Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Meizan from outer space

A new candidate for the “Mt Fuji of Mars” is proposed. And why stop there… ?

Sumimasen: a few posts ago, I did something ill-considered. It was reckless to designate Mons Olympus, the largest volcano on the Red Planet, as "the Mt Fuji of Mars" (火星富士). For even the briefest glance shows that the Martian mountain (below) looks nothing like Mt Fuji. It isn’t even the same kind of volcano.

And, if you do seek a Mars-Fuji, there are better choices. Take Zephyria Tholus, for instance, an “unusually symmetrical cone located in the Aeolis region of Mars … with a flat-floored summit crater”.

As you’d expect from this description, Zephyria is likely to be a stratovolcano. That is certainly the conclusion of Emily Lewis and James Head, two savants from Brown University who analysed the radar data from NASA’s Mars Orbiter.

Just like the real Mt Fuji, the Martian cone (above) has slightly concave upper slopes and its edifice is “dissected” by two huge erosion gullies. Even the height is Fuji-like: about 3,000 metres today and perhaps as tall as 3,900 metres in the past.

Like Fuji’s, the summit crater plunges about 200 metres deep. However – and this is where the comparison does get a bit stretched – Zephyria’s cauldron is about eight or nine times wider than the Japanese one. Also, its summit slopes are only about half as steep as Fuji’s.

All in all, Zephyria would look squatter than Fuji. That, say Lewis and Head, is only to be expected of Martian volcanoes – the low gravity and thin atmosphere allow eruptive debris to fly further, resulting in a more spread-out edifice. You see, Mars is a foreign planet; they do things differently there.

Yet proposing Zephyria as Mars-Fuji shouldn’t be too controversial. It only extends the Japanese custom of awarding the “Fuji” suffix to any mountain that looks remotely conical. Thus, there is hardly a Japanese prefecture without its own Fuji, from one end of the archipelago to the other: Rishiri-Fuji, Ezo-Fuji, Tsugaru-Fuji …

The point about all these honorary Mt Fujis is that they share the elegance of their original. In short they are “Meizan”. The word is Japanese, but it can apply to any mountain of note, anywhere. When they relabelled Mt Rainier (below) as “Tacoma-Fuji”, homesick émigrés from Japan implicitly recognised that.

So did Fukada Kyūya, the maven of Meizan. Encouraged by the success of his One Hundred Mountains in Japan (Nihon Hyakumeizan), he was busy compiling a Sekai no Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of the World) when he died in 1971.

But why stop with the world? As Lewis and Head show, other planets have Meizan too. Indeed, there should be more than enough for a One Hundred Mountains of the Solar System (太陽系の百名山). Now which would they be, I wonder.... ?


Emily M. Stewart and James W. Head, Ancient Martian volcanoes in the Aeolis Region: New evidence from MOLA data, Journal of Geophysical Research, 2001

Wikipedia: Mons Olympus

Pictures: Olympus Mons: detail of painting by Gordon Legg, based on a mosaic of black-and-white Viking Orbiter images; Mt Rainier and Mt Fuji (Wikipedia)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mettre ski!

How an army officer from Bratislava became the father of skiing in Japan

Niigata’s ski resorts were haunted last winter by a cartoon effigy in a yellow uniform and shako. This, the blurb said, was "Lerch-san". A century ago, his original brought downhill techniques to the region. Later, this earned him a mention in Nihon Hyakumeizan as “the father of skiing in Japan”.

Theodor Edler Von Lerch was born in Bratislava, then called Pressburg, on August 21, 1869. The son of a colonel, he joined the Austro-Hungarian army and took up his first commission in Prague, in 1891. A turn-of-the-century posting to Innsbruck was fateful: it was in this mountain-girt city that he signed up for skiing lessons from the pioneer, Mathias Zdarsky (below).

It was a good time for a young officer to learn ski-running. The explorer Fridtjof Nansen had popularised the art in his 1891 book, "The first crossing of Greenland". Picking up the hint, the Austro-Hungarian army set up its first ski-patrols only a few years later. By 1910, it was making its own skis too.

Soon it was the Austrians who were writing the book. In 1897 Georg Bilgeri, a lieutenant in the Tyrolian Rifles, published his “Anleitung für den Gebrauch von Schneeschuhen und Schneereifen”. Bilgeri advocated the use of two ski-poles instead of the single one wielded by Zdarsky, another step towards modern skiing.

In 1910, Major von Lerch (above) was invited to visit Japan as an exchange officer. This posting was not unusual for its time. Japan’s victories against China (1895) and Russia (1905) had burnished its military prestige. Not only did its army and navy have all the latest kit; they had actually used it in recent campaigns. Officers from Europe's armies flocked to Japan, with orders to observe and report back.

For their part, the Japanese looked to profit from the Austrians. A decade before, the infamous Death March on Mt Hakkoda had shown the need for better winter training. Through Japan’s military attaché in Vienna, officers of the Imperial Army had heard of von Lerch’s prowess. So it was that, a few months after arriving in Yokohama, von Lerch boarded a train to Takada in the snowy Joetsu region.

In his luggage were two pairs of alpine skis that he'd brought with him from Europe. These were not the first skis in Japan. Colonel Horiuchi Bunjiro, who welcomed von Lerch to Takada, already had a pair – but his were of the Nansen-vintage Nordic (free-heel) type. Fine for crossing open country, not so good for carving down steep slopes.

Von Lerch’s skis had bindings that held the heel firmly, for downhill skiing. The army's arsenal in Tokyo was ordered to retro-engineer them and, within two weeks, the first ten pairs of Japanese-made alpine skis arrived in Takada.

Now the training could begin. On the first day, Horiuchi asked how steep a slope could be tackled on the new gear. Von Lerch demonstrated and, after arriving fluently at the bottom of the hill, elicited a resounding “Banzai” from the onlookers. Thus, on a January day in 1911, was inaugurated the art of alpine skiing in Japan.

Reserved for the regiment's officers, the first ski-training course took place three or four times a week. Von Lerch instructed in French, with Staff Captain Yamaguchi interpreting him into Japanese. The frequent order “Mettre ski!” soon earned the Austrian the nickname of “Monseigneur mettre-ski”. Progress was rapid: the first ski-tour, on nearby Nambuyama (1,700 metres), took place on February 12, 1911.

Japan was ready for skiing. Exactly a week after the Nambuyama tour, the country’s first ski club for civilians was founded, with von Lerch and Field Marshal Nogi Maresuke as honorary members. The opening ceremony was attended by Japanese princes as well as the minister of education. By the following year, the club had attracted 6,000 members.

Von Lerch was a good diplomat: he was a frequent guest of the local divisional commander, Lieutenant-General Nagaoka Gaishi. In April 1911, he also found time to inspect Mt Fuji. The moving spirit behind this trip was Egon von Kratzer, an Austrian businessman living in Yokohama. Von Kratzer had been skiing in Japan since 1909, and had already made two ski attempts on Mt Fuji. This time, the two Austrians made it as far as the mountain’s eighth station, at about 3,600 metres, where the increasingly icy conditions stopped them.

Skiing down to the base, the pair were greeted by a reporter from the Asahi newspaper. Von Lerch also sent a report to Marshal Nogi, who took up his ink-brush and replied in a fearsomely classical idiom:


As Fuji, towering for a thousand ages,
Shines over the country aglow in the rising sun
So far above the praise of trivial things rises
This mighty nation, the spirit-filled Land of the Gods

After the snow melted, von Lerch joined a route march from the Japan Sea to the Pacific. In November, he observed the Imperial manoeuvres in Kyushu, taking in Nagasaki, Miyajima, Hiroshima, and Osaka on the way back to Tokyo.

In February 1912, Lieutenant-Colonel von Lerch – another promotion had come through – reported to the garrison town of Asahikawa. Even by central Hokkaido standards, it was a cold winter. Ski-training took place in temperatures of minus 12–15°C. At night, it could fall to minus 30°C.

The high point of this posting was a ski-ascent of Yōtei-zan (or Shiribeshi-yama), a Fuji-like stratovolcano of 1,893 metres to the south of Sapporo. This time, nine colleagues from the 7th Division came with von Lerch, as well as a journalist from the Otaru newspaper. The party climbed to the fifth station on skis, then continued on foot to the crater rim.

By now, they were climbing in cloud and driving snow, causing them to miss the highest point. It was extremely cold; some of the party suffered frostbite, but all got down safely. Morally speaking, if not technically, the group achieved the mountain's first ski ascent.

By September, von Lerch was back in Tokyo. On the 13th, he witnessed the funeral of Emperor Meiji, which was closely followed by those of General Nogi and his wife. At the end of the month, he left Japan for ever, travelling back to Europe by way of Korea, Manchuria and India.

The Belle Époque was over. Now a full colonel, von Lerch started the war as chief of the 17th Army Corps general staff, first in Galicia and then at Isonzo on the southern front. In 1917, he took command of a mountain brigade in Albania. He gained a reputation as a good leader, who was careful of his soldiers’ lives. His last posting brought him to Flanders just a month or so before the Armistice.

Major-General von Lerch was pensioned off in 1919 and got married in 1922, in time to become the father of two daughters. During his retirement, he gave lectures and wrote up his travels, especially the Japan years. Old friends dropped by: Yamaguchi, who'd once interpreted his ski commands, visited him in Vienna in 1922. He also kept in touch with Nagaoka Gaishi, who'd moved into politics, until the latter's death in 1933. Von Lerch died in Vienna on Christmas Eve in 1945.

In Japan, the father of skiing is remembered by a museum at Takada, a permanent exhibition in the Asahikawa garrison museum, and two bronze statues, one in Takada and another at Asahikawa airport. And once in a while, as they snap into their Silvretta or their Diamir bindings, ski mountaineers or elite winter warfare troops might give him a thought too. Mettre ski!


Most of this post has been adapted and summarised from the magisterial account of von Lerch’s career on the official Austrian army website: Generalmajor Theodor Edler von Lerch: Wie der Alpine Schilauf nach Japan kam, by Brigadier Dr. Harald Pöcher.

Additional details of the Mt Fuji and Yōtei-zan ski tours, and the historical photos, 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)

Theodor von Lerch’s account of his life in Japan has been published in Japanese (but is out of print there), but never in his native German or English. This is too bad. Perhaps somebody should do something about this.

Centennial article about von Lerch by Bill Ross, editor of Outdoor Japan


“The landmark peak [Shiribeshi-yama] … was not attempted again in winter until 1912 (Meiji 45) when Theodor von Lerch, the father of skiing in Japan, set off for the peak on skis. However, he did not reach the top. After several more attempts, the summit was finally attained five years later by a party that changed its skis for crampons at the sixth station.”

(Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 9, Shiribeshi-yama)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hanameizan in Tohoku

Fellow blogger Hanameizan is famous for taking his dog up all One Hundred Mountains a few years ago.

Recently, he has spent several weekends helping to clean up flood-damaged homes in Ishinomaki, one of the cities hardest hit by the tidal wave in March.

The foreign press continues to report diligently on Japan, but it is Hanameizan's report that brings home the realities of life in the disaster zone. I hope that many people will read this article.

Tsunami: a report by Hanameizan

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Another mountain (3)

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.

Return match
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.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Another mountain (2)

Continued: climbing Mt Fuji in mid-winter has a long and eventful history. Few succeed on the first attempt...

The snow-devils started somewhere above the seventh station. Every few minutes, I’d see one lift from the windward crest and come spinning down the slope. I’d have a moment to plant the stubby axe in the snow and brace my crampons before the wild hassle of wind and spindrift hit. Then I’d make as much height as I could before the next one rose, like a malevolent djinn, from its lair on the skyline.

The relevant chapter in The Handbook for Climbing Mt Fuji, is entitled “The Prevention against Gust and Slip”. It contains a diagram that shows how the prevailing winds break on the leading edge of Fuji’s western face before accelerating to hurricane force – as experienced by Orde-Lees – on the rounded slopes of the Fujinomiya flank.

After that, mayhem breaks loose. Giving up on laminar flow, the gale breaks into eddies, back-draughts, and rotors that assail Fuji's eastern side from all directions. On one occasion, the wild turbulence shredded an airliner that ventured too close. It was in this zone of aerodynamic anarchy, high on the Yoshida route, that I now found myself.

A spring storm, probably the warm “Haru ichiban”, hit Fuji on the night before the antarctic veteran Orde-Lees and H W Frost made their second attempt, back in 1921. But it blew out at dawn, leaving the intrepid duo to make a lengthy but uneventful climb. They topped out at 7pm on February 12th. A journalist wrote up the expedition as "The dream of ages”, implying that Orde-Lees and Frost were the first to make this winter ascent.

In fact, people had been tackling Fuji in winter for decades, although not always with happy results. The Austrian minister in Tokyo, Count Wydenbruck had a go in February 1897, for which he specially imported "a wonderful pair of top-boots". After these got wet in the snow, low on the mountain, the guides dried them out too close to the fire, drastically shrinking them. Thus ended in fiasco what was probably the first winter attempt on Fuji by a foreigner.

Intriguingly, Frederick Cook is also said to have made an out-of-season attempt on Fuji. This was in November 1915. Today, the explorer is famous mainly for his falsified claims to have reached the summit of Mt McKinley and the North Pole. Whatever his success on Mt Fuji, Cook was too late to bag the first gaijin ascent of Fuji in winter.

This honour probably falls to Francis Lowe and a Mr. G. Guelta, member of the Italian Alpine Club. The pair summited from the Gotemba side on February 1, 1901, not without sacrifice. One member of the party – it isn’t specified which one – was so badly frostbitten in both feet that he was lucky to avoid amputations.

Better documented is the multinational expedition of the so-called “Fuji Winter Ascent Corps” in 1905. Together with goriki (porters) and three policemen, the party set out with forty-three persons – including two foreigners, a Spaniard and a “Miss Sturzenegger” from Switzerland – four rear-guards, five messenger pigeons and a dog.

Starting at Takigahara on the Gotenba route on January 6 at 2am, the climbing members reached the third station at 9am. At the fifth station, Miss Sturzenegger, who was 58 at the time, succumbed to mountain sickness and had to stay behind. The pigeons too were let go here. They all flew safely back to Tokyo on the same day.

Then a blizzard started. Two climbers only reached the seventh station before giving up. Chastened by the experience, 11 of the younger members – all Japanese – formed a “death-determined party” and went back to the mountain three days later. Leaving Tarobo at midnight, they reached the summit just over 12 hours later. "The hilarious victors united in vigorous banzais," it is reported, "and a bomb with a detailed statement was planted in memory of our achievement."

It is significant that the “Fuji Winter Ascent Corps” was seen off from Tokyo by Nonaka Chiyoko, the president of the Konohana-kai, a society of women Fuji climbers, and welcomed to Gotemba by her husband, Itaru. Mounted on a white horse, Mr Nonaka led the group to their base camp, at Takigahara. For these patrons were, of course, the very Nonakas (above image) who had spent a chilly few months on the summit of Mt Fuji a decade previously.

Nonaka Itaru, a meteorologist, built a small weather station atop Mt Fuji in the summer of 1895. Mountain weather stations were then in vogue: an international meteorological conference in Rome in 1879 had called for their construction worldwide.

One was inaugurated on the Säntis, a Swiss mountain, in 1882 and another on the summit ice-cap of Mt Blanc (see image below) in 1893. But nobody had yet collected round-the-year data from an altitude as great as Mt Fuji’s. Thus Nonaka’s venture was intended to put Japan in the forefront of atmospheric research.

How Nonaka took up residence in the cramped hut in September 1895, how Chiyoko came up to visit him in October and refused to leave, how the couple struggled to keep up their weather observations – every two hours, night and day – in the face of sickness and ferocious blizzards, and how, finally, they were rescued in the nick of time at the end of December, after 82 days on the summit – this story is well known; Nitta Jiro even turned it into a novel.

Before the hut could be built, however, Nonaka had to find out if it would be possible to survive on the summit in winter. There were no statistics to guide him, nobody to ask, because the mountain had never been climbed in mid-winter. Nor could he look to any winter climbing expertise or gear in Japan – the Japan Alpine Club would not be founded for another decade. Nevertheless, Nonaka set out to climb the mountain – solo – in January 1895. We take up this story in the next post …

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Another mountain (1)

Getting to know Japan's top volcano in mid-winter season.

The truth should have hit as soon as the friendly truck driver dropped me at the end of the Subaru Line road. From the fifth station in late January, Mt Fuji was an alabaster ramp driving into a steel-blue sky – nothing hinted at the elegant cone seen from afar. Still I didn't get it, though.

The ice-shards should have been a warning too, as my crampon points sent them tinkling away down the slope. I wasn't even on the climbing path yet, just the mule-track that leads to it. There were no mules or tourists now, of course; the road was banked out with hard-glazed snow.

I’d been here a few months before. Foreign students don’t have cash to spare, so I’d passed on the ¥2,000 bus-ride up to the fifth station. Instead, I’d walked up from Fuji-Yoshida, through solemn woods of cryptomeria. After the fifth station, the trees and the clouds fell away below. A few more hours, on a trail zig-zagging upwards over burnt-red cinders, saw me to the crater rim.

Today, the trail had vanished. And the huts I’d seen last autumn were buried to their eaves. Not snowed but iced in, as if engulfed by miniature glaciers. A wind started to buffet as I climbed away from the shelter of the parking lot’s avalanche barriers. Now the message was sinking in.

This was not the summer Fuji with its vending machines dispensing exorbitantly expensive cans of Coca-Cola on the summit, nor yet the autumn Fuji, where I’d bivvied comfortably at 3,000 metres on a dry wooden bench outside a shuttered hut. This was another mountain.

Those who adventure themselves here would do well to consult the Handbook for Climbing Mt. Fuji (富士登山ハンドブック). “Every winter,” it warns, “a number of mountaineers lose their balance in sudden gusts of wind and slide away on the hard snow to their deaths.”

In the days when the summit radar station was operating, four men were lost in such accidents: Nagata Ridge on the Gotemba route is named for one of them. Sometimes the ice was so slick, their guides used to say, that you could see your face in it.

Then there’s the cold. According to the Handbook, daily minimum temperatures never rise above minus 20°C until March. As for the wind, it has been known to exceed 300 kilometres an hour. It’s true that this figure was reached only momentarily, during a September typhoon, but no tropical storm can match the winter gales for sheer relentlessness. In January and February, they can average 60 kph for days at a time.

Many have kowtowed to that wind. For Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Orde-Lees, the moment of truth came fifty-eight years, almost to the day, before my attempt. Not a man to be put off by mere blizzards, Orde-Lees had accompanied Shackleton on his disastrous Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

After surviving the forced sojourn on Elephant Island, he joined the Balloon Corps on the Western Front. By the war's end, he was an officer in the Royal Flying Corps, where he became an enthusiastic advocate for parachutes. This experience brought him to Japan, as an advisor to the nascent Imperial air arm at Kasumi-ga-ura.

It was there that he conceived a mid-winter attempt on Fuji. A trial run, solo, in mid-December 1921, was “dead easy”; hardly any snow lay on the mountain. That emboldened him. With a companion, Orde-Lees set out from Tarobo, the first station on the Gotemba Route, at 7am on January 28, 1922. Lacking skis and snowshoes – they wore knee-high "gum-boots" – the climbers floundered through deep snowdrifts for hours.

A violent hurricane blew up when they came level with the top of the Hoeizan crater, “forcing them to cling on to the icy surface roped together, afraid to move more than a few yards in a whole hour for fear of being whisked off the mountainside”. They backed off, returning to Gotemba in mid-afternoon, after 20 hours continuously moving.

Nursing three frost-bitten fingers and, no doubt, a modicum of chagrin, Orde-Lees wrote that the day had been “rich in experiences”. Then he set out to learn from them. The kit for the next attempt would include snow shoes, crampons, a sledge cobbled together from a crashed aeroplane, and “excellent ice-axes purchased from Mimatsu at ¥8 apiece”.

I was quite proud of my own ice-axe. It was a stubby little ice-climbing number that I'd bought after my solitary week of winter mountain experience – an ice course the previous spring on Scotland’s Ben Nevis (altitude, 1,344 metres). And so, when I saw a lone mountaineer, muffled up in a face-mask and snow-goggles, carefully descending the slope towards me, this was the implement that I brandished in greeting.

Our courtesies were brief; it was too cold to waste words. The lone mountaineer seemed surprised to find a lone foreigner half-way up Mt Fuji on the last day of January. He glanced at my kit, reading it as one would a CV. The sturdy Grivel 2F crampons, solidly clamped to a pair of plastic Koflach double-boots, appeared to pass muster. But the axe did not: "Too short," was the verdict. "You’d better turn round now," he added, before going on his way.

The lone mountaineer was right, of course. The axe was far too abbreviated to be much use as a prop or brake. Also, it was already getting too late to make a serious summit attempt. And yet ... that white ramp still beckoned; now elegant tendrils of spindrift were unfurling into that impossibly ultraviolet sky. What was it like up there? There was only one way to find out; surely it wouldn’t hurt to go a bit further …

(To be continued)