Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nihon Hyakumeizan: the quest for ground truth (3)

Travelogue continued: climbing Rishiri-dake for a change of perspective

12 November: Mountains, like people, demand to be taken seriously. By walking out of the door of the Maruzen Yado at 2am, I pay Rishiri-dake a handsome compliment. One would start no earlier for a typical Swiss 4000-er. This is a much lower summit, but the height to be climbed is a respectable 1,700 metres. I’ll only get up there with the mountain’s full cooperation.

A centimetre of wet new snow has come down overnight, helping to muffle my footfalls through the deserted town. Half an hour’s walk brings me to the end of the road and I turn up my head-torch to full power as the gloomy fir and spruce woods meet overhead. There are no stars; a few snowflakes scatter down from the overcast.

The ground hasn’t started to steepen, but already the mountain is probing my defences. As I brush past fronds of panda grass, they loose their burdens of snow. Last year, the snow was so cold that it simply blew away. This year, it melts onto my jacket and salopettes. The former holds its own but the trousers – picked up in a shop clearance sale in Tokyo more than a decade ago – are soon oozing with meltwater. One blast from Boreas-kun higher up the mountain, and I’ll be frozen into a cheapskate popsicle.

I hold the speed down. Sweat-soaked clothes will also play into Boreas-kun’s hands, should he try the popsicle treatment. But the north wind keeps to its lair as I pass the first ‘look-out point’ just above the fir woods. It’s still dark; my head-torch carves twin cones of light into the wavering mist.

The plan is to walk slowly so that I don’t reach The Thicket, a tangled labyrinth of alder and mountain birch, until daybreak. But this year’s modest snowcover leaves plenty of room between the path and the tree canopy and I pass almost effortlessly through the brush zone. Quite a contrast to last November, when I climbed this section on hands and knees, snake-crawling through the narrow gap between snow and tree-branches.

The monument on Chokan-yama looms up in the grey light of dawn. It’s time for a break, but Boreas-kun has woken up. Stopping out in the open is out of the question. On cue, the refuge hut appears out of the clouds. A sharp rap from my fist breaks the icy seal on the sliding door and I tumble inside for a swig from my water bottle – the contents are half-frozen already – and some Swiss muesli bars, my substitute for more professional fare.

Ten minutes later, refuelled and rehydrated, I’m on my way again. A tussle with a patch of snow-laden creeping pine opens the way to the upper ridge. Here, for the first time, the drifts are deep enough to cover all traces of the summer path, forcing me to prospect for the onward trail. My boots skid off icy boulders lurking under the new snow, but I don’t need Toshiya’s snow-shoes. That’s good, because the straps holding them to my pack are frozen so hard that I won’t be able to loosen them until we get back to sea-level.

Crampons go on for the last hundred metres. You could get away without them, but it never hurts to treat a mountain with a little extra respect. The steel teeth bite well into the red earth of the final slope, diluting the loom of those misty gulfs on either side of the ridge. The clouds lift a moment, revealing the winding length of the ridge below. It’s as if the mountain wants me to appreciate its stature and scale.

Underneath a thin veneer of rime-ice, the summit shrine is surprisingly well-appointed. Its kami-sama has been in residence for at least a century, as Nihon Hyakumeizan relates:

The first reference to Rishiri that I can find is from Makino Tomitarō writing in the second issue of Sangaku, the Japan Alpine Club's journal in its first year of publication. This botanist and his party climbed the mountain from Oshidomari in August 1903, following a faint trace of a path. Spending two days on the mountain, they found at the summit a small wooden shrine, showing that local people had already been there.

The clouds thin, unveiling a lava pillar nearby. Yes, Rōsoku-iwa really does spring like a tusk from the ridge. “Glimpsed amid the tumbling mists, it was eerily fascinating,” Fukada Kyuya records. I don’t even have time to reach for my camera before the gas comes in again.

I wait for a few minutes, hoping for wider perspectives. On a clear winter day, one should be able to see as far as the mainland. Nearer at hand, the twin island of Rebun would float atop skeins of sea-fog. But the clouds are obdurate. The view is now limited to a frozen spring of cow-parsley, emblem of the flower fields that bloom all round this summit in the forgotten summer. Behind his frozen-shut doors, the kami-sama appears to be in an uncommunicative mood.

Then I spot the boat propellers. At least three are nailed to the shrine, giving it the appearance of a miniature Howl’s Moving Castle. I begin to see where this kami-sama is coming from. It’s the fish, stupid. How was that again? Well, if the catch has dropped by two-thirds in the past 30 years, if some mysterious disease is eating at your famous kombu seaweed, and if the island’s population has dropped from 20,000 to 5,500 in the last half-century, wouldn’t that give any tutelary kami-sama a headache?

It’s always important to see the other person’s point of view, especially if the person is a god. I concede that my agitation over the lack of visibility is misplaced, frivolous even. Anyway, no view was granted to the Hyakumeizan author, so why should his translator get one? Although the lower world was calm and bright, cloud clung obstinately to the summit, wrote Fukada Kyuya. With the cloud constantly forming as the sea winds blew over the summit, it almost looked as if we would have to give up our attempt ...

I take a last gulp of frozen slush from my waterbottle. I think of leaving a Swiss muesli bar for the kami-sama but decide not to. He probably wouldn’t like it; sake is probably more to his taste. The main thing is that we understand each other a bit better now. Now it really is time to start down, before Boreas-kun turns me into a permanent fixture up here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (2)

Travelogue continued: crossing to the ideal island where a Zen master of a mountain awaits

11 November: Feel-ease Soya is the ship taking us over to Rishiri. Wince-making as it is, the name reassures me. Last year’s ferry, the Boreas Soya, took its name from the classical god of the north wind. And Boreas-kun did indeed blow feelingly during my two-day attempt to dig a snow-trench from the bottom of the mountain to its top.

The weather forecast provides another favourable sign. Heavy rain and snow are blanketing Honshu and most of Hokkaido, leaving Rishiri as the only place in the Empire with useable climbing weather.

That said, our destination is elusive. This ideal mountain floating on a shimmering sea can only be Rishiri, writes Fukada Kyuya. Today, Rishiri is wholly ideal; the only evidence that the island actually exists is a wall-sized transparency in the Heartland Ferry Company’s waiting room. A fog-bank ahead has swallowed up the real thing.

Deprived of the view, I return to the TV in the passenger lounge. Japanese ferries are in the news this morning. After two years on the run, a suspected murderer was trying to board one when he was picked up in Osaka. Another ferry has turned turtle off Mie Prefecture. A big wave caused its cargo to shift. Somehow I doubt if a captain of the HeartLand Ferry Company would allow his ship to be slapped around by a big wave.

There’s no snow on the ground at Oshidomari. That’s good. I make straight for the Maruzen Yado, last year’s base. I’m greeted by the landlady, Mrs Watanabe. “You again?” she says, unfazed by my return. This time, her son is at home and I cross the road to consult him. Watanabe Toshiya guides people up the mountain all summer, and surfs the local waves when off-duty – through the winter months too. Apparently, Rishiri has about ten hard-core winter surfers.

Toshiya-san keeps a close eye on his mountain, posting regular reports on climbing conditions to his Rishiri-dake blog. No more than about 30 centimetres of snow would be lying on the upper slopes, he predicted, but I was welcome to borrow a pair of snow-shoes, just in case. This is a handsome offer, and I accept gratefully.

Lack of snow shoes was one reason I didn’t get up the mountain last year. There were others. Like a Zen master admonishing a dull acolyte, Rishiri-dake drove home the usual lessons, wielding deep snow drifts and a strong north wind as its minatory stick. Be properly equipped (whack!), start earlier (whomp!), and, above all, remember that you’re only going to reach the summit if the mountain so permits (thunk!).

Then I go shopping. Nothing has changed from last year – the promontory like the head of a dinosaur, the boats drawn up on the shingle beach, the joyful liquor shop just by the Maruzen’s door, Okada’s little bakery that never has any bread, then, a few yards further on, the discount liquor shop. I wandered down the street in search of supplies for tomorrow’s 1,700-metre push. An early start will be needed: we’ll go easy on the liquor.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Nihon Hyakumeizan: the quest for ground truth (1)

Super-Soya vs Bambi: the search for textual certainty in a Hyakumeizan translation runs into an obstacle

10 November: As the diesel train bores into a frigid Hokkaido evening, I ruminate on the challenges of translating Nihon Hyakumeizan. According to its author, Fukada Kyuya, Japan's most famous mountain book was written with a pair of walking boots. That is, before he could select a peak for his list of One Hundred Eminent Mountains, Fukada had to climb it himself.

Ideally, one would apply the same rigorous approach to translating Hyakumeizan. Before signing off on each chapter, one would climb the relevant mountain in search of ground truth. And, indeed, there are nuances in the original text that cry out for on-the-spot elucidation. What, for example, is that odd sculpture – or is it a weapon – that adorns the summit of Takachiho (Eminent Mountain No. 98)? And does Candle Crag really "spring like a tusk" from the brow of Rishiri-dake, the northernmost of Fukada's mountains?

It is questions like these that have brought me back to Japan this year. I'm heading first for Rishiri, scene of a failed summit attempt last year. Rising like a miniature Fuji from the wintery seas off northern Hokkaido, the volcanic island lies many thousand kilometres removed from Project Hyakumeizan's usual haunts.

Getting this far had taken an all-day flight on Brobdingnagian Airways, then another full day on assorted multi-amenity express trains, or so they describe themselves. Now, late at night, we are within an hour of Wakkanai, Japan's northernmost railway station and the jumping-off port for Rishiri …

Just at this moment, the train brakes hard. We feel the slightest of vibrations, as if the wheels had run over something. The train slides to a halt. A long pause. The light from the window shows that we've stopped in a cutting of panda grass, the embankments topped by a grove of silver birches.

A rumble from the overhead speakers as the conductor picks up the microphone: the train has hit a deer, he announces, and please excuse the delay while we, ah, deal with it. Well, nobody said that translating with your boots on was going to be straightforward …. The Super Soya is eleven minutes late into Wakkanai this evening.

To be continued

Friday, November 6, 2009

The dream of ages

The Antarctic veteran who made a pioneering winter ascent of Mt Fuji

Thomas Orde-Lees (1877 – 1958) was probably not familiar with the term ‘adrenalin junkie’. But it might well have been invented for him. As a Royal Marine, he first visited the Far East during the Boxer Rebellion. Then he signed up for Shackleton’s disastrous Trans-Antarctic Expedition, in which he served as the storekeeper.

Having survived the forced sojourn on Elephant Island, he joined the Balloon Corps on the Western Front. By the end of the first world war, he was an officer in the Royal Flying Corps, where he became an enthusiastic advocate for the use of parachutes. To prove their effectiveness, he once jumped from Tower Bridge into the River Thames.

After the war, he came to Japan to teach parachuting techniques to the nascent Imperial air arm at Kasumi-ga-ura. It was during this assignment that he conceived the idea of a winter ascent of Mt Fuji. A first attempt on January 28, 1922, failed after a “hurricane” caused Orde-Lees and a companion to run out of time. On February 10, they came back, dragging a home-made sledge made from the wreckage of a crashed aeroplane.

Overnighting at the Tarobo hut on the Gotemba trail, they climbed the mountain on snowshoes as far as the sixth station and thereafter on home-made crampons screwed to the soles of their boots. The ice-axes came from a shop called Mimatsu at 8 yen a piece. The climb to the summit took a full twelve hours: “Only a brief halt was made,” records Orde-Lees, “sufficient to tie to a rock close to the hut in that place a quite unique identification mark. This consists of an aluminium foot-rest from the rudder-bar of an AVRO aeroplane …”

The descent was more perilous than the ascent. The men lost their way in thick mist and “Great difficulty was experienced in keeping any direction at all.” Worse still, “The compass had been mislaid.” As a result, they did not return to the Tarobo hut until the early hours of February 13. A week later, the airmen came back to Fuji for a third time, to search for the supplies that they had cached during their successful ascent but mislaid on the way down.

Two articles, one including a full report by Orde-Lees himself, were published in the local English-language press in the same month. These were later collected in Volume XVI of Inaka, the newsletter of the Mountain Goats of Kobe under the title, “The Dream of Ages”. Thanks to the assiduous researches of Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club , the full text of that report can now be presented below.

Full text

The Dream of Ages: From Inaka Volume XVI

An ascent of Mt. Fuji in the middle of winter is reported by Kokusai. Two members of the British Air Mission now engaged in training Japanese naval aviators performed this feat,-Lieutenant-Commander T. Orde Lees, and Mr. H. Crisp. Commander Orde-Lees is a well-known parachute expert, and was a member of the late Sir Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition of 1914-16 when he had charge of the motor sledges.

Their great climb was made on the 11th, 12th and the early morning of the 13th of this month, the journey up and down the mountain, including rests, occupying exactly forty-eight hours. The climbers started from Gotemba without guides, coolies, or horses, but had the assistance of two personal friends, Messrs. Adams and Earwaker, who helped them to haul their equipment packed on a small sledge (made from a crashed aeroplane) as far as a hut, 4,700 feet up, where the first night was spent.

All through that night a violent storm raged, but a start could be made the next day, and the summit was reached at 7 p.m. on the 12th.

At a height of 10,000 feet the climbers "cached" their entire equipment, cameras, spare clothing, thermos flasks, snowshoes, and all their food. They then made the top of the mountain, travelling as light as possible.

Unfortunately the descent was made in a dense fog, and the travellers were unable to locate their "cache," owing to the fog and the darkness, and they had to return without any of their property. In spite, however, of going without food for twelve hours they arrived at Gotemba none the worse. They said the cold on the summit at night was not severe. The snow extended as far down as the 2.500 foot line. The last 4,000 feet of the climb was over solid ice and took them nine hours to accomplish.

A recording barograph was carried throughout the expedition and affords indisputable proof of their feat.

Commander Orde Lees further stated that he and Mr. Crisp are going to repeat the climb almost immediately in order to recover their lost property.

The above item of interest appeared in The Japan Chronicle of Sunday. February 19. 1922, and was followed by a few remarks by The Japan Advertiser of the same date under large head lines :-


At last the dream of ages has been realized. The summit of Mt. Fuji has been reached in the dead of winter, but it fell to the lot of two members of the British aviation instruction corps, veterans of adventure in other parts of the world, to accomplish the feat. The men -Lieutenant Commander T. Orde Lees and Mr. H. Crisp, who are stationed at the naval aviation training school at the Kasumigaura as instructors - left on the trip February 11, reaching the top and returning early February 13.

They started from Gotemba with their equipment on a sledge constructed from a damaged airplane, without guides, horses or coolies. Mr. Adams and Mr. Earwaker of the flying corps helped them haul their supplies to the hut 4,700 feet up the side of the mountain. There they spent the first night.

Throughout the night a severe blizzard raged and on into the next day, but they started early and reached the top at 7 o' clock that evening. When 10,000 feet up they cached all their food and supplies in order to travel as light as possible, but when they descended a dense fog prevented them from recovering their possessions. They arrived at Gotemba none the worse for the trip, although they had been without food for 12 hours.

A recording barograph, which they carried with them, proves the veracity of their story. The last 4,000 feet was up almost a solid wall of ice, being so difficult to climb that the task took nine hours. Snow extended down to within 2,500 feet of the sea level. At the top, they say, the cold was not as severe as they had expected. The two men intend to repeat the climb sometime soon, when they will make an effort to regain their property hidden in the snow on the side of the mountain.


For many years Japanese mountain climbers, especially students, have each year tried to reach the top of Fuji-san but each time the severe cold and depth of the snow has turned them back either at the seventh or eighth station. A party of eight fought their way to the seventh station last month but were unable to go higher. Lieutenant Commander Orde Lees is a parachute expert of world fame and has a record of 81 drops from airplanes. He was in charge of the motor sledges on the Antarctic expedition made in 1914-16 by the late Sir Ernest Shackleton, and he is said to have attained considerable note with climbing expeditions in the Alps. With Mr. Crisp he was in the London Daily Mail Handley-Page airplane which was wrecked at Carlisle en route to Scotland with copies of the newspaper some time ago.


Climbing to a height of 11,700 feet over a thick crust of snow as " hard as a sidewalk." Lieut-Commander Orde Lees and H. W. Crisp, who climbed Mount Fuji a week ago last Sunday and Monday, found their supplies and equipment cached in a snowbank 9,500 feet above the base of the mountain Monday. The two men, members of the British aviation group at Kasumigaura, made their second, mid-winter ascent of Fuji for the purpose of retrieving their cached supplies, which they had missed while descending from the summit the previous week-end.

The two men left Tarobo, No. 1 Station from Gotemba, at 3 o'clock Sunday morning in perfect weather, ascending the mountainside over a surface of snow "as hard as a sidewalk." They reached the hump known as Hoeizan at 6 o'clock, having completed an ascent of 4,490 feet in three hours. They witnessed a beautiful sunrise, the hope of every climber of Fuji-san, but a few minutes later a blizzard sprang up and obscured the entire view and hindered the search for the lost equipment.

They searched the trail from 11,700 feet (recorded by the barograph) downward to recover their lost property. making no attempt to attain the summit. About 10 o'clock they found the store at a height of 9,500 feet and sat down to a meal of well frozen sandwiches. They descended immediately and arrived at Gotemba on foot at 3.30 o'clock in the afternoon. They passed from the snow storm at 8.000 feet into a dense cloud.

Anyone properly equipped can easily climb Mount Fuji in mid-winter, Lieut-Commander Orde Lees believes, the weather being favorable. This account of the second ascent appeared in The Japan Advertiser, Tokyo of Friday, February 24, 1922.

Here follows Orde Lees' account of the climb which is taken from a duplicate of the original copy sent to The Japan Advertiser and printed in their columns on Saturday, February 25th, 1922.


In nothing is convention more hide-bound than in the matter of mountain climbing.

Fixed dates mark the "yama-biraki " for each and every pilgrim's goal. Fuji finds no favour with the devotee before July 15th nor after September 10th.

Even the guide books give little encouragement to the snow-craftsman other than to make passing reference to the fact that the great symbolic peak has been climbed occasionally at dates without the recognised season and that plucky Mr. Nonaka and his plucky wife attempted to spend the winter on the summit. Unluckily the adventurous couple fell victims to scurvy, (probably through trying to live on tinned meats) and had to be rescued. Fortunately for them and their rescuers the calamity occurred before the snows of December had
rendered rescue almost impossible.

Every year in December the sides of the mighty giant receive a new white mantle of snow which, for the first three or four thousand feet from the top, freezes into solid ice and makes the summit virtually one great uncompromising ice-berg.

That is Fuji as LT. Commander Orde Lees and his climbing companion, Mr. H. W. Crisp, of the British Air Mission under Captain The Master of Semphill, have found it on three separate occasions during the month of February. That IS what anyone, who essays the task of a midwinter's climb up its 12,397 feet, will find they have to contend with before reaching its lofty summit.

There are tales of those who have previously reached the top in midwinter on ski, but as ski will not "bite " on sloping ice the ski climbers must have discarded their treacherous footgear thousands of feet before reaching the summit.

Again the report of fifteen feet of snow which a party of Japanese climbers are alleged to have found on January 24th at the eighth station (10,000 ft.) must be received with caution. In the first place it is difficult to understand how a party of climbers, pressed for time as one always is when undertaking a climb of Fuji's magnitude, could succeed in probing the snow to that depth nor what apparatus they were able to perform that difficult task.

Lt. Commander Orde Lees and Mr. H. S. Crisp were also up at the seventh station on January 28th, their first attempt, and. although the little hut itself was nearly buried by drift snow which had piled up in front of the hut three or four feet deep, the snow all around, and for that matter all over the mountainside, was nowhere more than twenty-four inches deep, and was mostly in the form of solid ice.

Even at that date, however, owing to the effects of the insolation of the sun on black surfaces, the ash-screes and lava outcrop stand out naked in places, especially near the summit.

To some extent these rock outcrops aid the climber but owing to the fact that much of the lava is covered with "ver-glace" (i.e. a thin layer of ice) and that the ash-slopes have combined with the snow they have thawed to form a solid conglomerate of ice and ashes, much of what, from Gotemba appears to offer an adventitious aid to the climber, proves, on closer acquaintance, to be a serious menace offering no foot-hold for the climbers crampons but an adamant resistance to his ice-axe.

The successful climb of Fuji was not made without a great deal of careful preparation, organization, hard work and a preliminary reconnaissance on the mountain itself. On the other hand Lt. Commander Orde Lees, starting from Gotemba, single-handed and with no other equipment than a steel-shod alpenstock succeeded in reaching the summit and returning to Gotemba in a little over twelve hours, on December 18th, 1921 ; but then, as he points out there was very little snow on the mountain, except at the very summit, so that, to use his own word, "It was dead easy."

Miss Fuji received the main part of her winter mantle on January 12th and the three succeeding days. From thence she became an ideal worthy of a climber's respectful homage. In the summer she flirts with the errand boys of Tokyo and offers no serious resistance to even the little schoolgirls. The mountaineer disdains to woo her then.

To attempt to climb Fuji, at present, without ice-axe, crampons and ski or snow-shoes would be mere waste of time, besides being very fool-hardy. Even to reach Hoeizan without these aids would be little short of a miracle.

For the next two months, and, probably, until the end of May, the summit cannot be reached without the equipment above mentioned.

Suitable clothing is merely a matter of personal requirement and modification to suit the weather on the day that the climb is made.

The winter climber's greatest enemy on Fuji is not the cold but the fierce hurricanes and blizzards that frequent these icy slopes licking and swirling in the bowl of Hoeizan like tormenting demons rushing out of hell. These storms which vent their fury on the mountain's sides nine days out of ten burst upon the mountaineer almost without any premonitory symptoms and threaten every minute to dislodge him from the" glacis" on which, with axe and crampon, he has secured a precarious footing.

The cold is only a matter of endurance. Some can, some cannot, withstand the trials of extreme cold; to the latter the joys of high altitudes in winter time must remain unknown.

The two climbers who succeeded in reaching the summit on February 12th were limited to making their attempts on Sundays only for the very good reason that their services are due to the Imperial Japanese Navy during the week. Had they been able to pick and choose their day their successful effort would not have been nearly so long delayed.

The first attempt was made on January 28th. 1922. Arriving at Gotemba at 12.07 a. m. in the early morning of that day it was found to be necessary to walk to Tarobo hut (No. 1 Station) through deep snow. Tarobo was reached at 5.30 a.m. ; here a fire was soon got going, tea made and a rest taken until daylight.

At 7.00 a.m. the climbers set forth. but having neither ski nor snow-shoes the time occupied from from Tarobo to the base of Hoeizan, owing to having to wade through snow knee-deep, and sometimes even waist-deep between No.1 and No.2 Stations prevented them from reaching the top of Hoeizan.

Here a violent hurricane further delayed the travelers forcing them to cling on to the icy surface roped together, afraid to move more than a few yards in a whole hour for fear of being whisked off the mountainside. When the hurricane subsided sufficiently to permit of further ascent, the time was already too far advanced to make it possible for them to reach the summit and again reach Hoeizan before nightfall. The attempt of January 28th was therefore abandoned after reaching the eighth station.

It is of interest to note that on this occasion both climbers wore ordinary knee-high rubber boots ("gum-boots") for the whole distance from Gotemba to the eighth station and back again. Gum-boots can be recommended as by far the best footgear for overcoming soft deep wet snow with impunity. Leather boots fitted with screwed-on "crampons" were carried the whole way but when the climbers needed them the wind gave them no respite to change their boots in safety.

The travellers returned to Gotemba at 3.0 p.m., having been climbing continuously for twenty hours.

During this hard climb, Lt. Commander Orde Lees had three fingers frost-bitten although he was, at the time, wearing a pair of woollen gloves with a pair of seal's hair flying gauntlets over them. The circulation was restored to the fingers only after prolonged friction accompanied by severe pain. He points out that the old idea of rubbing the affected part with snow is a mere fallacy which should never be adopted. How it became so widely current is a mystery.

Although the climb of January 28th. was abortive it was rich in experiences which enabled the climbers to provide the right equipment for the next and successful attempt.


The equipment comprised six main items, as follows:

Rubber boots.
Crampons screwed on to leather boots.
A sledge.
Flying suits.

Each component was an essential without which it is doubtful whether a successful climb could have been accomplished within reasonable limits of time.

The rubber boots were used over the lower slopes where much of the snow was in a thawing condition, owing to the mildness of the day. In one place they enabled the travellers to avail themselves of the snow-free track of a runningwater course and to wade with impunity up the torrent. This would have been impossible with any other form of foot-gear without getting their feet soaking wet. Wet feet always predispose to frostbite.

To prevent the snow from entering the tops of the boots the simple expedient of turning the tops of the stockings over the tops of the boots was adopted. It is attention to just such small matters as this that make the difference between success and failure on difficult climbs.

The snow-shoes were quite home-made, on the Canadian plan. They were constructed from long strips of ash bent round to the requisite racquet shape after immersion for an hour in a hot bath. The centres consisted of cross pieces of ash interwoven with bamboo strips and string. They served for crossing the soft deep snow found between the third and fourth station and exceeded all expectations as to their value for this purpose. They were worn in conjunction with rubber boots being tied to the feet with parachute tape.

The crampons were also home-made from diamond-shaped pieces of 1/3 inch steel turned over at the extremities to form spikes like shark's teeth. They were drilled with five holes through which passed the screws holding them to the soles of the boots. They too served their purpose admirably. They were of an entirely original design and can be recommended.

Excellent ice-axes were purchased at Mimatsu for 8 Yen a piece. Lt. Commander Orde Lees considers them in every way the equal of the best Swiss axes. Although the whole ascent was accomplished almost without the cutting of a single step they were invaluable during the descent by night, preventing fatal glissades more than a score of times.

The sledge was a very necessary adjunct, needed for the transport of sleeping and camping gear over that portion of the route between Gotemba and Tarobo hut which was snow covered. It was made entirely from the remains of an old crashed Avro aeroplane and proved itself quite indispensable. The organization which achieved success could not have been put into effect without it.

The heavy padded flying suits, known as Sidcot suits, made sleeping possible in the chilly air of Tarobo. A blanket each was also taken. A few necessary camping utensils : lantern, candles. paraffin. kindling wood, thermos flasks, water-bottles, cameras, spare socks, warm clothing and provisions comprised the rest of the impedimenta.

Food sufficient for three days was taken, for Fuji, in winter, cannot be climbed in a day.

Violent opposition on the part of the railway officials at Tokyo to allowing the sledge to travel on the train without its having been properly checked nearly prevented the start being made to schedule. It was only equally violent persistence on the part of the members of the expedition that the sledge should accompany them that prevented complete disorganization of the programme.

The train arrived at Gotemba at 12.07 a.m. on February 11th, 1922, this day having been chosen for the commencement of the climb owing to its being a national holiday and therefore adding an extra day to the ordinary week-end.

Reservation had. fortunately. been made at the Fujiya hotel at Gotemba for, otherwise. the hotels were filled to capacity with press photographers taking part in a competition for the best photograph of Fuji.

These gentlemen did not appear to be in need of sleep, for they arrived at all hours of the night and passed the remainder of it talking, laughing and making merry.

In the early morning they were serenaded by the Gotemba and District brass band, before setting off on foot, on horseback and in motorcars for the field of their photographic endeavours.

Incidentally it was rumoured that a party of expert climbers was due to arrive from Kyoto that very morning with a view to reaching Fuji's fugitive summit. The climbers from Kyoto never materialized, however, but the rumour gave just that incentive of wholesome competition which stimulated the aviator climbers to success.

After considerable difficulties a small hand-cart was hired. On this was loaded the entire equipment including the sledge.

One member of the party walked between the shafts whilst the other three hauled by means of straw ropes. In this way, at 11.00 a.m., followed by most of the youth of Gotemba, the party set out for Tarobo hut (No. 1 station) ten and a half miles away at an altitude of 4760 feet.

Nearly forgotten a kettle was purchased at the last moment.

The day was moderately fine to start with, but the barometer was falling fast and at about noon a fresh breeze sprang up which gradually developed into a gale as the day wore on.

The village of Nakabata was reached at 12.30 a.m. It is about four miles from Gotemba. A light luncheon of beer and sandwiches was partaken of and thereafter no soul was seen for two days.

Soon after leaving Nakabata, at a little over 2,500 feet, the first snow was encountered. At Umagaeshi, the snow became so deep that the handcart was left in the hut there and all gear transferred to the sledge.

The stiffening gradient and mild temperature had made the load grow heavier and heavier, and now it seemed to weigh a ton. Water-bottles were frequently resorted to, especially the one which had a little whisky in it to keep the water from freezing. When they ran dry, the trickling thaw-water in last year's wheel ruts was found to be potable and very acceptable.

At 3.30 p.m. Tarobo's welcome hut hove in sight. By 4.00 p.m. the weary travelers had settled down to the cup that cheers.

By this time, the storm had fairly set in with driving rain and wind. It was not until then that it was discovered that one pair of rubber boots and one pair of leather boots had dropped off the sledge between Umagaeshi and Tarobo. One member had, perforce, to go back a mile and a half and find them, which he fortunately did before dusk.

No one lives at Tarobo, unless, may-be, the demon of that name who is there worshipped. If so his winter quarters are singularly cheerless and draughty, for the hut is empty and its walls are none too well jointed. There are, however, plenty of trees in the vicinity for fire wood, for Taroho is on the upper edge of the forest which everywhere surrounds Fuji's base and which gives to the mountain's snow-clad flanks a singularly somber girdle when viewed from any distance.

After a supper of Japanese tinned beef, bread and butter, cakes and tea Lt. Commander Orde Lees and Mr. Crisp turned in their Sidcot suits and blankets whilst Messrs. Adams and Earwaker. who formed the supporting party good-naturedly sat up by turns and kept the fire alight.

The wind increased in violence from a gale to a hurricane. Rain fell in torrents.
At times it seemed that the roof must be blown off the hut as its rafters creaked and groaned with the wind.

The draughts were prodigious.

Outside the saplings could be seen bending to an almost impossible limit.

Till 5.0 a.m. the storm raged furiously; but dawn soon cast a still upon the land quite uncanny by comparison with the atmospheric disturbance of the night.

At 6.0 a.m. the rain stopped.

Although it was misty and overcast it was decided to make a start there and then.

At 7.0 a.m. on February 12th. Lt. Commander Orde Lees and Mr. Crisp bade farewell to their efficient helpers and set off on their eighteen hour climb.

The night's rain had thawed the snow on some of the lower approaches. The thaw-water was rushing down in a lava gully. It was up this torrent that the travellers, with their rubber boots, were able to walk with impunity and to their great advantage.

When it was necessary to cross snow-fieids it was also necessary to have recourse to snow-shoes as the snow was soft and often three feet deep in the drifts. This was the deepest snow found anywhere on the mountain.

The route selected followed the line of huts of the Gotemba ascent as far as No.3 station (7,000 feet) which was reached at 11.00 a.m. after much hard work on snow-shoes. Hoeizan was avoided owing to the boisterous winds almost always present in its vicinity, even when the rest of the mountain is comparatively calm. A line was taken to the right and the other hut touched was No. 7.

Lunch was partaken of at No.3 hut, after which the gradient steepens very considerably. The surface of the snow was not yet too hard for the snow-shoes to bit so they were not yet exchanged for the crampons until the level of No.6 hut was reached at (9,000 feet). Here the surface was icy for the most part.

At No.7 hut (10,200 feet) the whole surface was covered with a thin layer of solid ice, on which no form of footgear other than crampons could possibly hold. Here it was decided to "cache" the snow-shoes, rubber boots, cameras and knapsacks in order to make a dash for the top, lightly equipped.

No.7 hut was left at 3.00 a.m.

The climbing now became steeper and increasingly difficult.

Although the crampons held so well that it was not necessary to actually cut steps, yet the ice-axes had frequently to be resorted to for handholds in crossing ice-covered traverses.

At 10,500 feet the climbers joined themselves together by means of parachute tape which is capable of supporting the weight of two men.

A slip at this point on the part of both the climbers simultaneously would have meant a "glissade" down a 3,000 feet ice-glacis and would have ended in almost certain death.

Only two thousand feet lay between them and the summit, which it was scheduled to reach at 5.30 p.m.; but climbing continuously over treacherous snow for five thousand feet, at a slope of nearly thirty degrees, tires the fittest of climbers. It was for this reason that the estimate of two and a half hours to the top was exceeded by an hour and a half.


Darkness had set in, but the weary travellers had the unique experience of being the first men ever to witness the moon-rise from the top of Fuji.

The prospect of having to descend some five thousand feet of steep ice slopes by moonlight did not, however, deter the climbers at all, for they had already amply tried out their equipment and proved the trustworthiness of their novel crampons during the ascent.

The summit was gained at a spot a little to the east of the gap by which the summer pilgrims. on the Gotemba ascent, usually enter the crater.

Only a brief halt was made, sufficient to tie to a rock close to the hut in that place a quite unique identification mark. This consists of an aluminium foot-rest from the rudder-bar of an AVRO aeroplane. It bears embossed on its surface in large letters the word "AVRO." It is about six inches long. It is tied by parachute tape to the rock which is in a prominent position, about thirty yards north east of the hut and on the inner edge of the crater lip.

The descent, as descents always are, was much more perilous than the ascent.

Slip after slip ocurred; the climbers alternately saving each other by the parachute tape rope.

Every slip was potentially fatal.

To make matters worse dense mists began to rise up the mountain's sides, shutting out the view and the kindly moon.

At 11,000 feet the climbers were enveloped in a thick fog from which they never wholly emerged for the whole remainder of the way, though the moon was just discernible at intervals and by it they were able to take their bearings from time to time.

All attempts to find the cache were futile in the fog though traversing and retraversing were resorted to.

Very reluctantly the equipment – and The Food – had to be abandoned to be retrieved another day, the ice had been much too hard to leave any definite tracks on the way up, and in any case, it was too dark to see the trail.

Great difficulty was experienced in keeping any direction at all. The compass had been mislaid. The gradient formed the only indication as to whether the course was being maintained except during the increasingly rare intervals that a gibbous moon peeped furtively through the zenith.

The loss of the rubber boots and the snow-shoes was a serious handicap; especially when the snow-fields around the base were reached.

At 11.00 p.m. the travelers were wading through snow a couple of feet deep, sinking in at every step for want of snow-shoes.

Boots and socks were soon wet through and the danger of frost-bite had to be guarded against by keeping continually on the move.

At midnight the climbers passed over a great avalanche (which must be a rarity on Fuji) evidently due to dislodgement by the previous night's rain. This is an unexpected danger on such a mountain but one which future climbers should take into consideration. The one in question was of sufficient magnitude to have overwhelmed the offices of the Japan Advertiser if they had had the temerity to stand in the way!!

A few minutes after midnight a temporary clearing in the fog enabled the climbers to locate their position. They found themselves more than a mile to the east of Tarobo. A new course was set and, after much wading through soft snow, as much as thirty inches deep, the outgoing tracks were picked up just before the fog again descended.

With the greatest care and difficulty these tracks were followed step by step until, within the vicinity of the hut, when a slight lifting of the fog revealed the hut not more than fifty yards away.

At 12.45 a.m. on the 13th. February Tarobo hut was safely reached.

At 12.50 a.m. the fog once more descended thicker than ever. Trees less than ten yards away became completely invisible; nor did the fog lift again until 7.00 a.m. The climbers had reason to congratulate themselves on not getting lost in the fog.

Owing to the loss of their rubber boots and snowshoes their feet were wet through up to their thighs and owing to the loss of their knapsacks no change of socks or other clothing was available, so a fire was lighted and wet things left to dry by it whilst the travellers rolled themselves up in their blankets and flying-suits and lay down to three hours sleep.

A little tea was available, but practically all the rest of the food had been lost in the cache on the mountain, nearly twelve hours beforehand.

It was decided to reserve for breakfast the only remaining packet of sandwiches so half of a four ounce "Katsuteira" cake comprised the menu for a frugal supper.

Slumber soon overcame the pangs of hunger; but the night turned cold as the fire died down and little inclination to prolong it beyond 6.00 a.m. was felt.

At 7.00 a.m. the climbers bade farewell to Tarobo and its demon. The remains of the equipment was placed on the sledge and hauled down to Umagaeshi. Here the sledge was left as a present to anyone who would like to go and get it and the handcart again put into commission.

The gradient made for such easy running that the climbers took turns at alternately pulling and riding in the handcart down the eight mile hill into Gotemba which was reached at 10.30 a.m. - Tokyo at 2.00 p.m.

The climbers made a vow that they would recover their lost property on the following week end or perish in the attempt. This they successfully accomplished, in so far as their property was concerned.

Arriving at Gotemba at 9.45 p.m. on 18th February they were fortunate enough to hire a motor-car which took them on their road about a mile beyond Nakabata. They walked the rest of the way to Tarobo hut where they rested for three hours.

At 3.00 a.m. a start was made up the mountain. The weather was perfect and the moon made travelling almost as easy as by daylight; moreover the surface of the snow was everywhere frozen as hard as a side-walk. The going was so propitious that 4,500 feet were climbed in an hour and the ridge of Hoeizan reached at 6.00 a.m.

The travellers witnessed the glorious spectacle of a winter sunrise from near Fuji's crest. But, alas, with the dawn there sprang up one of those blinding blizzards for which Hoeizan had previously distinguished itself.

A slight mistake in the situation of the rocks of Hoeizan involved the travellers in an exceedingly stiff climb of some two hundred and fifty feet at an angle of about 60 degrees before they were able to surmount the well-known ridge. As a matter of fact this was the only of real climbing indulged in on any of the occasions referred to.

The ridge of Hoeizan was one great snow drift with here and there a dangerous cornice; but nowhere was the snow more than four feet deep as the ice-axes touched bottom on every sounding.

An argument now took place between the climbers as to the most probable position of the cache.

Meanwhile the blizzard increased. The icy particles whisked along by the wind quite blinded the eyes and caused considerable pain. It was only by turning the head sideways and holding both hands over the eyes that the long ridge was successfully negotiated. The wind was just like standing in the backwash of an aeroplane propellor.

Often one could not see from one hut to the next, and a comprehensive view of the mountain side was quite out of the question. There was, therefore, nothing for it but to visit each and every hut in turn. In this quest the climbers had ascended, unknown to themselves, to a height of 11,500 feet before they finally came to the conclusion that, after all, they must have made a mistake and that the cache must be "miles lower down", as Mr. Crisp put it.

Only too willingly, to get out of the awful blizzard, they commenced the descent. Hut after hut was searched, on two different routes, some eight in all. When you long for the shelter of a hut on Fuji none is to be found, when you wish that only one existed on the mountain and that one marked your cache then Fuji seems to be literally covered with huts.

Sure enough it was not until Station No. 6 was reached on the way down that the elusive cache was spotted.

There it was at the back of the hut all caked up with drift snow which had entered the knapsacks and filled up those wonderful rubber boots of which so much has been written. The Thermos flask, owing to some unexplained laws of physics, had gone off pop, but the camera, having been carefully wrapped up in a coat, was intact. Its exposures subsequently developed
beautifully, in spite of their long freezing. The most interesting discovery, however, was the packet of week-old sandwiches which had, so to speak, been preserved in cold storage, and were found to be quite fit for human consumption.

The recovery of their long lost property and the sandwiches put new life into the travellers, and the uninviting climate in the neighbourhood formed no inducement to them to stay a moment longer than necessary.

At the level of No. 5 Station (8.659 feet) a dense layer of cloud was entered.This extended downwards for nearly two thousand feet, to No.3 Station. As their eyes had been rendered very sore by the blizzard, and as the surface was invisible, even under their very feet, so dense was the cloud, the climbers scrambled down with closed eyes practically the whole way, maintaining their direction only by the gradient.

On emerging quite suddenly from the cloud they were surprised to find themselves moving in a bee-line for Tarobo, so uniform is Fuji's slope.

At No.2 Station they came upon young Japan out on skis; not the ski of Scandinavia but an improvised abbreviation made of bamboos, ingenious but far inferior to the original for purposes of enjoyment. though it has the merit of cheapness and ease of manufacture.

At 1.00 p.m. Tarobo hut was reached and, by a forced march, the travellers arrived at Gotemba just in time to miss the 3.16 p.m. train; but they turned up all right late that evening at Kasumi-ga-ura aerodrome having, like true aviators, made what may be fairly described as a flying visit to the 9th Station on Mount Fuji.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Dynamic forerunner

Risk and sacrifice: how Itakura Katsunobu revolutionised the art of ski-mountaineering in Japan

Alpinism, says an expert, is a game of ghosts. If you learn your trade in Wales, that tweed-clad figure padding up the Cwm Idwal slabs, some decades ahead of you, is George Mallory. Climb an alpine north face, and you follow in the crampon-scratches of Willo Welzenbach. For ski-mountaineers in Japan, it is Itakura Katsunobu (1897-1923) who led the way.

Itakura did not introduce skis to Japan, nor was he the first to use them to climb mountains. That distinction probably belongs to Theodor von Lerch (1889-1945), an Austrian military attaché who came to Japan before the First World War. But it fell to Itakura to meld skiing, rock- and ice-climbing techniques into a powerful new style of "dynamic mountaineering" – which he demonstrated to the world in 1919 with a sensational solo winter ascent of Yarigatake.

An enthusiastic reader of the Japan Alpine Club's early output of reports and essays, Itakura started his mountaineering career while attending the Gakushuin middle school in Tokyo. He first learned climbing and skiing from Leopold Winkler, another Austrian who had come to Japan with mountaineering skills to disseminate. In 1917 he was invited to join the Japan Alpine Club and there started to forge links with Maki Yuko and other leading lights of the Japanese mountaineering scene.

In April 1919, after the sensational Yari ascent, Itakura started his freshman year at Hokkaido University. The following year he joined the university's Ski Club and started to remould it in his own image, as a hard-driving elite corps for winter mountaineering ascents. That story has now been told in English by Dave Fedman, a San Francisco-based historian who is researching the history of mountaineering in Hokkaido.

In his paper Mounting Modernization: Itakura Katsunobu, the Hokkaido University Alpine Club and Mountaineering in Pre-War Hokkaido, Fedman relates how Itakura passed on his climbing, skiing, navigation and fitness training skills to the club and started its members on a campaign of winter mountaineering all over Japan's northernmost island. Over the next two decades, the club notched up more than 100 winter first ascents in Hokkaido.

Alas, by that time, Itakura was no longer with them. In his last summer seasons, he frequently climbed with Maki Yuko, who had made the epoch-making first ascent of the Eiger's Mittelegi Ridge in September 1921, a climb that greatly enhanced the repute of Japanese alpinists both at home and abroad.

Less than two years later, Maki organised a winter trip to Tateyama, on which Itakura became separated from his colleagues in a blizzard and died of exposure. As he wrote in his posthumously published memoirs, Yama to yuki no nikki (A diary of mountains and snow), "Risk and sacrifice are the way of life at altitude…"


David A. Fedman, "Mounting Modernization: Itakura Katsunobu, the Hokkaido University Alpine Club and Mountaineering in Pre-War Hokkaido," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 42-1-09, October 19, 2009

Short biography of Itakura Katsunobu in 人はなぜ山に登るか, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998)

Photos: (above) Workmen Alpinists ski-touring on Norikura, (below) AACH expedition to the mountains of Hokkaido (from David Fedman's paper)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Captured by the Kurobe (5)

Kami-no-roka concluded: via a forgotten ridge path to the valley of the Takase and a well-deserved brew

Until now, we hadn’t given much thought to how we’d get back to Tokyo. The plan had to take account of two salient facts: one, we were now sipping our beers in a stormbound hut in the middle of Japan’s Northern Alps, and, two, Sawa Control’s corporate BMW was spotted out at Ogisawa, a carpark on the wrong side of the mountains.

The television – Mitsumata-renge is a well-appointed hut – set our minds at rest about the weather. The typhoon had passed, delivering a last cold front like a back-hand smash. That accounted for the thunderclap we’d just heard, but tomorrow would be better. We opened the map. Aha, we could go over Washiba-dake and then take a long ridge route, the Takemura Shindo, down to the valley. We asked the hut warden for his opinion.

“Sa …,” he started. Now, any opinion qualified with a hesitant “Sa…” should alert the listener to potential trouble, especially in the mountains. Despite its name, nobody had tended the ‘new path’ for a long time, the warden advised. There might also be rotten sections, he added. I wanted to ask how “rotten”, and what might lurk in that ‘also’ but Sawa Control cut short the discussion: “Well, we can go and have a look,” he said, using a phrase that has prefaced many a fine mountain day and also some not-so-fine ones.

Next morning almost dawned fine. Climbing the slopes of Washiba-dake, we looked across a sea of vapour towards Yari, a crisp silhouette against the electric blue of the rising daylight. But we never saw Washiba’s famous crater lake: as soon as the sun’s rays touched the clouds below, the vapours boiled upwards and blotted out our view.

On the other side of the peak, the fog cleared to reveal a white mist-bow below us. By chance, we must have been standing more or less where the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyuya locates the Kurobe’s source:-

Speaking of the Kurobe, Washiba is the cradle for the infant plashings of this river, famed for the depths of its gorges below. Stand on the summit of this mountain and you can see, plain as daylight, how the young Kurobe starts life. The source is a modest rill that you could cross with a stride. Soon it is raging on its way, through deep-cut chasms, into pools and hollows, plunging over waterfalls. Its headwaters are like the face of a boy fated to a turbulent youth.

Then the fog rolled in again. We continued along the ridge, over eroded spines of frost-shattered rock. At 11.30am we stood atop Masa-dake, the turn-off point for the Takemura Shindo. Scudding clouds of chilly drizzle helped us to a quick decision: by taking the ‘new path’, we would gain the shelter of the main ridge and turn our backs to the weather.

At first, the ploy seemed to work. Then, just at the point when it would have been too tedious to go back, the path vanished. A washout had gouged into the ridge, taking the trail with it and leaving a steep face of crumbling earth to cross. We teetered across on some sketchy footholds, trying to ignore the misty abyss below. “Another one of these and this will start to be not such a great idea,” I muttered, forgetting that, minutes before, I’d been singing the new path’s praises.

But we were not challenged again. Rather, the trial of the washout had won us admittance into a secret garden. Descending first through creeping pine, then autumnal groves of mountain birch, we wandered past flaring brakes of rowan bushes, raindrops brimming on their crimson leaves. The cloudy skies heightened the colours, turning them into a spectacle we’d remember for ever.

We crossed an intermediate peaklet and sank into evergreen forest at around the 2,300-metre mark. In the gloom under the trees, we had to hunt for the path’s continuation. The hut warden had spoken truly; few come this way these days.

Not for the first time, I had the feeling that the Japan Alps were once much busier. Paths like this one are falling into disuse, and huts in remote valleys have vanished altogether. We seemed to have missed out on the heyday of Showa-era alpinism.

Lunch was taken in a wooded col, sitting on a carpet of ferns. Further on, the panda grass grew deeper until we were walking through shoulder-high glades of it.

Dropping below the clouds at last, we saw opposite the crumbling yellow ramparts of Sulphur Ridge, a strange semi-volcanic excrescence that runs up towards Yari. Fumaroles wisped into the sullen air from its lower slopes, which were streaked with sulphur deposits like off-colour snowfields.

The Kurobe gave us up with reluctance. We arrived at the foot of the ridge at 4.30pm with a 15-kilometre yomp to the nearest roadhead still ahead of us. A debate ensued whether to break into our emergency rations – a bar of Kendal mintcake – but the occasion was not solemn enough to warrant it. Instead we took out the stove and brewed up. We reckoned we’d earned a cup of tea.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Captured by the Kurobe (4)

The Kami-no-Roka continued: journey to the notional source

This was the day when we would track the Kurobe down to his source. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't going to cooperate. Without enthusiasm, we stepped out of the hut into a grey drizzle. Skeins of mist drifted through the trees. The only consolation, as we made our way upriver, was that in our wetsuits we were perfectly attired for a typhoon.

A knight’s move up and across a wet slab marked the trip's last climbing manoeuvre. It brought us to Akagi-sawa De-ai, where a large tributary flows into the main river. In fair weather, with the morning sun filtering over the top of its waterfall, this may be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. In the rain, the surrounding grove of cedars plunged it into an even deeper shadow.

Now, leaving the gorge behind, we scrambled uphill through a maze of white boulders. According to Kanmuri Matsujiro, the view should open out here but all we could see were bales of mist rolling across aptly named Kumo no Daira, the Field of Clouds. We climbed into autumn, the foliage turning brighter shades of red and gold as we moved higher.

After five hours of boulder-hopping, we were no longer in a river. The once-mighty Kurobe had dwindled to a mountain stream. As if to compensate, the drizzle had now strengthened into a downpour. We came to the place where a hiking path crosses the torrent. Ahead, our thoroughfare of boulders receded away into the heart of a dark cloud.

“Well, what do you reckon?” I asked Sawa Control. It was his Quest for the Origin of the Kurobe, after all. “I think we should deem this the source,” he replied with CEO-like decisiveness. After an obligatory Furthest East photo, we turned right, towards Mitsumata-renge. We reached the hut just as the downpour worked itself up into a regular storm. It was time for a cup of tea.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Captured by the Kurobe (3)

Kami-no-roka continued: interlude at the Yakushi-zawa hut

In the hut, it was Them and Us. To be sure, Koike-san, our host, had greeted us with perfect civility and then served us a palatable dinner. But then he and his three friends, each as weatherbeaten and grizzled as himself, withdrew to the other end of the room. Now they were hunched over their pickles and tea, embroiled in an intense discussion that all too clearly left no room for outsiders.

We’d forgotten about social structures in the Upper Corridor. For two days, it had been just the River and Us. Now we had to deal with human society. A foreign journalist once speculated that nobody really runs Japan. If you cut through the political parties, the bureaucracy, the policy advisory groups, the study associations, he suggested, you would finally break through into a kind of vacuum, empty and silent except, perhaps, for the sound of one hand clapping.

Clearly, the journalist had never visited the Kurobe. Seemingly empty, the wilderness is held in thrall by an astonishingly dense web of interests. To start with, there’s the power company that runs the dams downstream and, in the 1960s, almost managed to build yet another dam just a few hundred yards downstream from the hut we were sitting in. Then there are the public works office that puts up erosion defences and the ministry that officiates over national parks to name but a few.

But who was the cabal sitting across the room from us? And what did they represent? I could see Sawa Control itching for answers and, unlike me, he wasn’t going to wait for them. A flagon of Suntory Vile appeared on the table of the Kurobe Four, giving my companion his chance. In a lightning countermove, our bottle of Armagnac was played to centre table. “Ikaga ..” opened Sawa Control with a phrase of exquisite politesse.

The ploy worked. Koike-san introduced his companions as the local mountain rescue team and we were invited over to their table. As we were all Us now, the bond sealed with mutual toasts of brandy and Old Vile, logically a new Them was required. It was soon found: “If you have one,” advised the rescue team, “make sure you have an accident on this side of the mountain.” Our helicopter pilots, they said, will fly in the very nap of the earth until they find you, while Theirs – from over the other side of the mountain – they’ll just circle once high up, then skive off home.

We nodded, and took another sip of Armagnac, or was it Vile. Nothing personal, you understand, but you can’t expect much from the guys from the other side. They’re Them, you see. Our new friends slipped us another survival hint: if you’re smoking your fish down by the river, make sure you set your tent a good distance away, or the bears might act up when they stroll over to investigate the delicious smell of roasting iwana.

Our hosts were so fond of this trout-like fish that they’d set up a society to love it, they told us. How was that again? Back in Kanmuri’s day the rockpools teemed with iwana, but for some reason they’d become scarce in recent years. The iwana lovers tried to keep fishing within limits – I was glad that no rods were poking out of our packs – and they took fish out of the main river in order to restock the tributaries.

Others had taken a different tack. A cosmetics firm from Gifu – did I really hear that right – had just tried to bring in iwana fry from another river by helicopter. Fortunately, the Iwana Appreciation Society had managed to foil this plot; no alien fish were wanted in this river. They wouldn't mix well with the ancient stock that, with its bloodline unpolluted, has inhabited the Kurobe for ages eternal etc.

It was outrageous, we assented, that Outsiders should meddle with Our River. Speaking of which, I’d just noticed a yellowed photo on the wall of the Kurobe in full flood. On our way up the river, we’d seen tree trunks and rafts of driftwood lodged, it seemed, impossibly high above our heads on rocky ledges. Now the photo confirmed what the wreckage had been trying to tell us.

What about that typhoon? The rescue crew were sanguine. The storm’s eye had missed Honshu and was now sailing up the Japan Sea. We’d be all right, they said. It wouldn’t tangle with the Northern Alps. Anyway, it would be our problem if it did. On that note, we went to bed. It was high time. I could no longer tell the difference between Armagnac and Old Vile.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Captured by the Kurobe (2)

Kami-no-roka continued: towards the mid-way hut and a theory of sawa aesthetics

Next morning, we kept good time. Breakfast noodles and coffee downed in one long slurp, we splashed into the river at 7am. The valley still lay in shadow, the water was chilly but the last weather forecast we’d heard drove us forward. It had mentioned a typhoon sculling about in the southern ocean, still uncertain of its intentions. Back in the summer of 1924, heavy rain caught Kanmuri Matsujiro in this part of the river, forcing him to fight his way out of the gorge through vertiginous brushwood. The incident, he records, was “deeply memorable”.

Veil cloud crept over the sky as we came to Kinsaku-dani, a rubble-filled gully sweeping down from the heights of Yakushi. A bank of pocked and pitted snow lay across its entrance, testifying to the avalanches that rake this side-valley all winter. No tree can survive here. In summer, a big typhoon will bring down rockslides that block the main river, as they did a few years after our trip. Then a small lake forms until the Kurobe can muster enough force to muscle the obstacle aside. The landscape here speaks as unsubtly about power – the force majeure of water, frost, and snow – as a May Day parade.

Miyamoto Kinsaku (1873-1927) was a famous guide from Toyama. He was the brother-in-law of Uji Chojirō, another guide who bequeathed his name to a rugged snow-valley. His client list reads like a Rolodex to Japan’s golden age of mountain exploration. Kinsaku was a porter to the surveyors who made the first modern ascent of Tsurugi in July 1907, as immortalised in a recent film.

In 1915 he guided Tanabe Juji and Kogure Ritarō over Tsurugi, Akaushi, and Eboshi-dake, and in 1920 he accompanied Kanmuri Matsujiro from Daira downstream along the Kurobe River. In 1922, he was with Imanishi Kinji and Nishibori Eijiro when they descended the east flank of Yakushi-dake, down the very side-valley which now carries his name. He was as tough and as gnarled as the terrain he pioneered. We hastened on, before the river found a new way to test our own mettle.

After pouring his debris into the river, Yakushi sends down a spur to squeeze it into another narrow channel. The current started to tug at us as we waded into a deep cauldron. Ahead I recognised the awkward corner that featured in Sawa Control’s intimidating video. But today the river was on its best behaviour and we breasted the deep water on tiptoe, buoyed up by our packs.

We had now entered the Oku-no-roka, the map told us. “Oku”, meaning ‘innermost’ or ‘beyond’, is a word with a certain resonance, as in oku-miya, the summit shrine on Mt Fuji. If not invented by Kanmuri, the idea of an “inner corridor” did receive his blessing: “It has become customary to call the reaches of the river above the Kinsaku junction the Oku-no-roka, and, to me, this name suits both the terrain and scenery,” he wrote.

It befits the geology too. Heading into a pool that was too deep to wade, I heaved myself out of the river onto a ledge sculpted from an exquisitely fine-grained white rock. I could imagine the river chain-sawing its way down through the mountains, through sheaves of grey andesite and dacite, through sandstone and rhyolite, until, after untold millennia, it reached this innermost motherlode of peerless Oku-Kurobe granite.

The savants tell a somewhat different story. In their version, the river stayed put, like a stationary buzz-saw, while the Hida block heaved itself upwards by 2-4 millimetres every year. The uplift summed to 1,500 metres in half a million years as the Kurobe gnawed its way into the rising mountains, strewing their wreckage across the floor of the Japan Sea. More rock from the Japan Alps may lie in those enormous submarine debris fans than remains onshore in today's mountains.

I paused on the ledge to admire the flowing shapes of the rock, the streamlined boulders and rounded shelves, all acknowledging the shaping spirit of the river. But not for long; my sawa boots could only just keep a grip on the polished slope. Behind me, a depth charge-like report echoed across the water; Sawa Control’s brillo-pad soles had lost adhesion on the film of water I’d left, precipitating him into the pool. He laughed and swam across it instead.

Yes, the mood had changed. Now we'd put several large tributaries behind us, the force of the river had perceptibly diminished. The guidebook too seemed to lighten up. Instead of warning us about possible workarounds or escape routes in case of high water, it now drew our attention to a “beautiful waterfall”. We splashed across the lower ledges of this cascade, admiring it from within, as if interacting with a trendy installation at the Tate Modern.

I was intrigued that the guidebook had waited until now to deploy the adjective ‘beautiful’ (美しい). We’d passed quite a few waterfalls and other scenic set-pieces further downstream, but none qualified for any epithet. Perhaps we (and the guidebook authors) had been too busy keeping ourselves out of trouble to appreciate the landscape’s finer points.

Here, I realized, was a splendid example of the eighteenth-century idea of the ‘sublime’ and the ‘beautiful’. The former refers to scenery that impresses you with a frisson of danger. The latter, by contrast, is enjoyed without any risk of getting yourself lunched. Sublimity was what the poet Wordsworth was tripping out on when he described the cliffs of a famous alpine gorge as “Characters of the great apocalypse”. His River Wye is merely beautiful.

Apply this concept to the Kurobe, I mused, and you could actually quantify the sublime and the beautiful. Flow rates of more than so many tonnes of water per second would result in breath-takingly ‘sublime’ scenery whereas the gentler currents of the Inner Gorge …

I was about to run these novel aesthetics past Sawa Control when he pointed to the sky. “Hmm,” he said, switching into the non-verbal code that we’d all picked up from our taciturn club president. I looked up and saw what he meant. The veil cloud had cleared, leaving the field to writhing streaks of cirrus. Something was happening up there.

We finished our lunch quickly and addressed ourselves to the home stretch. The sky was clouding over again and we’d seen enough characters of the great apocalypse for one day. After negotiating a stretch of boulder-strewn bank, we escaped gratefully onto a real path and made our way to the Yakushi-zawa hut. It was 4.30pm when we arrived and a few drops of rain were already falling from the dark clouds that, without our noticing, had surged over the western mountains.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Captured by the Kurobe

The somewhat light and fast approach to navigating the main river of Honshu’s Northern Alps

Just to watch the video was to be intimidated. As if heralding an approaching bomber, an ultra-bass drone emanated from the powerful speakers of Sawa Control’s stereo system. That was the noise of the river as it drove its roiling waters through the canyon. On-screen, helmeted figures bobbed in the water, fighting to make headway against the buffeting current. “Yes, we had some bother getting round that corner,” my host admitted.

Five of the usual suspects had just come back from the Kurobe, the river that drains the corrugated heart of Honshu’s Northern Alps. They’d gone into the valley on a mid-August day of soaking rain. Reaching the first campsite, they were dismayed to find the river rolling brown, in full flood. The next day dawned clear – the video showed puffy cumulus clouds sailing in a blue sky – but the river still slid by too quickly for a crossing to be made.

Soon other groups joined them at the campsite on the gravel bank, including one from a large electrical company. By the third day, the stream had turned from brown to green, allowing the sawa-nauts to set out. A division of labour was established: Sawa Control would head the swimming pitches, while Yamada-san would lead climbs where stretches of white water had to be bypassed.

The first of those difficult passages started with a two-hour climb over a buttress, followed by a four-pitch abseil down to another stretch of churning water. Sawa control solved this impasse by diving across the main channel with a rope, like a human rescue rocket, and then hauling everyone else and their packs across one by one. This got them to an island of shingle, from which they extracted themselves by another “scary roped crossing”.

By now, all the groups had merged into a giant convoy of 17 people, slowing progress. The second day started better, with upstream swimming through a series of pools fed by sun-lit waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. They stopped for lunch on avalanche debris at the foot of Yakushi-dake. Then an unstructured situation started to develop.

In the afternoon, another set of rapids forced the sawa-nauts to climb over a buttress. Scrambling up a slimy gully, a solo expeditioner grabbed a rotten piece of old fixed rope to steady himself. When it snapped, he fell 15 metres back to the river, but managed not to knock himself out or drown. The joint leaders decided to cut the day short and camp at Tateishi-daira, slightly downstream from a landmark rock pillar. That evening, another soloist started to show signs of appendicitis.

The last day in the river was less stressful, as water levels continued to sink. Even so, the hut at Yakushi-sawa, the first escape route with a path back to civilisation, was not reached until noon. The man with appendicitis made it to the Taroyama hut, some hours further on, where a helicopter came to meet him. Sawa Control’s team came down to the road-head at 5.30pm, ready to start the overnight journey by taxi and train back to Tokyo.

Sawa Control switched off the video, which we’d been watching at the big house in Takanawa. “We didn’t have time to get to the source,” he said, “so we’ll have to go back,” he said. I looked up, alerted by that ‘we’. From what I’d seen in the video, they’d been lucky to bring back the the same number of people that went in. And now he was talking about another trip. Clearly, the man was hooked.

One day, I avow, “Kurobe Capture” will become as integral a part of the psychological literature as the Stockholm Syndrome. Remember you read it here first. The condition was described nearly a century ago by Kanmuri Matsujirō (1883-1970), alpine pioneer and scion of an old-established family of pawnbrokers.

My first glimpse into the amethystine depths of the Kurobe, from the summit of Tateyama, took my breath away,” Kanmuri writes in “A journey into the Kurobe” (黒部川の紀行). “We’d made the first ascent of Hayatsuki Ridge to the summit of Tsurugi, and then followed the ridgeline along to the top of Ōnanji, at 3,015 metres the highest of Tateyama’s summits.”

“As I scanned the mountain panorama, somewhat fatigued, the green thread of the Kurobe valley seemed to draw my gaze down into the depths. Far below, tucked away under cliffs, deep pools of a shimmering azure snapped into focus. What on earth is this place, I wondered, as I stood and gazed at those limpid waters. A priest, who’d just come up beside me, explained that we were looking at the mouth of O-yama-dani, adding that this was the only stretch of the Kurobe that could be seen from here.”

“That summer, we went down from Tateyama to Daira, then followed the river as far as Higashi-zawa. Then we climbed Aka-ushi-dake, proceeded to Yari and so to Kami-kochi, but all the time I was regretting that we couldn’t take a closer look at those limpid pools.”

And that was how the river captured Kanmuri. Over the next decade, he made foray on foray into the valley, recording his adventures in a two-volume work entitled simply “Kurobe”.

I went home and consulted the guidebook. “Every sawa climber aspires to an ascent of the Kurobe River’s Upper Corridor,” I read. “You’ll need all-round sawa technique, experience and stamina to cope with the deep passages, ledges, and tussles with the water … comprehensive mountaineering know-how is called for, particularly good judgement of water levels and weather, as well as the ability to advance confidently in fast-moving currents.” The route carried a grade of IV+ on a scale of five.

Forewarned, we went about our preparations. As it would be just the two of us, we opted for light and fast. Our club president lent us a bivvy tent, barely more than a flysheet, and we aimed to swim rather than climb, keeping the hardware to a minimum. On the same reckoning, we dispensed with helmets – they drag your head down when they fill with water – and we’d make do with a lightweight, 30-metre rope.

We left Tokyo on a late September evening and reached Ogisawa, the tunnel bus terminal, in time for a few hours of sleep. Next morning, we had a four-hour walk up the west bank of the Kurobe reservoir, the not-so-light packs swaying on our shoulders. We had to get to Daira by noon, or miss the ferry across the lake; there is only one sailing a day and there is no path around the head of the lake.

Arriving by the appointed hour, we found ourselves the only passengers on this surprisingly rugged vessel. The ferryman was taciturn as a Charon, but, unlike his classical prototype, performed his office for free.

The path continues along the lake’s east bank as far as the junction with Higashi-zawa. There we eased our packs to the ground and changed into sawa gear – fibre-pile climbing clothes over wetsuits, climbing harness over all – and switched our hiking boots for wading shoes, soled with a brillo pad-like material. Ahead, a field of sun-bleached boulders receded into the main river valley, stretching away like the gravelled approaches to some grand shrine.

Hardly believing our luck in the weather and the water level, we moved forward, speaking in low voices as if we feared that somebody might overhear us. As the boulder field narrowed, we splashed into the water. The first crossing was uneventful, the water coming barely to our knees. As we rounded the first bend, the great cliff of Shimo-no-Kuro Pinga loomed ahead, the afternoon sun throwing its slanting layers of rock into crisp relief.

In the cliff’s shadow, the gravel bar narrowed away, forcing us into the first deep rock pool. Now the chill of meltwater seeped under our wet suits but, as we waded in deeper, the river obligingly lifted the burden of our packs. Stashed within them, inside a heavy-duty polythene liner, the opening sealed off with a heavy-duty rubber band (bring a spare!), our gear was now helping to buoy us up. We found it best to swim side or back-stroke. Swim on your front, and the pack’s weight pushes your face under water.

Now rocky walls rose overhead on both sides as we moved deeper into the Upper Corridor. We waded through shady defiles, beckoned by the golden afternoon light filtering through the trees ahead. Small grey fish darted away from our feet in the shallows. We started to relax; we were on schedule.

“In the Kurobe’s upper reaches, the rock walls are seamed with ridges and wrinkles that run up, sideways, and aslant where the rock masses come together,” noted Kanmuri. “This gives the valley a somewhat immature appearance as compared with the vast, steep-angled walls of the lower gorge which form continuous cliffs. If the Upper Corridor can be likened to a fortress thrown up by a youth, then the Lower Corridor projects the gravitas of a man in his prime…”

An interesting observation, but we had no time for aesthetic reflections. The golden afternoon light had faded by the time that we had swum, walked, and edged along ledges to the end of the rocky channel. We were out in the open again, but the bulk of Yakushi cut off the sun and an evening chill started to rise.

Sawa Control consulted the map. “I’m sure it was around here somewhere,” he said. Whether it was or not, we had to find a flat and dry place to camp soon. For a moment, I thought of climbing higher to get a view, but stopped myself just in time. Around here, the river has thrown up steep banks of loose shingle topped with massive and unstable boulders. Even in fine weather, the Kurobe offers plenty of scope for an industrial-strength accident.

There was no need to worry about the campsite. Still with daylight in hand, we reached the one that Sawa Control had set his heart on. It did not disappoint – a huge gravel terrace, several metres above the waterline, with space for a hundred tents. Splashing up out of the water, we dropped our packs onto dry ground, shivering now as the breeze found our damp clothing.

We pitched our yellow flysheet, collected some branches of grey and desiccated wood that the river had deposited, lit a fire, and pumped up the MSR ready to cook supper. This Sawa Control had wisely offered to provide. Now he reached into his pack and extracted not the packet of freeze-dried dust that I’d expected but a generous vat of home-made stew. Next emerged a chunky glass bottle of Armagnac. “You don’t want to take this light and fast approach too far,” he said with a smile.