Monday, April 24, 2017

Sakura diary (1)

14 April, Narita: as soon as the tyres squawk onto the runway, I realise this trip is singularly ill-timed. Over there, a whole row of them coyly enfold the airport’s fuel tanks in their luminous billows. Later, as the Shinkansen hurtles westwards, they flicker past the windows like a faulty neon tube. On arrival in Fukui, they’re everywhere – crowding the streets and riverbanks, lighting up the tawny hillsides with intermittent puffs of pallor. In the manner of a frontal assault – people do call it the sakura zensen – the cherry blossom rolls northwards. Resistance is futile.

15 April, Fukui: if we can’t avoid them, then we may as well view them. I accompany the Sensei up Asuwa-yama, the hill on the edge of town. Under the flowering trees, pensioners take selfies with their smart phones. This is a weekday, so crowds are moderate. Tomorrow, on Saturday, the police will be out here trying to unscramble the gridlocked roads. Such congestion is traditional:-

Hanami-kago gakute shōtotsu sakuragari

The sedan chairs jostle as they vie to view the blossom (Yūsei, 1680)

I’ve nothing against cherry blossoms, of course – without them there’d be no new cherry trees. It’s just their in-your-face evanescence that’s objectionable: surely, life is short enough without being confronted with the fact at every street crossing.

Now, here we go again – the breeze swirls the petals round us like a snow squall, wilfully re-enacting those famous words in Tale of the Heike: “The proud endure not; they are a mere dream on a spring evening and, no less, the mighty must fall, as blossom drives before the wind ….”

Fortunately, we have other business to occupy us. The name of William Eliott Griffis (1843-1928), a Meiji-era yatoi, will live forever in connection with Fukui. Embarrassingly, though, his actual stay was almost as transient as a cherry flower's. In 1871, not long after graduating from Rutgers University, the young American came to the feudal school as a science teacher on a salary of $2,400. The Fukui authorities even built him a Western-style house.

Alas, Griffis soon got itchy feet and, the following year, decamped to a more prestigious job in Tokyo. Although this was much to the chagrin of his hosts, Fukui seems to have forgiven him, and the house was recently reconstructed. At the Sensei’s suggestion, we drop in to inspect it.

Surfing the exhibits, a minor meizanological discovery is made – Griffis may have been the first foreigner to climb Hakusan, the 2,702-metre dormant volcano that looms to the city’s east. At least, that was his ambition, as he phrases it in a letter to his sister Maggie dated August 20, 1871. The full story is found in his collected letters.

Outside the house, the museum curators have erected a hardboard cut-out of Griffis, complete with a puritanical hat, leaving a hole where his head should be for visitors to poke their faces through. A cheeky young soul does just that as we walk past. Yes, after more than a century, I think Fukui and Griffis have at last reached a very satisfactory accommodation.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A home mountain stirs in its sleep

Volcanic earthquakes detected under Hakusan

NHK Kanazawa reports that, on 20 April, more than 40 small earthquakes occurred under Hakusan - the volcano in Japan's Hokuriku district best known as the home mountain of the Hyakumeizan author. One tremor of magnitude 2.2 occurred near the summit at 1.30 am. Bursts of seismic activity are not unusual under long-dormant volcanoes: on 1 December 2014, more than 150 small tremors were detected in the same area.

The title of this magazine article reads: "X-day for the looming Hakusan eruption".
Well, maybe not quite yet....
According to Wikipedia, the bulk of Hakusan dates back to eruptions that happened 30,000-40,000 years ago. In those days, the edifice may have been higher than Mt Fuji. In a kind of coda to the main action, Ken-ga-mine, a subsidiary summit, welled up as a lava dome about 2,000 years ago. Hakusan most recently erupted in 1659. Eruptions were also recorded in 1554, 1042 and 706 – the earliest one taking place just over a decade before Monk Taichō made the mountain's first ascent.

In yesterday’s episode, the type of low-frequency tremors that signal the movement of magma or volcanic gases was absent, suggesting that an eruption is probably not imminent. So it’s unlikely that the 1,300th anniversary of Taichō’s ascent, which falls this summer, will be marked or marred by a volcanic outburst.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (3)

Concluded: a disquisition (crux pitch) on liberty and climbing literature

The next pitch was mine. Easing up foot by foot, I strove to weld the rubber of my Scarpa rockshoes onto the smooth limestone; handholds weren’t much on offer. The negative energy left behind by our departed fellow-climbers was palpable: it dragged more heavily than the weight of our twin 9mm ropes.

Allan's lead: the crux pitch of Freiheit Südwand
Doubt festered: this must be the “smooth slab” mentioned in the topo, but signs of human passage were lacking – no friendly crampon scratches and, more to the point, few pitons or gear placements to stop a fall. I carried on until I found two old pitons in a corner. This had to be a stance. When Allan came up, we reviewed the topo. Now we understood why the Swiss crew had bailed; the cliff reared up in our face like a barrier.

Without barriers, of course, alpinism would be void of meaning. Still, one can have too much of a good thing. Few climbers have faced as many barriers as did those trapped within Poland’s post-war command economy. Even their path to mountaineering was enmeshed in bureaucratic restrictions. Aspirants received an official card stating where and when they could climb, almost like a driving license.

For expeditions, hindrances mounted to Himalayan proportions. First, climbers had to obtain a passport, ideally without agreeing to spy for the security services. Then they had to get hold of hard currency, to pay for the trip. In Katowice, home to one of the country’s most activist alpine clubs, they abseiled down factory chimneys for a living, paint-brush in hand. Others smuggled whisky into Pakistan.

These stories are recorded by Bernadette McDonald in Freedom Climbers. For once, a publication more than justifies the blurb on its cover: “One of the most important mountaineering books to be written for many years”. The paradox of the Polish climbers is that, the more obstacles they met with, the harder they climbed, and the better they became.

A line: West Face of Gasherbrum with the Kurtyka/Schauer route
(photo: Freedom Climbers)
For more than a decade, Polish climbers made a specialty of hard winter climbs on big Himalayan peaks. The lines they put up were awe-inspiring, as was the casualty rate. McDonald estimates that some eight out of ten of Poland’s top expedition climbers died in the mountains during that period.

Memorial plaque to Polish climbers below Lhotse
(Photo: Freedom Climbers)
When they summited Everest in February 1980, the first-ever ascent in winter, Pope John Paul II congratulated the expedition members, urging them to “Let this sport, which demands such a great strength of the spirit, become a great lesson of life, developing in all of you the human virtues and opening new horizons of human vocation.”

Hardly by coincidence, it was in the same year that the famous strike at the Lenin Shipyards broke out, the first step towards Poland’s liberation. But when, later in the decade, Poland did rejoin the free world, the effects on its alpinists were ambiguous. They shared in the generally increased prosperity, they could vote their governments in and out, and they could travel freely. They were free. Yet something went missing.

In her epilogue, McDonald quotes an article written by Voytek Kurtyka in 1993: “Almost physically I sense in Poland the subsiding of the great mountain inspiration. I believe it is being replaced by the onerous awareness of a new era and the necessity of meeting its demands.” The great age of winter alpinism in the Himalaya was over.

Climbing above the Fählensee (Altes Südplattli, top pitch)
“Climbing is not a symbol or poetic metaphor of life – it is life itself,” wrote J A Szczepański, a Polish climbing author. At times, Allan and I might have agreed with him. Right now, though, we just wanted this climb to end. Unfortunately, an awkward little wall, almost overhanging, blocked our upward progress. This, in a most unmetaphorical way, was clearly the crux of our climb.

“Would you mind leading the next pitch too?” Allan asked. Actually, I’d rather not, I replied – fighting the negative energies of the third pitch had sapped my resolve, or so it seemed. “OK,” said my partner, a man of few words, “then give me some gear.” And, for one last time, Allan got us out of a jam. Backing up an old peg with a chock, he scrabbled his feet upwards and onto a ledge. The key to the climb had been unlocked.

View from the Südwand
The first party to come this way had no sticky rock slippers to help them, or ingenious chocks. Climbing in the summer of 1928, they moved up the smooth slab and mastered the crux pitch in nailed boots, trusting their lives to a hawser-laid hemp rope. Walter Pause records their names as Ernst Holdenegger, Robert Hollenweger and companions. I’m unable to find anything more about them. But they were the first to win the freedom of this wall.

It seems that they didn't name it, though. A record from 1873 shows the master of the Fählenalp – we could see the roofs of its huts sprinkled like confetti on the meadow far below – explaining to a visitor, perhaps a local official, that they’d always known that beetling crag as the “Freiheit”. By this, they meant simply a summit that rises free of its neighbours, like a master cheese-maker among cowherds.

One afternoon in the Alpstein

So this Freiheit marks no victory or political démarche, still less a feat of alpinism. Instead, it was named by the men, to borrow the words of the alpine traveller James Forbes, “who live during all the finest and stirring part of the year in the fastnesses of their sublimest mountains, seeing scarcely any strange faces, and but few familiar ones … so accustomed to privation as to dream of no luxury, and utterly careless of the fate of empires or the change of dynasties.” This freedom is untainted.

Utterly careless as to how our crag got its name, Allan and I sprawled on a cramped belvedere of tussock grass. What mattered, on Freiheit's summit, was to free our feet from our sweaty climbing shoes, pull on hiking boots, and coil the ropes. And surely we’d earned a minute to take a swig of water and eat our neglected sandwiches. Only a minute, mind. Already, the slanting sunlight hinted that we should set about finding a way down.


Auf den Bergen ist Freiheit! Der Hauch der Grüfte
Steigt nicht hinauf in die reinen Lüfte;
Die Welt ist vollkommen überall,
Wo der Mensch nicht hinkommt mit seiner Qual.

On the mountains is freedom; no clammy breath
Mounts there from the rotting caves of death!
Blest is the wide world every where
When man and his sorrows come not near.

Friedrich Schiller, The Bride of Messina (1804), Act IV, scene vii; translation by George Irvine (1837).


Freiheit Südwand in Walter Pause, Im schweren Fels: 100 Genussklettereien in den Alpen, 1967

Benjamin R Barber, The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton, Princeton University Press (reprint 2015)

Interview with Yvette Vaucher in Patricia Purtschert, Früh los: Im Gespräch mit Bergsteigerinnen über siebzig, Hier und Jetzt, 2011

Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, originally published as Fuga sul Kenya, 1947

W H Murray, Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland, Baton Wicks

W H Murray, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (autobiography), Baton Wicks, 2002

Robin Lloyd-Jones, The Sunlit Summit: The Life of W. H. Murray, 2014

Bernadette McDonald, Freedom Climbers, Heritage House, 2012

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (2)

Continued: a disquisition (alpine III/IV+) on liberty and climbing literature

The only way out is up, we decided. Quite a few mountaineers have felt the same way, and not only about the pitch in front of them. Yvette Vaucher, looking back on her career as one of Switzerland’s top alpinists, spoke for many when she said:

What attracted me is the freedom. There's so much freedom in the mountains. You choose where to go; there are no instructions. We're free. Nobody tells us you can't go here, can't go there. We trust the mountain. And it's only we ourselves who can decide whether we can get up something or not. That's freedom. And freedom is important for your whole life, whether you climb or not.

Yvette Vaucher: she chose to climb
(photo: courtesy of Schweizer Illustrierte)
In the Switzerland of the 1960s, women had to overcome a mountain of social barriers if they went climbing. None of these, in July 1966, could stop the husband-and-wife team of Michel and Yvette Vaucher putting up a breath-taking direct line on the Dent Blanche’s north face. Even so, some hindrances proved insurmountable. Women couldn’t become guides, for instance, because at that time only men serving in the Swiss army could qualify for the necessary training courses.

Camp on Mt Kenya: an illustration from No picnic on Mount Kenya
Some mountaineers have faced more literal constraints on their liberty. When the Italian alpinist, Felice Benuzzi, was interned by the British in a wartime camp in East Africa, with no hope of escape to a friendly country, the effects of imprisonment threatened his sanity:

Forced to endure the milieu we seemed almost afraid of losing our individuality. Sometimes one felt a childish urge to assert one's personality in almost any manner, shouting nonsense, banging an empty tin, showing by every act that one was still able to do something other than to wait passively. I have seen normally calm people suddenly rise from their bunks and climb the roof poles of the barrack, barking like monkeys. I felt I understood them, and they had my full sympathy.

The route and the mountain (from No Picnic on Mount Kenya)
Until, that is, he had the idea of climbing nearby Mt Kenya. Just to plan the feat was a release of sorts: “Life took on another rhythm; it had a purpose.” In January 1943, Benuzzi stole out of the camp at night with two companions. They were laden with two weeks of hoarded food, a home-made tent, and ice-axes improvised from two hammers purloined from the prison workshop. After climbing high enough to gaze down on the camp from above, the change of perspective went beyond a mere shifting of sightlines:

"Look there! Isn't that the railway line?"
"Must be. And there's the wood by the church of Nanyuki. And further on ... Yes, it's our camp!"
"Wrong! It is not our camp that you see. It is the camp where we were prisoners."
"I apologise," I answered studying the scene with the aid of the binoculars: "I can see the big black barracks of Compound E!" I added. "Would you mind pulling that branch towards you, so that I can see better? ... Thank you. It is Compound E!"
"I can hardly believe that we were ever there!"

A forest camp (from No Picnic on Mount Kenya)
After planting the Italian flag on a subsidiary summit, they returned to the internment camp. There was nowhere else to go; their rations had run out. They’d achieved what they wanted though, as the original title of Benuzzi’s subsequent book makes clear: Escape on Mt Kenya – 17 days of liberty!

Unlike the bold Italian trio, we hesitated to turn back – the descent path from the Freiheit’s south wall is known as the Mörderwegli, we’d heard, which about sums up its hiker-friendliness. Then again, the wall above us betrayed no hint of weakness. Walter Pause must have mis-stated; he gives the hardest pitch as IV minus.

Allan volunteered to take the first rope-length, a trivial 3c according to the topo. But the shattered limestone flakes, resembling a vertically arrayed bed of knives, did not reassure. Nor did the lack of protection. Yet our leader mounted the pitch as unperturbed as an aristocrat ascending the scaffold.

The epithet is borrowed from W H Murray, the very doyen of prisoner/alpinists. After taking part in a restoration of climbing standards in his native Scotland during the 1930s, Murray joined the Army, was commissioned as an officer, and shipped out to the Middle Eastern theatre, where he was captured in June 1942.

To relieve the tedium of an Italian prison camp, he started to write up his pre-war climbs, relying only on his memories – far better for the quality of writing, he later said, than recycling old climbing diaries. In these efforts – although he was much too modest to make the comparison himself – he joined a select band of incarcerated authors, Boethius and Cervantes among them, who have penned classics from a prison cell.

Much of the book was already written, partly on repurposed toilet paper so legend has it, when the prisoners were moved to a camp in German territory. There the Gestapo found Murray’s manuscript and confiscated it. Undaunted, Murray set to work again. The second version, he thought, was better than the first.

The book may also have absorbed elements of the mystical creed, based on meditation, that a fellow officer introduced to him at the second camp. Finally published in 1947, Mountaineering in Scotland has never been out of print since. And, although Murray went on to become a prolific author, his writing never again reached such heights as it did behind the barbed wire fences of Marisch Trubeau Oflag VIII-F.

Murray gives his years in captivity no more than two short chapters in his autobiography, and rarely spoke about them afterwards. Yet they left their imprint throughout his writing. Describing a stalker’s cottage in remote Glen Affric, he wrote in Undiscovered Scotland, his second mountain book:

A house standing alone in wild country always appeals profoundly to Mcintyre and me. It suggests to us peace, beauty, the perfect freedom from interruption that gives a chance of understanding the things we love. … My unaided imagination could conceive no more delightful home. However, such a picture of freedom from worldly concerns is a symbol, not to be mistaken for reality. I often meet people living amid scenes of peace and beauty whose hearts share neither attribute. At first I used to be puzzled, dismayed, and even made miserable at finding them not only dissatisfied with their lot and disgruntled with society, but worse still, given over to disparagement of their neighbours. The breeding of ill will had become a chosen task. But true peace, that blessed by-product of an integrated heart and mind and will, depends on no scenery. It can be had everywhere - when the means are known.

That’s an unusual reflection to find in a book of climbing reminiscences. One wonders if it could have been written by an author who hadn’t experienced what it means to lose your liberty. "Into the heart of mountain literature," says Robert Macfarlane, “Murray smuggled the spirit." And, one might add, some exceptional insights into the meaning of freedom.

Up on Freiheit, the second pitch brought us onto a small ledge. Suddenly we had company. Two Swiss climbers were just pulling their ropes down; evidently, they’d just rappelled in from above. “We couldn’t find the route,” they explained.

In hindsight, we might have asked them how this crag got its name. But too late: having rigged their next abseil, our interlocutors vanished down the cliff.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Images and ink (35)

Image: Asama erupts in 1783, from Illustrations of Japan (1822), by Dutch trader Isaac Titsingh. He wrote: “The flames burst forth with a terrific uproar ... Everything was enveloped in profound darkness ... A great number of persons were consumed.”

Ink: On Asama-san, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Together with Aso in Kyūshū, Asama is the very model of a Japanese volcano. It has trailed smoke from its summit for untold ages, it was born in a roiling cloud, and its plume is far-famed to this day. While in normal times it emits only the faintest white wisp of vapor, Asama occasionally throws restraint to the winds and blows its stack. In just the last two decades, there have been more than 1,800 eruptions, large and small. This adds up to an amazing frequency of outbursts over the volcano’s lifetime. One of the most famous was the eruption in the third year of Tenmei (1783), when the lava surged forth for several kilometers, ravaging the foot of the mountain with fire. The famous Oni-Oshidashi, or Devil’s Flow, is a relic of that episode.

Image courtesy of the Bodleian, Oxford: the “Volcanoes” exhibition is on at the Weston Library from 10 February to 21 May 2017.

Related post: Serious steam

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (1)

Investigating the links between life, liberty and climbing literature

Preoccupied with the abseils, we took our crag’s name on trust. The last rappel slid us out of a stone-raked slot and away into free air. While the ropes untwisted and our boot-tips described a slow downward spiral, the corrugations of Switzerland’s Alpstein massif scrolled by, viewed as if from a well-sited revolving restaurant. Then the wide-screen panorama cut to a close-up of an ice-choked recess in the cliff we were descending. To my relief, I touched down on the rubble glacis below our wall before another rotation could start. “Ropes free,” I called up to Allan. And so we arrived at the foot of Freiheit Südwand.

Pendant: abseiling into the Freiheit Südwand

The crag’s name had leapt out at me from an old book. Surfing a second-hand shop in Tokyo’s Kanda district a few years before, I’d lit on a copy of Im schwerem Fels (On hard rock), a compendium of alpine climbs by Walter Pause. Opening it, I happened on a dramatic black-and-white photo of a limestone wall, somewhere in eastern Switzerland. Freiheit! The idea of a mountain called freedom somehow resonated.

The Freiheit and Hundstein cliffs (photo from Im schwerem Fels)

After I moved to Zurich, Allan dropped by on a world tour. We’d already climbed together in the Alps of Japan and New Zealand; now it was time to sample the grand originals. I showed my visitor the topo in Pause’s book – Grade III/IV, yep, we should be able to manage that – and without ado, we drove down Switzerland’s A3 autobahn and up a forest track. Leaving the weatherbeaten Subaru at the end of the road, we walked over a pass and down to a guesthouse at the end of a lake. The valley reminded us of a Norwegian fjord, its walls soaring up at an alarming pitch.

Fjordland: or the Fählensee one summer morning
When you think about it, this part of the Alps is where you’d expect to find a mountain called Freiheit. Mountains are the “house of freedom God hath built for us,” says William Tell in the play by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Granted, Tell lived in another canton, if he ever existed, which the savants say he didn’t, and Schiller intended his play for a German audience. Still, the myth has taken root. Every year, at Interlaken, an extravagant open-air production of this play perpetuates Tell’s memory.

Montesquieu (Wikipedia)
As for the mountains, serious scholars have attributed Switzerland’s unique brand of democracy to them. Liberty, says Montesquieu (1689-1755), “reigns, therefore, more in mountainous and rugged countries than in those which nature seems to have most favoured”.

And this seems convincing until you look over the border at, say, Austria, whose political culture has developed quite differently. Take, for example, the late Jörg Haider, a controversial politician with a liking for Lederhosen. Worryingly, the right-wing party he used to lead bears exactly the same name as the mountain we now planned to climb.

Was it for some victory of the Swiss confederation, perhaps against those less democratic neighbours, that our Freiheit was named? This wasn’t the moment to speculate. The abseil had landed us on a slanting terrace of limestone fragments – and more of this stuff, it seemed, might come shattering down at any moment. Let’s admit it; we were impressed with our surroundings. Far below, as if seen from a BASE jumper’s perspective, the green waters of the Fählensee glittered; above beetled the cliff we’d come to climb. We edged carefully across the stony ramp to the start of our route.

One thing was clear; the only way out was up.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Putting Mt Fuji on the map

Who was the first Westerner to portray Japan's top mountain?

Some visitors to Japan are more productive than others. In a stay of just two years, the naturalist and physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) catalogued the country’s flora, discovered that the ginkgo tree was far from extinct, as then believed in Europe, made two visits to Edo, and presented himself to the Shogun.

"Fusino Jamma: een zeer hooge en Zonderlinge Berg"
Detail from a map in Engelbert Kaempfer's History of Japan (High Dutch edition)

On his way to and from the capital, Kaempfer passed close by the foot of Japan’s top mountain. In his History of Japan, published posthumously in English in 1727, he lauds "The famous Mount Fuji in the province of Suruga, which in height can be compared only to Mount Tenerife in the Canaries". Fuji, he continues, "is conical in shape and so even and beautiful that one may easily call it the most beautiful mountain in the world .... The poets and painters of this country never end praising and portraying the beauty of this mountain".

Map of Suruga Bay, showing Mt Fuji (top right)
The German doctor never got the chance to make the first gaijin ascent of the iconic volcano, leaving that honour to Rutherford Alcock a century later. Instead, according to Professor H Byron Earhart (see References), he may have made its first graphic depiction by a Westerner. A sketch appears within an engraving of the Tōkaidō route through Suruga Province that illustrates his book. Interestingly, the summit region is shown as divided into three peaklets.

Mt Fuji: the traditional view
Japanese artists had long depicted the mountain with three peaks – as shown in a famous ink painting of Mt Fuji and the Seiken temple once attributed to Sesshū (1420-1506). Yet this configuration had less to do with ground truth than with an artistic convention, probably rooted in Buddhist numerology, that sacred mountains should have triple crowns. It seems fitting, somehow, that Kaempfer's pioneering image of Mt Fuji should pay homage to this centuries-old tradition.


H. Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

Map images: courtesy of the East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley