Friday, September 20, 2019

The mountains of my home

Project HaMo (translation): how a Swiss mountaineer was made

I can’t recall when it lighted on me, the spark that ignited my deep love for the mountains. But the flame it lit flared up very early in my life.

"The Jungfrau was the one I liked best"
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

It was while I was still in the pram, or very soon afterwards, that the mountains first swam into my ken. My home view then comprised a hoary old castle nestling cozily into a small town, and best of all, a hilly green valley flanked with spacious pine forests. But only later did I make this important discovery.

Far, far in the distance, beyond my old home valley, there rose up on a sudden – this was on a clear summer evening – a host of white pinnacles. Today I would call them the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, from the Wetterhorn to the Blümlisalp. And from that moment onwards they have always kept a special place in my heart.

It seems like yesterday to me – I could already name a few of them, and this meant a lot to me. The Jungfrau was the one I liked best. The mountains were hard to tell apart, yet this name was worthy of them all.

One thing was for sure: I already respected these mountains deeply; they held me in awe. If some wretch came along and tried to make fun of my mountains, I took their side, and never would I have let slip their names to anybody I deemed unworthy, like a little girl.

From that time on, all I wanted was to hear more about mountains.

Soon I got to know my first mountaineer. He was remarkable most of all for his long, bandy legs, which took him stalking past our home every day. For a while, he rather scared me. It was only when, one fine evening, I saw him gazing with longing at those rose-tinged peaks that I started to warm to him. From then on, there were two kinds of people: mountaineers, and the common run of folk, with whom I’ve even now not wholly come to terms.

Then I was allowed to get to know the mountains better and better, or at least look at them from closer and closer. What yearnings they awoke in me! And what intimations came to me from those grassy green hilltops that my father sometimes now and then took me to on a Sunday.

I was always taking refuge in them. When I was sad, the mountains stayed cheerful; when I was beaten down, they stood fast, when I was miserable, they still greeted me, bright and amiable, over the green treetops along our quiet valley.

When they glittered through the schoolroom window, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, what should I care about tedious mensa, mensae, Pythagoras and the July Revolution? We soon became well acquainted, thanks to many a splendid book.

When, on some gloomy autumn day, I’d almost forgotten what might await me above that pall of fog, I used to run up some hill near the town after school, and even if I was too late ten times, then on the eleventh try, I’d be on top in time to see the sunset. Then I drew its red glow right into my heart, and this small happiness would tide me through the dark winter.

Since then, I have come to know a good many mountains, and I hope to sample a good many more. All have their beauty. But you, my mountain comrades from all over the world, from Africa, Australia, South America, who rate all mountains equally, from Mont Blanc through to the Ortler, can you guess now why I rank these ones highest, our Bernese Oberlanders, the mountains of my home?


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, September 18, 2019

From the life of a snowflake

Project HaMo (translation): meditation on a winter sky

It's snowing. Gently and quietly, soft snowflakes flutter from a grey-speckled sky – the grey speckles are young snowflakes, newly born. One after another, they swirl down together, mingling and mixing, brushing each other. A quick one hastens ahead of a hesitant one, a heavy one clings to a light one, as if it would slow its onrush to the pace of the slowly hovering one. How they leap and gyre. But of course they do! They delight in their very being, sailing round like little birds of paradise. Can you hear them sing? What a joy it must be, to be a soft little flake among snowflakes.

Snowshower at the Aua da Zeznina, Swiss Engadine
Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure
Tender as a maiden, snowflakes cast a quiet glow ahead of them as they drift softly and easily down. To be young forever is what they wish for. What infinite happiness: a life of dancing!

But woe is us. In all their softness and delicacy, they fall to the warm earth. How they tremble! One breath, and they are ruined. One sigh of air and, hardly wakened to life, they have already perished, in their hundreds and thousands, all at once. Hundreds of thousands of snowflake souls fly up to heaven. Alas, poor snowflakes!

It's snowing. The wind whips sharp ice-needles from the wild clouds. Hard knives cut your cold face. Today, the snowflake tribe is in a grim mood. Ice-cold in its furious intent, every flake makes war on the earth. In endless hordes, they drive down like polished projectiles, in dense phalanxes, spoiling for the fight. Showering down like spray, they close ranks, multiplying their force a thousand times, as legions of brave pellets drive after them. How they scour and rush, harried by the wind into slanting files. Try following one with your eyes, and a hundred hit you, thousands of henchmen to every leader, bold and quick, sifting down like sand.

What savage joy, to be a snowpellet among snowpellets!

How they defy the earth, these rough warriors. They prevail by sheer weight of numbers. Grim as a conquering army, they cover the earth, piling up thicker and thicker.

Yet they too will yield. One gleam of sun will vanquish the weakest and drive the stronger ones into each other’s embrace. Now the sunlight strengthens, and even the proudest are wilting. The grey-white masses, tough as they are, melt away; bold snow-spirits ascend to heaven. Did you hear their high, defiant song. What a farewell was that!

Did you see how the snowflakes died? Each knows it will rise anew, invisibly, so that it can lay down its life again and again. Is it because they know something we don’t that they die so easily and cheerfully?


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, September 13, 2019

Hapless mountains

Project HaMo (translation): a very short story from the Swiss Alps 

In front of the hotel, the old man sits in a cane chair, his left leg slung over his right. This gentleman’s hair is snow-white. He has his gold watch and a telescope out on the table in front of him. “It’s still too early,” you can hear him murmuring to himself.

On the traverse from Morgenhorn to Wyssi Frau
Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Several hundred metres above, a little white path comes vaulting out of a side valley on a slope – there, by the black rock next to the pluming waterfall. The path and the torrent hurry down to the valley, now alongside each other, now crossing over, until they suddenly part ways, one zigging left, the other right.

“Still too early!” says the old man. His telescope follows the path. “Yes that was a long and tough one, that route, we got back pretty late.”

“But, hello, there they are. They’ve done it, by Jove!” Still lithe, despite his years, he jumps to his feet, beaming his warmth towards them. He loves his boys.

“The icefall! The icefall! Did you get through all right? Bravo! That couldn’t have been easy. It took us more than three hours to get through to the edge of the rocks on the other side.”

“Good evening, Papa! No, that was easy enough. We found somebody’s footprints, hardly a day old, still quite fresh.”

“So how was the rock-step from the ice onto the ridge? My, that was hard. And difficult to find too! I won’t ever forget how rotten and slippery those rocks were. Just that place took us more than an hour.”

“Hmm, it wasn’t anything special, father. Almost a footpath. Steps in the rock and some solid iron stanchions.”

“Was there a lot of ice, on top of the ridge?”

“All ice, from bottom to top.”

“Really, and you’re back already? That’s really something!”

“No, father, everything was already chopped out for us, a staircase right up to the rocks.”

“The summit rocks aren’t half bad, are they? When we made the first guideless climb – this was with my friend W. – we almost had to back off there. We struggled for hours. That was a fight; we didn’t know whether it would go until we finally made it!”

“Well, the rocks were pretty steep. They took us twenty minutes. There’s a fixed rope there now.”

“That’s shameful, damn it. But you soaked in that great summit view, didn’t you? I took a look in my old climbing diary: we sat on top for two full hours.”

“Father, you know, it was unspeakable up there. A whole bunch of people came up the normal route. One of them – the guides kept calling him ‘Mr President’ – went droning on about mountain sport and the opening of the Alps – so we just went on our way. But this evening, if you don’t mind, do tell us how the mountains were in the old days!”


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.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Images and ink (41)

Image: View from the Italian Ridge (Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Ink: From The cross of the Matterhorn, being Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of La Croix du Cervin (1919) by Charles Gos.

Icy stalactites bristle from the black walls of the Zmutt face. Lilac-tinted mists drift, as if nonchalantly, along the streaked and stained cliffs, and through the deep-cut gullies where the stones go whistling down. The glacier gleams pallidly from the abyssal depths. What brings you here is the void that lurks in the shadow of the mighty cliffs, the void that watches you, enfolds you and follows your every step. The void that you cannot see, sense or hear, the void you adore, the void that does you in ...

Des stalactites de glace cuirassent les noires murailles des précipices de Z'mutt. Au long des parois, rongées de taches, et par les ravins découpés où les pierres dégringolent en sifflant, des brumes, finement nuancées de teintes lilas, flottent nonchalantes. Du gouffre sombre monte la blancheur du glacier. Et le vide, embusqué à l'ombre des puissants escarpements, est là qui vous attire, vous guette, vous enveloppe et vous suit. Le vide qu'on ne voit pas, qu'on ne connaît pas, qu'on n'entend pas, le vide qu'on aime et qui tue...

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The cross of the Matterhorn (1)

A tale from the days when smugglers plied their trade over the alpine passes

The smuggler must have crossed the Za-de-Zan glacier. He was coming slowly down the moraine, moving with care and taking cover behind the boulders. His odd demeanour was explained by the huge sackcloth bag he was carrying on his back. The rushing stream drowned out the sound of the stones grinding under his feet. Thinking for a moment about his route, he made for the paths and couloirs below the cliffs of the Tour de Creton, as if aiming for the grassy ledges that seam the scree slopes looming over the hamlet of Prarayé.

Let’s not foul up here, Jean-Joseph, the man grumbled to himself as he walked. You’re sticking your neck out a long way as it is, strolling through here in broad daylight. What a life, always creeping around, always on the qui vive, always looking like you’ve got something to hide. Still, a man’s got to live. And it wouldn’t be a bad life without these bastard customs officers. Better put out that pipe, mate; they’ve got good noses, the bastards.

Jean-Joseph tapped his pipe on the handle of his iron-ferruled stick, blew the last ashes out of it and put it in his pocket. The morning was getting on, the sun riding high. Meltwater burbled off the glaciers. Small pools glittered, green and gently rounded. Except for its usual murmurings, the mountainside was quiet. And Jean-Joseph, always wary, bent under his load, paused to think about his route, seeming to sniff the air and his way, and went on, still hugging the rocks.

Suddenly, the whine of a bullet pierced the silence. A shred of white smoke puffed into thin air over by the moraine. A dry report went rolling across the glacier of the Grandes-Murailles, scaring off a covey of snow partridges, and the smuggler fell heavily forward.

A kind of trance followed the thunder of the gunshot. Then there were only the groans of old Jean-Joseph, dying alone among the rocks, under the blue sky and the beautiful sun. He was dying, and he couldn’t grasp a thing, not even who’d shot him. The drama had played out, devastating, incomprehensible. And down there, over by the moraine, a customs officer was slowly lowering his rifle, its barrel still smoking ...


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the title story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Guide to the high mountain trails

Review: Tom Fay and Wes Lang's Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji

Now this is big. Tom Fay and Wes Lang have brought out their guidebook to Japan’s high mountains, the first new one for almost two decades. It follows in the Vibram bootprints of Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan (2001), long out of print, and Paul Hunt’s Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer's Guide to the Mountain Trails (1988).

You can trace the lineage of these authors all the way back to Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes, who came out with their A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan in 1881. This was a general vade mecum that included side trips to many high peaks, Fuji, Hakusan, Yari-ga-take and Tateyama among them. It was this guidebook that sped Walter Weston on his way to his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps.

If Tom and Wes are part of a long tradition, how do they stack up against it? The question is easily disposed of. The two writers know their territory as if it were their backyard, being long-term residents of Japan and certified meizanologists. And they had the wit to team up with Cicerone, a specialised publisher of hiking and trekking guides. Heck, the very name of this imprint means “guide”.

The result is all but a foregone conclusion. Applying two decades of progress in printing technology, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji regales you with full colour pages, all photos, maps and elevation profiles included (Wes's posts on these topics over on Tozan Tales are well worth reading). The crisply written route descriptions come with course times based on ground truth. If you still get yourself benighted, this guidebook won’t be to blame.

Introductions then and now
You get the measure of a guidebook’s ambitions by dipping into its introduction. Back in 1881, Satow and Hawes prefaced their Guide with more than a hundred pages on Japan’s geography, botany, zoology and religions. The sections on ferns and Buddhism are particularly good, as is the practical advice:

The shooting season begins on October 15 and ends on April 15. Licences can be obtained at Tōkiō from the Police authorities, and the open ports and Ōzaka from the Prefecture, fee 10 yen (paper). The applicant has to enter into a written engagement to observe certain regulations … This covenant expressly stipulates that the holder of the licence shall not shoot beyond Treaty limits.

Picking up the baton just over a century later, Paul Hunt chose to go light on religion in the introduction to his 1988 guidebook. On the other hand, and as you’d expect from an author who came to prospect for oil in the Japan Sea, he provides a very lucid and complete summary of Japan's natural history and geology:

The present zone of active volcanoes, which is known as the Green Tuff Zone, has been active since the Miocene, and is the youngest tectonic zone. It is found on the continental side or the inner belt of the island arc systems, where subsidence and deposition of sediments in basins has occurred. During the Miocene, large-scale submarine volcanism occurred in these basins … These lavas, extruded in an aqueous environment, were altered and changed to a green colour – hence the name Green Tuff.

In their own introduction, Tom and Wes stay away from the Green Tuff. Instead, they zero in on practical matters such as how to get a SIM card for your mobile phone (be reassured in this: “Japan is a technologically advanced country… “). Alas, they have nothing to say about shooting licences  – although, for Bambi’s sake, there are enough deer up in those hills to justify a bit of culling.

 Their route descriptions focus on the practical too. Where Paul Hunt mashed up guidebook with travelogue, blending his personal reminiscences into route descriptions, Tom and Wes are all business. Instead of picking just a few flagship hikes, as Hunt does, they outline a dense web of trails through the highest mountains – and, of course, on and around Mt Fuji.

Each approach is, or was, the right one for its time. While Hunt had to reintroduce Japan's mountains to a foreign audience after a long hiatus in English-language guidebooks, Tom and Wes have a readership that already knows a bit about hiking in Japan. So detailed coverage is the right way to go.

So much information is packed in here that not much room is left for background colour. Here and there, the authors do drop a tantalising detail or two, such as the hut-warden’s “notorious” temper on Notori-dake. Or the rumour that rocks were piled up on the summit of Oku-Hotaka (3190m) in the Northern Alps so that it could overtop its southern rival, Ai-no-take (3189m), as Japan’s third-highest mountain.

It’s no coincidence that both these vignettes involve mountains in the Southern Alps. For my money, one of Tom and Wes’s achievements is to drag this shy and retiring mountain range out into the limelight. For various reasons – difficult access, less obviously dramatic scenery – these mountains have always played second fiddle to their northern and central counterparts. By stoking many a hiker's ambition, the write-up of Trek 13, a traverse of the entire Southern Alps, will do much to correct this deficit of attention.

The southern reaches of the Southern Alps are particularly remote. Tom and Wes can’t alter that fact, but they do show you how to use such transport links as there are to best effect. And they are particularly good on what flowers and rocks you’ll see along the way. I learned from their route descriptions that the pinkish (radiolarian?) chert which forms Kita-Dake Buttress actually outcrops on many mountains further south too.

So there you have it. A solid, practical guide, based on decades of mountain experience, and all packaged – at a reasonable price – in a durable plastic wrapper. It’s good that the book will hold up well, as, on past performance, it will be a decade or so before we get another English-language guide to any of the Japanese mountains.

Next up
When we do, here’s a wish-list. Now that Tom and Wes have so thoroughly written up the Japan Alps, the big remaining blank on the map is Hokkaidō – surely those Hidaka and Daisetsuzan mountains deserve an English-language guidebook to themselves. The same might be said for many individual regions, such as the Kansai or Kyushu. Or, if you're into the Green Tuff, how about a guidebook to Japan's burgeoning population of geoparks and geomuseums?

There’s no need to go far to find other terrae incognitae. Yes, Mt Fuji, I’m looking at you. Hidden in plain view of Tokyo, Japan’s top mountain is surprisingly reclusive when it comes to English-language hiking information. Tom and Wes include workmanlike information on four of the main climbing routes, plus a satellite peak – but that still leaves the Murayama trail, the O-chū-dō, the lakes, lava fields and caves, and the circuit of the mountain’s foot, among scores of other possible Sehenswürdigkeiten.

A detailed guidebook to Mt Fuji: now there’s an idea – you know, if you started compiling one now, you might even get it published in time for the Tokyo Olympics.


Tom Fay and Wes Lang, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji, Cicerone, 2019

David Joll , Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall, Hiking in Japan, Lonely Planet, 2001

Paul Hunt, Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer's Guide to the Mountain Trails, Kodansha International, 1988

Ernest Mason Satow and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Northern & Central Japan, John Murray, 1881

Wes Gibbons, Teresa Moreno and Tomoko Kojima, "Field geotraverse, geoparks and geomuseums", Chapter 12 in Teresa Moreno et al, The Geology of Japan, Geological Society, 2016.

Monday, June 3, 2019

"At the same time good nerve is indispensable"

Continued: from Tateyama to Kurobe with Satow and Hawes in 1884

The Muro-dō hut is open for the accommodation of pilgrims during 50 days, from July 20 to September 10. No bedding is procurable, nor any food but boiled rice. To the summit (of Tateyama), called Go-hon-sha, is a distance of 1 ri. A short stretch of level ground, partly covered with snow lies between the hut and the base of the upper ridge. The ascent thence is almost direct and, as far as the first shrine (860 ft. above the·Muro-dō), tolerably easy. Beyond this point, however, it becomes difficult.

View of the Kurobe River
Woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi 
From the second shrine (1,050 ft. above the Muro-dō), the first view of Fuji is seen, and a short climb then lands the traveller upon the ridge, from which the actual summit of Tate-yama, crowned with a very picturesque temple, rises sharply. The ascent from the Muro-dō can be accomplished in 1 hr., not including stoppages.

The summit, on a clear day commands a most imposing survey on every side. The number of mountains to be distinguished is perhaps greater than from any other elevation in Japan. To the extreme left, looking eastward, are seen Miō-kō-zan, Miō-gi-san and Yone yama in Echigo, Nan-tai-zan near Nikko, To-gakushi san and the volcano of Asama yama in Shin-shū.

Towards the S. rises the range of Yatsu-ga-take, with the isolated peak of Tateshina yama, beyond which are seen the simple cone of Fuji, the high summits of Shirane and Koma-ga-take in Koshū; further S. again are Koma-ga-take and Ontake in Shin-shiū; Yari-ga-take, Norikura, Kasa-ga-take, and, in closer proximity, Yakushi-ga-dake, all in Hida; while almost due S.W. is Haku-san, on the borders of Kaga. Below to the W. lie the plains of Kaga and Etchū, the latter watered by the Jin-dzū and Jō-gwan-ji, and to the N. the view is bounded by the Sea of Japan.

Instead of descending to Ashikura it is possible to take a short cut to Kurobe by crossing over the ridge of Jō-do-san and entering the valley of Gozen-dani. The distance is said to be only 2½ ri, but the difficulties of the journey are so great that Kurobe can hardly be reached in less than 6 or 7 hours. The path branches off left from the first shrine above the Murodo, and descending a grassy slope, comes to a difficult and dangerous talus of loose stones.

It next follows the rocky course of a cold mountain stream, then crosses a gentle snow slope, and rejoins the river-bed of the same stream. Further on it ascends a tributary stream flowing down the valley on the left of Jō-do-san, and then diverging to the left up a smaller bed, crosses the ridge dividing Tate-yama from the valley of the Zara-goye. This part of the journey is extremely fatiguing, the ascent to the top of the ridge being very steep and precipitous. Near the summit the path winds to the 1., and soon begins rapidly to descend.

Great care is now required to avoid bruises from the sharp stones which form the side of the hill, as they are treacherously hidden by the creeping dwarf alder and thick masses of bamboo grass. On reaching the stream at the bottom of the ridge, its course should be ascended for ½ hr. to the point where it is crossed by the Shin-do (see p. 314). At the hamlet of Kumano, 1½ ri from Toyama, the road crosses a bridge over the Kumano-gawa, and continues on to Okubo, a village straggling along a tedious avenue of fir-trees and bamboos.

From this point, it ascends to the hot springs of Yaki, where it enters the mountains and ½ ri on crosses a ferry over the Jiodzū-gawa to Sasadzu, which, like most of the hamlets along this route, consists of but a few miserable huts. Ascending the left bank through very pretty scenery, it reaches Ioridani (Inn, by Akaza Kiū-shi-rō). In summer, when the silkworms are being reared in every room, the odour which these insects emit and the flies which they attract make it almost impossible to stay anywhere in the valley except at this inn and the temple mentioned below…

Advertisement from the Satow and Hawes guidebook, 1884 edition

Yoshino (accommodation at the house of Muramatsu Kichi-shi-rō; the quarters are poor, but the people are very obliging) Close to this village, the Jin-dzū-gawa is crossed by a kago-no-watashi.

This substitute for a bridge is constructed in the following manner. Four stout hempen ropes are secured to each bank of the river, at a point where it narrows and cuts its way between some fine rocks.Suspended to these ropes is a cradle of very simple structure, consisting merely of a plaited wicker circular bottom over which are bent two hoops made of tough branches crossing each other at right angles and firmly secured to the bottom. The ropes across the river pass under these hoops and thus the cage is hung.

Pole-bridge at the foot of the Abo Pass
Photo by H J Hamilton, in Walter Weston's Mountaineering & Exploration in the Japanese Alps

The cradle is hauled across by lines attached to it from either side of the river, and the method of crossing is to get into the cage and to be pulled over by men on the bank. Another way of crossing, and the one which is usually adopted by the peasant, is thus. He enters the cage, plants his feet firmly against the lower part of the hoops, leans well forward, and clasps the rope above him with his hands, and then by a series of jerks like the leaps of a frog, takes himself and the cage across to the opposite side. It requires great practice to be able to perform this antic, and at the same time good nerve is indispensable.

The main point seems to be not to lose the hold with the feet; the jerk is performed from the knee and hip, and unless great care is taken an inexperienced person may find himself hanging from the rope with the cage left behind him.

Fine masu (salmon-trout), weighing from 4 to 8 lbs., are taken in the river. A four-pronged spear, which fits into a staff having a stout line attached to it, is used for catching these fish. Ai and iwana are also taken by netting. The seasons for fishing are the end of spring and the beginning of autumn.


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray. The link leads to the 1881 edition, but the text above comes from the 1884 edition.