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)


Iainhw said...

Another excellent posting. I really enjoyed this one, both the history and your personal account. It reminded me of my last ascent done in similar conditions at the end of october way back in 2003. It's a nice summit to have to yourself, as long as you're not too preoccupied with the descent, like I was!
Doing the north ridge is still on my wish list, but preferably in the warmer months.

David said...

A truly awesome post. I thought that my boys in Hokkaido were on the cutting edge, but it sounds like Katō was pushing the envelope like no one else.

Keep up the great posts. I want to pick your brains sometime soon about a new project on mountains in Japanese history. I'll be in touch.

☆sapphire said...

Fascinating post, Hyakumeizan!
Your photos are all so beautiful!
I've never climbed Yari-ga-take though I've climbed Kashima-Yari in summer. Do you know a statue of Banryu-shonin(播隆上人)stands in front of JR Matsumoto Station? I've heard that he did his best to set up iron chains and ropes on the path to the summit.
I sometimes wonder what happened to the three Buddhist statues he'd placed on the summit.
And I was impressed with the very start of this post. Your personal account is all fantastic, though. The first paragraph is really GREAT!! I love it!

wes said...

excellent report about one of Kansai's unsung heroes.

looks like we found the origin of the Rokko 1-day traverse that takes place every November. I'm sure Kato himself would be surprised at the number of people who complete the walk each year.

Not sure if you're referring to 'Tango' in Northern Kyoto as I can't seem to locate a Tanba on my map (unless the area changed names?)

Hyonosen is a respectable place to begin an auspicious career of winter mountaineering. If only he hadn't fallen off the northern face of Yari, I'm sure he'd his name would be in the Himalayan history books....

Glad to see you still made it up to the summit despite being ill-equipped, though I imagine there wasn't too much ice lying about. I can see why Yari got you hooked on winter mountaineering with such outstanding akibare weather you were blessed with.

Keep the posts coming. You've inspired me to get back on the saddle and start posting regularly again.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain, David, Sapphire, Wes - many thanks for reading this lengthy piece. The excuse for this self-indulgence - as far as length goes - is that, as far as I know, Kato Buntaro hasn't been written up in English before - difficult to say where he fits in mountaineering history, as he was a true original, without many imitators.

Iain: copy that about the descent - I seem to remember we were very careful and cut a few more steps on the way down. Kita-Kama ridge: mmm, I'm mulling a post on that one too...

David: another mountain history project? I'm all ears. Shall we Skype? PS: I think your AACH boys were very much on the cutting edge - in that their expeditionary/ski-mountaineering doctrines had a lasting influence on the way these things were/are done in Japan... Alas, Kato's chance to influence mountaineering style was truncated by his untimely death.

Sapphire: I very much enjoyed your recent postings, especially the one about the colour-changing hibiscus. I think you're onto something here - the treasure house of Japanese natural history. Like Kato Buntaro, enormously neglected in the English language. We must do something about this....

Wes: many thanks for the Tango correction - I've changed the text. And also for your write-up on Hyonosen, otherwise a completely obscure mountain to me. As you see, I've linked to your post. Good to hear that you feel inspired - I look forward to new instalments of Tozan Tales....! (What about covering some more of those Kansai peaks....?)

Kittie Howard said...

Fabulous post!! Sapphire's right, the opening is perfect. I didn't think the post was too long, didn't even notice the length, actually, as I so enjoyed Kato's history and the climb you and Allan made. As I've said before, I can't do what you do but I definitely enjoy your photos and reading about your climbs (have learned a lot, thanks!)

Think I mentioned I studied Japanese for a number of years (but am forgetting it)...once again I noticed that older writings use more Kanji...have read articles that the younger generation is in a hurry, more in tune with the Hirigana. A pity!

Peter Skov said...

I have an old newspaper article buried somewhere about a famous mountaineer who died in a winter storm around Yari sometime between 1926 and 1936. I tried to read it years ago but failed to understand the whole article. I kept it for future reference and every other year when I decide to do a major cleaning of my office at home, it turns up. If I find it again I will let you know.

By the way, today a woman at the bank told me that when she saw Yarigatake from the Tateyama area she was held in awe and wonder by the magnetism of that mountain. I told her that Fukuda said that next to Fuji, Yari is the mountain that climbers point to and say, "Look, there's Yari over there!"

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Kittie: many thanks for tolerating the length of this post!

Peter: yes, that's the passage from Hyakumeizan. This is what it says....

"Whenever we go to the mountains, we are apt to hear a jubilant voice exclaim "Ah, there's Fuji!" or "Ah, there's Yari!". Recognized at a glance, that distinctive spire is hard to miss. The sharp wedge of its summit stays the same from any viewpoint, a lonely spire pointing into the sky...."

And, PS, yes your newspaper article may well be about Kato. A Kansai hero. There's also the two-volume fictionalised account of his life by Nitta Jiro....

rune said...

I read Manga/Comic "Kokou no Hito". The comic told about Mori Buntaro (aka Kato Buntaro) the soloist climber. Maybe it's not the sama Buntaro, but the author wrote that based on real Buntaro. One of story told about Buntaro's all Japan’s Northern Alps mountaineering.

After that I feel crazy to know more about Mountaineering and also the real Kato Buntaro. There's almost none article about Buntaro (from google), and finally I found it here, in your blog. And not only Buntaro History but also his photo. Thank you so much for great article. I'm going to read all of your article here. Very nice Blog.

If you don't mind would you write about Soloist climber who got to the top of Savage Mountain K2. Thx in advance.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Rune: thanks for reading - I haven't seen the manga "Kokou no Hito" but it's certainly based on the novel with the same title by Nitta Jiro - which, in turn, is based on the real life Kato Buntaro who is described in this blog posting. Nitta Jiro's novel is quite long - two volumes - so you'd certainly find a lot of detail there.

As for K2, well, I didn't know anybody solo'd it yet (although I met a young German who planned to try). But I don't know much about the Himalaya, so somebody else will have to write that story. The next few posts on this blog will probably be about Mt Fuji: watch this space ....

Anonymous said...

Let me comment this post even if i don't know how you keep track of all those comments left months and months after…
This one I’ve enjoyed too. Just can’t tell what did I more: the post or the conversation. He… I chat boy, the life chat were the best… hmm … perhaps we will meet at any hill without knowing that we were … taciturn …
Kato and Yoshida went into the snow devils as I understood. You and Alan did it better. That's exactly what i mean: when you've found your soul you did it: he or she will climb in your foots, will stop where you did, will see what you saw, will talk without talking and feel the same. That's the top of mountaineering for me, but … don’t forget, I am a dreamer.
Shinu-ze; said the old. Tell me something new, that i've never heard before, if you want me to remember. The story of Kato, perhaps ... It’s only that there I don’t understand those antilogies: He was a genius, a hardened soloist, experienced alpinist, some who who were able to take responsibility for himself and the other to evaluate and respect the risk, than this … who knows what happened and why. They were found in valley?
But you've climbed some mountains with Alan in Switzerland too. Were you at Matterhorn? For sure. What’s to know about? Which is your favorite of Swiss’s?

Claudio Kaneda said...

Belo post. Mesmo lendo em 2020, muito rico em detalhes.

Anonymous said...

Que linda historia, sobre todo después de leer el manga que fue inspirado en katō

Anonymous said...

A beautiful read, thank you!