Monday, May 10, 2010

Crucible of alpinism

A wet day out on Japan’s most storied crags ends in an unpleasant surprise

Towards morning, the rain drummed more lightly on the roof and we roused ourselves from an uncomfortable bivouac in the back of the Subaru. “Suppose we’d better go for it then,” Marc said. Or maybe it was me. And, before we’d thought better of it, we were on our way, track shoes skating about on the pock-marked avalanche debris, towards the deep notch in the mountain that leads into Ichinokura-sawa.

If asked why we were heading uphill in bad weather, we would have mumbled something about the tozan-todoke. This is a classic example of legislation having the opposite effect to the one intended. Fed up with recovering bodies, the local police required people to register before climbing on Tanigawa-dake: you had to send in a postcard stating your intended route and date, together with a brief resume of your climbing experience. Now we had a permit, we had to use it, or go through the whole rigmarole again.

If pushed a bit further – but why do you have to climb on Tanigawa? – we might have come up with a syllogism like this:-

Workmen alpinists climb at Tanigawa
We are workmen alpinists
Therefore we must climb at Tanigawa

Though, in point of fact, it wasn’t a workman but an ‘old boy’ of the illustrious Keio University alpine club who first spotted the alpine potential of these cliffs. That was Ōshima Ryōkichi (right), who first ventured this way in May 1927. After he came to grief soon afterwards in the Northern Alps, it fell to other activists to lead the first few routes in Ichinokura-sawa.

What really galvanised the development of this climbing area was the opening of the Joetsu line in 1931, complete with a railway station directly underneath Tanigawa-dake. This made it possible for hard-pressed salaryman mountaineers to take the night train, do a climb, and get back in time for work on Monday morning. From that year, Tanigawa became a forcing-house for Japanese mountaineering, spurring its evolution from gully and ridge climbing, to face climbing, technical aid, and hard winter routes.

Today we would settle for a ridge. We passed through the V-shaped notch and, all of a sudden, Ichinokura-sawa confronted us. Rearing up into the clouds, the brown cliffs were seamed with gullies – “runze”, they’re called here, after the German – each one picked out by a white thread of falling water. Except for the narrow gap behind us, we were shut in on all sides.

The roar of torrents was punctuated, now and then, by the crack of a falling stone. Mesmerised by the scenery, I paused but Marc, who’d been here before, was already pushing for Tail Ridge, a ramp that leads up to a starting ledge for many of the climbing routes. There was no time to waste if we were to finish our route before nightfall.

Sometimes Tail Ridge offers you a stunted tree to grab, elsewhere you just have to trust your footing on the greasy rocks. The slabs are easy-angled as long as you stay on the crest, but steepen treacherously away on the sides. We moved carefully upwards, wary of the weight of gear in our packs.

Now I was beginning to understand how Tanigawa had come to acquire its grim reputation: none of its individual risks seem unreasonable – the stonefall, the loose rock, the slabs of Tail Ridge, the crummy belays, the capricious weather – but add them together and the chances multiply of something untoward happening. There was a Swiss guide, I’d heard, who did one route on Tanigawa and said that he’d never set foot in the place again. Now I could see why.

“No exact statistics come to hand,” wrote Fukada Kyuya, the Hyakumeizan author, in 1964, “but Tanigawa-dake has taken some 200 lives to date and shows no sign of revoking its toll in the future. No other mountain in the world can equal this record. A mountaineering friend of my youth was given free rein by his mother to indulge his passion, but with one exception: he was not to go near Tanigawa.” The mother’s anxiety was justified: between her day and ours, the butcher's bill had risen to 700 or more.

At the top of Tail Ridge, we scuttled across a corner where falling stones had scarred the rock white. Reaching a broad, grassy ledge, we dumped the packs, inhaled a crunchy bar each, and reviewed the weather. Only a drizzle now, so we donned harnesses, flaked the ropes out (twin nine-mills, in case splintered granite edges should cut one), and draped ourselves with slings and chocks.

The first pitch ends in a chimney. In dry weather, one would plant one’s rock-shoes against the walls and scramble easily up. Today, the rock was stained black with moisture and, as it seemed to me, the slippery holds all sloped outwards. My feet planted on the last good ledge, I gazed upwards: no, nothing – a bold move was called for. I shifted on my ledge: no, still nothing. Raindrops trickled down my neck. This was absurd: stalled on a Grade IV move. Meanwhile, time was wasting. “I’m coming back,” I said to Marc. I had just allowed Tanigawa to face me down.

More immune to the mountain’s spell than myself, Marc disposed of the chimney with his customary efficiency. We arrived, improbably, on an alpine meadow with yellow bell-flowers blooming here and there. The long grass soaked our feet through the thin uppers of our Firé rock-climbing shoes. The clouds had closed in, taking away the scenery and helping me concentrate on the exposed arête up ahead. The guidebook calls this place ‘the horse’s back’ but, to me, it was more like the slimy spine of a sea-monster. A clap of thunder reminded us to keep moving.

I found the rusty pitons at the next ledge and tied into them. “Climb when ready,” I called. Just then, the clouds rifted open – only for a few seconds, but long enough to show the ridge twisting away below and, beyond it, the rocky floor of the valley, scored with gullies, like a fan-vaulted ceiling upside down. No shrub, not a blade of grass can exist on those avalanche-raked slabs. It was Mark’s turn to be impressed, as he glanced into the vaporous space beneath him. For a moment, we were two motes poised in a crucible of alpinism.

Then the clouds came in again, as if to spare us the exposure. Our ignorance of Japanese mountaineering history helped too. Better not to know that we were climbing only a few pitches from the scene of one of its grislier episodes. On September 23, 1960, a climber from a famous Yokohama club fell from the overhanging crags of Tsuitate-iwa, dragging his second from the belay stance. The rope caught up on an intermediate piton, leaving the climbers hanging in space. Both survived the fall, but died from their injuries before a rescue could be mounted.

Indeed, no rescue could be mounted: helicopters couldn’t do the job in those days, and no winch could be lifted into a suitable position. In the end, soldiers were called in to shoot at the ropes; there was no other way to bring the bodies down.

Accidents like this one caused a public outcry. One response was the Tanigawa registration system. Another was the founding of Japan’s big mountaineering federations, with the aim of raising climbing and safety standards. Our own, the Japan Workers’ Alpine Federation, took shape three years after the Tsuitate-iwa accident.

His enthusiasm unabated, Marc led the final headwall – another few metres of Grade IV in the wet – and we’d finished the climbing. Now we had to get down safely. Still in our smooth-soled rock shoes, we followed a path that traversed the cliff-top towards a gully. We took care not to step on the slippery roots lurking beneath the wet fronds of panda-grass.

The abseil stance consisted of faded slings, oozing with muddy water, looped through a couple of old-style ringbolts. We didn’t back them up – there was nothing to back them up to. Yes, that Swiss guide had the right idea; once was definitely enough. We knotted the ropes together, clipped in, and abseiled into the clouds. It was getting late and we hadn’t heard any other climbing calls for hours. We made haste with care, though: to have a rope hang up here would be unthinkable.

Two long rappels later, we were back on our starting ledge. Each of us had a wet rope to coil and I was thinking that, perhaps, we hadn’t really given Tanigawa a fair chance. Now, if one came here on a fine autumn day and climbed on dry rock under a bright blue sky, the woods turning gold far below….

I was about to share that cheerful thought with Marc, when I saw an uncertain look came over his face. He’d stopped coiling his rope, the blue one, and he was looking at his hands. “That’s strange,” he said, now with an expression of sheer disbelief, “the Japanese – they don’t eat much peanut butter, do they?”

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Book review

Hana Hikes the Hyakumeizan: Trail-running the 100 mountains of Japan with a dog. By Julian Ross. Published by, 2010, 160 pages, illustrated in colour.

Back in 1964, when he published his appreciation of Japanese mountains, Fukada Kyuya had no intention of creating an official list for peak-baggers. But, half a century later, that is what the Nihon Hyakumeizan have become: a giant circuit of one hundred mountains. They are even marked on the hiking maps. Some people climb them over the course of a lifetime, others strive to set speed records.

Julian Ross started out in the latter camp, aiming to beat a previous time of 66 days. Soon, though, he discovered that hiking – or rather trail-running – the Hyakumeizan was more fun when accompanied by his dog. Thus it would be the curious destiny of Hana, an English-born border terrier, to become the first dog to reach the summits of all one hundred mountains. And to become the star of Ross’s book about their adventures.

There was one hitch to this plan. Although not banned outright, dogs are not particularly welcome in Japan’s national parks and mountain areas. Some entertaining passages of “Hana Hikes the Hyakumeizan” describe the various subterfuges necessary to smuggle the dog past tour guides, cable-car operators, and the priests of summit sanctuaries. (Many of Japan’s summits are shrines.)

To avoid unwelcome attention, Ross and Hana often hiked at night. They even climbed Yari, Japan's fifth highest mountain, in the dark. Sometimes, though, Hana meets with tacit support, as in this incident on Kashimayari at 4am:-

“Often bring your dog, do you?” (a hiker asks)
“Yes, it’s no fun without.”
“Some people don’t like dogs in the mountains, you know.”
“That’s why I’m climbing at night,” I answered defensively. Was he for or against?
“I want to bring my two dogs, but I daren’t in the Alps.”

What is lost by hiking at night is more than offset by these varied encounters with hostile and friendly fellow mountaineers. In the end, the friendly conversations far outweigh the other kind. In this, “Hana Hikes the Hyakumeizan” resembles a modern version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes” (1879), where Modestine, the pack animal, brings about many a telling interchange with the local people.

Unlike Stevenson, Ross was equipped with a digital camera, which he uses to good effect. The layout and print quality do full justice to the text and photos, allowing something of the presence and dignity of these famous mountains to come through. That is, after all, what the original Nihon Hyakumeizan was about. I like to think that old Fukada Kyuya might have greeted “Hana” with a nod and a smile.

“Hana Hikes the Hyakumeizan” is available from

More about Hana and the history of canine alpinism in Japan