Wednesday, January 8, 2020

“What I learned in avalanche school”

Why human factors have to complement snow analysis in avalanche safety courses

Again, the New York Times demonstrates its unfailingness. In a recent edition of the NYT magazine, novelist Heidi Julavis writes up an avalanche course that she attended in January last year. What she learned was that avalanches from on high aren’t the primary threat. In nine accidents out of ten, the avalanche is triggered by the victims themselves.

Shredding it: a decision-maker on Piz Calderas
(Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

“The problem” she writes “is that people are susceptible, prideful, bullheaded, egotistic, dumbstruck and lazy. Add to this doomed slurry a little avalanche training (or what used to qualify as avalanche training, and its focus on analyzing the snowpack) and people make terrible decisions with greater frequency and confidence.”

Her course instructor confirms this bleak analysis. The demographic most likely to die in an avalanche, he says, is male, late 20s, intermediate-to-expert skiing experience, combined with some formal avalanche training.

As if to ram this point home, a friend texts to Julavis a newspaper article posted on the very afternoon that her course ends. The headline reads: “Colorado’s first avalanche death of 2019 came during an advanced avalanche-safety course on Red Mountain Pass.”

Why is it that experts fall victim to avalanches as often – or perhaps more often – than novices do?

In her write-up, Julavis refers to Human Factor 2.0, a “seminal” 2016 article by David Page about the trend in avalanche education towards better decision-making. Page, in turn, cites six human factors identified by a previous researcher into avalanche accidents. These “decision-making traps” make up the acronym FACETS:

   Familiarity: I’ve skied this line a dozen times and it’s always held.

   Acceptance: I’m not gonna be the one to chicken out/ruin the day.

   Commitment/consistency: Now we’ve come so far, we might as well carry on.

   Expert halo: The guide or the local guy must know what he’s doing.

   Tracks/scarcity: Let’s shred this untouched powder before somebody else does.

   Social facilitation/proof: Those other guys are shredding it – clearly, it’s safe.

Page goes on to cite an expert who explains that, for novices, any gains they make in learning to analyse snow are still going to be fraught with lots of uncertainty. “So we’re teaching people risk-management systems that accommodate uncertainty. We’re trying to get away from teaching people to think they know things they don’t, to teaching people how to make reasonable decisions, assuming many sources of error in the system.”

A long time ago, a veteran Swiss alpinist put matters more succinctly: “Remember,” he said, “the avalanche doesn’t know you are an expert.”

Thursday, December 19, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (36)

10 November: in the space of two short weeks, we’ve seen mountains as symbols, mountains for pilgrims, mountains as larders, and even the mountain as a mysterious table centerpiece. Now it’s time to go home. The bus drives a Chinese tour group and your correspondent to an airport hotel somewhere off the northern end of Narita’s runways.


On this rainy night, we can’t see what happened to this once bucolic landscape of fields, woods and bamboo groves. We arrive at a glass-faced monolith sited next to an expressway’s entry gate. After checking in at a counter of marble and brass, I ask the efficient young clerk if there’s a convenience store within walking distance. No, he says, you can’t walk anywhere from here. Soto wa yama desu ne. Out there, it’s a mountain …


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (35)

10 November: a reverent hush pervades the exhibition hall, crowded though it is. This is not a mountain day. We’re at the Nara National Museum, paying our annual homage to the treasures of the Shōsō-in, a time capsule sent down from the eighth-century Imperial court. This year’s iteration includes some of the collection’s finest pieces, to mark the first year of the new Reiwa era.


Among the bronze mirrors and the exquisitely inlaid casks, Item 20 looks oddly out of place. It is a battered relic of weathered wooden layers that looks for all the world like a stand for some upmarket bonsai tree. “Remaining part of a mountain-shaped object,” the catalogue tells us. Straining our eyes through the gloom, we descry a miniature grove of blackened and crinkled trees – wrought of silver says the catalogue, complete with cloth scraps for leaves.


Many of the Shōsō-in’s treasures recall a known person, and even a specific occasion. The golden pendants we’ve just seen, for example, once adorned the crowns worn by Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyō on that very spring day in Tempyō Shōhō 4 (752) when the Great Buddha of the Tōdaiji was inaugurated.

The eye-opening ceremony for the Great Buddha of the Todaiji
Painting by Hirayama Ikuo
The mountain-shaped object is different. Nobody knows how it came to be in the Shōsō-in, or why. As good scholars should be, the catalogue authors are circumspect: “While it is not known how this was used, it probably served as a decorative object during a Buddhist ritual or some other kind of ceremony.”


Casting a last glance at the enigmatic mountain, we move on to an eight-lobed table and a set of gilt bronze windbells. These objects breathe the elegance and refinement of the High Tempyō. But I’m thinking that, somewhere in the Emperor’s entourage, amid this world of symmetry and grace, there was somebody for whom the wild, uncouth form of mountains had a special meaning.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (34)

7 November: our plan to climb Red Rabbit Mountain runs, literally, into a roadblock. The sign tells us that the toll road will stay closed until spring. As that seems too long to wait, we leave the Sensei’s van by the roadside and start on the three-hour trudge to the summer tozanguchi (road-head).


Ohara, the hamlet at the start of the toll road, is deserted, its houses boarded up and battened down for the winter. People live there only in summer now, the Sensei says, making it just like a Maiensäss in some corner of the Swiss Alps. Deserted by people, that is. For we are about to meet the mountain as habitat.


Now steaming in the sunbeams of a fine autumn morning, the road already hints at a lively flow of overnight traffic. We happen, first, across evidence left behind by troop of monkeys - shame on them - and then a pile of berry-crammed bear scat. Concerned that indigestion may have left the beast in a bad mood, we turn up our bear-bell to the max.


More mysterious is the mole mortality. We find one furry little corpse lying on the tarmac, as if it had just keeled over. Then, after a hundred yards or so, another. And then another. Altogether, the Sensei counts five or six. We are already far from the last cultivated field, or any other possible source of pollution, and the weather is still warm. What could account for this miniature hecatomb? We cannot tell.


The snake pulls us up with a start - it lies motionless in our path, so that we see it at the last moment. Mamushi: it’s a viper, says the Sensei, reading the tell-tale pattern on its back. Still it doesn’t move. I move in for a photo. Careful, warns the Sensei, they can jump two metres at you when they’re riled. But this one plays dead, frozen by fear or the cool morning shadow.



Rounding a bend into warm sunshine, we start another snake into wriggling flight - this one is very much alive. The Sensei identifies it as a yamakagashi (Rhabdophis tigrinus), from the neat yellow patch behind its head. According to the savants, it gets its venom from eating poisonous toads. Moving on, we check the undergrowth carefully before sitting down for a snack.


At last we reach the road-head. Akausagi-yama (Red Rabbit Mountain), a signboard tells us, is so called because it resembles a red rabbit. Ah, I’d been wondering. Although, today, the slopes above us shimmer rather with purple as the autumn light filters through the trunks of the beeches. We move up through the bare trees, rustling our way through worlds of leafmeal.


At the col, we turn south. We are now walking along the Echizen Zenjōdō, the ancient pilgrim’s path from Heisenji all the way to Hakusan. In reverse direction, we are again following in the footsteps of that mountain’s first ascensionist, Monk Taichō.


On our own summit ridge, the autumn woods stretch away westwards towards the extinct volcano of Kyōgatake. And, to the east, always Hakusan, wearing its lenticular capcloud like a badge of Meizanic rank …

Monday, December 9, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (33)

5 November: what is it about this mountain? As if bewitched, the silver-haired lady opposite pulls out her mobile phone and, while the train keeps winding its way up into the hills, takes photo after photo – the cone with phone wires, the cone with factories, the cone with billboards. The spell doesn’t work on a younger passenger, though, who keeps her window-blind down, the better to pursue a SnapChat or Line conversation.


Mt Fuji can, of course, work much greater wonders. Five years ago, it charmed its way onto UNESCO’s list of cultural heritage sites. Then it prestidigitated a couple of billion yen and more from the prefectural purse. This conjured up a brand-new Mt Fuji World Heritage Center at Fujinomiya, which first opened its doors in December 2017. And today the mountain has summoned your correspondent all the way across Honshū to review this edifice.


A short walk from the station takes me to Ban Shigeru’s masterpiece. Using a latticework of timbers, the architect has set an inverted replica of the Ineffable Cone against the Center’s façade, so that its reflection floats, right way up, on the rippled mirror of an ornamental pond. Oblivious to this ingenious contrivance, a visitor chooses to selfie herself against the backdrop of the real Mt Fuji.


Handing over ¥300 to the courteous reception staff, I enter an upwardly coiling corridor that channels New York’s Guggenheim. “In this zone,” promises the English-language brochure, “you can experience climbing Mt. Fuji … by ascending a 193m-long spiral ramp while watching time-lapse videos of the landscape of Fuji.”



You can even simulate yourself witnessing a “goraiko” (mountaintop sunrise) by standing in front of the projector beam. Neat, eh?


Disgorged by the ramp into an observation hall, I step outside to observe the mountain. Today, it fails to compete with the spectacular videos we’ve just seen – almost all the recent snow has melted, leaving a bare “red Fuji”, relieved by a solitary band of afternoon cloud drifting in from the south. This place too is tailor-made for selfies.



Back inside, I inspect the first exhibition – The Fierce Mountain. A perspex globe demonstrates how the tectonic plates drifted and collided to create first Japan and then Mt Fuji. A stray beam of sunlight lances in from the balcony to wash out the video display, somewhat vitiating this worthy attempt to sum up a dramatic story.

On the next level down, we find The Sacred Mountain, an exhibit that “introduces the spiritual beliefs surrounding Mount Fuji and its importance as a sacred mountain”. The meizanological thinking behind this heritage center starts starts to manifest itself here – the curators have chosen to dedicate a separate exhibition space to each of the mountain’s aspects; geological, religious, cultural and ecological. (There’s no room for the mountain as larder, though.)


On second thoughts, “curators” may mis-state the matter. For this really isn’t a museum: physical exhibits are few, which leaves the heavy lifting to photo displays and videos. Even the temporary exhibition of mandalas featuring Mt Fuji turns out to consist of photographic facsimiles.

But that’s unavoidable when you think about it – Mt Fuji has been a Meizan for so long that everything collectible – artworks, relics, manuscripts, monuments – has already found a lodging in some other collection or shrine or gallery. Mortifyingly, even the summit observatory’s radar dome ended up on the other side of the mountain.

Even so, there is, to quote the brochure’s strapline, “Still more to learn about Mt Fuji”. For instance, the geological exhibit lets slip that Fuji once had two summits (was this perhaps in the Jomon period? The video caption scrolls past too quickly for me to pin down the date).

There is certainly much to learn from the section on Mt Fuji in modern and contemporary literature. Here we are introduced to Kōda Aya, an author who pioneered the literature of landslips:

Kuzure [Collapse], says the display, is a nonfiction work for which the author, who happened to see the Ōyakuzure, one of Japan’s three worst landslides, at the age of 72, travelled around the country visiting the sites of other landslides and reporting on them from a uniquely literary perspective. The elderly author went to the site of the Ōsawakuzure on Mt Fuji, taking three times longer than usual to reach it and finally arriving after struggles that eventually resulted in her being carried by staff of the Mt Fuji Sabo Office. She observed that “more than anything, a landslide is a road that carries cliffs and boulders from one place to another”.

Dropping down to the natural history level, it’s a relief to find that no animals or birds gave up their lives to complete this display. Instead, a wall of photos makes a nod to the mountain as wildlife reserve. The framed portrait of an alpine swift reminds me of the ones we used to see flitting to and fro over the Hoei-zan crater – their colony in the crater’s headwall must be the highest in Japan.


When I return to the entrance, the faint sound of drumming rises above the traffic noise. Walking in that direction, I find a juggernaut – in fact, a whole array of rolling mikoshi – lined up along the street bounding the Fuji Sengen Shrine while their attendants bustle around, readying them for a procession. Perched high on the polished wooden superstructures, the drummers are just warming up.


Gaudy stalls line the shrine’s approaches, selling everything from magic balls to anime figurines. Devotees of chocolate-coated bananas have plenty of vendors to choose from. Fired by their sugar buzz, excited children zig-zag between the attractions, towing their parents to and fro.


Crunching over the white pebbles of the inner court, I revisit a shapely lava bomb, retrieved from the slopes of Mt Fuji.


Beside it stands a wind-carved ventifact from Antarctica, presented by the crew of the survey ship named for the shrine’s patron mountain. If there is a backstory behind this interesting juxtaposition, visitors must ferret it out for themselves. This is a shrine, not a museum, you understand.


Ignored by all and sundry, an effigy of Konosakuya-hime, the goddess of Mt Fuji, stands in a quiet corner. Well, not really an effigy. Just a cut-out figure with a hole for the face, so that you can pose yourself there. Although anyone who takes a selfie right now will miss out on the mountain as a backdrop. The real Mt Fuji has long since vanished behind a veil of late-afternoon cloud.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (32)

4 November: In the last few outings, we’d seen mountains as a locus for pilgrimages, mountains as backdrops for selfies, and even – if you count a glimpse of Mt Fuji from the Narita holding pattern – the mountain that stands for something beyond any man’s grasp. Today, though, we hope to encounter the mountain as larder.


H-san has invited the club members to hunt mushrooms on one of his local mountains. When the Sensei relays this message to me, I feel a twinge of anxiety. After all, we’ve just heard on the radio how a local couple have been hospitalised for eating mushrooms they plucked from a mountain.

Not to worry, the Sensei reassures me, we’ll be looking for nameko, and there’s no poisonous mushroom that you can really confuse them with. And wild nameko, she adds, are much more delicious than the kind you get in supermarkets. I think of asking whether mushroom poisoning counts as an objective or subjective hazard, but keep the question to myself.

The drizzle is clearing when we get to the base of Nosaka-dake, in the southern part of Fukui Prefecture. Three cars disgorge a baker’s a baker's dozen of mountaineers, most of us of pensionable age.


N-san, a member of the local mountain rescue team, has brought along an impressive rack of gear. Mushrooms are sought in steep-sided ravines, where the objective hazards range from wet grass to falling stones. Not to mention the mushrooms themselves, of course.

We start off up a ridge, innocuously enough, following a line of electricity pylons. Where the power company has cut down trees, it has tried to make good the damage by planting saplings. All have withered. “It was the summer heat,” says S-san, breaking off a bone-dry twig to make his point.


Rising from the factory forest into beech woods, we reach the summit ridge. Here the party splits, one group going left and the other right. K-san vanishes ninja-like into the depths of the gully south of the ridge. Nameko prefer rotting oak logs (nara) to grow on, or perhaps fallen beech or elm branches, so you’re more likely to find them in a shadowy gorge than high on a ridge. But, conscious that what goes down must come up, the Sensei and I stick close to the crest.


After a while, everybody resigns themselves to a nameko-free supper that evening, and we convene on the crest. Heading for the summit, we emerge from the beech wood into a zone of twisted, stunted brushwood. Winters must be harsh up here. Just before we reach the summit, Lake Biwa rises like a polished shield behind us – the clouds are starting to clear southwards – and at the same time we glimpse the sea ahead of us.


Like Xenophon’s troops, we pause to admire the view. Eastwards rises a handsome peak, not unlike a crouching tiger in shape. Several of us, including your correspondent, identify it as Arashima-dake, a leading Meizan of Fukui Prefecture. Embarrassingly, we soon stand corrected, by reference to a summit panorama table, of exactly the kind detested by the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyuya.

The crouching tiger is, in fact, Ibuki, a quite different mountain, although it also belongs to Fukada’s elite One Hundred Social Constructs of Japan. From here, it’s obvious how this mountain holds the world record for snow accumulation – although it stands closer to the Pacific than the Japan Sea, nothing stands between it and the Siberian northwesterlies that waft the snow fronts directly from the Siberian taiga.


Indeed, this wind blows keenly. We repair to a summit hut – for all its modest height, Nosaka-dake is a properly equipped mountain – and tuck into our lunches. Having unobtrusively rejoined the group, K-san, shows us a shopping bag filled to the brim with fresh nameko, although he’s studiedly vague about where he found them. Everyone agrees that the boom times for nameko are over – there was a bonanza after a tree disease laid waste to the oak trees (nara) in this region, but after their fallen trunks have rotted away, pickings have become slim.


On the way back, several of us make a detour back into that promising gully to the south of the ridge. Again, though, our luck is out. Just one more solitary mushroom has been found. Back at the cars, I take a photo of it – just in case there is another chance to go nameko-hunting.


We drive back along the coast road. The sky is blue now, and a freshening breeze chases white-caps across the bay. As if to emulate a Hokusai, a breaking wave shakes a fountain of spray over a pine-topped rock. Clouds still stream from the peaks beyond. A sight to cheer the spirit, even if today the mountains are sending us home without supper.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (31)

3 November: or has autumn been abolished? Under a flat grey sky, the air is windless, warm, sultry; no blush of red or yellow yet tinges the leaves. At the mountain’s foot, woodsmen are hacking down bamboos that bent or broke in the recent typhoon. We trudge uphill with our bear-bell chiming, though it does nothing to repel the hornets droning across our path. One circles us before deciding that we’re not worth sending into anaphylactic shock.


For the third time in four days, we’re following in the footsteps of Taichō Daishi (682-767), the pioneer of Hakusan. But today’s objective is lowly Ochi-san (612.8m), where the youthful sage used to repair for meditation, running the 15 km distance to and from his home village every night. This makes him a forerunner of ultra-running as well as mountaineering.


When we enter the summit shrine’s precincts, we’re debating whether it’s safe to mute the bear-bell. Just then, we spot a straw-hatted figure on a flagstoned path. He is sweeping away the fallen leaves with such vigour that, for a moment, we wonder if the shrine has signed up some young volunteer. But, no, this is the shrine’s guardian himself, wielding a besom fit to belie his eight and a bit decades. Invited to the main building for tea, we’re introduced to his niece, who also holds a licence to officiate.


Autumn is arriving late, we agree. Otani-sensei shows us an article he’s written for a local newsletter. This paints the season as it should be up here:

“Soon our eyes will be delighted by the autumn foliage of this deciduous wildwood, all 540, 000 square metres of it …Its beauty will sink into the depths of our souls. Horse-chestnuts, beech mast, acorns and chestnuts come to fruition, granting man and beast all the blessings of good health. As flocks of migrating birds pass through and the chestnut tiger (asagimadara) butterflies dance in the air, Ochi-san’s fans will come up the hill in droves to pay their respects, drawn by these benisons of nature. On the Fifteenth Night, Ochi-san draws together the blessings of heaven and earth, and those of the mountain in its autumn raiment … When the evening light turns the mountaintop to gold, this is a sacred mountain indeed, the dwelling place of gods.”

The conversation turns to history. In Meiji times, the new government subjected hilltop sanctuaries like this one to its policy of purging Buddhist elements from Shinto places of worship. This was when Ochi-san became a shrine – previously its pavilions and stations had mingled elements of both Buddhism and Shinto. This cultural revolution may account for the shattered or defaced Jizō figurines that we saw on the way up here.


Yet Monju-san (365m), on the other side of Fukui City, still has both a summit shrine and a hall for a statue of the Kannon. As Kamata Tōji observes, in his illuminating Myth and Deity in Japan:The Interplay of Kami and Buddhas, the authorities never could articulate their policy clearly, let alone enforce it consistently.


Although this is a topic that should fascinate any aspirant meizanologist, we are keeping our hosts from their lunch – it is well past noon. So we bid farewell, and continue to the summit. A gap in the trees presents the view that must have inspired Taichō to undertake his momentous ascent of Hakusan in the first year of Yōrō (717). Today, alas, the mountain is no more than a distant smudge in the grey haze.

A nearby signboard relates a story from the Taichō legend. One day, it says, the monk came upon Fuse, one of his acolytes, asleep at this very spot. Defending himself, Fuse said that there were two types of training – one for the body, and one for the mind. It was, of course, the latter type that he was practising as he lay comatose on the hilltop. Somehow the story appeals: one can almost see the wry smile on the sage’s face as he listens to Fuse. Taking the hint, we sit down on the stone steps and grant ourselves a second tea-break.