Thursday, February 7, 2019

A king among alpinists

Arnold Lunn's memories of a king who led from the front, in war and in peace

King Albert I
(photo: Wikipedia)
Albert I (1875-1934) reigned as King of the Belgians from 1909 to 1934. Throughout the first world war, the King and Queen were more often in than out of the front-line trenches, and were never out of range of enemy guns. A passionate alpinist in his leisure hours, King Albert died while soloing a cliff climb in eastern Belgium in 1934. What follows is from a personal memoir by alpine ski pioneer Arnold Lunn:

"I will not be deprived of my rights as a citizen because I happen to be a King," was a favourite saying of his. As a king, his life was so precious to his country that his advisers made every effort to keep him out of the trenches in war and away from the mountains in peace. But the King refused to be deprived of the right to which, as a citizen of Belgium, he was entitled, the right to imperil his life as and when he pleased.

To the King mountaineering was not mountain travel, but a duel between man and mountain. It is, of course, the determination to preserve the reality of that contest which is responsible for all new developments in mountaineering. The King sought out the climbs which tested him to the limit of his capacity, knowing well that this involved definite risks, since no man can measure himself fully against the mountains without peril.

He climbed a great deal alone among the small but difficult rock peaks which are within easy motoring distance of his villa on Lake Lucerne. He was not at his best on snow and ice, but he was a magnificent rock climber, and it was as an active partner, and not as a passenger, that he achieved a series of brilliant guideless climbs. Two members of the Kandahar Club, Walter Amstutz and Gotlieb Michel were his companions on expeditions of exceptional difficulty. Amstutz has given a list in Die Alpen of the King's climbs in the Dolomites and the Engelhörner and elsewhere. It is a list of which even a modern cragsman might be very proud.

On one occasion, as the King was creeping along an extremely exposed and treacherous traverse, one of his companions showed signs of perturbation. The King looked over his shoulder down into the depths below, and said, "Death is the fate of all true Alpinists," a remark which did little to reassure his companion.


Arnold Lunn, Come what may: an autobiography, Little, Brown and Co, 1941

Obituary for King Albert I in the Alpine Journal, with a list of his climbs (courtesy of the Toyohashi Alpine Club)

Monday, February 4, 2019

Alpinism and the waning of faith

Arnold Lunn on the rise of mountaineering in a "defeatist" era for religion

And perhaps the revelation of mountain beauty depends not only on the physical constitution of the mountains but also on the angle of spiritual reflection. There have been long ages when man was badly placed to see the light of timeless beauty shining through the mountain screen, and it is perhaps no accident that this light should have become clearer when a greater light was partially obscured.

The beginning of mountain mysticism in the eighteenth and of systematic mountaineering in the nineteenth century coincided with defeatist periods in Christian history. It is, as I pointed out in my book, Switzerland and the English, an interesting coincidence that Rousseau, who was, as Leslie Stephen remarked, "the first to set up mountains as objects of human worship," should have completed the Nouvelle Heloise, which had so great an influence on the development of the mountain cult, in the same year, 1759, that Diderot's Encyclopaedia, that manifesto of scepticism, was published, and that exactly one hundred years later the Origin of Species and Peaks, Passes and Glaciers should have made a simultaneous appearance.

It would seem as if both in 1759 and 1859 Providence provided an antidote to complete scepticism. The Alpine Club and Darwinism are in effect contemporary phenomena. They were born together but, fortunately for the Alpine Club, they did not decline together.


Text from: Arnold Lunn, Mountains of Memory, London, Hollis and Carter, 1948

Image: Fogbow on the Matterhorn, from Edward Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69, published 1873 (via Wikipedia)

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Geology and mountain character

Arnold Lunn on the links between the underlying rocks and the Jungfrau's form

Of the Urbachtal I remember little, and what little I do remember I would gladly forget. The valley is fenced in by bleak limestone crags and pinnacles. Limestone unvaried by granite, and unadorned by glacier, seldom produces attractive mountainscapes.

The Jungfrau seen from Schynnige Platte, Bernese Oberland
(Photo courtesy Alpine Light & Structure)

The glory of the great Oberland peaks is due to the intricate interplay of granite and limestone, and even the Eiger, which is pure limestone, and the Wetterhorn would not be the lovely mountains that they are, if they were robbed of their mantling curtains of snow and ice, as I discovered in 1947, the dryest summer for fifty years.

Postcards of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, c.1900

I am glad that the highest peak of the Wetterhörner is crested with aristocratic granite, for limestone - let us face it - is a bit of an upstart, and has never been quite accepted by the igneous rocks who queened it above the steaming seas of the primeval planet.

Postcard of the Jungfrau from Interlaken, c.1900

It was only in the Mesozoic age that the limestones began to climb the social ladder, and these Mesozoics are still regarded as invincibly middle class by the best rocks, such as the Jungfrau, that grande dame with her superb igneous coronet, who always seems to me to be raising a disdainful lorgnette as she looks down on her limestone neighbours: "My dear, do we know these Mesozoics?"


Text from: Arnold Lunn, Mountains of Memory, London, Hollis and Carter, 1948

Postcard images from: Daniel Anker, Jungfrau, Zauberberg der Männer, AS Verlag, 1996

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A chain through the generations

Family history from a high alpine valley: a review of Marcella Maier’s The green silk shawl, translated by Iris Hunter

Switzerland’s Engadine valley is a set of Segantini-like vistas, all lakes and mountains. At least, that’s how visitors see it. But, before it became a touristic idyll, how did people sustain themselves here, on this windy altiplano with its thin soils and hard winters? For those who want an answer, Iris Hunter has now ably translated Marcella Maier’s The green silk shawl into English.

Marcella Maier (1920-2018) was no visitor to the Engadine. Born and brought up in St Moritz, she was able to trace her family history back through four generations, that of her mother, Nina (1890-1975), through Maria (1867-1957), her maternal grandmother, and Lisabetta (1831-1913), and so to Alma (1797-1877). In 2005, she published their story as Das grüne Seidentuch, which swiftly became a national best-seller.

In her account, women are the main characters because they had to be. For the first two generations, Maier’s ancestors were widowed early. In the next one, Maria’s husband had to flee abroad after running up huge business debts.

When the story opens, we meet Alma wondering how she can support herself and her infant daughter through the next winter. Times are hard in the aftermath of the wars when Napoleon’s troops ravaged and looted their way through Switzerland. But her prospects improve when a kind shopkeeper recommends her to the lady of the “Palazzo” in Soglio. Moving to the mountain village, she gains a reputation as a reliable worker and a skilled nurse for the sick.

Dramatis loci: St Moritz in 1900 (photo courtesy of
And so the story begins. When Maier’s own children are born, her mother feels “as if one ring was joining another to form a chain through the generations of these women, showing the way from the distant past to the future …”

But did her mother feel any such thing? We can’t know for certain. By Maier’s own account, her sources are mainly the stories she heard from her grandmother, Maria – who, in turn, heard them from her own mother and grandmother. These events are brought to life by the plausible interpolation of the actors’ thoughts and dialogues. Rebranded by the modern literary scene as “creative non-fiction”, such techniques probably go back to Thucydides or before.

Here, we feel, the creative element is held decently in bounds. Literary devices such as leitmotivs are unobtrusive. The silk shawl of the title is an heirloom that is passed down the generations, yet it surfaces on just a handful of occasions. Conversations must be recreated, of course, but sparingly so. And Iris Hunter has expertly rendered them into natural English while letting something of the original speech patterns ring through. This too bolsters the narrative’s authenticity.

To paint in the background, Maier also draws on documentary evidence of regional life. The results should surely get a nod from historians of the Annales school. Deftly woven into the narrative are folk memories of fleeing into the mountains from Napoleon’s marauding troops, early industrial action, by washerwomen pushing for a wage rise, and the valley’s first brush with electric power (“this work of the devil”). Some of these episodes are illuminated with early photos.

Windy altiplano: Sils Maria and the Engadine valley
(Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

There is many an insight into how society eased the lot of single mothers before social security was invented. The kind shopkeeper lets Alma buy groceries on credit, tiding her over the winter, while Lisabetta is appointed as her village’s furnera, a kind of communal baker. In return, the Swiss virtues are expected from all job applicants: “Reliability, accuracy and good manners, that is what we need here,” says Nina’s employer.

Steadfast and unshowy, these virtues may hint at why The green silk shawl is privately published. The translation was apparently passed over by several imprints who might be expected to take an interest in this kind of book. Probably it was insufficiently histrionic for them.

Readers will be more perceptive. They will find that this story's limpid surfaces conceal unsuspected depths, much like a Segantini painting of the landscape it is set in. This is a moving tribute to the quiet dignity of four women who prevailed against the odds.


Marcella Maier, The green silk shawl, translated by Iris Hunter, Perfect Publishers Ltd, Cambridge, 215 pages with illustrations.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (23)

28 October: the Sensei’s alarm cat wakes us at 5 am: an early start is called for, even if today's objective is a pond rather than a mountaintop.

Breakfast is natto on toast, washed down with a pot of strong coffee. This cross-cultural experiment sustains us on our drive through Imajo, a sleepy village south of Fukui. A wooded valley then leads us into the eastern hills. So remote is the last village that some houses have been abandoned, their roofs caved in and bushes growing out of the windows.

We’re not the first to arrive at the carpark. Of a Sunday, Yasha-ga-ike seems to be a popular destination. Mist blurs the nearby peaks as we start off up a path that threads through a river gorge. Soon we have more to worry about than a big drop to the river: two hornets are tussling in mid-path. A wide berth is given.

The path zig-zags up through beech woods, bringing us up on the banks of a pool sited at the treeline’s edge. This is a quiet place, even with a score or so of fellow hikers appreciating the autumn foliage.

The still waters sit like a corrie between two mountains. This is a “pond cradled in nocturnal gloom”, if you insist on taking the characters in Yasha-ga-ike’s name literally.

Quite possibly, it was these crepuscular overtones that attracted the attention of the writer Izumi Kyōka (1873-1939). Whether or not he actually came up here – Kyōka’s home town of Kanazawa is quite a step away – he worked the place and its memorable name into a play. A Dragon Princess inhabits the pond and will protect the nearby villagers from flood as long as their temple bell tolls three times a day…

First performed in 1913, Izumi Kyōka’s play was later made into a film and, more recently, an opera. The latter’s director, as quoted in the Japan Times, believes that “Yashagaike” is a cautionary tale against a waning in the traditional sense of respect toward nature.

Did Kyōka draw on some pre-existing legend for his plot? There would have been no lack of material, whether from Yasha-ga-ike itself or some other mountain lake: judging from a quick scan of Nihon Hyakumeizan, there is no self-respecting pond in the entire realm without a guardian spirit, benign or otherwise. Take Mikuri-ike on Tateyama, round which a monk most unwisely attempted to swim three times. Or the “Little Marsh” on Akagi, where a serpent lurks that was once a fair maiden.

Turns out, though, that nymphs really do haunt Yasha-ga-ike. They’re those of a unique and endangered beetle, as advertised by a signboard that enjoins us not to pollute the pond’s ecosystem in any way.

After appreciating the autumn foliage, we set out northwards towards Sanshū-ga-dake – twenty years ago, the Sensei led her students to this nearby summit along a well-made path. Since then, nature has reasserted herself – we struggle through the flailing bamboo-grass to a subsidiary peak, calling it a day before our clothes are ripped to shreds.

On the way back, the bushes suddenly rustle and heave behind us. A long moment of suspense ensues – flight is out of the question along this tangled ridge – before we see another hiker forcing his way out of the brushwood. As we start down the path towards the valley, still flushed with adrenalin, I reflect that a bear encounter – even an illusory one – goes a long way towards restoring that traditional sense of respect towards nature.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (22)

26 October (continued): starting down Amakazari, we swap the chill northside shadows for a sunny east-facing ridge. At first, the path is easy. Then the ridge pinches down into the spiny back of a stegosaurus. We put our hands to stone again.

After scrambling down the warm, dry rocks, we pause to admire their grey-green hue, subtle as a celadon vase. This must be the “hornblend porphyrite”, as marked on the Geopark map given us by our kind host this morning (“Agemasu!”, he said when I asked for one).

Descending into the trees turns the calendar back to mid-autumn. The blizzards of falling leaves we saw on the north side haven’t started here; instead, the woods flaunt their yellow and gold intact. We’ve arrived in peak koyo.

Now the going is easier, I wonder why Fukada chose this mountain as one of his elite one hundred. Amakazari lacks the literary fame of, say, Naeba and Myoko, two nearby Meizan. And, unlike them, it doesn’t top the 2,000-metre line. Nor, apart from Monk Rakan, was it a mountain that pilgrims sought out.

Perhaps that's why Fukada himself seems a bit diffident about introducing its attractions: Indeed, he writes in Nihon Hyakumeizan, most travelers will hardly notice this shy, almost petite mountain, spell-bound as they are by the ramparts of the Ushiro-Tateyama range towering over the road to their left.

After failing to scale the mountain’s northern side with his brother – this was in the early summer of 1941 – Fukada came back two weeks later, to try his luck from the Otari hot springs. This time his companion was Koba Shigeko, an acquaintance and perhaps a sweetheart from his high-school days. Shigeko is airbrushed out of the relevant Nihon Hyakumeizan chapter – with good reason, as Fukada was still married to his first wife at that time. In the end, four days of rain forced them to give up.

Could it be that memories of this romantic interlude swayed the Hyakumeizan author's judgment when it came to selecting Amakazari for his list? The question has just floated to mind when the path rounds a corner, presenting us with a classic view – the cliffs of Futonbishi erupting, well, metaphorically speaking, above the rugged defile of Arasuge-sawa.

When, after the war, Fukada returned to Amakazari, it was this gully that led him and his guide towards the long-sought summit – in those days, there was no manicured path up the mountain. But the scenery in that gully must be spectacular, even if you need to keep a wary eye open for rocks bouncing down from above.

From this angle, Amakazari looks to the tourist like a bunched fist, punching its way clear of the moribund terrain that surrounds it. And, for once, the savants might agree with that touristic impression. A glance at the geological map shows how Amakazari’s igneous rocks have intruded through older, softer sedimentary beds.

Thirdly, a mountain must have an air of distinction, wrote Fukada in the essay explaining how he chose his mountains … I do not concern myself with humdrum, run-of-the-mill mountains. It may be true that, as all mountains are different, all have distinguishing features. But this is not enough. What I look for is an extraordinary distinctiveness.

Clambering over the gully’s parapet, we walk down into an easier country of woods and marshes - the iron-hard porphyrite has given way to sandstones of a loucher character.

In this hospitable landscape the trees grow taller and, before they hide the view, I glance back for a last look at Amakazari. Yes, Fukada was right: “Extraordinary distinctiveness," I find myself murmuring.

But there's nobody left to listen: the Sensei has gone on to find a sunny glade for our lunchtime halt.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (21)

26 October: at 6.05 am, we step out of the lodge into gray half-light. Our ascent of Amakazari starts then and there. Without preliminaries, except to pay its respects to a small shrine, the path leaps straight into the vertiginous beech woods. Its boulders are greasy with dew and leafmould. Mercifully, fixed ropes draw the sting from aery traverses.

A cold wind finds us when we come up on a ridge. Autumn is all but over; the last leaves come fluttering by. The Sensei strides on ahead. Must be the natto we had for breakfast. Pausing to photograph a miniature garden nestling in a tree root, I look up to see her vanishing round the next zig-zag, bear-bell chiming prestissimo.

At this rate, we’ll be up before nine. The figures on my altimeter watch are spinning upwards like a fruit-machine’s. We skitter briskly across an exposed hogsback, the thunder of torrents rising from both sides.

Above, we scramble over little rock steps, A-zeroing from tree roots. A larger outcrop is scaled via an aluminium ladder, helpfully identified by a sign identifying it as the “aluminium ladder”. Nothing is being left to chance. Or perhaps it’s a subtle form of post-modernist irony.

Wayfinding was less straightforward when Fukada Kyūya came this way in mid-1941. At that time, he records in Nihon Hyakumeizan, there was no clearly marked path up the mountain and I soon tired of seeking out little tracks here and there. After getting utterly lost, I turned back. But the northern view of Amakazari-yama was memorable.

I’m impressed with the northern view myself. Overhead, glimpsed through the trees, a rat-coloured helm cloud scours across the summit. I can see us, if we get that far, bent double against the gusts, groping our way through the galloping mists across the mountaintop …

The Sensei is unfazed. On her side of Japan, I guess, you won’t do much mountaineering if you wait for balmy skies. I lose her again when I stop to inspect a small pond. While the gusts keep harrying the water surface, I give up on photography and set off in pursuit of the frenetically chiming bear-bell.

Throwing common sense to the winds, the path takes a direttissima line straight up the final slope (when Wes came this way, all of this lay under a vast snowfield). We gain height, boots skidding on muddy pebbles. Quite suddenly the sun is shining straight into our faces down a tunnel of bamboo grass. Emerging from the shadows into a bright morning, we find that all the clouds, rat-coloured or otherwise, have vanished.

At once, there is company. Having met just one other hiker on the northern path, we now see platoons of hikers filing up from Otari, the more popular route. All are then funnelled summitwards by a trench through the sasa, which hisses and flails in the blustering easterly. Placing our feet with extra care, we mince across the top of a steep gully and half-scramble through the rocks to the top.

Momentarily, the wind leaves us in peace. And, as we pull over onto to the summit platform, there are the statues meditating in a row, just as Fukada describes them: The old stone Buddhas all faced northwards towards Echigo, where across the intervening sea lay the long arm of the Noto peninsula. Mentally, I salute Monk Rakan, who is said to have carried them up here on his back.

Today, the Noto peninsula lurks somewhere beneath the haze. Yet the icy wind keeps the upper air clear, so that we see all the way across the mist-filled Fossa Magna, to distant Shirouma, whose tilting ramp soars above the dust horizon. Eastwards, Yakeyama heaves its volcanic tump over an intervening ridgeline while, to the north, we look down onto Koma-ga-take and, beyond, the ultramarine blur of the Japan Sea.

Hmm, interesting: primeval mountains to the west, rows of upstart volcanoes in the east. The landscape seems poised to narrate a geological epic, probably of Cecil B de Mille-like grandiosity. Too bad that I’m in no shape to listen. The wind slices through my pile jacket like a Gassan blade, though the Sensei seems not even to notice it. "Cold, is it cold?" she asks. Definitely, it's the natto.

“We need to go down,” I hear myself saying.