Thursday, January 26, 2023

“Worthy of any traveller’s attention”

Translation: how a glacier of Chamonix looked in the Little Ice Age, as described by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure

The Arveiron is a powerful torrent that issues from the lower end of the Glacier des Bois through a great arch of ice, which the local people call the Arveiron’s “embouchure” or mouth, although this is actually its source, or at least the first place where it comes out into the open air. One can get there, as I have said, directly by descending from Montenvers; but this is a path so steep and strenuous that I can hardly recommend it. From the Prieuré, by contrast, there is a charming walk of an hour or one could even take a carriage, all on the flat, across beautiful meadows and through a splendid forest.

Source of the Arveiron: print made by Sigismond Himely, 1820s
From the British Museum collection

The Arveiron’s source is worthy of any traveller’s attention. It is a deep cavern, with the entrance formed by a vault of ice more than a hundred feet high, and of proportionate width. Carved as if by the hand of nature, the cavern opens amid an enormous mass of ice, which shines opaquely and white as snow here, or a translucent aquamarine there, just as the light may play on it. From the bottom of this cavern, a river surges out, foaming white and, ever and again, tumbling in its waves large floes of ice.

Raising your eyes above this vault, you see an immense glacier, crowned by pyramids of ice, amid which the obelisk of the Dru thrusts upwards, its summit lost in the clouds. Finally, this whole picture is framed by the beautiful woods of the Montenvers and the Aiguille du Bochard, these forests running upwards alongside the glacier as far as its highest reaches, which merge into the sky.

The place where one enjoys this spectacle is extremely wild; since the ice has greatly diminished, there remain only piles of sand and blocks deposited by the glacier; one sees no verdure. But seven or eight years ago, when the glacier came down much lower, the ice cavern was situated next to a larch wood floored with a beautiful white sand sprinkled with clumps of the beautiful red blooms of the epilobium, the starry flowers of Sempervivum arachnoideum, and those of the Saxifraga autumnalis.

Source of the Arveyron: watercolour by Samuel Grundman, 1826
By courtesy of Chamonix City Office

I have sometimes been inquisitive enough to enter this cave, and indeed one can go quite far inside when it is wide enough and the Arveiron does not fill it up; but this is always a temerity, as the vault often drops large fragments. When we went to visit it in 1778, we noticed in the arch which formed the entrance to the vault a large, almost horizontal fissure, cut at its ends by vertical cracks. It was easy enough to see how this whole piece would soon come adrift and, indeed, a report like a thunderclap was heard that very night. This piece, forming the vault’s keystone, had collapsed, dragging down the whole outer part of the arch. The ice mass had then blocked the course of the Arveiron for some moments. Pooling up in the bottom of the cavern, the waters then burst abruptly through the dam, violently sweeping away all these great blocks of ice, smashing them to pieces against the rocks that stud the torrent’s bed and carrying the fragments far and wide. The next day, with a sort of horror, we saw how large slabs of this ice covered the place where we had stood the day before.

So this is how the vault collapses and how it renews itself. In winter, it hardly exists; the shrunken Arveiron creeps out from under the ice, which slopes down to ground level, and it is only when the growing warmth of spring swells the waters of this torrent and melts away some of the ice that the rivers starts gnawing at the icy walls that resist its passage, and then those in the middle, no longer supported, collapse into the stream, which carries them along, successively breaking away more and more fragments until the upper part of the ice takes the form of a vault whose blocks hold each other up. This vault changes from day to day; sometimes it collapses entirely, but soon a new one is formed.

It may be asked why this glacier is the only one that ends in such a large and beautiful ice arch. This is because it is the only one, at least to my knowledge, which has ice of such great depth and consistency at its lower end, and which terminates on horizontal ground, and from which emerges such a considerable torrent, as all these conditions must be fulfilled in order to produce a beautiful arch. If the glacier ends on a steep slope, as they very often do, the slightest movement of the glacier causes the ice blocks to tumble down, giving an arch no time to form. Then, if only a little water issues from the glacier, the arch is necessarily narrow and low in proportion, because it is the breadth of the torrent which determines that of the arch, and thus its height. And if, finally, the ice is thin or fragile, no arch can be either sizeable or stable.

Moreover, this vault of ice is not always so impressive or vast, nor does it remain always in the same place. This is because the glacier sometimes advances into the valley, and at other times retreats. The granite blocks it has deposited show that it once descended much lower on this slope than it does today.


Translated from Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, Voyages dans les Alpes, édité et présenté par Julie Boch, Genève, Georg éditeur, 2002

Monday, January 16, 2023

Saving our salamanders

A heartwarming story in the Guardian describes how a Brit is building ramps for giant salamanders near Daisen, one of Japan's Hundred Mountains. And a longer article along the same lines appeared in the Japan Times just today. It seems that the new ramps will help the beleaguered amphibians to overcome the man-made dams which are destroying their habitat.

For beleaguered they certainly are, these giant salamanders (Andrias japonicus). Last year, says the Guardian, an international conservation body changed their status from “near threatened” to “vulnerable”. And they have long been under pressure, as a glance at Walter Weston’s Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps reveals. Here is a vignette from the mountaineering missionary’s ascent of Jōnen-dake in 1894:

At 3 P.M. we reached the first snow, at a height of 7,200 feet, at a spot where, in a gloomy ravine, dark cliffs rose steep and forbidding on either hand. No sooner was the word to halt here given, than at once our hunters threw down their packs and fell to prodding about with their sticks in the boles and crannies of the broken rocks in a state of wild excitement. They told us they were searching for a particular sort of lizard called san-shō-no-uwo, which this stream produced to perfection.

 When caught, skewered on long sticks, and dried, it is highly esteemed as a cure for various diseases of children. In China it is also much valued in the native pharmacopeia, and goes by the name of the "stony son of a dragon". In an advertisement drawing attention to its uses in a native Shanghai newspaper some time ago, it was stated that the medicine made from it was "not only unusually effective against the plague, but it is also infallible against different kinds of cholera, typhus and typhoid fevers, ague, diphtheria, liver and stomach aches, vomiting, diarrhoea, colic, apoplexy, sunstroke, asphyxia, tetanus in children, surfeiting, small-pox, malaria, all sorts of tumours, and inflammatory poisons, &c."

Presumably Weston's hunters were looking for the small variety of mountain salamander - incidentally, these are still occasionally served up in remote mountain villages, skewered on long sticks and baked in honey glaze. Delicious, you know. As for their larger cousins, Weston seems to know of these only by hearsay:

Chief of all reptiles of this class, however, is the Giant Salamander (Cryptobronchus Japonicus), found chiefly on the west or south-west spurs of this range (as well as in some other parts between 34° and 36° N. lat.). It appears to chiefly prefer the clear mountain streams of granite and schist ranges at a height of 2,000 to 4,000 feet above the sea. It feeds chiefly upon trout (in which those streams abound) and upon the larvae of insects and the smaller batrachians. Its flesh is valued chiefly for its medicinal uses and for keeping the water clean in wells. The largest specimens, five feet long or so, are brought to the principal cities, where they are found as curiosities in the naturalists' shops. 

Whilst near relatives are found in China and in North America, its closest kinsman of all is the one whose remains were found by Scheuchzer at Oeningen. Owing, however, to its weak reproduction and limited distribution, it will soon follow its departed cousin, that homo diluvia testis, and at no distant date will cease to form part of the living fauna of Japan.

Let's hope that Weston's gloomy prognosis is unfounded. Alas, it's not just the giant salamanders that we have to worry about. The header photo in this post is borrowed from Natural Monuments of Japan, an opulent volume published by Kodansha in 1995. Giant salamanders are in there because they have "special natural monument" status. 

The book’s yokozuna-like heft testifies to the extraordinary variety of flora and fauna that makes Japan a so-called biodiversity hotspot. The question, though, is whether this volume would be equally weighty if Kodansha were to bring out an updated edition in 2095? We hope that both the venerable publishing house and the giant salamanders will still be around then.


M Kato, M Numata, K Watanabe and M Hata (eds), Natural Monuments of Japan, Kodansha, Tokyo (in Japanese), 1995.八幡野八幡宮・来宮神社社叢.加藤陸奥雄,沼田眞,渡部景隆,畑正憲(編)日本の天然記念物, 講談社,東京.

W Weston, Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, J Murray, London, 1896.


The idea of ramps for giant salamanders put Project Hyakumeizan in mind of a marvel closer to home: the famous cat ladders of Bern, Switzerland. Another ingenious solution for our animal friends....

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Greenland, now and then

A Swiss museum commemorates the original lean, light and fast arctic expedition

In the summer of 1912, a Swiss expedition traversed the central Greenland ice sheet, bringing back a trove of scientific and geographical findings. Nobody died, fell in a crevasse or succumbed to frostbite. So how did they prosper, when so many other polar expeditions of the time came to grief?

Somewhere in Greenland, in the summer of 1912

Some pointers towards an answer can be picked up at the Greenland 1912 exhibition at the Forum of Swiss History – located in the town and canton of Schwyz, this is an offshoot of Switzerland’s National Museum. Quite a few of of the exhibits testify to the thoroughness of the expedition’s planning and preparation.

There’s a message even in the magnificent diorama – part of the expedition’s rich legacy of colour images – that stands at the entrance. This shows a Danish ship, the Hans Egede, icebound on Greenland’s west coast (below). 

The Hans Egede at Umanak, 1909

The expeditioners travelled to Greenland on this scheduled steamer by necessity. With a budget of 30,000 Swiss francs, they couldn’t stretch to chartering their own vessel, except for the final leg of their sea approach.

The expedition's cost estimate: not much change from SFr 30,000

Nor could they afford to overwinter in Greenland. Besides, the expedition leader, the meteorologist Alfred de Quervain, had to get back to his job in the autumn. So speed wasn’t just safety – it was enforced by the expedition’s finances. 

In a single summer month, the four members of the so-called eastern party crossed the ice sheet from west to east, driving their dog-drawn sledges some 640 kilometres. This was the original lean, light and fast polar expedition.

A theodolite, as used for tracking weather balloons

Meanwhile, a “western party” of three other scientists stayed on the west coast to study glaciers and the high-altitude winds, tracking pilot balloons through a theodolite like the one exhibited here. Their findings overturned a then-popular theory of stable wind circulation around the Arctic.

Glacier landscape photographed by the 1912 expedition

On the wet Sunday morning when Project Hyakumeizan took in the exhibition, it was introduced by Matthias Huss. Nobody could be better qualified for the task. As the moving spirit of GLAMOS, the project for Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland, Huss stands in a direct line of scholarly descent from de Quervain.

Like de Quervain, Huss has made his own scientific expeditions – by camel once to inspect a remote glacier in China. And among the Swiss glaciers that he monitors is the Claridenfirn, a medium-sized iceflow in the Glarus Alps that de Quervain started surveying in 1914. During last year’s torrid summer, Huss had to make an unscheduled visit there in order to replace measuring poles that had melted out.

Swiss glaciers lost about 6% of their ice in 2022, Huss reported. At this rate, only remnants will be left at the end of the century, depriving the surrounding regions of their summer water supply. The good news, if any, is that sea levels won’t be much affected by the loss of ice cover in the Alps and all other mountain ranges together. Greenland, though, is different – when its ice sheet melts, the oceans will rise by about seven metres.

The effects of this melting are already dramatically apparent. When a descendant of one of the 1912 expeditioners attempted to follow his grandfather’s track - almost exactly a century later - a GPS reading close to the edge of the ice sheet suggested that his party stood 130 metres lower than their predecessors had been. In the end, the grandson's expedition had to turn back when their sledge started breaking up on the rough ice.

Alfred de Quervain's diary entries for 1-2 May 1912

Fortunately, the 1912 expedition used all available technologies to record what they saw: diaries, sketches, black-and-white glass slides, colour plates and even short clips of cinefilm, as displayed and replayed at the exhibition. Yet even at the time, de Quervain sensed the limits of these social media. Apropos a spectacular sunset seen from the deck of the Hans Egede in 1912, he wrote:

We felt at the time that this gigantic experience was inalienably ours. Prattle about it, promote it as we will, we can convey to others but a feeble gleam, and the fire remains ours alone. The real experience cannot be recreated, here or elsewhere.

These words carry even more force today. For nobody will ever again see the glaciers of Greenland as they revealed themselves to the 1912 explorers  –  the real experience cannot be recreated, here or elsewhere. But, like fragments of a distant memory, this exhibition’s photos and memorabilia hint at how those experiences might have been.

The Greenland 1912 exhibition runs until 12 March 2023 at the Swiss National Museum's Forum of Swiss History, Zeughausstrasse 5, 6430 Schwyz, Switzerland


Alfred de Quervain, Across Greenland's Ice Cap: The Remarkable Swiss Scientific Expedition of 1912, with an introduction by Martin Hood, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, McGill-Queen's University Press, May 2022

Christoph Haemmig, Matthias Huss, Hansrudolf Keusen, Josef Hess, Urs Wegmüller, Zhigang Ao, Wubuli Kulubayi, “Hazard assessment of glacial lake outburst floods from Kyagar glacier, Karakoram mountains, China”, Annals of Glaciology, vol 55, no 66, 2014

Postscript about polar bears

Relentlessly, as if it were still alive, the same stuffed polar bear has stalked into both iterations of Greenland 1912 exhibition, the one now showing in Schwyz and its predecessor at the Swiss National Museum in 2020. For the record, during the actual 1912 expedition, no polar bears were harmed or even encountered. Yet, as August Stolberg, a member of the 1912 western party, observed: “people who come back from arctic trips should always be able to tell tall tales about their battles with polar bears!” So perhaps this musty beast belongs in the exhibition after all.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Celebrating the alpine savants

An exhibition in Geneva delves into the scientific roots of modern mountaineering – and yields insights into how science gets done

If you want to get to know somebody well, it’s best to visit them at home. And if that somebody is Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740–1799), who instigated the first ascent of Mt Blanc, the best place to start is probably the Musée d'histoire des sciences in his home city of Geneva. As the holder of many of de Saussure’s papers and memorabilia, the museum is currently using these to mount an exhibition on La montagne, laboratoire des savants.

De Saussure's party scales Mt Blanc in August 1787

Taking up the entire top floor of the museum’s repurposed villa, the exhibition all but brings de Saussure back to life. 

What the well-dressed alpinist wore in 1787

Visitors are received first by his frock coat and hobnailed shoes – there wasn’t much in the way of crampons in those days – and then by his devoted wife Albertine, ably re-enacted in a video display. While she reads out their correspondence, a light beam traces out her husband’s journeys of geognostic discovery on a relief map of the Alps in front of her.

This son et lumière notwithstanding, Horace-Bénédict isn’t allowed to hog the show. As promised in the exhibition’s title, savants are celebrated in the plural. Some were de Saussure’s predecessors: a display of antiquarian books includes those of alpine pioneers in German-speaking Switzerland such as Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733), who famously documented the dragons of the Alps.

Strange encounter near Sargans by courtesy of Scheuchzer

For de Saussure, the most formative of these Swiss influencers were probably Gottlieb Sigmund Gruner (1717-1778), whose multivolume work on Die Eisgebirge des Schweizerlandes moved him to learn German, and Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), celebrated throughout Europe for his lengthy poem on the Alps.

A glacier as seen by Gottlieb Sigmund Gruner

But it was more for Haller's botanical expertise that de Saussure looked to him. When the younger man visited Chamonix for the first time – this was in 1760 – his main aim was to collect plant specimens for Haller. But the magnificent views sparked de Saussure’s interest in finding a way to the top of Europe’s highest mountain. And the rest is history…

From the pages of De Saussure's pressed plant collection 

Next come exhibits on de Saussure’s contemporaries. These include André-César Bordier (1746-1802), whose Voyage pitoresque aux glaciers de Savoye set out one of the first theories to explain how glaciers flowed, Marc-Théodore Bourrit (1739-1819), the tireless promoter of Mont Blanc, and Louis Jurine (1751-1819), who assembled such a vast array of alpine minerals and fossils that his collection ended up at the Sorbonne.

Successors get a mention too. Here is a fine portrait of the astronomer Marc-Auguste Pictet (1752-1825), who took over from de Saussure as professor of natural philosophy at the Academy of Geneva when the older man’s health failed. There was Alphonse Favre (1815-1890), who published a three-volume geological study on the Mt Blanc range. In search of ground truth, he climbed extensively and later helped to found the Swiss Alpine Club, also serving as one of its first presidents. 

Alpine folding as modelled by Alphonse Favre

Lastly there was the great Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who visited Chamonix with de Saussure’s magnum opus, the Voyages dans les Alpes, in hand (presumably only one volume at a time). Later, von Humboldt undertook his own scientific ascents, setting a world altitude record (at least for Europeans) during an attempt on Chimborazo in June 1802. De Saussure’s Voyages also furnished James Hutton (1726-1797) with some key geological evidence that he needed to nail down his Theory of the Earth (1785).

By now, your reporter was getting the picture. De Saussure didn’t work in a silo: instead he corresponded, hobnobbed and networked across the length and breadth of Europe. If he mounted higher than others – to borrow a bon mot from an eminent British natural philosopher – this was because he climbed on the shoulders of giants.

Richard Pococke in oriental dress
Image by courtesy of Jean-Etienne Liotard, via Wikipedia

Speaking of the Brits, they figure quite prominently in this exhibition. Up on the wall are portraits of William Windham (1717–1761) and Richard Pococke (1704–1765), who were among the first outsiders to tour and publicise the glaciers of Chamonix, making their visit nearly two decades before de Saussure.

De Saussure was well-known in English circles. Accompanied by Albertine, he had travelled round the country in 1768-69, visiting mines, universities and men of science and culture such as Sir Joseph Banks and Lord Palmerston, father of the prime minister. It may have been during this stay that he acquired from the workshop of John Dollond, a master optician, the fine achromatic telescope that is displayed on the museum’s ground floor.

An optic of distinction from the atelier of John Dollond

The English reciprocated these visits. In the summer of 1776, the polymathic Sir George Shuckburgh invited de Saussure on an excursion to a hill near Geneva in order to estimate the height of Mont Blanc. By triangulation, Shuckburgh arrived at a figure of 2,451 toises (equivalent to 4,779 metres), rather close to the altitude of 4,778 metres that de Saussure himself obtained just over a decade later, when he boiled up his thermometer on the summit. 

De Saussure's alcohol stove front-runs the MSR by 200 years

This prompted your correspondent to muse that, to get the measure of Mt Blanc more or less accurately, it took a joint Genevan-British collaboration. And to wonder how present-day Shuckburghs and de Saussures are going to fare in the face of take-back-control policies that stifle international cooperation. Outside the museum’s front door a drab December afternoon awaited. Across the lake, Mt Blanc was quite lost to view.

The exhibition La montagne, laboratoire des savants runs until 23 April 2023 at the Musée d'histoire des sciences, Geneva.


Musée d'histoire des sciences, La montagne, laboratoire des savants: Catalogue d’exposition

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, Voyages dans les Alpes, edited and introduced by Julie Boch, Georg, Geneva, 2002

Sir Arnold Lunn, The Swiss and Their Mountains: A Study of the Influence of Mountains on Man, Rand McNally, 1963

Summoning up the very shades of H-B de Saussure

Monday, December 26, 2022

A meizanologist's diary (42)

9 November: after circling round Narita airport, the Boeing takes up a northeasterly course out across the Pacific. Surely this can’t be the way back to Europe? Nobody announces anything – heck, we’re just px – and for a moment I wonder if I’ve boarded a flight to Seattle instead of Zurich. 

Then I get it. The next-best way back to Europe, if geopolitical factors obtrude, is over the North Pole. And so it turns out. We make a beeline, or more probably a great circle route, directly for the Bering Straits. Before we get there, the light fades through an abbreviated afternoon into an accelerated sunset. Then we turn due north, hugging the Alaskan coast.

In the event, we skirt the North Pole itself by some hundreds of kilometres. A little later, the polar night lightens enough for a long dark rift to appear in the undercast below – no, that’s not cloud but a lead of dark water in the drifting ice pack. The glimpse recalls Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram expedition, on a ship that was designed to drift across the arctic embedded in the pack-ice.

Of course, Nansen didn’t quite make it to the pole either, giving up his bold foray from the ship at 86 13.6′ North in April 1895. But what a vintage year for exploration that was. In August, Alfred Mummery vanished into thin air, in an attempt to ascend Nanga Parbat that was about a century before its time.

And in December, the meteorologist Nonaka Itaru and his wife Chiyoko were rescued from their pioneering midwinter sojourn on top of Mt Fuji. They too were far ahead of their era, for nobody else would attempt to emulate their feat until well into the following century.

The thought of that icy vigil prompts me to look at the flight display again – as we approach northeastern Greenland, the outside air temperature falls to minus 63⁰C. Not to worry, though, we should still have a few degrees in hand before the jet fuel starts to freeze. Now that really would be yabai....

Sunday, December 11, 2022

A meizanologist's diary (41)

9 November: Narita, 6am: as it’s too early to head to the airport, I head in the other direction, towards the eponymous temple. After all, folk refer to it as “Narita-san” (Mt Narita), hinting at something of meizanological interest. 

The old street winds away between souvenir shops, galleries and restaurants offering various renditions of eel – as favoured by old-time pilgrims from Edo, according to the helpful brochure I picked up in the hotel, to strengthen their knees.

Strengthening your knees might be a good idea. The countryside here may look flat from a passing airliner but, like Kent or Kentucky, the landscape actually ripples away into wolds and swales (not the local words for them, of course). 

Thus would-be visitors to Shinshō-ji, as the temple is formally called, must first scale a steep and sustained flight of stone steps. Fortunately, a fine rock garden provides an excuse for tarrying at half height.

At this hour, of course, actual visitors are few. But a chrysanthemum exhibition and a poster advertising the shichi-go-san ceremonies underline that this is a busily working temple with a full yearly calendar, not a tourist trap for passing travellers. But still I wonder what the deal is with this temple’s “mountain” suffix.

The answer comes from a straw-hatted pilgrim, or rather a bronze statue of one. No, not just a pilgrim, but the Daishi himself, the monk who – says H Byron Earhart in his  magisterial book on Mt Fuji – most radically altered the trajectory of Japan’s mountain religions.

Before Kōbō Daishi, mountains were themselves the objects of worship. But Kūkai, as he was also known, saw them more as places of spiritual retreat. “According to the sutra, meditation should be practised preferably on a flat area deep in the mountains … for the benefit of the nation and those who desire to discipline themselves,” he wrote.

And so, to this day, temples of the Shingon sect that Kūkai founded are known as "mountains", often including the character for 'yama' in their names. I should have guessed - we've visited such a "mountain temple" before.  

In fact, Shinshō-ji was founded by a disciple of Kūkai, not the Daishi himself. But the master's spirit seems to have faithfully imprinted itself on this far-flung outpost of the Shingon sect. I’m now wandering up another flight of stone steps towards the temple’s highest walks, which are surmounted by a “peace pagoda”.

Is it my imagination, or do the gardens take on a wilder character here, as if recalling the magnificent cryptomeria forests that surround the founder’s monastery on Kōya-san? It seems I’m not the only one to think so. This writer captures their atmosphere perfectly:

The natural Nature which is apt to be forgotten carelessly. Something recalling me to this is left in the Naritasan park. The park overflows in the trees and plants and Nature, and thought to respect all life of the thing which straight of the Buddhism arranges is incorporated …When the stairs near the light temple in the precincts are gone down, a waterfall of the donation that light comes in from a grove turns up from a huge rocky mountain…”

The light of a late autumn sunrise is starting to slant in over the groves. It is time to go down the mountain. In front of the Daihondō, a gardener is filling his watering cans for the daily round. “What splendid gardens,” I say as I pass, and he smiles. At Narita-san, natural Nature is in no danger of being forgotten carelessly.

Friday, December 2, 2022

A meizanologist's diary (40)

5 November, 6am: frost pillars, as wished for yesterday, heave obligingly out of the soil as we tackle the steep hill behind the hut. Fixed ropes help us to pull over greasy steps. At least there are no more slippery tree roots to stumble over, now that we’ve left the treeline. And the packs are lighter, as our bivvy gear has stayed at the hut.

We’re climbing the Pitch of the Beautiful Women (美女坂), observes the Sensei gleefully. Gaining height, we haul the Northern Alps into view over the intervening ridges – there’s Yari silhouetted against a chilly dawn glow, and Tateyama too. The latter, another dormant volcano, is the only mountain other than Hakusan that has paths known as Zenjōdō. And, intriguingly, it also has a place named for Beautiful Women (美女平). It's as if the two mountains have been conversing for centuries over this aery gulf between them.

Now we start across a frozen marsh. The scenery is like a miniature Oze, except that the boardwalks are frosted; we tread them warily. The Sensei points to a lily’s skeleton; in early summer, this would be a meadow of nodding yellow blooms. That would more than justify its name of Flower Garden (花園).

After the Trial of the Boardwalks (nobody fell into the marsh), we start on a grassy traverse. Across the valley is Hyakuyojō-no taki(百四丈滝), a waterfall purporting to be no fewer than four hundred chains high. Lurking in the early morning shadows, it is heard more than seen; we will inspect it properly on our return, when the light is better.

Ahead the Sensei points out Ōnanji. As this peak serves as the oku-miya (inner sanctuary) of the Hakusan shrine, it should make a fitting endpoint for our passage over this Zenjōdō. It doesn’t look that far above us.

This misapprehension is corrected when the traverse path drops away in front of us. As it would be too demoralising to lose a hundred metres of height all at once, we sit down on a boulder of pitted lava – a discreet reminder of Hakusan’s volcanic origins – and refresh ourselves with the Sensei’s home-grown sweet potatoes.

The sun is now high enough to warm us on our lava pedestals, and the wind has dropped too. But over there on Ōnanji, a filmy mist starts to veil the summit. We take the hint not to linger. While we scramble down to the col, what started as a mere wisp of vapour congeals into a fully fledged cap cloud.

Zig-zags take us down to a col. Its fluttering expanse of panda grass is a lost world halfway between earth and sky. A small pond, Abura-ike, would charmingly reflect the travelling clouds, except that it has long since frozen over. Then the path tilts upwards again. A glance at the map shows us to have embarked on Nagasaka – the Long Slope.

If only the slope were just long. The path is now entrenched in a steep grove of creeping pine trees, which rake us with their ice-glazed fronds as we push through them. When we emerge from this Austerity of the Hoarfrost, we find that a fox has made off with our visibility. But, no matter, my altimeter says we’re within a hundred metres of the summit.

Altimeters, as I should have learned yesterday, are but fickle guides on a Zenjōdō. The Sensei knows better; this is her local mountain, after all: “If we don’t turn back now, we’ll be walking back down in the dark,” she says. But, heck, I object, it’s only ten and we’re nearly there. What if I run on ahead and see if I can get to the top in the next half hour?

My proposal is not endorsed, but neither is it vetoed. Taking this as an assent, I push on upwards into the freezing fog, giving myself an extra half an hour to make the summit. Soon it starts to dawn on me that we're not yet on the slopes of Ōnanji, but only on what the Swiss would call a “Vorgipfel”. Or, depending on how you read the map, just a Vorgipfel of the Vorgipfel ...

Doubt is already creeping in when I come to what looks like a fork in the path – if one of us went astray, we would never find each other in this murk. And what is the point of summiting without the Sensei? For shame, even to think of it. I turn back and, a few minutes later, I’m relieved to see her still coming up. “You're right,” I admit, “this is no weather for splitting the party.” 

Zenjō (禅定), an expert on the Tateyama religion explains, refers to a state of mind during meditation. Moreover, it indicates austerities or 'meditations' on sacred mountains. Just as we start down, the Kaga Zenjōdō presents us with another of its revelations. When the clouds lift, we see the whole ridgeway uncoiling below, like the crenellated spine of a dragon. In this vast landscape - I realise we haven't seen another soul for two days - the two of us suddenly look very small.

A similar feeling seems once to have assailed Arne Naess, the alpinist/philosopher who famously turned back before reaching the summit of a sacred peak in the Himalaya. In his essay on Modesty and the conquest of mountains, he wrote that “The way is such that the smaller we come to feel ourselves compared to the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness,” before adding enigmatically, “I do not know why this is so.”

It takes a long time to retrace our steps. All too soon after we pick up our kit from the bivouac hut, the lingering clouds turn gold. In the fading light, those slippery tree roots send me sprawling more than once. The Sensei was right about turning back on time. The last zig-zags down to the valley must be illumined by the light of our headtorches. Walking back to the car, along a forest track, we wade through pools of moonlight so bright they seem almost to buoy us up.