Sunday, October 24, 2010

North ridge boogie

Taking the slow way to the summit of Mae-Hodaka, Japan Northern Alps

“I had never deliberately kicked a situation into the full-tilt boogie. The other side had always taken care of that readily enough.” (Heaven’s Prisoners, James Lee Burke)

In the orange gloom of the tent, I looked up from the book – Andy’s book, to be precise, but he was asleep. “The full-tilt boogie”: encountered half-way up one of Japan’s highest mountains, the phrase had a resonance. We’d come here to boogie, certainly. But, like most weekend alpinists, we’d rather not escalate matters as far as the full-tilt boogie-woogie.

On May Morning, we’d heaved absurdly heavy packs to our shoulders and staggered through the bare groves of Kami-kochi. Awaiting us was a gully choked with avalanche debris. Our Koflach boots slipped off frozen divots or plunged us knee-deep in hidden holes. We meant to take the longest possible route to the summit of Mae-Hodaka, a local 3,000er, hauling with us tent, cooker, sleeping bags, crampons, axe; everything, to adapt a Japanese advertising tagline, for beautiful climbing life.

The object was not, of course, to have fun – not even Type III fun. For this was a “gasshuku”, a Golden Week spring mountaineering training camp. Fittingly, the spur we were climbing was named for Keio, an elite private university with a famous mountaineering club. Back in the 1930s, the Keio lads helped to pioneer full-tilt, expedition-style climbing in Japan. They came this way in mid-winter 1938, hauling a ten-man tent (below) which they pitched with the aid of hewn-off tree branches.

The German and British expeditions of the early 1930s – among them, Nanga Parbat ’32 and Everest ‘33 - had galvanised the student climbers of Japan. Imanishi Kinji and his crew were early off the mark, founding the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto in 1931 specifically to pursue Himalayan ventures. As a start, they had to master a new set of techniques – setting climbing camps progressively higher up the mountain until the summit was in reach.

The AACK’s first experiment with this “polar method”, as they called it, was a two-week expedition to Mt Fuji over the 1931 year-end. They divided into climbing and support teams, put four camps on the mountain, and spent several days on the frozen and wind-blasted summit. Keio was quick to get in on the act: the following winter, they went to Nishi-Hodaka. Later, they tackled Tsurugi, Yari, and Kita-Hodaka, all in mid-winter. These “gasshuku” had but a single aim: to train for the Himalaya.

In the winter of 1934/35, the Kyoto club made a first winter ascent of the ferociously cold Mt Pekto (above), on the Korean-Chinese border. That was the cue for a whole series of student expeditions to the most frigid corners of the Japanese empire – the Kurile islands, Sakhalin, northeast China, and the high mountains of Taiwan. In the end, it was neither Kyoto nor Keio but the Rikkyo University men who bagged Japan’s first major Himalayan summit, Nanda Kot, in 1936.

Now we were following in the postholes of these expeditionary pioneers. Gasping like Himalayan climbers, we reached a flatter spot on Keio Ridge. “That’ll do,” said our leader – a Keio man – although the clouds had cleared and it was hardly past noon. We were granted a brief pause before the reason for the early stop was revealed: “Now we’ll dig a tent platform here,” said Yamada-san, unpacking his shovel and indicating a spot hull-down, off the ridge.

As every expeditioner should be, our leader was thorough. Instead of merely checking the forecast, he’d phoned the meteorological agency for a personal consultation. Tomorrow’s front, he’d been advised, would stop us climbing and we’d better be well encamped. Thus briefed, we shovelled with a will. By evening, the tent was embedded so deeply into the snowslope that a hurricane couldn’t have shifted it.

We woke on May 2 to a gentle sussuration on the orange flysheet – light snowfall that later turned to the pitter-patter of sleet. We festered in our sleeping bags, snoozing or reading. Around noon, there was a muffled curse from Andy: his sleeping bag had soaked up a puddle that had formed in a corner of the tent.

Next morning, we moved on under a grey sky. Now we were on the main crest, heading for Mae-Hodaka along its north ridge. The way was narrow; the drops on both sides sizeable; we concentrated on our footwork. When we paused, which was often, we looked down a breathtaking sweep of snow into the great glacial scoop of Karesawa. There, like a sprinkling of pixels, a virtual town of multi-coloured tentage had been established by the Golden Week climbing hordes.

Mostly, we boogied, unroped, until brought up short by an icy runnel that led upwards through a vertiginous grove of dake-kamba. This called for some full-tilt cramponing, kicking hard into the grey and rippled ice. Fragments spalled away from the steel points, jostling and tumbling down the gully. Then we were over the big hump in the ridge and climbing down into Go-roku col.

This time, care was called for when digging a platform for our tent, and even more so when shovelling snow into our cooking pot. Go-roku col is, it appears, a popular place. Expeditioners on Everest and Denali know the problem well.

A clear, cold morning on May 4 made for firm, crisp snow. Our crampons bit well into the creaking styrofoam. For an hour, Caspar and I boogied higher on the steepening ridge, now on the left of the crest, now on the right, as rocks and cornices dictated. Yamada and Andy were somewhere ahead. Here and there we made belays of the boot-axe variety, more for practice than from necessity. Once we waited on a shadowed ledge while a traffic jam of climbers cleared itself.

We came to the last tower. I hadn’t expected any difficulties here: in summer, a cleft in the rock is climbed by pressing a boot sole onto each face and so ratcheting oneself higher. That technique doesn’t work so well in crampons, especially when the rock is slathered in a film of glassy ice. I extended a tentative set of front-points, tried to move them higher – until, with a chalk-on-slate screech, the crampon sheared through the ice-film and dropped me back into the snow.

Behind, Caspar was driving his axe deeper into the snow in search of a firmer belay. And well he might. What next? I looked round the side of the ridge; a vertiginous sweep of snow falling hundreds of metres – no hope there. Then it had to be the chimney. Perhaps, with a bit of luck, I could reach that rusty piton, five metres up, without becoming unstuck… Could it be, I wondered, that matters were about to escalate into the full-tilt boogie-woogie? Before the question could be answered, a rope’s end whacked into the snow at my feet. “Thought you might need a bit of help,” Andy called from above.

That evening, we camped for the last time, in a pine grove down in the valley. Yamada-san was cooking; we’d taken it in turns. First course was a seaweed and tuna salad, the fish from a generously sized can. Hmm, I thought, our leader had scraped and teetered his way up that icy chimney weighed down with half a tent and a stock of sundry canned goods too. How did he do that?

I never found out the answer, because courtesy obliged us to entertain our neighbours, two girls from Yokohama. They’d pitched a tent beside their steeds, a brace of fearsomely rugged and mud-spattered Africa Twin trail bikes. Apparently, they worked the elevators in a department store. Always be extra polite to department store lift attendants: you never know what they get up to at weekends.


Historical photos and outline history of student "gasshuku" of the 1930s are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)


In the Taishō period, Hodaka became the arena for alpine and winter climbing. In the seminary of mountaineering skills formed by its four three-thousanders, the youthful elite of the university mountaineering clubs then in the forefront of mountaineering endeavour vied to open up new routes ... By the outbreak of the second world war, most of Hodaka's ridges, faces, and gullies had been explored. As Matsukata Saburō wrote, "Some nook or corner of the mountain still concealed a narrow ledge, a dance floor for a tengu, defended by sheer precipices on three sides and backed by a cliff, inaccessible to all but the true alpine adept. And, if you could only get there, the edelweiss would be blooming in sheets all around. Those were the kind of day-dreams we indulged in." Yet only a mountain on the sheer scale of Hodaka could harbour dreams like these.

From Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya - in translation as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Life and death on Japan's Matterhorn

Visiting Yari-ga-take in November, we follow in the footsteps of a pioneer winter soloist

Shinu-ze! You’re gonna die,” said the grizzled mountaineer, though there was a twinkle in his eye. A lot of snow had fallen for early November and we’d asked him if we could get up Yari without crampons. One of us didn’t yet own a pair and the other, out of solidarity, had left his behind. Yet it was too bright an afternoon to think of dying, and so we nodded and smiled, and ploughed on up Yari-sawa, knee-deep through the drifts.

Waiting for Allan in the shadow of Sesshō Hut, I wondered who had named the refuge with the characters for ‘kill’ and ‘life’ and why. A rustling from above distracted me: rivulets of snow were tumbling down Yari’s sunward face. From this angle, the mountain really did look Matterhorn-like.

It was Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary, who first dubbed Yari the “Matterhorn of Japan”. But the comparison really doesn't hold. Yari barely tops 3,000 metres; the Matterhorn stands more than a kilometre higher, rearing over Zermatt like a cobra ready to strike. By contrast, Yari is a cheerful chandelle of rock, less an independent peak than a tall gendarme punctuating the main ridge of Japan’s Northern Alps. Presumably Weston wanted to promote his book.

An hour later, we were sitting round the supper table in the hut’s dark-timbered gloom. There were few guests – the hut on the col had already closed for the season – and all were here to climb Yari on this final weekend of the season. A Mr Morimoto was anxious that we appreciate the mountain’s heritage. We’d heard of Monk Banryū and Walter Weston, of course – whose pioneer ascents the English-language guidebook mentioned – but who was this Katō Buntarō (photo above left) that Morimoto-san was telling us about?

The Japanese climbers were surprised that we hadn’t heard of him – the Katō who’d blazed meteor-like through the firmament of early-Showa alpinism. Fortunately the evening was young, so there was time to remedy our ignorance. Katō Buntarō was born in 1905 in Hamasaka, a village on the Tango peninsula, north of Kyoto. The village children spent a lot of time at the beach: Buntarō dominated their underwater swimming contests; he could hold out longer than everyone else.

In April 1919, he joined the Mitsubishi marine diesel factory in Kobe as a trainee draughtsman. Making drawings for heavy machinery production was arduous, exacting work. To let off steam, Katō played table-tennis back at the dormitory. And so he might have remained, a ferocious and focused ping-pong player, had not somebody thought of organising a marathon walk along Mt Rokko, the miniature mountain range that rises behind the city of Kobe.

One by one, all the other participants dropped out along the 50-kilometre course, but Katō kept going, trudging home at 9pm. The mountain air had agreed with him. Now he started training in earnest, setting himself long road-marches all round the prefecture. Once he walked 100 kilometres at a stretch, coming back to the dormitory at 2am. Sometimes he walked home to Hamasaka, on the opposite coast.

At the same time, he was delving into mountain literature, raiding the library of the Kobe Walking Society and asking a senior’s advice about the Northern Alps. A strategy started to take shape; Katō did nothing on impulse. In 1925, he made his first foray to the mountains, a summer hike from Renge Onsen to Shirouma, followed by a Mt Fuji ascent. The same year, he made two autumn trips, to Ōdaigahara and Daisen. Two more years of summer and autumn hiking followed, as Katō tested out his new environment.

Then the pace quickened. In February 1928, he made his first winter foray, to Hyōnosen, the highest mountain within easy reach. In May, when the Japan Alps are still deep in snow, he went to Tateyama and Tsurugi, using skis for the first time, and carried on to Yari and the Hodaka mountains. The following year he went to Yatsugatake in January: Katō’s career as Japan’s foremost winter alpinist was under way.

All these journeys were solo. “As I’m not good at skiing or rock-climbing, parties that do those things wouldn’t welcome me as a member,” he explained (冬富士単独行) “And so I more or less have to go to the mountains alone; it’s not because I espouse some sort of rigorous ideology of solitary climbing.” That wasn’t quite the full story, though, as he admitted in another essay (単独行について): “If mountaineering is about gaining knowledge and hence solace from nature, then surely you gain the most knowledge and the highest degree of solace from solo mountaineering.”

Now came the great mid-winter expeditions that made his name – and they were expeditions, meticulously planned and executed, with equipment checked off against a list as it was packed. Some of the gear Katō invented himself: a celluloid faceplate, for example, that he slid inside his woollen balaclava helmet to keep the spindrift out of his eyes. He was also an original thinker when it came to food: his provisions included pasted-fish kamaboko for the protein, as well as karintō, a deep-fried pastry confection, and sweet natto beans for energy. (“You might try them yourselves,” suggested Mr Morimoto, nodding at us from across the table.)

Thus equipped, Katō set off in January 1930 to cross the Northern Alps from west to east. He managed this feat in ten days, starting at Sarudani, climbing over Yakushi and descending to the Kurobe river, then crossing Eboshi-dake before returning to civilisation at Shinano-Ohmachi. In February, he took in Kashimayari and Hari-no-ki, two more high peaks in the region.

All the while, he was noting the behaviour of weather and snow – how, in mid-winter, a three-day cycle sets in, of sunshine, cloud, and storm – and how to read the cues, perhaps a slant of cold wind after a storm, that signal when it is safe to start out. Avalanches were intensively studied: when snow started falling, it was relatively warm and cohesive, he observed, but the temperature then dropped. That meant that avalanches were most likely to come down right at the end of a storm.

This was fascinating, we agreed, but why had Morimoto chosen to invoke the memory of Katō just here? Well, Yari looms large in this story. Like some strange attractor, it was a pole around which Katō’s alpine wanderings revolved. It was to Yari that he headed in August 1926, on his second summer trip to the Northern Alps. After striding across from Tsubakuro, he climbed the spire-like peak on the same afternoon. Clouds hid most of the view as he and others on the summit raised a triple “Banzai”. Then he went down to the Sesshō Hut – which had started existence as a hunting lodge, hence its curious name.

He came back the following year, in mid-October. His new boots were too heavy, but at least they were good for kicking into the frozen snow on Yari. (Lacking crampons ourselves, we’d have to take a leaf out of his book tomorrow.) On the same day, he walked out over a pass to the village of Shimajima, getting there just before 10pm.

Now he had the measure of autumn, he felt ready to tackle the snows of spring. In May 1928, he visited the Yari-Hodaka range for the first time on skis. A few years later, he was confident enough on skis to head for Yari in mid-winter. Avalanches roared down from the sunward slopes as he entered Yari-sawa. On Yari itself, his crampons bit well into the hard snow; he preferred snow-work to rock.

Next day, an unstructured situation developed. On Oku-Hodaka, the highest peak in the massif, a blasting gale froze his eyes half-shut and he backed off – too late. Night fell as he was still skiing down the snowbowl of Karesawa, where a treacherous crust tripped him up at every turn. A torch might have helped, but he didn’t have one.

At 8pm, he picked a bivvy site beside a rock. Taking off his boots, he stepped into his rucksack, standing up all night so that his wet trousers wouldn’t cling to his legs and chill him. Luckily, it snowed heavily, keeping the temperature up; his clothes didn’t freeze and he got away without frost-bite.

Katō’s last visit to Yari was in January 1936. This time, a colleague, Yoshida Tomihisa, came with him. The abandonment of his solo ethos was not the only change in his life. A year or two previously, he’d got married. Now he came home every day to a real house instead of the grim company dormitory. “I’m back, Hana-chan,” he’d call out cheerily at the door. Soon he had a baby daughter to greet too.

In April 1934, he’d managed a week in the Northern Alps with Yoshida. They tackled the North Ridge to Mae-Hodaka, tunnelling their way up through a snow-filled chimney. What prompted Katō to climb with a companion? Marriage may have mellowed him, or he felt the need for a rope partner to tackle more difficult routes. Or, as Fujiki Kuzō suggested, he may have harboured ambitions for the Himalaya. If so, he might well have concluded that climbers could only succeed there as part of a strong team. British expeditions had recently returned to Everest, after the decade-long lapse that followed the deaths of Mallory and Irvine in 1924.

Whatever their dreams for the future, Katō and Yoshida overnighted at the hut on Yari’s col on January 2, 1936. Their immediate plan was to traverse the Kita-kama, the serious and committing ridge that extends north of Yari. A blizzard was raging when they woke the next day, forcing them to weigh their summit chances against their dwindling stock of food and annual leave. After breakfast, they went out into the driving snow and started up the ice-encrusted rocks. That was the last time that anybody saw them alive. When the bodies were found, in the deep valley on the far side of Yari, a newspaper lamented the passing of a life “like a national treasure”.

We slept well in the cold hut, waking to a bright, calm morning. After breakfast, we went out to climb Yari. In places, the snow had a hard glaze, and we used our axes to cut footholds or, ramming the picks into icy runnels, we belayed ourselves carefully over rocky steps.

This was our first trip to a high mountain. Later, we’d go on to climb in three different sets of Alps, in Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Great summits have this effect: they draw people to them and, for good or ill, alter the orbits of their lives. In the 1820s, Yari pulled in Monk Banryū, who made the first recorded ascent. Some decades later, it attracted the first generation of foreign climbers, including Walter Weston.

Then came the Army surveyors, closely followed by Kojima Usui and Okano Kinjirō in 1902. Their ascent led to a fateful meeting with Weston, who suggested to Kojima the idea of founding a Japanese Alpine Club. You could say that that Yari helped to shape the whole history of modern Japanese mountaineering. When it comes to stature and influence, Yari is every bit the peer of that other Matterhorn. Perhaps Weston wasn't so far off the mark to make that comparison.

One last move brought us up in front of the summit shrine, a lineal descendant of the one to which Kato Buntaro presented his business card one cloudy August day in 1926. Nobody raised a triple ‘banzai’, though Allan and I may have so far forgotten ourselves as to shake hands. Above us the sky was blue, yet veil cloud was already stealing up from the south.


Katō Buntarō, Tandokko (単独行)

See also Manifesto of a solo mountaineer

Photos of Katō Buntarō and his era are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)


Just as everyone wants to climb Fuji once, so anyone with a passing interest in mountaineering has to do Yari-ga-take. In the old days, one might say, Fuji was the summit of ambition, but the focus of modern mountaineering has now shifted to Yari. (Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan)