Thursday, February 15, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (58)

 15 January: while driving us into the foothills of the Hakusan range, the Sensei debriefs me on my solo visit to Adatara. She isn’t impressed by my route-finding expedients: “You know,” she says, “you can’t rely on following tracks in a whiteout – even your own footprints could be snowed over in half an hour.”

There's no time to reply – heck, she’s right – as we’ve reached the trailhead for Toritate-yama (1,308 metres). Except for us, the carpark is empty on this grey Monday morning, and snow is already swirling down. Yesterday, under skies of a flawless winter blue, probably a hundred people skied and snowshoed up this mountain.

“Well, at least we’ll have a trail to follow,” I say to the Sensei as we put our snowshoes on. And, indeed, something like a trench seems to lead off through a deserted holiday village and up into the forest. Half an hour later, we are still following the trench, now lightly snowed over, as it takes us across a plateau towards the summit slopes of Toritate.

Next, a wide track zig-zags up through the trees. Although there’s still a trench to show us the way, the going becomes harder as we gain height and the snow deepens. So I’m glad to hear voices behind us; they must belong to the three men who arrived by car at the trailhead just as we left. Surely we’ll be able to hand over the lead soon…

The track ends, and we start climbing a ridge. The wind gets up, as it must ever since Daniel Bernoulli of Basel (1700-1782) discovered his effect, driving the snowflakes into our face – these aren’t the fine spicules that sand-blasted me on Adatara a few days ago, but crisply formed and quite substantial six-pointed snow crystals, courtesy of the Japan Sea coast's maritime climate. So they sting.

Now the trench we've relied on fades into nothing – overnight, the wind and snow have effaced the tracks of a hundred people. The Sensei makes no comment: I suspect that, as a professional teacher, she is thinking that this will be a heuristic experience for me. So I weave an erratic path between the trees, feeling out the firmer footing left in the snow compacted by yesterday’s hordes. 

That works, more or less, until we emerge from the shelter of the woods on the windward side of the ridge – in this treeless gap, the brisk northerly has piled the snow into fluted drifts and dunes, with knee-high scarp walls. Even with our snow shoes, we find ourselves wallowing as if through a gigantic cake of mochi

The local mountaineering term  猛ラッセル (mō rasseru) floats to mind,  as in frenetic, rasseru as in the Russell Car & Snow Plow Company, incorporated in the state of Maine in 1893. As the firm's brochure proudly stated, “Russell snow plows have now been most successfully used in all kinds of snow, both East and West … they should not be confounded with the many other kinds of snow plows that have proven more or less inefficient when hard work was to be done …”

Russelling the way it used to be
Image: courtesy of the Glenbough Archives

Anxious not to be confounded as more or less inefficient when hard work is to be done, I russell my way frenetically onwards through the drifts.  Yet my efforts seem to be all but nugatory. At this rate, we'll be lucky to make the summit at all – where are the three young guys behind us, I wonder. Their voices seem to have faded out. 

At least the work is keeping us warm; I’m already wearing everything I have, including the outer jacket reserved for high alpine weather. In Scotland, you’d call these “full conditions”; here in Hokuriku they’re just the default setting.

After administering a heuristic dose of the mochi treatment, the mountain gives us a break. Higher up, the wind has blasted the snow into a firm crust, into which the steel teeth of our snowshoes bite eagerly. The summit is a snowy pate, open, treeless – we pay it the briefest of visits, as there is no view to admire. “Now all we have to do is follow our tracks home,” I’m tempted to say, but think better of it. 

In the car park, we meet the trio who had been following us up. One of them had started to get exposure – something to do with his jacket getting soaked through and then freezing – and had completely lost awareness. He was still looking a bit dazed, but his companions had managed to bring him down safely.

What was it that the taxi driver on Adatara said about the winter mountains … ?

Monday, February 12, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (57)

14 January: we are out of the house well before sunrise to attend the Sagichō bonfire (左義長), on which everybody in the neighbourhood burns up their New Year decorations. Like Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany in Europe, the Sagichō marks the end of the festive season, although with a bit of added gasoline to help along the stubbornly incombustible kadomatsu.

Elsewhere in Japan, the custom may be known as a Dondoyaki (どんど焼き). But the Sensei’s hometown prefers (like the Sensei herself) to cleave to the forms of antiquity. According to a post by Monk Kenkō (1283–1350) in his Tsurezuregusa blog (no 180), the mallets used at the Imperial Court’s New Year games were burned in just such a “Sagichō”. And if the term was good enough for Kenkō, then it’s good enough for us. 

Nobody would accuse Kenkō of being an outdoor type yet, strange to say, his very next blog post is about snow: 

The meaning of the word ‘koyuki’ in the song ‘Fure fure, koyuki, Tamba no koyuki” is ‘powder snow’, used because the snow falls like rice powder after pounding and husking … I wonder if this expression dates back to antiquity. The Emperor Toba, as a boy, used ‘koyuki’ to describe falling snow, as we know from the diary of the court lady Sanuki no Suke. (Donald Keene's translation)

Later in the morning, inspired more probably by our recent visit to the Nakaya Ukichiro Museum of Snow and Ice than by Kenkō, I stop off from emptying the kitchen bin to examine the precipitation that has fallen overnight in the garden. 

After all, Nakaya-sensei enjoins us to pay equal attention to all kinds of "letters from the sky". During his snow research on Tokachi-dake in Hokkaidō, he found that six-pointed flower-like crystals, which are commonly accepted as representative, comprise only a small part of natural snowfalls. 

Crystals with fewer axes and less regular shapes actually fall in greater quantities than the six-pointed kind, Nakaya found, but previous researchers tended to neglect them because such snowflakes were less photogenic. "I therefore made a general classification of snow crystals, always keeping in mind the necessity of attaching equal importance to every type of crystal observed in nature," he wrote.  

Last night's cold front seems to have scattered miniature white pithballs all over the Sensei's backyard. Ironically, though, these offerings are nowhere to be seen in Nakaya's seminal chart of snow crystal types. This is probably because they are just “graupel”, a form of sleet, rather than genuine snow:

But there's every reason to believe that Kenkō's koyuki was the real deal. Winters were surely colder in Emperor Toba's time. And so the lightest, most ethereally refined grades of powder snow could well have fallen as far south as the Imperial capital. Now if only those perfumed courtiers had taken time off from their New Year mallet games to invent a wider kind of ski….

Friday, February 9, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (56)

12/13 January: many thanks to the station clerk who – after hearing me ask for a window seat on the Shinkansen’s right-hand side (“migi-gawa”) – intuits that I meant the opposite and books the seat accordingly. For, if you want a view of Fuji when heading into Tokyo on the Tōkaidō main line, it is a left-side seat that you’ll need.

Mt Fuji shows up to best advantage on a clear winter day, just as it does now. But, wait a moment, what’s with the snow? In the old days, by this time of year, the mountain was more or less flawlessly white above the fifth station. 

Early winter high on Mt Fuji, c.1992

But, right now, it looks as if you could walk up to the summit on dry ground if you picked your way carefully. Real winters are so last-century, it seems ….

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (55)

11 January: after an enjoyable evening soaking in the hot baths of the hospitable Mount Inn, I take the early bus back to Nihonmatsu station. 

On the platform is a signboard advertising the town’s main attractions. Top of the list is yesterday’s summit, Adatara-yama. For good or ill, one has to admire the “Hyakumeizan effect” – the power of a book published fully sixty years ago to attract hordes of free-spending hikers and mountaineers to a specific set of one hundred mountains ….

Monday, January 29, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (54)

10 January: “The winter mountains are fearsome,” says the taxi driver as he wafts me up to the trailhead on Adatara-yama (1,700 metres), the twenty-first of Fukada Kyūya’s one hundred mountains. You know, it might almost be the mountain itself speaking.

When I arrived at Dake Onsen yesterday, spindrift was blowing this way and that over the frozen road, driving grey mists veiled the summit ridge and, downwind, a massive rotor cloud hovered over the valley like some alien spaceship. According to Yamap and the other online oracles, nobody had adventured themselves on the mountain that day.

This morning looks friendlier, though – the wind has dropped and the ominous rotor cloud has vanished. The taxi driver drops me off at the ski piste above Dake Onsen, I fill in a tozan-todoke form to tell people where I’m going, and swing my pack onto my shoulders – it contains both crampons and snowshoes, as the Yamap respondents seem to have been using either or both in the last few days. So, with all types of footgear available, what could possibly go wrong…

The blue sky lasts until we get to the Kurogane Hut – I choose this route out of several alternatives, because the Hyakumeizan author started his ascent there. 

Taking a break to munch on one of the Sensei’s home-grown sweet potatoes, I realise that I’m embarrassed: I seem to have left the large-scale map of the mountain back in the hotel and there are no tracks to follow up ahead.

A man working on the hut is able to point me in the right direction. After assailing what seems to be a blank snow slope, I tsubo-ashi my way into a stunted wood and start guessing at where the summer path might run by looking for the odd stretch of yellow guide rope and gaps between the trees.

The footing alternates between deep pockets of powder snow in the hollows and jagged rafts of lava blown clear by yesterday’s wind. Fortunately, my ragged old gaiters – veterans of winter climbing in Japan thirty years ago – have enough moral fibre left to keep my boots dry. Wet feet should be avoided in these temperatures.

Snowshoes go on to cross the deeply drifted lee slope across to Mine-no-tsuji. I pop up on this col just in time to catch a last glimpse of Adatara’s lava pinnacle opposite. Then it vanishes into driving clouds. A fox has made off with the fine morning.

But, no matter, some mountain wizard seems to have left a set of bootprints heading in the right direction and there is still the small-scale map. The footsteps lead up to a second col, which is furnished with a set of frozen-up signposts.

This must be Ushi-no-se. In summer it may resemble an ox’s back, but right now it serves as an acceleration zone for a rambunctious northeasterly. In summer, the ground would be yellow, thanks to the volcano’s effusions; now it’s a sheet of wind-blasted snow crust.

When the Hyakumeizan author passed this way, clouds prevented him seeing into the huge crater of Numa-no-daira below, but I am granted a quick glimpse before the mists close in. The vast declivity looks more like Greenland than Honshu at this moment.

“Snow crystals are letters from heaven,” wrote Nakaya Ukichiro (1900-1962), the pioneer of snow science. Up here, the icy spicules sandblasting my face put their message more bluntly. Get out of the wind or be blast-frozen, they say. I drop below the ridgeline on the eastern side and start traversing across a flank of frozen prawns – ebi no shippo – which crumble into ice-dust under the snowshoes.

The summit flits helpfully out of the racing cloud just as I start to wonder where it might be hiding. Sheltering behind a rock, I swap snowshoes for crampons. Perhaps not strictly necessary, but the spikes give extra assurance up a snowy passage protected by what appears to be a spare length of light-gauge lavatory chain.

The summit visit is abbreviated – no time for a selfie. Then down a short ladder, half-buried in snow, back to the ridge – abseiling  down the lavatory chain does not appeal. I follow tracks, not mine, back along the summit ridge. Then they vanish, leaving me once again embarrassed. Here is the frozen-up signpost at Ushi-no-se, but how to find the way to the next col in this murk?

I try heading downhill in vaguely the right direction, but soon realise I’m uncertain of my position – in this whirling cloud, you could end up anywhere, and quite possibly in the winter-quarters of those “aggressive bears” that an English-language sign at the ski piste warned of.

As for following a compass bearing, the obvious resort in such a situation, this would require the large-scale map that I left in the ryokan. Instead, I climb back to the ridge and find a strange-shaped rock that I remembered passing. And there, like a long-lost friend, is the track that the steel teeth of my snowshoes had left on the way up. Problem solved, sort of.

At Mine-no-Tsuji, the wind has obliterated all the morning’s tracks. But a line of exposed rocks with painted circles guides me off the ridge. Below the cloud and wind, a snowy path materialises, which leads away through a wind-stunted wood.

Ahead, the rotor cloud has warped out of hyperspace again, hanging low in the sky over Nihonmatsu like an alien starship. Yet now, at least, it’s showing me the way off the mountain.

Friday, January 26, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (53)

5 January: the Sensei decides that our winter mountaineering season will open on Takekurabe-yama, a local eminence. We crunch across the hard-frozen snow of a dam parapet and start off up a gully, zig-zagging higher on a sketchy path. Soon we start hearing the chop-chop of Chinooks and other heavy helicopters as they fly north on missions to the Noto Peninsula.

A wooded ridge leads up to a snowpatch that suckers us into putting on snowshoes. We soon have to take them off again, as most of the snow has melted on the south-facing slopes where the path now takes us. When the snow starts again, I keep my snowshoes off as I am following a series of fresh bootprints.

Unlike this mountain wizard (仙人), as I think of him, I keep sinking into the snow, whether because I am heavier, or because the wizard passed by when the snow was still frozen. Either way, we are in post-holing purgatory: the operative word is “tsubo-ashi”. The Sensei even has to caution me about my language.

By the time that we resort to snow shoes again, my boots are awash with melting snow. Too late, I think of the gaiters riding in the bottom of my pack. 

We pull up on the north summit of Takekurabe (964.3 metres) somewhat after noon. Just as we do so, the mountain wizard comes up from the opposite direction – skimming over the snow, he is on his way back from the mountain’s south summit. 

Annoyingly, the south summit overtops ours by just over eighty metres. It also sports a hut, although some apparently have murmured that no such refuge should desecrate a summit already dedicated to a shrine of Hakusan Sansho Daigongen.

We gaze over the intervening gap at the south summit and estimate that it would take us another hour or so to get over there and come back. The westering sun reminds us that winter days are short. By the time we decide to go down, the wizard has vanished. We find ourselves walking – or in my case squelching - back over the dam not long before dusk. How did such a lowly mountain take us so long?

In his book on 150 Fukui mountains – why stop at a hidebound one hundred? – Masunaga Michio says that folks like to infer from “Take-kurabe” (“height-measure”) that each of the twin peaks vies with the other to be the highest. This is a common enough theme in mountain mythology. Today, though, I felt that it was my sense of snow conditions that was measured. And, let’s admit it, found a bit wanting.

Hakusan from Takekurabe-yama

Thursday, January 25, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (52)

4 January (continued): walking back to the Sensei’s car from the museum, we find ourselves wondering whether the many long cracks in the tarmac are recent or not. But only briefly. When we light upon a drain shaft that appears to have been thrust bodily out of the ground, the matter is settled.

To find out more, I walk back to the museum’s office. Yes, confirms the curator, all this happened during the initial earthquake shock on New Year’s Day – the museum building, being constructed to the latest standards, rode out the shock undamaged, but the grounds around it liquified – water gushed out of the ground – cracking pavements and breaking up the carpark.

The curator invites me on a quick tour. Liquefaction was responsible for the damage to the stone staircase, which is why we had to enter the museum through the ground-level door. It also caused a mudslide that blocked a stream flowing into the nearby lagoon – it was mainly the waterlogged soil within a narrow zone close to the lagoon that was prone to liquefaction. A backhoe digger had to brought in to clear the channel before the stream overflowed its banks.

Thanking the curator, I walk back to the car. Its navigation system would reckon that Kaga City, the museum’s location, is about 160 kilometres or 100 miles south of the earthquake’s epicentre.

The energies let loose under the Noto Peninsula three days ago are unimaginable – they heaved up coastlines metres above their former level, so that small ports turned into sandy beaches. And perhaps, with earthquakes like this one summing over millennia, they may have shifted the whole top of the peninsula sideways. As for the human cost …

(Source: Wikipedia)

Echoing through my mind are the words of Terada Torahiko, founder of Tokyo University’s earthquake research institute: “Shouldn’t you be amazed by this?”