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.