. Somewhere above the second station, he descends into cloud. Following the line of the meltwater gully, he picks his way down to Tarobo.
Then he picks up the pace, all but running down the long road to Gotemba. If he can catch the 5.20pm train, he can get back to Tokyo sooner; Chiyoko and his baby daughter Sonoko are waiting for him. He makes the station with six minutes to spare.
Ninety-odd years after Nonaka's successful winter climb, I stopped by a half-buried hut to review the weather. Underfoot, the glazed snow had given way to hard blue ice, as translucent as the frozen waterfalls on Ben Nevis. No chance of an ice-axe arrest if you fell on this. One mis-step, and you wouldn’t stop until the snow runs out.
The wind was as fierce as ever, but I couldn’t see any more snow-devils coming. A shadow swept over the snow; a cloud had blotted out the sun. I hadn’t climbed into it; the cloud had just materialised out of the blue sky. Shreds of vapour flitted past, magically touching my jacket and hair with frost.
Now the fleeting cloud was leaving rime-ice on my glasses; when I took them off to scrape them clear, the icy fog started to freeze my eyelids shut. One way or another, I would be going down – in control or out of it. I opted for the former style.
Late in the afternoon, I was retracing my steps over the banked-out mule track when the north wind whipped the fog away. High above, the summit streamed its banner cloud far out into the sky.