Sunday, June 10, 2018

A stormy traverse of La Meije (1)

By Samuel Brawand, mountain guide of Grindelwald: an account of a climb in the mid-1920s with the Japanese alpinists Matsukata Saburō and Uramatsu Samitarō 

A deep-blue sky arched over the mountain village of La Bérarde. We had slept wonderfully after the bumpy car ride and were now quickly getting together our food supplies in the hotel. We discovered only too soon that we had to do without our usual Swiss delicacies. All the same, it was possible to find the ingredients for a tolerable menu. Although Maggi soup is unknown here, and we only half-trusted the cheese.

Looking up to the Promontoire Hut on La Meije
(photo by Alpine Light & Structure)
At 10:45 am we left for the Promontoire. Our objective, the proud Meije, rose grandly up in front of us. Like a huge wall, it seals off the northern end of the Val des Étançons. I was to remember this sight when I later admired the Marmolada from the Kontin Valley. But La Meije is the mightier and more regal mountain. I could quite understand why even Edward Whymper thought it unclimbable and why the guide Almer tackled it from the Brèche, for who could have believed that the terrible wall below the Glacier Carré could be climbed?

Yes, yes, it’s easy enough to talk from today’s standpoint. That said, La Meije would certainly be a first ascent for us, in the sense that we were meeting her face to face for the first time. But we were climbing in the knowledge that others had gone before us, which halves the difficulty of even the toughest route. We can reach greater heights because we stand on the shoulders of our fathers, as Fischer once said.

We plucked out the highest-growing juniper shrubs and tied them onto our rucksacks as fuel. At our smart pace, we left the rocky expanse of the Val des Étançons behind us and stepped onto the Glacier des Étançons just below the Promontoire. A little later, at a quarter to four, we were at the door of the Promontoire hut. One last look at the massive mountain above us, and the hut door closed behind us.

Despite the dirt and the sparseness of the hut’s furnishings, we managed to cook a decent dinner. To eat it, we had to use all our aluminum tins as plates. But we didn’t let the poorly appointed hut put us out of sorts. On the contrary, our two clients enjoyed themselves enormously. Mr Matsukata loved such primitive conditions, and Mr Uramatsu made a joke of the notable lack of creature comforts.

In the morning, there was no need to look outside for the weather. The sound was all too familiar. Steady, continuous rain drummed on the tin roof. I don’t know if other mountain climbers feel the same way, but on mornings like this I’m always pulled in two directions. Part of me is only too happy with rain and bad weather: let’s go back to sleep, I say, it’s still so early! The other part of me is upset by thwarted plans, chafes about missing a glorious climb and the princely rewards of a summit. Depending on the planned ascent, one or other part prevails. I remember that the second part of me got the upper hand that morning. To have to give up La Meije because of this tiresome downpour, that was too much. So, gnashing our teeth like thunder, we turned over and thought of snowed-up ridges, cruddy summers and aborted climbs.

It was good for the hut that we had to stay there. A-sweeping and a-cleaning we went. Half an inch of dirt lay on the table, nay, cleaved to it. Behind the stove, the rubbish heap spilled almost out into the entrance passage. While Emil Steuri set to work, I boiled water and started scrubbing the table. I can still I see Emil’s mighty brush strokes driving this playground for bugs and fleas out of the door. Then we beat out the blankets, cleaned up the storeroom, washed the dishes, and after all this hard work, finally won back a cosy little room for ourselves. And, quite by the way, we suddenly found ourselves understanding why our dear wives go into a frenzy of cleaning every Saturday, and we both firmly resolved to keep our tempers when that periodic frenzy should next break out.

La Meije from Val des Étançons
(photo by Matsukata Saburō)
Around noon the sky brightened up and we decided on a little excursion to the Brèche de la Meije. Forty minutes later we were on top and rejoiced at the magnificent view. To the north, the village of La Grave lay deep down in the valley, and to the south and east stood the giants of the Dauphiné, mountain on mountain. Silver-white clouds chased round their heads. Closer to us, the rocks of La Meije towered up into the mightiest mountain of them all. We couldn’t quite get rid of the idea that, earlier in the day, she had intimated to us, frankly if without excessive politeness, that she was in no mood to receive visitors.

Emil and I made our observations for the ascent of the West Ridge, and I reckon that if we hadn’t had along with us two other people for whose lives we were responsible, we would have had the nerve to go on climbing, despite the late hour. We were capable of anything in those days.

In quarter of an hour, we were back down at the hut. It was a welcoming sight, so spick and span that one could almost smell the scent of Persil and soap.

In the meantime, some company had arrived. Two Austrians had arrived in the hut, without guides. Just at that moment, they were going through their gear: all the hut’s chairs were festooned with pitons, hammers, rope slings, carabiners and crampons. A glance at this exhibition was enough to suggest that they had designs on La Meije. But the main thing was that they were two decent young lads.

Next morning, instead of the rain drumming on the roof, the foehn wind was howling round it. At least this made a change from those tiresome showers. Now the better part of my nature was chafing at the bit: were we really going to waste that long drive-in and all that anticipation of this splendid mountain? But we knew to a dead cert that, once the foehn let up, snow would follow.

But, lo and behold, at dawn the sky brightened up. At 7.30 am, we were outside the hut, ready to leave.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

When a volcano becomes a person

A novel legal measure acknowledges a traditional view of nature

Could it be the kiwis who are pushing out the frontiers of applied meizanology? Yesterday's Guardian reports that Mount Taranaki (2,518m) has been granted the same legal rights as a person.

Mt Taranaki: this time it's personal (photo: Wikipedia)

What this means is that, if someone abuses or harms the volcano, it is legally equivalent to harming the Māori people who live around its foot. In practice, eight local Māori tribes and the government will share guardianship of the sacred mountain.

Located on the west coast of North Island, Mount Taranaki is the country’s third geographical feature to be granted a legal personality, after Te Urewera, a former national park, and the Whanganui River.

In the river’s case, Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the local tribes, explained that “The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have.”

As quoted in the Guardian, Albert describes the new arrangements as a “legal approximation” that acknowledges the traditional Māori worldview – that people are part of the natural world, and not masters of it.

So the legal innovations in New Zealand acknowledge an old-established view of nature. When you come to think about it, giving a volcano its own legal rights is not so far removed from Hawaii’s upsurge in reverence for Madame Pele, a volcanic personality in her own right.

Both developments speak to a rediscovered respect for nature. Where will this applied meizanological thinking lead us next, one might ask...

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Bear scare

Here's hoping that history doesn't repeat itself on Japan's most northerly island

Local residents of remote Rishiri Island found footprints on May 30 of a suspected brown bear on their shoreline, reports the Mainichi Shinbun. As a result, adds NHK, participants in a round-the-island race had to run their course festooned with bear-bells.

The brown bear "captured" on Rishiri in May 1912
(Photo courtesy of Rishiri town's board of education
and Mainichi Shinbun)
It's unlikely, though, that the bear - judging from its paw-print, a young male - was seeking out runners to eat. Instead, it was probably searching for a mate, this being the breeding season for brown bears.

To patrons of this blog, Rishiri is of interest as the island-peak that heads up the list of Fukada Kyūya's One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Hyakumeizan readers will already know that bears - or at least some of them - are capable of swimming the twenty or so kilometres between the Hokkaidō mainland and Rishiri, since the book tells us:

The island is too far from the mainland to harbour vipers or other snakes. Nor are there bears, unusually for a mountain of Hokkaidō. A brush fire at Teshio on the opposite shore did once prompt a bear to swim over the strait and take up temporary residence, but it has left no trace. Perhaps it swam back to the mainland.

The Mainichi article puts the kibosh on the latter speculation. In fact, says the newspaper, the bear that swam to Rishiri in May 1912 was "captured", as confirmed by the above photo provided by the island's educational authority. Alas, though, even that wording garnishes the truth. For - as Project Hyakumeizan can confirm from a personal inspection of the island's history book - the Meiji-era bear ended up being peppered full of shot by local hunters.

Let's hope that, this time, the lovelorn bear really can swim back to the mainland. Or, at the very least, travel back first-class on the ferry after being suitably tranquillised.

Related story

The last bear?

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Women who devour the earth

The Hawaiian eruption highlights parallels between two powerful volcanic deities

Again, the New York Times demonstrates its unfailingness. Tuesday’s edition documents how the ongoing eruptions on Kilauea have prompted an upsurge in reverence for Madame Pele, Hawaii’s goddess of volcanoes. Now this is a topic that cannot fail to rivet the attention of any aspirant meizanologist.

Pele: painting by Herb Kane
at the Hawaii Volcanoes NP Visitor Center
Photo via flickr, courtesy Prayitno
Pele, also known as “the woman who devours the earth”, has been worshipped for centuries in the Native Hawaiian culture. And respect for the deity is growing, even though – or because – lava from her favourite volcano is currently devouring forests, houses and even a power station. According to the NYT, a retired schoolteacher who lost her home described it as “an offering for Pele”.

To folks who live underneath one, rites and oblations to appease a volcano have always made sense. In medieval Japan, such ceremonies were raised to a fine art. During Mt Fuji’s ninth-century eruptions, the authorities offered the Great God Asama a more commodious shrine (in what is now Fujinomiya). Then, in 859, they promoted him to the senior grade of the third court rank. And when that didn’t placate him, they censured the governor of Kai for neglecting the proper rituals and demanded an apology on the god’s behalf.

At that time, the deity of Mt Fuji was most definitely a guy. But, in later centuries, his role was taken over by a goddess, Konohanasakuya-hime, the Princess of the Flowering Cherry Tree. How this transgendering happened need not detain us; what’s interesting here are the obvious parallels between the Princess and Madame Pele.

Both deities are rather senior in their respective pantheons. “We believe in 40,000 gods, but Pele is in the highest echelon for obvious reasons,” says a hula teacher and lecturer on Hawaiian culture quoted in the NYT, adding that “Pele created Hawaii; she is that primordial force that exists within all landmasses. And she can be vengeful, so watch out.”

Konosakuya: Princess of the Flowering Cherry Tree
Nihonga painting by Dōmoto Inshō

For her part, Konosakuya is the wife of the god Ninigi (I’m relying on the usual online references here). Ninigi we’ve met before on this blog, as the deity who came down to earth on Takachiho, a volcano in Kyūshū, and founded the imperial line.

Like Pele, however, the Princess had to endure a troubled marriage, which may account for her volatile temperament. For she too can be somewhat vengeful: legend has her kicking over hapless Yatsu-ga-take because the older volcano had once presumed to be taller than Mt Fuji.

Intriguingly, Pele is said to be a shape-shifter who can easily appear in human form: “If you see her hitchhiking, pick her up. If you have a bottle of gin, even better. Pele, like her descendants, likes a little mischief,” suggests a Hawaiian evacuee, quoted in the NYT, who is waiting to see if the lava flow destroys her home.

This advice reminds me of an autumnal excursion to Mt Fuji. The official climbing season was long over; nobody was about. While sheltering from the bitter wind behind a boulder, we were overtaken by a little old lady, who was trotting up the mountain carrying a white shopping bag in each hand. As all the huts were closed, we couldn't imagine where she might be heading. And, since we weren't able to catch her up, we never found out.

You know, after reading that Times article, I rather regret that I didn’t immediately rush after her and offer to carry those shopping bags.


New York Times, "Madame Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Volcanoes, Awes Those Living in Lava’s Path", 21 May 2018 (print)

Shizuoka-Yamanashi Joint Council for Mount Fuji World Cultural Heritage Registration, Mt Fuji: the Wellspring of our Faith and Arts, Shogakukan, 2009

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Reading Mt Fuji (2)

Review continued: revisiting the dancing maidens in a Mt Fuji anthology

Browsing through Chuo University’s new anthology of classical writing on Mt Fuji – as reviewed in the previous post – Project Hyakumeizan was delighted to find a translation of the Heian-era Record of Mt Fuji (Fujisanki). Indeed, this is probably the first full translation of the Record directly from the classical Japanese.

The dancing maidens of Mt Fuji: a modern rendition
It was in this essay that the scholar and statesman Miyako no Yoshika (834-879) gave the earliest known detailed description of Mt Fuji’s crater – suggesting that, by this time, somebody had actually climbed the mountain. Or at least had sent a drone up there to take a look.

Part of this essay’s charm is that it promiscuously mixes the natural and what we would call the supernatural. On the one hand, there are details that any Fuji climber will recognise: “The mountain is covered in white sand, which easily crumbles, making it nigh impossible for those wishing to ascend its peak to get beyond the base of this mountain.”

On the other hand, we read of a mysterious jewel tumbling down its slopes. And of a mystical apparition on the fifth day of the eleventh month of the seventeenth year of Jōgan (875):

The officials and people were celebrating a festival in accordance with an ancient rite when, as the day wore on towards noon, the sky cleared wonderfully. Looking up towards the mountain, they saw how two beautiful maidens robed in white were dancing above the summit, seemingly a foot or more above it. Several local people saw it; a very old man passed on the tale.

Miyako no Yoshika’s account obviously made an impression on those who came after him. In the same anthology is an excerpt from a diary of a Journey to the Eastern Lands (Tōkan Kikō), completed around 1242. The anonymous fifty-year old traveller gazes up at Mt Fuji from the Bay of Tago and notices that its peak stands out blue against the heavens.

Then he recalls the legend of the maidens dancing on the summit and composes a deft tanka:

Those white clouds drifting in the wind
Over the peak of Mount Fuji
Look like the sleeves of some heavenly maiden.

Alas, we modern mountaineers are too literal-minded. All we see when we look up at the summit are plumes of spindrift blown out by that fearsome Mt Fuji wind. But a browse through this anthology can fix that, by reminding us how the mountain was seen in past centuries.

The Bay of Tago, according to a note under the diary excerpt quoted above, corresponds to the southern parts of present-day Fuji City. I wonder if anybody has ever seen the dancing maidens from there.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Reading Mt Fuji (1)

Review: a new collection of classical writing about Japan’s top mountain.

“Reading works of literature dealing with Mt Fuji is thus essential for understanding the Japanese spirit.” Prefacing a new anthology about Japan’s top mountain, this statement strikes one as remarkably bold. Yet the claim might almost be justified, so compelling is the collection of classical poetry and prose that it introduces.

The Literature of Mt Fuji: Japanese Classical Literature is published by Chuo University. Owing to the generosity of the university and whichever government agency sponsored it, the text can be downloaded for free.

An especially big hand here for Columbia University’s Kristopher Lee Reeves and Ngo Vu Nhat Phuong, who did the fairly direct yet fluent English translations. These are presented with the original Japanese texts on facing pages. Thanks, guys!

The collection consists of poems and prose about Mt Fuji from the eighth-century Man’yōshū through to the seventeenth-century haiku poet, Bashō. Selections are arranged chronologically, within three thematic chapters. This helps readers to trace out the ways in which later writers echo and develop the thoughts of their predecessors.

For instance, here is Monk Saigyō’s famous waka, composed while travelling on a pilgrimage to the eastern provinces in about 1186:


kaze ni nabiku / fuji no keburi no / sora ni kiete / yukue mo shiranu / waga omoi kana

Just as smoke drifts on the winds over Mount Fuji
Only to vanish – whither no one knows –
So, too, does my soul wander on

A century later, the widowed Lady Nijō alludes to the same poem when she ponders the vanity of life:

How futile that that all these thoughts should be piled onto one like me who must vanish without a trace. Now, when the smoke atop Mt Fuji can no longer be seen, I wonder what – if anything – could be blown by the wind.

Saigyo contemplating Mt Fuji, painting by Hara Zaizen, c.18

The tone is not everywhere so elevated. We have a Saikaku (1642-1693) character dissing a former wife because she took an upturned bowl for a model of Mt Fuji. There is inept mensuration – “If I were to compare this with the mountains we have in the capital, I would say it is as large as twenty Mount Hiei’s piled atop one another, while its shape is something like one of those little mounds made for drying salt” (Ise Monogatari).

And there is the most shameless flattery, straight from some medieval politburo: “So brilliantly shimmered the peak! One could not help but think the God of Mount Fuji had come to wait upon the majestic presence of our lord, the Shogun” (Procession to Mt Fuji). Indeed, what’s striking about this anthology is the sheer medley of different voices. On this evidence, the Japanese spirit must be uproariously diverse.

Or, as the Hyakumeizan author put it, “Mt Fuji is there for everyone…” You could say the same about this anthology. As the introduction explains, the bilingual presentation was intended “to assist the teaching of works of classical Japanese literature in English”. But the ample and informative notes (again, thanks!) will help both literary scholars and general readers.

For meizanologists, this volume comes along like a proverbial London bus – you wait and wait, and then three roll up together. For years, it seemed, Mt Fuji lacked any English-language write-ups other than a hiking guidebook and some photo collections.

Then, all of a sudden, as if catalysed by the volcano’s accession to world heritage status, along came H Byron Earhart’s magisterial Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan and the Shizuoka-Yamanashi Joint Council’s Mt Fuji: The Wellspring of our Faith and Arts, complete with a foreword by former prime minister, Nakasone Yasuhiro.

And now, as if to complete a triple whammy, here comes this excellent literary anthology. By the way, Chuo University, how about following up with a second collection, to sample the Mt Fuji literature from the eighteenth century to the present? That too would be well worth waiting for.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Tripling the hundred mountain challenge

Korea and Taiwan too have honour rolls of their favourite one hundred summits.

If any yama-holic is reading this, perhaps sit down and pour yourself a stiff drink. Climbing the one hundred mountains of Japan is challenge enough, especially if you go about it by fair means. But what if you then set out to scale the hundred mountains of Korea? And, after that, the matching set in Taiwan?

Winter landscape (detail) by Sesshu
Turns out that mountain lists have been proliferating all over northeast Asia. Korea’s one hundred mountains were compiled in 2002 by the country’s Forest Service, a government agency, presumably to promote tourism. But a hiking organisation and a mountain goods company have put together other lists.

Understandably, the mountains in the official Korean list are all in South Korea. And most appear to be of modest stature. That can't be helped. For the sad fact is that all of the Korean mountains that top out above 2,000 metres – about one hundred of them – stand in the northern half of the peninsula.

The noises emanating from Panmunjon this week were encouraging. If they lead to an outbreak of peace, it might one day be possible to compile and climb a unified one hundred mountains of the Korean peninsula. Until then, however, the highest one, Mt Paektu, will be bestridden by the Supreme Leader alone.

While waiting for North Korea to open up, yama-holics would do well to consider the one hundred mountains of Taiwan. This list, like Japan’s Hyakumeizan, is completely unofficial. It was put together in the 1970s by a group of prominent Taiwanese mountaineers.

Known as the Baiyue (百嶽), the one hundred peaks are selected from among Taiwan’s roster of 260 peaks that top 3,000 metres. Actually, two of them turned out after a re-survey, to come in slightly under that height, but they kept their place in the list on the merit of their other qualities.

That’s an important point: the Baiyue are by no means all among the highest hundred mountains in Taiwan. Instead, they excel for their aesthetic qualities, including uniqueness, danger, beauty and prominence. This too makes them kith and kin to the Nihon Hyakumeizan, as curated in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a repurposed novelist.

The Hyakumeizan author, Fukada Kyūya, chose his mountains for their character, history and "extraordinary distinctiveness". And he would include a mountain only if he had climbed it himself. Height was a secondary consideration; ideally, a "Meizan" should top 1,500 metres, but two in the list - Tsukuba and Kaimon – do not.

The Nihon Hyakumeizan originated as a magazine series commissioned by Ohmori Hisao, then a young editor and today a doyen of Japan’s mountain literary scene. Later, the articles were collected into a book. Only then did the notion of actually climbing all these mountains take hold with the mountaineering public.

In Korea and Taiwan, things happened the other way round. The lists arrived first, and it may be that the definitive books about their one hundred mountains have yet to be written. But that’s OK too. As Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

You know, the same might be said for the idea of actually climbing them all. Yama-holics, remember you read it here first ...