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’re set 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 were 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. Wild nameko, she adds, are much more delicious than the kind you get in supermarkets. Does mushroom poisoning count as an objective or subjective hazard, I think of asking, 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, all of us of pensionable age – it’s a Monday, so the younger members are all at work.

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. Z-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 nourish the soul, 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.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (30)

1 November: we take the warning sign seriously. Citizens of nearby Katsuyama have sighted bears scores of times this autumn, and four people have been attacked. As pointman, I get to wear the bear-bell that we found a while back on Daibutsuji-yama. It chimes so melodiously, suggests the Sensei, that it might attract bears instead of repelling them. I would prefer not to test this theory.

On this fine mid-autumn day, we are in search of koyo, though the nights up here on Fukui’s hilly borders aren’t yet cold enough to turn the leaves. The foliage is still green in the beech groves we walk through on the way to Karikomi-ike. Only around the famous pond have some of the trees started to yellow and redden towards peak autumnal glory.

Fringing the pond are almost as many photographers as there are trees. Reassured by all this company, we mute our bear-bell (it is a fully featured one) and take in the scene. Mysteriously, streams flow into Karikomi-ike, but none flow out.

Legends too seem to accrete here. The mountain that floats inverted on the pond’s leaf-strewn surface is San-no-mine – the Third Peak that Taichō Daishi climbed on his way to climb Hakusan in the third year of Yōrō (717).

Inevitably, the pond too memorialises the pioneering monk. According to a helpful signboard, the neighbourhood was then much troubled with gigantic marauding serpents. But Monk Taichō corralled them under various lakes around Hakusan, a thousand of them under this very pond. Hence the name “Karikomi” for a place that “shuts in” the serpents. We cast a doubtful look at the limpid waters, but nothing stirs beneath.

Before the homeward path starts downwards, we come upon a sign warning us that, last October, a bear attacked somebody at this very spot. Theories abound as to why bears and people are crossing paths more often. One is that the warming climate has dried up the beechwoods, depriving the bears of the nuts and berries they need to survive. So, instead, they resort to people’s vegetable patches.

Back at the carpark, the numberplates tell us that Karikomi-ike has attracted visitors from far afield – several cars have come from Osaka, and one or two from Hamamatsu and Tokyo. I’m about to feel smug at the thought that we are locals. Until I remember that, two days ago, I flew in from Europe. Where is the latter-day Taichō who will help us wrestle our emissions into the ground?

The valley has a final surprise for us. As the Sensei deftly pilots her van in and out of its various headlands and re-entrants, we notice that, for all the road’s windings, the huge bulk of San-no-mine stays in view almost until we reach the main road. The ruler-straight line of the river below suggests that something more powerful than erosion has carved this valley.

A helpful signboard explains that the gorge follows a tectonic line known as the Hata-ga-yu Dislocation. It is thought to be slippage along this fault that triggered the magnitude-seven Kita-Mino earthquake in 1961. Together with a destructive typhoon at around the same time, this was the last straw for the few remaining farmers in the upper valley, which is now uninhabited. That accounts for the derelict van we have just passed, rotting under a makeshift shelter in the woods.

Halfway down the valley, at Hato-no-yu, which is not a Dislocation but rather the location of a lonely hot spring hostelry, the cars in front of us brake to a halt. A fox is trotting nonchalantly along the line of vehicles – on the drivers’ side – glancing up at the windows. He seems to be asking for something, although not as if he expects much joy.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (29)

31 October: stumbling, jetlagged, after the Sensei up the steep path, I fell to thinking. If one wanted to define a mountain – and some philosophers struggle to do just that – Hakusan might be a place to start. It was once higher than Mt Fuji, the savants believe. And people have been climbing it for one and a third millennia. This is a mountain with stories to tell.

Just look at that stone embedded in the path. A frozen bouillabaisse of fossilised mussels, it wouldn’t look out of place on some limestone peak in the Swiss Alps. It must have congealed in some epicratonic sea. So what’s it doing on an active volcano?

While pondering this one, we come up on the ridge. Now our way merges with the Echizen Zenjōdō, the pilgrimage route opened by Monk Taichō himself in the first year of Yōrō (717). “I like the gentle look of Hakusan from here,” says the Sensei. Mercifully, the path too moderates its angle of attack.

“Urusai!” says a middle-aged mountaineer as he passes – were we chattering too loudly? Then we realise there’s a drone buzzing about overhead. Too high to be seen, the device pesters us with its hornet-like hum all the way across Midagahara.

By the Buddhist ring of its name, this high plateau should be a place of meditative stillness – indeed, once a year, you’ll find the Zen monks of the Eiheiji temple processing across it on their annual outing to Hakusan.

We’re high enough now to see the Japan Alps straggling across the eastern horizon. The small tump at the northern end must be Tateyama. That volcano too has a Midagahara, to say nothing of other identical place names, suggesting that the Tateyama and Hakusan faiths must be intertwined.

Harried by the drone – somebody must be furnishing it with a bottomless supply of spare batteries – we come up on Murodō. On both Tateyama and Hakusan, the name once indicated a single, smoky pilgrim’s hut. Now it’s a cluster of blockhouses large enough for seven hundred hikers all at once. Is this is the Hyakumeizan effect, I wonder.

For lunch, we park ourselves on a stone revetment, out of the wind. Later, on the carefully laid stone steps leading to the summit shrine, brown crickets hop out of our way. An improbable sight for so late in the autumn. At the summit, we so far forget ourselves as to take a selfie. The granite pillar there is engraved with the characters for “Reizan” – holy mountain.

Today we’re going to inspect the crater lakes on the summit’s far side. The path leads across a snowy ridge, before winding down a gully. The second lake is called Midori-ga-ike. “And on a cloudy day it really does look green,” says the Sensei, whose native mountain this is. Today the pool outdoes the sky in a deeper shade of blue. Was this where Monk Taichō saw his vision of the Eleven-Headed Kannon? A stiff breeze chases ripples across the ultramarine waters.

On the way to the third lake, Hakusan reminds us of its geophysical agenda. A huge bulwark of lava looks as if freshly extruded from the depths.

A noticeboard tells us that it probably dates back to an eruption in 1554. Even now, the mountain still stirs occasionally in its sleep.

Back on Midagahara, we happen across the drone crew. The three young men are collecting footage for a video spectacular on Japan’s national park, they tell us, to be shown at a museum in Tokyo during next summer’s Olympic bash. Gentlemen, I hope your auditorium has good air-conditioning.

Clouds drift by as we drop towards the treeline. The woods are particoloured – part green, part brown, part gold, as if struggling towards autumn. Probably the nights are still not cold enough to turn the leaves red and yellow all at once. Climate change: another chapter in the story of Hakusan.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A relationship

Project HaMo (translation): falling in with a favourite mountain

What a wondrous bond a mountaineer can sometimes weave with his favourite mountain. Whether he made the first ascent, or climbed a new route or did some other great feat, their names are linked forever. The Matterhorn and Whymper – what a noble pairing is that.

Approach to Piz Urlaun c. 2001
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

One day, I’d like my name to be linked to the Cima Aeterna. But, really, this is too absurd. To think of linking one’s name to a famous mountain is sheer ambition – a mountaineer’s arrogance.

Especially when you’re well aware that you can quietly carry on the most pleasant relationship with much smaller mountains, like … and without a soul knowing about it.

Now I must confess: I was besotted with Piz Urlaun for years. I guess you’ve heard the name. And you’ll ask how on earth one can fall for such a minor neighbour of the mighty Tödi. Well, I have no idea. Could it be, perhaps, because he almost presided over an icy grave for me? That would certainly be a curious reason.

Well, I have climbed him by five different routes, again and again. Twice, we put up new lines, and once I climbed him alone – that was best of all.

A pleasant fellow is Piz Urlaun. Quite lowly, at just under 3,400 metres, yet he belongs to a noble lineage and leads a quiet, secluded life. To be up on his snowcap is enchanting, and in autumn you should see how every evening the sun glitters and glances off his steep ice spine, way over towards the Bifertenstock.

We struck up a fine friendship from the first time we met. “You, Urlaun, look over there at the lame old Tödi, who’ll put up with anything,” I said. “No, I wouldn’t stand for it myself,” came the answer from Piz Urlaun as he threw down a minatory rain of ice-blocks.

This convoy of eighty people, this human snake, that feeble Tödi lets roam over his head. Can any of them actually understand him?

Our friendship is quite different, though – isn’t that right, Urlaun? Just the two of us visit you, and quietly enjoy your favours. Not that we haven’t ever fallen out. Even the best of friends can’t get by without the occasional squabble. Just when I thought we’d be together for ever, he twice roughed me up to the point of tears. Once, to give me the brush-off, he resisted my advances with flashes of lightning that came blazing over his back. The other time, right at mid-summer, he pulled on an overcoat of snow so thick that it scared me just to look at.

Yet, quickly and stealthily, I finally made my approach. How amazed he was! Quite alone, I ran up his south flank, before it was even daylight, before he had time to open up his schrunds and crevasses in self-defence. The Biferten Glacier was still in shadow when I stepped onto his head and let out a cheer.

When he saw I was alone, he recovered from his shock and invited me to a sunny rest. From that moment, when we first conversed, stems our deep respect for each other.

Urlaun, you have granted me many rich hours. Though I’ll probably not visit you again so soon, we will often greet each other from afar. Never will I fail to send you silent thanks. And then, Urlaun, will you not cheerfully recall how much you once meant to one small human being?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mountains of mystery

Project HaMo (translation): puzzling out a new route in the Bernese Oberland

I’m lying on my back in front of the Finsteraarhorn hut, my face ruddy with sunburn, windlessly ensconced on the warm flagstones.

View from the SAC Finsteraarhorn Hut
Photos by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure
A late afternoon sun stands over the Grüneckhorn. Sailing along sluggishly before a light fine-weather breeze, shimmering clouds send down their dazzle into overstrained eyes. The Gross Grünhorn casts lengthy fingers of shadow halfway over the snowfields of the Fiescher Glacier. The lesser Grünhorn does much the same as his big brother. The obsidian pyramids of the Gabelhorn and the Kamm stare across glaringly white snowfields at the wood-shingled hut.

The hollow under the Grünhornlücke is warm enough to sunbathe in, its snowfields flawed only by the occasional early-summer crevasses and cracks, and all this framed by the sun-glazed flanks of the Weiss Nollen and the blue-violet shadows of the Grünhörnli. Behind me break the icefalls and bergschrunds of the glacier surrounding the hut.

Meltwater is gurgling stealthily somewhere. The glacier is embalmed in this Saturday afternoon silence; the only human sound is the shuffle of hut-slippers. Now and then I glance up as another chute of snow rattles down from the sunny walls of the Finsteraarhorn. Now the north wind weaves delicate strands of mist around the Bernese Oberland’s highest peak. Lying beside me are my Zeiss field-glasses – will they magnify the wonders of these mountains? As if they could.

Far back in the shadowy glacial basin silently beckons the secret of a steep, still-virgin wall. This is what brings me here. Up it soars, out of the bergschrund, through avalanche-swept gullies and black rock ribs up to the bright cornices – a full 600 metres. The southeast wall of the Hinter Fiescherhorn is still unknown to men. Is that due to its dangers and difficulties? Or has it simply not been worth the effort? Why have alpinists so far steered clear of it, although they’re usually thirsting for new routes? Well, this is my life’s highest aim, my one and only thought – until I have won through to that knowledge.

Again and again, I sweep the wall with my binoculars, searching for weaknesses. Ever and again, the light changes, constantly tricking my eager and searching gaze.

Although the day is still not over, we are trying to get some sleep, so that we can wake up refreshed in the middle of the night and get going. Going to bed so early is not easy. Light still pierces through the window shutters, annoying us. The heavy blankets are too warm. We’re still thinking about the mountain as we fall asleep – still not sure about those cornices, on the summit rocks. If the sun hits them too soon, it’ll trigger avalanches. Or stones. We need to be closer in. We’ll see tomorrow. The mountain wind tugs at the roof, as if it wants to help us.

The Gross Grünhorn, seen from the Finsteraarhorn Hut
One o’clock in the morning. The moon is a slim crescent, dull red, hanging just above the Grünhornlücke. A lake of molten silver has pooled on the firn, edged on all sides with pitch-black margins. The peaks too are touched with droplets and splashes of the noble metal.

Roped together, the two of us stumble down the snowslope, not yet frozen hard, to the silver lake. Then we plunge into the utter darkness of its shoreline. Driven by an unslakeable desire, we move over the firn, brittle as glass.

Now the lake has drained out. A last glowing bight falls along the Finsteraarhorn. When it fades out, all is dark. An ice-cold wind blows down on us. Little stones sparkle tremulously. On our left looms the dark wall of the Grünhorn peaks. Ant-like, tiny, we crawl steadily along under their feet. Flakes of snow are flung in our faces; the wind rushes in the cliffs. I think of falling stones.

Day breaks just under the bergschrund. Quick, point those Zeiss glasses at the cornice. Looks better than I thought.

So, let’s go!

The bergschrund is the gateway to a new world. We finagle our way over it onto steep, icy slopes. We need to move it out, hacking steps as fast as we can. Three hacks with the ice-axe for every step. Hard labour for hundreds of metres, racing the rising sun. Lungs heaving, we make the rock-rib leading to the summit. Now we’re out of harm’s way. And the cornice is small.

A rose-red glow wafts over the snow, rose-red glow the rocks, lighting our new route right up to the summit.

Amid the silence, a great happiness.

So you’ve solved a problem with amazing ease, simply and quickly, a problem that once looked all but impossible. Which was better then, getting to grips with the problem in all its gnarliness, scrabbling for a solution? Or feeling pleased that you’d finally cracked it? Aren’t you sorry now, just a bit, that the hapless, harmless problem has just ceased to be a problem?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Famous mountains, forgotten mountains

Project HaMo (translation): a first ascent in the Bernese Oberland

Every year, hundreds of mountaineers pass the Finsteraarrothorn by, on their way to climb the Finsteraarhorn. How many of them would take the chance to climb the forgotten peak instead of the famous one?

Finsteraarrothorn and Finsteraarhorn from the Vordergalmlücke
Photo by courtesy from Alpine Light & Structure
When she saw just the two of us coming, the Rothorn must have been amazed. Baffled, she watched us approach. Her hopes had been dashed too often. So she could hardly have expected that, from the Gemslücke col, we’d veer off the usual track towards her– merely in passing, as it were.

Did she not swoon when she suddenly realised we thought her worth spending a whole day on, just to try her untrodden ridges for size?

And did she not shrug off her clouds and fogs, just to show us that she was worthy of a visit? And what we might experience with her? Could her illustrious neighbour ever have offered such a welcome?

Summit mists 
Three hours we’ve been at this. Thick, grey fog. My ice-axe hacks small notches into the ice, just enough to take half a boot-sole. Steeply upwards, from step to step, on ten metres of tight rope. Not too far left, not too far right. Yesterday, though my scope, I saw a massively overhanging cornice there. Under our boots, three hundred metres of glittering ice sweeps away. Everything is horribly deceptive in this treacherous fog. I can’t see more than a few steps ahead, but it’s brighter than ever in the valley. Flickering vaguely, off to the left, the cliff-edge dances under my eyes; surely it had to be further away. But suddenly I’m right there with my axe; my fear is that I’ve been lured onto that brittle-creaking cornice. Then I go too far over on the other side, so that my left boot can hardly clear the steep ice to land on the next hold.

The mountain’s knife-edge fades steeply into the formless grey, raking summitwards through the dense-knit vapour. But where is the top, and will we ever find it?

We could be at this for hours, fighting our way up. Or, in just a minute, the clouds could part and a ridge of fine-spun silver might usher us to a summit soaring up out of the clouds.

Then these gloomy shrouds could keep their lethal cornices and icewalls back in the depths, while the sun brightens above us and we feel ourselves shiver with anticipation.

Original illustration from Ihr Berge

Now we know you, Finsteraarrothorn. But may we sing your praises? Are you really worthy to be compared with your mighty neighbour? For us two, you meant more to us almost than him. We experienced you to the full, as nobody had before and nobody will ever again. When we stole up on you, you were a shy country maiden, sweeter than the great monarch beside you. Maidenhood was your charm – and we have robbed you of it.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.