Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Manifesto of a solo mountaineer

In March 1933, a chance encounter in the snowbound Northern Alps prompted Japan's most famous "Alleingänger" to set down his philosophy in writing - and also, possibly, to start questioning it.

"You know, mate, you're living on borrowed time." Sitting in the mouth of a rocky bivouac cave, the leader of the climbing group doesn't mince his words. He's talking to a lone mountaineer outside in the snow, who, a few minutes ago, showed up from nowhere. Solo mountaineering doesn’t get a lot of support in early Shōwa Japan, not even among fellow alpinists.

The loner gives a slight nod but doesn't otherwise respond to the other's prophecy. He is, of course, Katō Buntarō, whose winter expeditions have attracted quite a bit of publicity. On one occasion, when he went missing for a day or two in the mountains, he's created newspaper headlines. And he was bringing another solo exploit to a close when he happened across Nakamura and his crew, up here in Yokoō-dani, and dropped in for a chat.

Until now, Katō hadn't felt the need to justify himself, but the bluntness of Nakamura’s address has struck home. Back in Kobe, he's prompted to write a kind of rationale. The resulting essay, On solo mountaineering (単独行について), is a glimpse into Katō's hard-driving spirit. It is a manifesto for solo mountaineering.

An "Alleingänger", says Katō, using the German word, is one who favours the avalanche- and stonefall-raked routes shunned by others, one who scorns to follow in the dust of another's trail, and boldly tackles one impossible line after another.

There's all the difference in the world between these solo alpinists and folk who just go hiking by themselves. Yet both types start out the same way; they are urged on by a love of nature and they have shy, self-willed personalities. That is, they are too shy to ask experts to take them climbing and too self-willed to burden themselves with companions who might slow them down.

This is not quite the full story, though. Soloing is more than just climbing without a companion: "If mountaineering is about gaining knowledge and hence solace from nature, then surely the most knowledge and the highest degree of solace is gained from solo mountaineering." If you have a partner with you, you sometimes forget to look at the mountains. But, when you climb alone, "no stick or stone can fail to captivate your heart".

Or perhaps it’s a contest with nature. If mountaineering is "doing battle with nature and prevailing, then surely the battle and the solace thereafter are that much more intense when you are alone, counting on nobody but yourself."

Soloing is not for everybody, Katō warns. Only mountaineers who actively want to solo are qualified to do so; to solo in a state of self-doubt is a crime. "If you solo because you know it's right for you, then you can make progress without agonising about it. If you're weak, you'll be tormented; crushed. The strong will grow stronger and flourish. So, soloists, be strong!"

We can be fairly certain that few or none of these arguments were rehearsed outside the bivouac cave on that March day in 1933; Katō was the taciturn type. Propped against the low-slung branch of a mountain birch tree, he kept his thoughts to himself. And Nakamura wouldn't have listened anyway: "There's no way I'd go into the mountains solo," he insisted.

But is it possible that Katō took Nakamura's advice to heart? When, three years later, he set off into a January snowstorm to traverse the north ridge of Yari, he was with a climbing partner. That was the last time anybody saw Katō and Yoshida alive; some time later, the bodies were found in the valley below, still roped together.

In his last year, Katō had changed his stance on solo mountaineering. With a partner, you could climb harder routes. And beyond the winter Japan Alps shimmered the eternal snows of the Himalaya …

References

Right now, Katō Buntarō is enjoying a renewed lease of fame. That is due to the manga Kokou no Hito (孤高の人) about “Mori Buntaro”, a character loosely based on the hero of Nitta Jirō’s novel of the same title. The novel, in turn, elaborates on the life of the real Kato Buntaro. The manga's popularity brings quite a bit of traffic to this blog – specifically to the post Life and death on Japan’s Matterhorn. What Katō himself had to say about solo mountaineering, you’ll find in the full text of his essay On solo mountaineering (単独行について).

12 comments:

Kittie Howard said...

Kato so wanted to see the snows of the Himalaya he changed philosophy. There's a tinge of romantic sadness to him.

Thank you for some lovely posts. Your beautiful writing has been perfect this window-open evening in Virginia. It's nice to be out of my cave - the background for my self-pub is the old sharecropper system in the South. The goal's the same - just had to find a different slope to climb.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Thanks for reading, Kittie - and, yes, I think you've captured the essence of Katō: there is indeed (more than) "a tinge of romantic sadness to him". Which is why he's probably the only pre-war climber known to a large number of Japanese and the subject of a well known novel - and now an even better known manga... Apparently, the manga has "Mori Buntaro" seeking his destiny on K2, so - in this very posthumous way - Katō's ambition has been realised ...

Anonymous said...

soloing ...yeah,
thanks for translating this boy, thanks for let us read withount knowing any Japanese ... a rare and challenging language
one can feel every Kato's word, one can follow every of his thoughts. "Alleingänger" ... the only reason to stop doing it would be to have encountered some-who who is the lost part of you. Some believe on, some do not. I am a dreamer ... I am very sorry for what happened to Kato and his partner. Is it known what happened to them exactly, have you perhaps, already translated it for us? Somehow i have a feeling, that the two were not the real partner, sir. If they were they were still with us, i am sure.
By the way, Earth-o-centric, I like that, perhaps Earth-istic would work well too to your Images and Ink series.
...
K2 ... there is a book about the tragedy in August 2008. Good or not, less poetic than Katos records ...

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Anonymous: glad you found the post, ah, of reference. No, I don't think anybody knows exactly what happened to Kato and Yoshida on January 3, 1936. Yari is steep and exposed at the top and any winter ascent, even in good weather, requires care - see the photos in "Life and death on the Matterhorn of Japan". To go up there in a snowstorm and attempt to downclimb the yet steeper north side - in January - would be extremely testing. Also, lee slopes up there in winter are notorious avalanche traps. It's a world of hurt...

Hendrik Morkel said...

Great post. Rang through to me, even if my mountaineering efforts are, hmmm, few to non-existant (I blame it on the absence of mountains in southern Finland!). However, I can relate to it also as a backpacker and packrafter. Going on my own, while more risky, enables me to take more in, go faster, further and see more wildlife. While this usually is less dangerous than mountaineering, both hiking and packrafting can be dangerous on your own (there's enough tales of lone hikers going missing). Anyway. Great writing, great story!

Maz said...

"...too shy to ask experts to take them climbing and too self-willed to burden themselves with companions who might slow them down..." - there is something to be said here and I recognise in my earlier days this very sentiment. The all-consuming desire to get into the hills and mountains, regardless of whether I had a companion who wanted to come or whether I had the skills to do it alone.

"...to solo in a state of self-doubt is a crime. "If you solo because you know it's right for you, then you can make progress without agonising about it. If you're weak, you'll be tormented; crushed. The strong will grow stronger and flourish. So, soloists, be strong!"..." this is so true. Alone, in bad weather, self-doubt begins to creep in and take over - whereas your decision making process may be perfect and accurate, that self-doubt makes you question your decisions and make new ones. You cannot then, easily, go back to a discarded thought process.

So it all comes down to something I realised not long ago - there is no harm in taking courses, especially when you ratchet your endeavours up a notch and go from hills to mountains - from hillwalking to mountaineering. Doing the latter alone is not something I would consider with my fledgling skills and, to be honest, I am not sure I would ever. Perhaps that alone means Katō would say I should never go it alone!

Great, great post. Thanks.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Hendrik, Maz: welcome to One Hundred Mountains - and it's very good to read in your comments that, even after all these years, Kato Buntaro has something to say to present-day wilderness expeditioners and mountaineers like yourselves. I realised while writing this post that all kinds of interesting issues surround the question whether to solo or not to solo. It's clear why a companion is needed on technical routes or on a crevassed glacier - a rope has to be used, with a person on each end of it. But a more subtle angle is that two heads (if they are compatible) can be better than one - that's why airliners are flown by two pilots, one cross-checking the other. A soloist doesn't have that advantage. On the other hand, where the team dynamics are not so good (eg strong egos, each unwilling to be the first to suggest turning back), soloing could actually be safer than a group...

☆sapphire said...

Great post, indeed! I very much enjoyed this. I climbed Mt. Rokko many times and twice I climbed it(East Rokko) from Ashiya. I suppose we traced the same route as Buntaro once had. There is a place called "Rock Garden" on the route where you can do rock climbing. It is said that Nitta Jiro's novel is almost based on Buntaro's "単独行" though I have no idea whether his story is 100% true. I have never read the 単独行 nor the manga. I'd love to read them!! Do you think his happy marriage affected his stance on solo mountaineering?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Sapphire: thanks for dropping in: it's good to hear that you are familiar with Rokko-san. Indeed, the "Rock Garden" there is one of the birthplaces of rock-climbing in Japan. You raise an interesting question about the effect of marriage on Kato Buntaro - according to Fujiki Kuzo, who wrote a memoir or memorial about Kato, it was certainly a happy marriage. Once or twice, Kato took Hanako to the mountains with him, although only on easy hikes. I don't think Kato wrote much about his ambitions in mountaineering - it is Fujiki who raises the thought that Kato wanted to climb in the Himalaya - and that was why he gave up soloing - because it was clear that only a strong team could succeed on those big mountains ...

Iainhw said...

Good post. I enjoyed this very much. Reminds me of some of my own solo exploits in the alps, particularly the summer of 2001 in the Zermatt campsite. In my tent I had a copy of Will McLewin's In Monte Viso's Horizon which has a good chapter on soloing. I read that chapter many times before setting out on my low grade climbs to help me justify what I was doing. In Kato's words I was committing a crime.
It's also worth mentioning that on the same trip I met a young hotshot Japanese climber, Suzuki Kenzo. He had been doing several ascents of his own (routes not listed in the alpine club guide)on the NE side of(the)Lyskamm. His first european alpine ascent was a solo ascent of the n face of the Dent Blanche. I think he had also put a new route up Alpamayo at some point too. I have to say I was in awe of him. As he was transitting in London for a few days on his way back to tokyo I offered him my lounge as somewhere to sleep. He never appeared on the arranged day. On the evening of 9/11, of all days, I received a letter from his girlfriend informing me that he had met his end somewhere on the Aiguille du Midi a few days after leaving Zermatt. So sadly, as we all know Kato's words on the strong flourishing and growing stronger don't always hold true.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain: thanks for reading - the story of Suzuki Kenzo is sad indeed. In general, it can be said that soloing is more dangerous than roped climbing. But, as Messner said, "life in the mountains is incalculable" - "unberechenbar"...

birdmonkey said...

Thanks again for another great post and for opening up a world for us non-japanese readers. Your approach to the subject is really interesting: marrying historical climbing accounts with popular/visual cultural references. I find it gives me an understanding of how mountains and mountaineering resonates in Japanese culture. A wonderful escape from my reading on post-conceptual practice!
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