Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cross purposes (2)

Continued: on the meaning of C D Friedrich's summit crosses

Within a few years, all the German states were feeling the Napoleonic heat. By 1806, most of them were occupied by French troops. Over in Dresden, a young painter started on a remarkable series of drawings and paintings, all featuring crucifixes set in dramatic mountain landscapes. These works culminated in The Cross in the Mountains (the Tetschen Altar), the picture that made Caspar David Friedrich’s name.

The cross in the mountains (The Tetschen Altar) (1807/08)

Many critics found the image inadmissible. One accused Friedrich of trying to smuggle landscape painting into churches and onto altars. But surely that had been the artist’s intention all along. He even designed a frame for the painting, so that it could better serve as an altarpiece. The furore didn’t stop the Countess von Thun-Hohenstein plunking down two hundred thalers and carrying the painting off to Schloss Tetschen.

The story goes that, when the artist wanted to visit the Schloss to see his masterpiece in its new setting, he was repeatedly fobbed off by the Count and Countess – the reason being that they’d hung the work not in the chapel, as Friedrich had hoped, but in their bedroom.

Cross in the mountains (c. 1805/06)

So the critics may have had a point. Friedrich, a pious Lutheran, insisted The Cross in the Mountains was strictly a devotional work. But a close friend was not alone in seeing in his paintings of this period “a specific, I would like to say politically prophetic meaning, references to an invisible hand intervening in the confused affairs of men and in the liberation of Germany from the foreign yoke”. The symbol's significance depended on what you wanted to see in it.

Morning in the Riesengebirge (1810/11)

Symbols, wrote Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian, are not signs. While a sign points unambiguously at a universally agreed meaning, symbols grow out of the collective unconscious. They open up levels of reality which cannot be reached in any other way. They cannot be invented; they grow when the situation is ripe for them; and they die when the situation changes.

Be that as it may, after Napoleon was vanquished, C D Friedrich never again painted a notable cross in the mountains.

The cross in the mountains (1812)

(To be continued)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Cross purposes (1)

How Alpine summit symbols have stirred emotions for centuries

One January, I set off to ski-climb a mountain in central Switzerland. Billows of freezing fog rolled aside just below the summit, letting me zig-zag up the final slopes in the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun. The last few metres were climbed on foot, to a summit cross still hoar-frosted from the mist’s crystalline breath. The sight was unremarkable. Summit crosses – in the Alps, they’re everywhere. And always have been, surely?

Or perhaps not. A decade after that excursion, some seem to be questioning if crosses should stand on summits at all. An unknown axeman has vandalised three of them in Bavaria, recalling an earlier incident in Switzerland. And, should one suppose that such amputations happen only in central Europe, these cases follow one on Ireland’s highest peak – although that cross was apparently felled with an angle-grinder, not an axe.

No less an authority than Reinhold Messner has weighed in on the Bavarian incidents. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he admits that summit crosses are not necessarily to his taste. They are “a relatively recent phenomenon”, he says, originating more as political than religious symbols. In his view, “one shouldn’t clutter the mountains with religious, political and other ideological symbols. These are mostly demonstrations of authority. They’re all about domination.”

When it comes to the facts, Messner is solidly grounded, as only the founder/curator of six mountain museums could be. By coincidence, it is the Tyrol, Messner’s native region, that provides the only summit cross statistics that come easily to hand. These data suggest that 95.3% of all Tyrolean summit crosses were put up in the twentieth century (up to 1955). Of these, almost seven out of ten were dedicated in the decade after the second world war.

Mt Aiguille: the dawn of alpinism, perhaps
If the statistics support Messner, what about the symbolism? Here too, his case is well-buttressed by historical evidence. When, on 26 June 1492, Antoine de Ville forced his way, by means of “subtle engines” (including ladders), to the top of Mt Inaccessible in the French Vercors region, his hand-picked team of seven included two priests. These were employed to celebrate mass on the summit, baptise the mountain and inaugurate three small crosses.

Some commentators dispute whether the first ascent of Mt Inaccessible – or Mt Aiguille, as de Ville re-branded it – really belongs to the history of alpinism. Their beef is that de Ville didn’t set the ball rolling himself. Instead, he was ordered to make the climb by Charles VIII, whom he served in the role of royal siegemaster.

But, for the purpose of this disquisition, that is the point. Those summit crosses marked the successful conclusion of an official act – a demonstration of authority, to use Messner's phrase. De Ville even submitted an official expense claim, for “1533 librae, 8 solidi 5 denarii unum tercium”. Summit crosses never have come cheap; it’s the cost of getting them up there. Incidentally, there are no longer any crosses on Mt Aiguille today.

Weather cross above the town of Klausen in 1561

Indeed, few crosses adorned alpine summits during early modern times. Rather, they were sited to mark passes or boundaries, or they stood within sight of villages to protect them against storms. Such “weather crosses” were numerous enough to irk an Austrian scholar by the name of Thomas Ebendorfer (1388–1464). People who set them up, he said, should be rebuked for presuming to honour the Lord “inadmissibly”.

The admonition was quickly forgotten. In the Tyrol, mountain crosses proliferated during the first half of the seventeenth century, a time of stress. Although the region escaped the direct ravages of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), it fell victim to associated ills such as the plague. Trapped in their alpine valleys, mountain dwellers sought to ward off these evils by setting up simple larchwood crucifixes, often with a protective rooflet over the cross-beam.

A cross of the plague years
So far, nobody – with the possible exception of Antoine de Ville – had thought of planting a cross to mark a mountain’s first ascent. According to Martin Scharfe, a cultural historian, the first to take that step was Sigismund von Hohenwart (1745–1825), who with five companions reached the top of the Kleinglockner (3,770 metres), Austria’s third-highest summit, on 25 August 1799.

The Grossglockner without a cross: painting by Markus Pernhart
The arc of von Hohenwart’s career ran almost parallel to that of the Enlightenment itself. As a young geognost, he discovered on his alpine travels a mineral that presents in eclogite, a rock from deep within the earth. Later, after his appointment as the Bishop of Linz, he helped to root out unorthodoxy. He was probably the author of the inscription carved on the stone base of the Kleinglockner cross: "Eia nunc rara moles, exple finum, crucem exalta, cultum promove!” Raise the cross, promote the faith; the message could not be more explicit.

Returning to the mountain next summer, von Hohenwart made the aery traverse across to the Grossglockner (3,798 metres), which was destined to become modern Austria’s highest peak. There his party set up a much larger cross, almost four metres high. Two years later, it was damaged by lightning.

Traversing from the Kleinglockner to the Grossglockner 
In retrospect, those turn-of-the century summers were a lull before the storm. Austria and its allies were then pausing for breath, having faced down the first onslaught of France’s revolutionary armies. Alas, the respite was short. Two days after von Hohenwart inaugurated the first modern summit cross on the Kleinglockner, a young French general relinquished his command in Egypt and set out for Paris, where he would soon wrest power from a moribund Directorate ...


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Summit “crescent” stirs up Swiss hikers

People might accuse Project Hyakumeizan of making it up. Just hours after this blog published a post on the lingering symbolic power of summit crosses, a Swiss newspaper has broken the story of a controversial “summit crescent” that has appeared on a mountain in eastern Switzerland.

The two-and-a-half-metre-high sculpture is the work of a local artist who now lives in Shanghai. "Whenever I come back to Switzerland, I go hiking and see all these absurd summit crosses – so I had to do something," Christian Meyer, a self-confessed atheist, told a local radio station.

His aim, he added, was to provoke people, and in this he has succeeded. The cantonal authorities have given him a week to remove the installation. Soon the summit of the Freiheit (2140 metres) will again be free of symbols, whether cross or crescent.

Read the full story (translation from the German)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hacking incident

Summit crosses stir passions in the Alps - not for the first time

Within the last few months, a mysterious vandal has attacked three summit crosses in the Bavarian Alps, chopping and sawing two of them to the ground. As the “summit cross axeman” has yet to be caught, his motives remain unclear. However, witnesses have seen him in action, hacking away at the crucifix atop the Schafreuter “like a wild animal”, as the Guardian reports in its September 1 online edition.
Summit cross on Pizol, Canton St Gallen, Switzerland

Strange to say, this incident is not an isolated one. It recalls the case of a mountain guide who was charged with destroying or damaging three summit crosses in western Switzerland during the winter of 2009/2010. When asked by the police for his motive, he said: "These religious symbols, these effigies of torture disturb me when I encounter them out in the open air - the mountains belong to everyone: symbols have no place there."

The axemen are not alone in their animosity to summit crosses. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Reinhold Messner dismisses them as “symbols of resistance against the enlightenment", although he does not condone vandalising them. Yet, two hundred years after the Age of Reason, summit crosses still seem to be stirring up violent passions.

That mountain symbols retain their ancient power should not be surprising. Indeed, the emergent discipline of meizanology - the study of what mountains signify - would have no purpose if they hadn't. As powerful symbols in themselves, summit crosses deserve nothing less than a full meizanological analysis. And, in a week or so, they will get just that. Please watch this space.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The river is never the same (2)

Continued: an excursion along the Kurobe River's Upper Corridor

“Though the river's current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.”

In his classic Account of a Ten-Foot Square Hut, Kamo no Chōmei presents himself as the reclusive literary type. But his opening passage, quoted above, outs him as a prototypical Heian-era sawanaut, one who well understood the morphing, braiding, mining, sapping ways of a great river.

Had we read our Chōmei, we wouldn’t have been surprised to find ourselves forced into a roped river crossing where, only a few years before, Sawa Control and I had just kept walking along an easy embankment. And we would have spared ourselves the shock, right now, of finding a deep channel where none had previously existed.

This too was a crux pitch. The rock walls of the gorge were too steep to climb. Our buoyant packs floated us too lightly for us to use our feet to make headway; and we couldn’t swim against the current. Eventually we slipped through by flattening ourselves ninja-like against the rock.

While we’d been tussling with the river, the sunlight had retreated to the mountaintops. Down in the gorge’s shadows, we urged ourselves forward. Campsites are far and few between in the Upper Corridor, and I was aiming for the one that we’d found on the previous visit, a broad tableland standing several metres above water level. Then, you could have pitched a small town of tents on it.

“I’m sure it was here,” I said, “right here in this bend.” And there, indeed, it was, when we looked more closely. But the tableland was gone; in its place stood a mere pedestal, washed down to a sliver of its former size. As Chōmei might have warned us, the river had shifted the scenery as dramatically as in any opera.

We scrambled up the bank and found a flat patch of sand for our bivvy shelter. Shivering in the evening gloom, we changed into dry clothes and scrabbled around for firewood. There wasn’t much to find on this portaledge-sized terrain.

We saw no trace of any prior occupants on our pedestal – in fact, we would see no trace of human existence until we climbed out of the river next day: no footprints, no pitons, no garbage, nothing to indicate that other people had ever passed that way. There weren’t even any contrails in the sky above. We were the sole inhabitants of this gorge.

It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man, says Thoreau in his account of a river climb up Mt Ktaadn, “We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. … Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe … Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific … the home, this, of Necessity and Fate …We walked over it with a certain awe, stopping, from time to time, to pick the blueberries which grew there, and had a smart and spicy taste …”

It was too dark now to go in search of berries. Nor did we expect any smart or spicy taste from the sachet of freeze-dried food that I’d just retrieved from the depths of my army pack and set to simmer on the Epigas stove. Not that we cared – after six hours in the river, our appetites, like those of Edward Gibbon’s Gallic army, were as indelicate as they were voracious. Caspar got a feeble campfire going just as the moon floated clear of the unhandselled ridge above us. Then we sat down on a river-rounded boulder to eat.

(To be continued)

Monday, August 8, 2016

The river is never the same (1)

How two sawa-nauts learned respect for the Kurobe

The weather wasn’t to blame: the forenoon sun, roaring down from a cloudless sky, had bleached all colour from the landscape. Nor was our pace anything to fret about; yomping under ferry-weight packs, we’d easily make the boat across the lake. If the two of us weren’t fit enough for the Kurobe River, we never would be. Yet something still bothered me.

We’d left Shinjuku at 2am to start the five-hour run to the Northern Alps, the weatherbeaten Subaru lurching out into Kabuki-chō’s rush hour. Caspar had come straight from a bar: strictly business, he explained. I wasn’t afraid that lack of sleep would affect him – a few months back, he’d helmed a yacht through a particularly knockabout iteration of the Sydney-Hobart race. No, it was more the attitude that unsettled. I mean, if the Kurobe River and the Southern Ocean have one thing in common, it’s that nobody disses them.

On the once-a-day boat across the lake, we were the only passengers. This too gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, too much company might diminish the majesty of the wild Upper Corridor, the river gorge through the corrugated heart of Japan’s Northern Alps. On the other, if anything happened, the nearest hut was a day away and the mountains would muffle any bleating from radios or phones – not that we were carrying either. Time, though, was pressing – we were both due to leave Japan soon, and this was our last chance to explore the great river.

Two hours later, we’d gone as far as paths would take us. From here, it was us and the river. We swung our packs onto the river-smoothed gravel and assumed the guise of sawa-nauts; in my case, UV-faded polypro mountaineering clothes hiding a sawn-off wetsuit; a natty banana-hued ensemble for Caspar. Felt-soled sawa shoes replaced hiking boots. We put on climbing harnesses too, but no helmets – they drag your head down when filled with water.

The Upper Corridor of the Kurobe River lures you in gently. Like the immaculately raked approach to a shrine, an expanse of white cobbles leads towards the layered cliffs of Kuro-pinga. We walked to its end and crossed the river in water that was barely knee-deep. Perhaps this would be easy.

Soon we were disabused. Dry land ran out in the cliff’s shadow, where the river bends sharply and pinches down into a gorge. The river had to be crossed again, this time above a cheese-grater set of rapids that promised to punish any slip-up. Level with us, the river slid by like a green slab of steel on some monstrous high-speed production line. In its headlong drive towards the Japan Sea, the Kurobe didn’t seem to leave much scope for negotiating a crossing.

I doffed my pack again, uncoiled the dayglow pink rope, and tied it unhastily into my harness loop. To tell the truth, I wasn’t in a hurry to try conclusions with this river. When Caspar had taken up what I hoped was a firm stance behind a boulder, I waded into the racing green waves, eyes fixed on the far bank to avoid disorientation, and launched myself across the channel, like a human rescue rocket. As the rope twanged taut, dragging me off my footing, a bowshock of green water smacked me in the face.

Struggling to my feet and wiping the water from my eyes, I found myself in the shallows, back where I’d started. A second try, and again the river swept me contemptuously aside. Like I said, nobody disses the Kurobe, but the sentiment isn’t necessarily reciprocated. Yet we had to get across if we wanted to reach our bivvy site before nightfall.

Something different was needed. Forget the rescue rocket; instead, I would angle myself like a paravane, getting the current to swing me across the channel. Warning Caspar, I walked into the river again. When the green firehose hit, I felt the rope stretch, as if soaking up the shock of a climbing fall – it thrummed with the strain – but the ploy worked. Staggering up the opposite bank, the river cascading from my gear, I set about finding a belay.

Then it was Caspar’s turn for the laundromat. As he lurched to his feet at the end of the rope, water sluicing from all freeing ports, I saw respect in the eyes of a man who had faced down the yacht-smashing waves of the Southern Ocean. “You know,” he said, after he'd sufficiently recovered himself, “when you kited yourself across the river, the rope was slowly dragging me over the boulder. The friction of my kneepads was the only thing still holding us.” Now it was my turn to be thoughtful.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Meizan from Hell

On volcanoes and the wave clouds of Venus

Project Hyakumeizan was charmed to see that the savants from the European Space Agency have discovered “gravity waves” above the mountains of Venus. Gravity waves are what we ordinary folk call “wave clouds”. Island peaks such as Mt Fuji are virtuosos at producing them.

Maat Mons, the highest volcano on Venus
Image, courtesy David P Anderson, Southern Methodist University 

Alas, the wave clouds of Venus couldn’t be seen directly. Instead, they were detected as a bunching-up of the atmosphere’s water vapour over the Aphrodite Terra, a four and a half kilometre-high band of high mountains around the planet’s midriff.

Lording it over the Aphrodite mountains, although standing somewhat aloof from them, is the highest volcano on Venus, which rises some eight kilometres above the surrounding desert – if that is the right word for an infernal plain where the heat would melt lead and the sulphuric smog presses down heavily enough to crush the average submarine.

Although humans are unlikely to visit this summit soon, they have already named it Ma’at Mons, after an Egyptian goddess of the underworld. And when meizanologists get round to selecting the One Hundred Mountains of the Solar System, this “Venus-Fuji” will surely make the front rank of candidates.

Wave clouds over the one and only original Mt Fuji
Those gravity waves, though. How will we ever know if they stack up, aesthetically, against the original Mt Fuji’s masterly cadenzas of cloud? Pending the time when ESA can scrape together the funds for another Venus spacecraft – regrettably, they let their last one burn up in the planet’s upper atmosphere – perhaps they could rustle up a computer simulation.