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 …
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).