Wednesday, April 29, 2020

“Mountains that women can climb by themselves”

How three bold ladies named a Big White Peak and what happened next

Last Sunday, Monica Jackson’s obituary appeared in the Guardian. She passed away recently, after an energetic 99 years of mountaineering, scholarship and family life.

Monica Jackson
(Photo courtesy of the Guardian)
In 1955, Jackson set off on what is often said to be the first all-woman expedition to a Himalayan peak.* With two other Scottish climbers, Evelyn Camrass (later McNicol) and Betty Stark, she made the first ascent of Gyalgen (6,151m), a mountain in Nepal’s Jugal Himal region. And they also dubbed one of its neighbours the Big White Peak.

Their choice of name may have been fateful.

Big White Peak (photo by Kazami Takehide)

Known today as Loengpo Gang (7,083m), this was the mountain that the Japanese author Fukada Kyūya set his heart on a few years later. As Fukada was already somewhat of an expert on the Himalaya, having published two books on them, it is likely that he based his choice on reports of the Gyalgen ascent.

In fact, when planning his own expedition, Fukada wrote to a contact in Nepal to see if he could sign up the Scottish trio’s sirdar, Mingma Gyalgen (for whom they named their peak). Alas, it was not possible to track the Sherpa down.

The Big White Peak team (Fukada second from right)
Photo by Kazami Takehide

With three companions, Fukada took ship for Calcutta in the spring of 1958, arriving in Kathmandu some forty-five days after leaving Kobe. With Fukada at the head of fifty porters, an experience that made him feel like Napoleon, the expedition then marched to its base camp in the Jugal Himal. Their intended mountain turned out to be a wildly ambitious goal. Three high camps would be necessary to reach the summit, the party judged.

The comforts of Camp Three were scant. By the time it was established at 5,000 meters, the climbers’ lack of high-altitude experience was starting to tell. Age may have had something to do with it too; as Fukada had put it to a journalist just before leaving Japan, he was "only" 54 years old. Just to clamber in and out of the high-altitude tent's round hatch during a blizzard was a torment that had to be repeated several times a night.

Fukada Kyuya (?) at a high camp (photo by Kazami Takehide)

Kazami Takehide, the expedition’s photographer, did manage to reach the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds.

Honour satisfied, Fukada decided to abandon the peak, impressing one colleague with his Buddhist spirit of self-abnegation. The party then moved on to the Langtang Himalaya and, after two months under canvas, back to Kathmandu, and so home.

Could it be that the Big White Peak’s name swayed Fukada’s judgment, leading him to pick an objective beyond the party’s capabilities? It’s a tempting hypothesis, given that he’d grown up within sight of Hakusan (2,702m), Japan’s very own “white mountain”.

Be this as it may, the expedition proved far from unrewarding, even without a first ascent. First, travelling through Nepal seems to have sharpened Fukada’s appreciation of his own landscapes. Thus, soon after returning to Tokyo, he revived the idea of writing about a hundred eminent Japanese peaks. A young magazine editor got wind of his thinking and urged him to go ahead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Cover and slipcase of the expedition book by Fukada and Kazami 
Secondly, the expedition cemented Fukada’s reputation as a Himalayan guru. After all, he was now an expeditionary practitioner, rather than just a purveyor of book-learning. Young climbers made their way to his house in Setagaya to ask his advice. Indeed, if you are lucky, you can still meet some of them today.

One such supplicant was a slightly built but intense young woman, who introduced herself as a member of the Ladies' Climbing Club. Could Fukada help them find a suitable objective for their first Himalayan expedition? “Hmm,” mused the writer as he pored over maps and photos with his guest, “Are there any mountains that women can climb by themselves?”

Apparently there were. In 1970, Tabei Junko and Hirakawa Hiroko made the second ascent of Annapurna III, reaching the 7,555-metre summit by a new route. Five years later, Tabei headed for Everest on an all-woman expedition sponsored by Nihon Television and the Yomiuri newspaper. Again, the rest is history.

So could it be that Monica Jackson made another signal contribution to world alpinism? By naming the Big White Peak, she may have drawn Fukada Kyūya’s attention to the Jugal Himal. Indirectly at least, the ensuing expedition helped to launch the career of Japan’s most famous lady climber. And, as a bonus, it fomented the writing of Japan’s most famous mountain book.

*although this seems to short-weight Hosokawa Satoko, who led a successful expedition to Deo Tibba (6,001m) in the Punjab Himalaya, also in 1955. 


Fukada Kyūya and Kazami Takehide, Hyōga e no tabi: Jugaru Himaru Tansa-ko, Meibundo, October 1959. All photos except the top one are from this book.

The anecdote about Fukada helping Tabei Junko choose a Himalayan mountain to climb comes from an article on Everest climbers, Everest Shomei Futatsu, by Fujishima Koji in the Asahi Shinbun, November 15, 2005 (thanks to the Sensei for this).

Friday, April 17, 2020


Re-reading a masterpiece of lockdown literature

When you think about it, you could spend months in self-isolation – let’s hope it won’t come to that – just reading the literature of lockdown. Many are the classics written in prison – The Consolation of Philosophy, Don Quixote – or about prison (too many Russian novels to list). Among mountain masterpieces too, more than one has been penned, as it were, behind the barbed wire.

Rear-Admiral Byrd revisits the site of his winter sojourn in 1947
But when it comes to the literature of extreme lockdown, then Richard E Byrd’s Alone is hard to beat.  For this is a book that shows you just how much worse things could get. Commander Byrd, as he was then, spent most of an Antarctic winter buried in the snowdrifts of the Ross Ice Shelf. Solitary in his one-man hut, he was the most southerly human on the planet for almost five months in 1934.

Ostensibly, he was there to make weather and auroral observations. Byrd also admits to some personal motivations: “time to catch up, to study and think and listen to the phonograph”. Then he adds that “perhaps, the desire was also in my mind to try a more rigorous existence than any I had known”.

Always, one should be careful what one wishes for. During his stay, Byrd trapped himself outside the hut in a blizzard, fell into a crevasse and absent-mindedly lost his way on the trackless icecap. Yet these incidents paled beside the main hazard – the oil fumes from his stove that slowly started to kill him. In the end, a rescue party came out from the main base, driving their snow tractors more than a hundred miles through the dark. They arrived just in time.

Self-isolationists have much to learn from Commander Byrd. Obviously, they will keep their stoves and flue pipes in good order. They will stick to a schedule: “From the beginning, I had recognized that an orderly, harmonious routine was the only lasting defence against my special circumstances … I tried to keep my days crowded; and yet, at the same time, I … endeavoured to be systematic.”

And they should read good books at meals. Byrd’s library verged on the highbrow, including Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, Yule’s Travels of Marco Polo, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, and Héloïse and Abelard, “a story I have always loved”. But he lays aside Ben Ames Williams’s All the Brothers Were Valiant, although this may have been due to the carbon monoxide poisoning.

Self-isolationists will certainly bring a good music collection. And they will appreciate their surroundings, however forbidding these may be. They may even combine these diversions. Here is the Commander taking the air on a midwinter night, while playing Beethoven’s Fifth on his “Victrola”:

Presently I began to have the illusion that what I was seeing was also what I was hearing, so perfectly did the music seem to blend with what was happening in the sky. As the notes swelled, the dull aurora on the horizon pulsed and quickened and draped itself into arches and fanning beams which reached across the sky until at my zenith the display attained its crescendo. The music and the night became one; and I told myself that all beauty was akin and sprang from the same substance. I recalled a gallant, unselfish act that was of the same essence as the music and the aurora.

To write well, they say, you first have to read well. On the evidence of his library, Commander Byrd certainly aimed high in his writing. At least in this book. For, strange to say, the other title by which he is remembered today falls short of what one might expect from the author of Alone.

On the face of it, Skyward, an account of Byrd's flying adventures, draws on much more swashbuckling material than a solitary Antarctic sojourn. Yet the treatment is somehow perfunctory. Perhaps the book was written in haste. Or was there another reason for this sketchiness? The author may have faked the flight that made his name, turning back well short of the North Pole - this alone would be a good reason to avoid possibly self-incriminating detail.

In the end, Richard Byrd remains an enigma of an explorer - an aviation pioneer who, by his own account, was none too fond of flying. Yet his expeditions to Antarctica were the real thing. They put the continent back on the map, after decades of neglect. And, during his stay at the Bolling Advance Base Camp, he not only survived an Antarctic winter solo - to this day a rare, possibly unique feat - but bequeathed to us a classic of lockdown literature.


Richard E Byrd, Alone, Putnam & Co, 1939

Richard E Byrd, Skyward: Man's Mastery of the Air, Penguin Putnam, 2000

Monday, March 9, 2020

Climate pioneer

How Alfred de Quervain took the measure of Greenland's icecap

Just like Greenland, we thought when we first set eyes on the Claridenfirn – so vast and open were the views across this icy altiplano in the Glarus Alps of Switzerland.

Back in Zurich, a quick Google suggested that the comparison wasn’t so wide of the mark. For a link does exist between our local icefield and the world’s largest, most heavily glaciated island. It turns out that the Claridenfirn was first researched by a Swiss explorer who, just over a century ago, also led the first west-to-east Greenland crossing. Now a special exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich commemorates this feat.

Alfred de Quervain
Alfred de Quervain (1879-1927) may be the most famous arctic explorer that few outside Switzerland have ever heard of. Ironically, in these warming times, it was fears of a renewed freeze-up that helped to launch his career. When the young de Quervain finished his meteorological studies in Bern and Paris around the turn of the last century, Europe had just emerged from the “Little Ice Age” and the Swiss authorities were keen to understand what drove such climatic variations.

View of Grindelwald at the end of the "Little Ice Age"
The ice continued to occupy de Quervain’s thoughts after 1906, when he took up an appointment as Adjunct-Director of Switzerland’s nascent meteorological agency. Inspired by Fridtjof Nansen’s pioneering crossing of Greenland in 1888, de Quervain wondered what conditions would be like further north, closer to the icecap’s midriff.

A reconnaissance was made in 1909, reaching a point some 85 kilometres from the coast. This was a salutary test: the party met with all the usual dangers and annoyances that face Greenland travellers, including crevasses, meltwater lakes, and winds that threatened to blow their tents away.

Crevasses in Greenland
In April 1912, the Swiss expeditioners came back to make a full crossing – west to east, in the opposite direction to Nansen, so that they could avoid overwintering. Keeping the costs down was key: as for Captain Scott around the same time, support from the public purse was limited.

Instead, funding came from scientific institutions, private donations and a newspaper sponsorship by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The government did step in later to guarantee the expedition’s debts. And, as companies made contributions in kind, the party consumed a lot of Maggi soup.

The expeditioners came from varied backgrounds: Roderich Fick was an architect, Karl Gaule an engineer and Hans Hössli, a doctor as well as a member of the Academic Alpine Club of Zurich. To weld this team together, de Quervain took them on a shakedown climb in the wintry Engadine. But learning how to drive dogs had to wait until they arrived in Greenland.

In the preface to his expedition book, de Quervain says “On the one hand, we took great risks. But on the other, we were so exact in devising and working out our preparations that perhaps some interesting but avoidable situations did not occur. Such would have been sensational and not to the credit of a serious undertaking.”

The words may be disingenuous. Like any expedition, they had their share of interesting situations. In the first few days, the sketchiness of their driving skills led to near-disaster, when two of their three sledges broke through thin ice into a glacier lake, complete with dogs and drivers.

Fortunately, all was retrieved. The sleeping bags stayed dry in their waterproof packing and – much to the credit of this serious undertaking – de Quervain had arranged for the all-important supply of matches to be welded into tins and dispersed between all three sledges. His Ulysses Nardin chronograph – vital for navigation – did get waterlogged, but he managed to fix it.

In the end, their resourcefulness saw them through. Despite several more mishaps – the dogs kept eating their traces – they covered 640 km in 31 days, reaching Ammassalik on the east coast in late July. On the way, they reached an altitude of 2,510 metres, gathering a trove of geographical and weather data. Two colleagues who’d stayed on the coast made more detailed meteorological observations, once tracking a weather balloon up to 39,000 feet.

Another expedition result may resonate with an even stronger vibe today:-

Among the insights […] we gained is the realization that we […] in fact have become slaves of our slogans “faster, faster” and “more and more”. Do we believe that the quality of our lives is improved tenfold by going ten times as fast, or hearing and doing ten times as much every day? What if the value of our impressions turns out to be correspondingly superficial as they grow more fleeting? What do we win? […] But we stand here at a threshold. From here on the law of our souls will always say: If the sensations reach us ten times faster, their impression will diminish tenfold, with the result that we will be the poorer the hastier we live. That is a small truth I have learned from the icecap, from the midnight sun and the hundreds of little wrinkles in old Kitsigajak’s face. It is another of the expedition’s results that I must not suppress.

Old Kitsigajak

Back in Switzerland, de Quervain wrote an expedition book that has been reprinted several times – although not yet, alas, in an English translation. Remarkably, he was able to illustrate this account with colour photographs.* Together with a series of public lectures, these efforts helped to pay off the expedition’s debts.

Meanwhile, the expeditioners worked up their scientific results. These have gained in importance over the years. De Quervain’s profile of the icecap now serves as a baseline for researchers (several of them Swiss) who are trying to establish how fast Greenland is melting.

De Quervain never forgot the ice. Having developed a keen interest in glaciology, he took part in official studies of several glaciers in eastern Switzerland. His survey of the Claridenfirn started in 1914, making this glacier the longest continuously studied ice-stream in the world.

But how far into the future will it continue to be studied? A few summers ago, the Sensei and I took our niece to see the Claridenfirn. We wanted her to see the glacier in something like the state that de Quervain found it. In recent years, the lake at the glacier’s tongue has been growing fast.


 “Greenland 1912”, Exhibition at the Swiss National Museum, Zurich, 6 February – 19 April 2020.

William Barr, "Alfred de Quervain’s Swiss Greenland expeditions, 1909 and 1912," Polar Record, 51 (259). Map is reproduced from this article.

Alfred de Quervain, Quer durchs Grönlandeis: Die Expeditionen 1909 und 1912/13, Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, edition 1 January 1998.


The previous year, at the other end of the planet, Herbert Ponting had failed to impress with similar efforts. Captain Scott’s diary for 25 April 1911 notes that “Ponting has taken some coloured pictures, but the result is not very satisfactory and the plates are much spotted.” See Liz Watkins, “Mapping the Antarctic: Photography, colour and the scientific expedition in public exhibition”, Chapter 24, in Progress in Colour Studies: Cognition, language and beyond, edited by Lindsay MacDonald, Carole Biggam and Galina Paramei, John Benjamins BV, 2018.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


Project HaMo (translation): time to turn in, but first ...

Just as night falls, ahead of you there’s the fiery spectacle of the sun sinking, a blood-red ball into the haze of distant mountains. And, behind you, the earth’s ghostly shadow creeps upwards – while you sit in that sheltered spot outside the hut, peaceful, appreciative – and two minutes later you’re safe inside again, next to the toasty oven.

Sunset in the Bernese Oberland
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

You’ve drained this day to the dregs; now, overexcited, almost in a fever, you need your sleep to recover. Drained by the sunglare, you’re glad to turn in; onto that wondrously soft pallet of straw. Now listen, outside, how the mountain wind icily heralds the dark night’s chill.

Which moves you most – that spectacle of the sinking sun, ever renewed, or that stealthy shadow, unbelievably fast-growing, with all its eerie accoutrements – when you see them at sunset from a high peak’s godlike seat?

The mightier your mountain, the higher and steeper it is, the more magically the light fades, and so much the greater too the grim looming of night’s onset. But you need strong nerves if you hanker after some yet higher vantage point, so as not to miss the twin spectacles of the radiant fire and the spectre of shadow. For most of us worry ourselves sick, tremble with fear even, just to think about the descent – be that as it may, you need to get a move on.

Before the night goes pitch-black on you, while some light lingers, you need to get down as far as you can, get down the ridge, tackle the steepest bits, the water-slimed rocks, get across the snow cone or the glacier’s crevasses cutting this way and that.

Already you seem to be clueless how, before dawn today, you worked your way through the night and, with your lantern’s help, found your way through a chaos of rubble by a feeble light’s gleam. But, all of a sudden, you don’t trust yourself any more – so much sun have you had through the blazing day that you’re fainting for sleep and a rest. So, down as fast as you can, and you’ll get away without a bivvy.


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.


Project HaMo (translation): the darkest hours are before dawn ...

By lantern-light in the Mischabel
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Fully awake at last, all five senses alert!

By lantern-light, fleeting and unsteady, after barely a nibble at the sleep you needed, you were striding and stumbling about, for hours before dawn. Nailed boots screeched as they sought out traces of a path amid the piles of loose rubble, and too often they missed. Again and again, you slipped. A patch of ice, a slatey slab, and you missed your step in this feeble, flickering gleam.

All at odds in these graveyard hours, you ground and sweated your way upwards. The weather was nagging at you too; what if all this toil was for nothing? You longed for daylight to sort it all out. And at last, at last, the light starts to grow – and the sun rises. Now anything is possible.

Those moraines of despond, these tedious spoil-tips, all are set magnificently aglow in the new-born morning. Unquenchable now, your mountain motivation. You’ve rifted yourself out of the valley, you want nothing more to do with down-below. Lissom are your limbs, your senses clear – up and away is today’s order. And now, with more than twelve hours till night falls, it’s broad daylight again.


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, January 29, 2020


Project HaMo (translation): the club's Christmas party proves intimidating for a tyro climber

Weihnachtskneipe! This is when all our club’s mountaineers get together for a cheerful Christmas drink. There is singing and drinking in the lofty guildhall, while mountain memories waft along in the blue smoke of many a summit pipe.

Original illustration from Ihr Berge (1916)

I join them as the club’s youngest member.

What a band of warriors is gathered here! There is the black-bearded giant, here the blond colossus, the quiet and serious ones in between, a head of grey hair on the one who is already getting along a bit.

Many of them I’ve never set eyes on before, and yet I know their names and mountaineering records better than I know my next-door neighbour. And what I know is this – these men have seen the mountains in a way I might never be privileged to.

When the worthiest of this high company shows us some of his most exquisite pictures, a chorus of seniors voice their approval: “Great stuff, well done.”

When they tell of battle and victory, when I hear from their own mouths all the epic ventures that resound among us striplings like sagas of the heroes – then how small this makes me feel by comparison. How likely is it that I’ll ever carry off anything like these feats of theirs? And how these sacred incantations of the club cut into my heart. What use to me is high ambition, spades of daring and an iron will?

For it is Titans I see in front of me, wrestling with giant mountains. I shiver as in a dream. The evening that looked so enticing does yield all it promised – and yet not so much. I must leave the room and, down at heart, I stride away through the dark night.


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.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Alpine vignettes

Project HaMo (translation): three mountain sketches by Hans Morgenthaler

Winning through to the Finsteraarhorn's summit
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)
Summit joys

Did you ever win through to the summit of a cold snowy peak that glows in the early light of a high-altitude morning, before the sun even starts to purge the night fogs from the deep valleys? After those hard hours of climbing, your iron-shod steps suddenly found their way so easily. Effortlessly, you promenaded atop the bare crest of your hard-won summit.

Now you could hold your head high, as proud as a commander’s after some victorious battle? Didn’t that set your heart racing, near fit to burst with this surge of summit joy? And then you had to retrace your steps, down the hard-frozen snow slope. Reluctantly and a touch bitter at heart, you let yourself take one last look upwards into that deep blue sky, infinitely far overhead, before you took leave of your liberating summit, and its brief joys.

(For the mountaineers who served in the Great War.)


Original illustration
from Ihr Berge (1916)
In the valley, burdened with an irrepressible longing, my hapless soul quivers for the high mountains, cheers on the day that brings me back to them, and builds up the resistless force that will snap the fetters which keep me from them, yearning just to wander abroad for ever.

Yet, after a hard struggle with the mountains, after weeks of body-bruising encounters, tussling with the rocks and ice in good earnest, my fervent wish is once again for the valley, a bed, sweet milk and freshly-fragrant bread.

Struck to the heart

Have you ever seen how the mountains can capture a tyro climber?

It’s half past five on a May morning. We stand in bright sunlight, four thousand metres up on a peak in the Bernese Oberland, the first "big mountain" that my friend from southern Italy has ever climbed. And I myself have never seen a day dawn quite so clearly in the mountains. Crisply and cleanly the vanquished giants rise up around us. Today, from Mont Blanc’s summit, you could probably pick out each individual top in the far-off Bernina range.

All of a sudden, my swarthy Sardinian friend looks and talks quite differently. Shaken to his core, as if astonished, and gazing all around him, he seems to have woken from some deep slumber: "Is such beauty even possible!" his black eyes twinkle, "and all the time I’ve been frittering away my priceless time at cards and dances." He shakes my hand.


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.