Friday, February 22, 2008

Risk assessment

Swiss researchers put some numbers on the hazards of ski-touring and off-piste skiing

Every year in Switzerland for the last two decades, avalanches have claimed the lives of about 14 ski-mountaineers and 7 off-piste skiers – the latter being folk who use the lifts of ski-resorts but find their way downhill outside the prepared ski-pistes. But these numbers don’t actually reveal the likelihood of an avalanche accident on any given ski-tour or ski-run.

Now two Swiss researchers have attempted to answer that question. The findings of Philippe Wäger of the University of Bern and Benjamin Zweifel of the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research at Davos are published in the 2.2008 edition of “Die Alpen”, the official magazine of the Swiss Alpine Club.

Based on a limited sampling of routes near Davos, Wäger and Zweifel estimate that fatal avalanche accidents occur on about three ski-mountaineering tours out of every 100,000. For off-piste skiers, the risk is rather higher, at 10 fatal accidents per 100,000. This reflects the fact that ski-mountaineers tend to limit themselves to one mountain route per outing, while off-piste skiers use the lifts to make many different runs every day.

There is also a difference in behaviour, note the researchers. Ski-mountaineers are less likely to undertake a tour when the avalanche risk level moves up from “moderate” (Level 2) to “considerable (Level 3). But off-piste skiers are more likely to go out when conditions are dangerous.

Extrapolating from their limited sample to probabilities for the whole of Switzerland, the authors estimate that some 9 fatal avalanche accidents occur every year per 100,000 ski-mountaineering tours and 12 per off-piste run. Of course, avalanches are not the only source of danger for skiers, who can also fall victim to crevasses, cornice collapses, and icy slopes. Including these other dangers and annoyances, the accident quota rises to 17 per 100,000 ski-mountaineering tours and 20 per off-piste run.

In sum, ski-touring and off-piste skiing appear to be less dangerous than summer alpine climbing but more dangerous than rock-climbing or hiking. Another bit of news to ponder. If you thought that driving to the mountain was the most dangerous part of the trip, think again. “The figures don’t support that conclusion,” say the researchers.


Das tödliche Risiko Lawinen by Philippe Wäger of the University of Bern and Benjamin Zweifel of the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research at Davos, in the 2.2008 edition of “Die Alpen”, the official magazine of the Swiss Alpine Club.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The tiltyard of alpinism

Summer camp gets hosed down in Japan's Northern Alps, provoking outbreak of schadenfreude

“If Hodaka dominates the southern end of the Northern Alps, then Tsurugi lords it over the northern extremity,” says Fukada Kyuya in his Hyakumeizan, a book about one hundred mountains of Japan. “Defended by tier on tier of cliffs, both peaks are menacing, fierce, and noble of aspect. For this reason, their snows and ice-faces are the natural choice of elite climbing associations vying to put up new routes, or of university clubs holding summer camps for new generations of mountaineers.

Ah yes, summer camps. As no self-respecting Japanese mountaineering club can allow summer to pass without a “gasshuku” or boot camp, Fujii-san and I agreed that we must have one too. I thought we’d decided on my tent and my car, which had airconditioning. But, next day, we somehow found ourselves setting out from hot and humid Tokyo at 3.30am in Fujii-san’s un-airconditioned Toyota and with a tent borrowed from Mrs Fujii. But this was fine too; it’s always best to deal with the wild cards in any mountaineering trip before leaving town. Fortunately the tent was in better shape than the car.

A quick breakfast in the Seven-Eleven at Ohmachi, the Big Town in Shinano, and we boarded the tunnel bus to the Kurobe dam, then the rack-railway, followed by a cable car and, finally, another tunnel bus. This transport system deposits you on the crater floor of Tateyama at 2,800 metres almost as swiftly as it has emptied your wallet. “Like vultures,” I heard Fujii-san murmuring, although the convenience was indisputable.

We set off across the Tateyama bowl and up its bounding ridge-wall, all in cloud. At 3pm, we were coming down the long, steep valley underneath Tsurugi, slipping and sliding on the permanent snowfield. After pitching Mrs Fujii’s tent, we awarded ourselves a beer at the nearby Masago hut.

Before cooking supper, something moved me to take a look at the approach to our planned climb. Fujii-san had designs on the 600-metre stretch of slabs on Minor Peak, one of eight turrets on Yatsumine Ridge. According to the guidebook, the approach involved “some Grade III scrambling beside a waterfall’. The (rarely wasted) time spent in reconnaissance revealed that ‘Grade III’ involved traversing above the waterfall on loose, sloping, and grassy rock without a belay in sight. A slip - all too likely - would mean a ten-metre fall into the unattractive pit that the cascade had carved in the snowfield below. I went back to the tent and suggested that Fujii-san went and looked for himself. Supper (spaghetti in seafood sauce, with tuna and seaweed salad, followed by kiwi fruit) was ready when he came back, in a reflective mood. Without much discussion, Minor Peak was kicked into touch.

Tsurugi always provokes more thought than the rest of the Northern Alps. It is wilder, rockier, wetter, and windier than anywhere else. As the first obstacle to the winds blowing from Siberia across the Japan Sea, it receives a huge annual tribute of snow and rain. Even the view from the campsite is forbidding: below the hut the snow has collapsed in giant blocks to reveal a roaring river underneath. Bounding the valley's north side are the feet of giant ridges that rear up into the cloud. Tangled forest covers the southern slopes, suggesting that this mountain is climbed only on sufferance. Many of its features – that saw-tooth skyline above the camp accented by a solitary crooked tree – are not for climbers and never will be.

Tsurugi’s formidable walls and cliffs were once thought unscaleable but they can now be ascended by several different routes,” says Fukada Kyuya. “Meanwhile, bold young rock climbers look for ever-harder lines. As they do so, certain features have started to sport European-sounding tags such as "Needle" or "Chinne". These overlay the more traditional epithets for the features known as Ōmado, Komado, San-no-mado, Yatsu-mine and others. The Manyōshū’s Tachiyama, the Tsurugi of the medieval mystics has become a tiltyard for alpinistic talents.”

Conscious that our own alpinistic talents were modest, we lowered our sights from Minor Peak and riffled through the guidebook for something less expeditionary. At 3.30am the next day, we started out for D-Face on Yatsumine Ridge. This was half an hour later than a couple in the next tent, who were bound for a much longer route, the “Chinne” (so-called for the “Zinne” in the Italian Dolomites) on the far side of the mountain.

A so-far flawless summer had fallen apart in the last 24 hours. It was now cool enough for pile jackets. As the sun started to gild the mountaintops, we were half-way up Chojiro-dani, a steep, snow-filled side valley named after one of the guides who first explored the mountain. A gentle-looking mackerel sky filling the breche above us seemed to promise stable autumn weather. In fact, a slap in the face with a wet fish would have been a more accurate prognosis. But, to save weight, Fujii-san decided to leave his rain jacket in the rocks below the face, to be picked up on our way back.

We roped up on a rock platform underneath the face and inspected the menu. On the right was the so-called Bernina route. A euphonious name – didn’t it have something to do with a sewing machine? – but the line it took up a slimy corner failed to appeal. We opted for the Toyama University route, put up, no doubt, by one of those elite climbing associations mentioned by Fukada. This wends its way leftwards out onto the slab’s aery edge. I took the first pitch, which was straightforward, and Fujii-san led over into a stretch of looser rock. Then came the crux pitch, which, as the guidebook says, ‘cunningly finds its way through a series of overhangs’. One may surmise, though the guidebook stays mum on the point, that a way exists through those overhangs because they have collapsed in those places, undermined by rotten rock. This mild horror show is followed by an almost vertical section where I resorted to an A-zero move on rusty pitons to make the belay ledge.

The next pitches were delightful. We wafted upwards on easy Grade III/IV rock at the very edge of this giant rock tooth. A wealth of “gubba” (thank-god) holds sped us on our way, varied by the odd creeping pine that offered its branches as an alternative to the rough granite angles. We hardly noticed the clouds massing overhead until raindrops started to spot the slab. The descent involved a long abseil back into the gully. Just as we crammed the ropes and gear into our packs, the light drizzle turned into a downpour. I whipped out my nylon cagoule but Fujii-san, alas, was still lacking his jacket. Only then did we remember that he’d put this vital item into a black plastic bag and lodged it in an extensive field of black boulders.

As the rain sluiced down from the highest and coldest layers of a vast cumulonimbus, I was tempted to run for home and leave him to hunt the thimble. My own jacket was merely slowing the raindrops rather than stopping them. Then I noticed the elusive black bag right at my feet. After insulating Fujii-san from the elements, we set off back to camp, both drenched. Mrs Fujii’s tent, fortunately, had stood up to the deluge and so we were able to fester comfortably while drying out.

The afternoon was fine for a while as the storm drifted off to the east, showing off its spectacular cloud-towers. Before darkness fell, I cooked a dinner of what claimed to be readymade couscous salad, arab-style. It tasted like blotting paper marinaded in battery acid. Fujii-san was polite about it but declined a second helping. Still no sign of the Chinne team, I observed as we reached the dessert course. In our warm tent, we could imagine the icy rain sluicing down as they tackled the crux pitch of this climb, a Grade V A-zero pinnacle reminiscent of its Dolomitic original. “Schadenfreude,” said Fujii-san, not for the first time amazing me with the reach of his foreign-language vocabulary, as well as the order he used it in.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, soon to be published in English as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan"

More Hyakumeizan photos at: One Hundred Mountains of Japan images

Monday, February 11, 2008

Light and Color in the Outdoors

More than the usual number of rainbows, halos, green flashes, falls of blue snow, and unusual sunsets took place today. Or they should have, given that February 12th is the anniversary of Marcel Minnaert, author of Light and Color in the Outdoors.

I first came across Minnaert in the Physics section of a Tokyo bookshop. The gaudy sunset on the cover caught my eye. I leafed through the book. Hmm. Chapter One: why your shadow is sharp-edged at your feet and fuzzy at your head, and other subtleties; Chapter Two: why the reflection of a scene is not the same as the original, leavened by an account of a shooting competition in Austria where the competitors aim at the reflection of the target and not the target itself; Chapter Four: mirages everywhere from the icecap to the desert; Chapter Five: measuring the intensity and brightness of light, with an excursion on the opacity of forests; Chapter Ten: halos, coronas, and why the sky is darker between the primary and secondary arcs of a rainbow (see picture below) …

Fascinating stuff, but the tab was a staggering $80 dollars. At that price, perhaps I could afford to remain ignorant of twilight phenomena (Chapter Eleven) or lake colours (Chapter Twelve). Next day, I was back. When it comes to crepuscular apparitions, it would be a crime to keep oneself, as it were, in the dark. Fortunately, the book was still there. Soon it was propped on my breakfast table and I was soaking up fogbows, green flashes, and noctilucent clouds with every pot of coffee. (But, Professor Minnaert, is it really true that rainbows tremble and blur as the soundwaves of a thunderclap pass through them....?)

Truly, Minnaert provides a rich diet. The science - yes, with equations - is washed down with quotations from the length and breadth of European literature. Goethe and Ruskin put in frequent appearances. Schiller (from William Tell) is called up to describe a moonbow (“Yes truly/A rainbow in the middle of the night…”) Education was clearly less compartmentalized in Minnaert’s day.

Marcel Minnaert was born in 1893 in Bruges, Belgium, later moving to Ghent, where he started his university studies in biology. In 1914, he completed a thesis on the effects of light on plants. In 1915, to learn more about the physical basis of his research, he moved to the University of Leiden to study and teach physics. After the first world war, he made his name mainly as a solar physicist, contributing to the monumental Utrecht Photometric Atlas of the Solar Spectrum. He retired from the Utrecht Observatory in 1963.

Light and Color in the Outdoors was first published (in Dutch) in 1937. It has since appeared twice in English, first from Dover and, more recently, from Springer Verlag. One reviewer on Amazon says that the book ‘changed his life’. Minnaert’s aims were more modest: “The phenomena described in this book are partly things you can observe in everyday life, and partly things as yet unfamiliar to you, though they may be seen at any moment, if only you will touch your eyes with that magic wand called ‘knowing what to look for’.”

Even if the book doesn’t change your life, it can certainly change your way of looking at the outdoors. Peering out of his tent on the Greenland icecap, this reviewer saw how the midnight sun was tracing a bright parabola on the hoarfrosted snow. At last, I thought, a phenomenon that even Minnaert hasn’t catalogued. But, no, on returning to the city, I took down the familiar book and found my frost-bow in Section 176: Halo phenomena on the ground.

The Springer Verlag edition has been out of print for years, but second-hand prices on Amazon still reach $70-$80, suggesting that the book’s fame is undiminished. Maybe Springer should run off a few more, so that another generation can have their eyes touched with that magic wand of knowing what to look for.


Light and Color in the Outdoors, by M G J Minnaert, published by Springer Verlag (1993), with photos by Pekka Parviainen

More mountain and weather photos on: Flickr

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mountaineers and mystics

What separates modern alpinists from medieval monks? When it comes to motivation, less than one might think, suggests Fukada Kyūya in "One Hundred Mountains of Japan". The excerpt below is from the chapter on Nantai, a 2,484-metre volcano north of Tokyo.

Monk Shōdō made his first attempt on Nantai in early April in the first year of Jingo-Keiun (767). He started out from the north bank of Taiya river but met with deep snow, steep rocks, and a storm. Bowing to necessity, he turned back to a place he had discovered near Lake Chūzenji. Tarrying there for a while to practise austerities, he returned to his grass hut after twenty-one days.

Fourteen years later, in early April of 781, he again set out for Nantai and was once more turned back by bad weather. Summoning up his courage anew, however, he reached the summit, as mentioned above, in March the following year. (By the modern calendar, this ascent may be supposed to have taken place some time in April or May.)

We can imagine how determined he was to succeed on this occasion. At Lake Chūzenji, he spent seven days in prayer, chanting sutras and invoking the protection of all the deities. Only then did he embark on the ascent. Having already reached the age of forty-eight, Shōdō perhaps feared that if he did not then reach the summit, he would never attain enlightenment. Such was the desire that drove him onwards.

About 1,200 vertical metres of steep and unbroken climbing separates the summit from the lakeshore. Shōdō had to find and clear the way himself. Snow still lay deep on the ground as he scrambled up through the tangled woods. Exhausted by the unending struggle, he was forced to bivouac for two nights. Then, having recouped his strength, he continued the ascent. This is how Kūkai describes his moment of triumph: "At last he reached the summit. Did he dream or wake? In his rapture it was difficult to say. He was almost beside himself with joy and grief."

Almost beside himself with joy and grief. How apposite that phrase is. How many mountaineers have experienced that strange mixture of exultation and regret when, after one failed attempt after another, they have at last stepped onto a long-sought summit. As H W Tilman wrote after his ascent of Nanda Devi in the Himalaya, "After the first joy in victory came a feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed."


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, translated into English as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan"