Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do you feel lucky ...

... well, do you? Strange noises on a snowslope lead to Schopenhauerian reflections

"I don't like this," said Wolfie as he started up the face of a small snowbowl. But we liked what followed even less. The snow beneath my own skis trembled and settled with a soft but emphatic "Whoomph". Fortunately, the mountain left it that.

When decision-making at times like this, it can be helpful to imagine how a putative accident report will read. Like this, maybe. "On Easter Saturday, the four-person party, all foreigners, were avalanched at 2,900 metres on the Swiss side of Il Capuchin, a small peak in the Bernina massif. The two survivors admit that, twenty minutes before the accident, they heard signs of instability in the snowpack. But they decided to continue the ski-tour, putting their trust in the official avalanche forecast for the area, which stood at Grade II 'Moderate'…"

We turned back, after digging a pit to look for weak layers in the snow (inconclusive). But even before we reached the hut, we saw other people starting up our mountain, following the tracks we'd made. So far from worrying about avalanches, the members of one group were bunched tightly together. After reaching the summit unscathed, they were able to yee-haw their way down 800 metres of untracked powder snow, and all this under a flawless blue sky. Later, one of their guides reassured us that our "whoomph" just meant that the new snow was settling.

"The mountain will always be there tomorrow," said the hut warden, consoling us. True, although next morning these wise words were difficult to verify through the low cloud and snow showers. Cutting our losses, we went home. Back in town, with gear hanging up to dry over the radiators, I consulted Werner Munter about our suspect snowslope. Not in person, of course, but via his book, Avalanches 3x3: Decision-making in critical situations. An alpine guide based in Davos, Munter is an avalanche expert whose patriarchal beard reinforces his already immense authority in this part of the world. His remarks on "whoomph" noises are found in a section of his book entitled "Thirteen Deadly Errors":

Error #10: Wumm-noises are favourable signs that the snow is settling

One might just as well say that the storm is over after the first thunderclap. Wumm-noises (accompanied by a simultaneous backward settling of the snow) and cracks running through the snow when it is loaded are the most reliable indicators for a weak snowpack. In fact, they are warning signs. Wumm-noises are almost always heard immediately before a windslab avalanche is triggered. They accompany the factors that lead to the rupture within the snowpack. Each noise testifies to a further weakening of an already weakened snowpack. So these sounds should send a chill down our spines; there could not be a clearer warning!

After reading this advice, I think I'll keep turning back whenever I hear "whoomph" noises. And, by the way, that's a telling epigraph that Munter has chosen to head up his "Deadly Errors" chapter. It's not often you find a quotation from Arthur Schopenhauer in a mountaineering text book, so here it is in full: "All ignorance is dangerous, and most errors must be dearly paid for. And you need lots of luck if you plan to carry an unchastised error around in your head until the day you die."


Lawinen 3x3: Entscheiden in kritischen Situation by Werner Munter. To my mind, the best book ever written on avalanche avoidance. Available in German and French, but not yet in English. Maybe somebody should translate the rest of it.

The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; the Art of Controversy / Schopenhauer, Arthur, 1788-1860.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Worthy pioneers

Following in the footsteps of monks and missionaries on Kasa-ga-dake

“God, you must be a couple of pansies,” expostulates Wilfred Thesiger when he finds Eric Newby’s party unrolling their air mattresses. Better not to speculate what the illustrious explorer might have said had he seen us unrolling our airmats not on the rocky ground of the Hindu Kush but on the geothermally heated floor of the public facilities at Shin-Hodaka. Granted that we moderns are softies, though, it must be said that Shin-Hodaka offers Kasa-ga-dake aspirants the perfect bivvy after the long night drive from Tokyo.

When Walter Weston came this way in 1894, one hundred years before us, he enjoyed none of these conveniences. Instead, he walked in from the other side of the Northern Alps.No wonder those Victorian mountaineers were fit. Weston, an Anglican missionary who came to Japan in 1888, had made two previous attempts on Kasa. But each time the local village chief had refused him a guide for fear the mountain gods would be offended. On this occasion, however, Weston found a bear-hunter named Ichijiro who was willing to make the ascent. The party climbed Kasa by the natural line of weakness, the great Anage sawa underneath its eastern cliffs. As recorded in Weston's book, Mountaineering and Exploration in The Japanese Alps:-

The tangled undergrowth of the dense forest, and the steepness of the banks of the torrent, forced us to take to the boulders of its bed...The time that this jungle struggle took, though only an hour, seemed more like ages, and I shall long remember it as the most trying time I have ever passed in mountain wanderings in or out of Japan.

With its distinctive rainhat shape pointing heavenwards, Kasa-ga-dake has always attracted men of the cloth. According to Fukada Kyūya's "One Hundred Mountains of Japan", the first authenticated ascent was by Monk Nan'ei in 1782, from a temple in nearby Takayama. Forty years later, Monk Banryū followed in his footsteps. After reaching the top in June of the sixth year of Bunsei (1823), he persuaded some local people to build a path. On August 5 the same year, eighteen people with Banryū at their head climbed the mountain again. Then, the monk records, “As they watched a bright halo floating in the clouds, Buddha the Merciful appeared to them three times, causing them to weep tears of adoration while they paid their devotions.”

Banryū's path has long since fallen into disuse and, as for Weston's river-climbing route, the map warns that it is only for "intermediates and above". So, setting off at 6.30am while the sun gilded Kasa-ga-dake's cliffs above us, we followed an easy forest track for the first hour. Then we took the Kasa Shindo on the mountain's flank. This well-made path zig-zagged up through the autumnal woods, avoiding some rock buttresses, until it rejoined Weston's route in a large bowl at the head of the Anage stream. More or less in order of fitness, we then climbed the last steep section to the ridge and straggled in to the mountain hut's col some time after 3.00pm. By this time, Weston's party was already on its way down (the previous century), having topped out at 2.45pm. Worthy pioneers!

Like many a hiking party since, Weston and the bear-hunters had no lanterns but they improvised magnificently when they were benighted:

In Indian file, we plodded on through the pitchy darkness, with torches first made of birch twigs and then of shingles torn from the roof of a dilapidated koya (a woodcutter's shanty)...The picturesque dress of the hunters as they held aloft the flaming torches that ever and anon dropped golden cascades of sparks on the damp ground, made a striking scene.

To avoid the need to vandalise woodcutters' shanties, we had brought sleeping bags. We also discovered a reserve supply of water in the rain tanks of the summer hut, which had already closed for the winter. The peak is otherwise as dry as Prohibition.

After a chilly dinner enjoying the sunset views, all nine of us unrolled our airmats in the winter hut, which is big enough for about five. Next morning, we carried on up to the peak in wind and drizzle. The weather was fitting, given that the villagers of old came up here to conduct 'amagoi', or supplications for rain after a long drought. According to Weston,

A party of the representatives of the suffering villagers, make their way to the little shrine of the tengu...on the summit of the peak. They make a bonfire before the shrine, and then proceed to give a mimic representation of the storm they have come to pray for. Primed with sake, they fire off their guns, and with unearthly yells, roll down from the top-most ridge great blocks of andesite. As these go crashing down the cliffs, the hunters loudly invoke the attention of the tengu to their prayers. "And," one of my men added, "after a very long drought, rain nearly always follows within a few days.”

Although great blocks, probably of andesite, were temptingly to hand, we desisted from trundling them down the
eastern cliffs, which are a today a rock-climbing area. On our way back, the autumn colours were somehow even brighter under the grey cloud than under the previous day's azure skies. It was the woods, above all, that Walter Weston would remember in his closing tribute to the Japanese mountains. What better place, then, to take leave of our worthy pioneer:-

And so we bade our farewell to the Alps of Japan. They do not, it is true, display the glories of glacier-shrouded peaks, and the scale on which they are built is only two-thirds that of the famous Alps of Switzerland. But the picturesqueness of their valleys, and the magnificence of the dark and silent forests that clothe their massive flanks, surpass anything I have met with in European Alpine wanderings.


"One Hundred Mountains of Japan", the forthcoming English translation of Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya

Mountaineering and exploration in the Japanese Alps by Walter Weston

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The snows of yesteryear

A time-constrained ridge-walk across the Northern Alps in search of Japan’s vanished glaciers

Surfing a bookshop in Tokyo, I lit on an intriguing title. Soon my wallet was ¥4,429 lighter and Ono Yugo’s “In search of the Ice Ages that only the gods saw” was propped against my breakfast coffee mug. Although glaciers no longer exist in Japan, I learned, they have left their traces all over Honshu’s Northern Alps. Professor Ono is keen on glaciers and his enthusiasm was contagious.

How would it be to traverse these mountains in search of lost glaciers? To muse was to do. Stepping blearily off the night bus in Shinano Ohmachi one Saturday, I was whisked to the top of Tateyama by the famous “Alpen Route” system of tunnel buses, a cable car, rack railway, and yet another tunnel bus – a journey which exposes the wallet to a swift round of mass wasting.

But speed was of the essence if this salaryman was to be back at his desk on Monday. At 9.20am, I was on my way across the cloud-capped caldera of Tateyama, an extinct volcano. According to Professor Ono, whose photocopied text was riding in my pack, an ice-cap 200 metres thick once covered this mountaintop. Plumes of sulphurous steam must have hissed through vents in the snow, much as they do at the summit of today’s Mt Rainier, although subsequent eruptions have removed most of the evidence.

Up in the clouds was an ice-carved cirque named for Yamasaki Naomasa (1870-1929), the first Japanese scholar to put the case for ancient glaciers on Honshu. When he presented his paper to the Tokyo Geographical Society in 1902, his ideas failed to win immediate favour. For decades, academic nibs squeaked to and fro across piles of squared manuscript paper until glaciers were accepted and their proper limits set. Yamasaki clearly liked to stir things up: some years after his glacier paper, he introduced Japan to Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory.

Yes, it’s a pity about those glaciers. They are quite, quite gone, except where the eye of faith can turn grassy hummocks into drumlins or an end-moraine. Might they have left icy relics of themselves at the bottom of the more-or-less permanent snow lurking in shady cirques and couloirs? To find out, a Nagoya University team dug into a long-lived snow patch in a cirque on Tateyama’s outer wall. This was in 1988. Pollen analysis showed its bottom-most layers fell in a snowstorm 1,700 years ago, not quite old enough for the last Ice Age.

Leaving Yamasaki behind, I popped up over the old crater rim and looked through drifting cloud onto Go-shiki-ga-hara, a plateau built by lavas of mysterious origins. (Prof. Ono has something to say about this too.) Several hours later, I started up the summit ridge of broad-backed Yakushi. The clouds were now starting to break up, letting through the rays of a late-afternoon sun. Suddenly, a podgy little shadow appeared alongside my own. Looking down into the slanting glare, I saw a snow ptarmigan waddling along beside me, almost huffing and puffing in its efforts to keep up. This solo hike was becoming quite sociable.

Below, woods fell away in bear-haunted promontories into a lambent sea of clouds. The sun was nodding towards the far-off cumulus tops, but there was still time to take a look into the sweeping coire on Yakushi’s east face. Down there, deep in the shadowed bowl, was a snowpatch. According to Professor Ono, the little Ice Age from about 1300 to 1850 might have been cold enough to revive a mini-glacier here.

At 2,926 metres, Yakushi’s stony top is one of the highest in the Northern Alps. It was chilly up here on this late August evening, but not cold enough to sustain even a mini-glacier. During the last Ice Age, say the savants, cirque glaciers could have formed at around 2,600 metres. Today, though, you would have to raise Yakushi to more than 4,000 metres – almost as high as Mont Blanc – before it could don an ice-cap. That would be the height of the equilibrium line, at which a glacier starts to fatten itself on each successive snowfall.

Even today, there is no shortage of snow. From Yakushi’s summit shrine, set in a field of frost-shattered slabs, one looks westwards to an empty horizon. There is nothing out there to stop the wind, cooled by its passage over Siberia and charged with moisture from the Japan Sea, until it reaches these ramparts and unburdens itself in storm after storm. But the snow cannot reinforce itself from one season to the next. And, year by year, the equilibrium line drifts invisibly higher, like a balloon floating out of a child’s reach.

The sun sank into the clouds; it was time to move on. By the light of a head-torch, the path down Yakushi’s southern ridge is hard to distinguish from the bouldery streambed that it sometimes follows. The warden of the Taro-daira hut was unimpressed by my late arrival. “The gaijin always seem to run things out,” he said. But his hospitality and supper were excellent.

Next morning, frost pillars pushed out of the earth by the path and a crinkled skin of ice over the puddles reflected the dawn sky. Summer is short up here. The chill lasted until I’d climbed to the rim of Kurobegoro-dake. Then the path led downwards into the warm and sun-filled amphitheatre on the mountain’s east side. It is this feature that Fukada Kyuya celebrates in his “One Hundred Mountains of Japan” (Nihon Hyakumeizan):-

Even in high summer, snow is apt to lie along the steep path down from the shoulder into the cirque. Seen from its floor, this feature is truly impressive. The blue sky spans the high surrounding walls like the vault of a cathedral. Splendid scenery is not uncommon, but this is a unique splendour. Nowhere else gives one such a strong sense of standing on the floor of a cirque.

With its horseshoe ridges enclosing a sheltered coire, Kurobegoro has kith and kin all over the world. Ben Nevis and the Snowden Horseshoe are just two of its relatives. But it is pretty much unique in Japan’s Northern Alps, suggesting that glaciers never caught on in a big way here. If they had, come to think about it, this hike would not be practicable, at least within a two-day timespan. Glaciers on a Swiss or Arctic scale would have carved great gaps between the mountains and it would be impossible, as I was doing, to run lightly along a continuous high ridgeline for 40 kilometres.

Further on, while crossing the slopes of Mitsumata-renge, the path picked its way through a field of hummocks that looked like a herd of comatose green buffalo. According to Professor Ono, these are nothing less than buried roches moutonnées – boulders coiffured into forms like Mozartian periwigs by the grinding action of the glaciers. I downed a quick cheese butty at Sugoroku col, a place once buried in ice as deeply as Switzerland’s Jungfraujoch is today.

Looking back from this vantage point 10,000 years ago, one would have seen a string of small cirque glaciers. They would have glittered like pearls haphazardly strung along the tawny braid of mountains. They even have names, conferred posthumously, of course. There was a glacier in Tsurugi-sawa, in Chojiro-dani, in Kinsakudani, there were several on Suisho-dake or ‘crystal peak’, surely an auspicious place for ice formation. Shirouma had a glacier, and so did far-off Yukikura, whose name means “treasury of the snows”.

It was time to address the Nishikama ridge, which leads up to the cheerful little chandelle of rock known as Yarigatake. This would be the last uphill stretch. In the Ice Age, Yari was a nunatak – much like the Matterhorn – surmounting glaciers that swept out in four directions. There was no time to visit the peak today. Some 22 kilometres separate the hut underneath Yari from the Kamikochi bus stop, and the path leading down the Yarisawa gorge was already in shadow. I hurried on.

Before its demise one warm September afternoon several millennia ago, the Yarisawa glacier was one of Japan’s mightiest ice-streams, reaching almost half way to what would later become the bus stop. Even in modern times, the gorge’s deepest recess has sheltered a snowpatch so long-lived that local mountaineers call it ‘the glacier’. Or used to. I noticed in passing that the snow had completely vanished this summer, leaving only bleached boulders behind. There was probably a sermon in these stones but, alas, no time to ponder it. In Kami-kochi, the bus would be waiting, engine running to keep the airconditioning on.


Fukada Kyuya’s Nihon Hyakumeizan, soon to be published in translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Kamigami no mita Hyogaki e no tabi (In search of the Ice Ages that only the gods saw), by Ono Yugo with photos by Omori Koichiro, Maruzen, 1991

Classification and characteristics of the distribution of glacial landforms in the Japanese Alps, by Tatsuto Aoki, Japan Journal of Geography, 2002