Friday, February 25, 2011

Measuring Mt Fuji (2)

Mt Fuji is a true "yokozuna" among island-arc volcanoes

But how high is Mt Fuji really? Not in the arbitrary coinage of feet or metres or shaku, but compared to its peers. Can it be considered a true yokozuna among volcanoes when set beside such hulks as Chimborazo (6,268 metres), whose summit is further from the centre of the Earth than Everest's? Or Ojos del Salado (6,893 metres) on the Chilean-Argentina border, which may be – nobody is quite certain – the world’s tallest volcano?

The comparison might be unfair. While the volcanic giants of the Americas stand on the solid footing of a continental craton, Fuji has to make do with the thin crust of an island arc - where it sustains itself by little more than "hinkaku", the ‘gracefulness’ that Fukada Kyuya attributes to famous mountains.

In fact, it’s hard to find island arc volcanoes that rise much higher than Fuji. Tambora, an Indonesian heavyweight, once soared above 4,000 metres, it is alleged. Alas, it met its Waterloo in 1815, when it blew apart in a massive eruption. The stump is now a thousand metres shorter than Japan’s top mountain.

Then there’s Klyuchevskaya Sopka (4,750 metres), the tallest mountain on Kamchatka and the largest active volcano in the Northern Hemisphere. But – hold it – Kamchatka is not quite pukka as an island arc, being a peninsula joined to the Siberian mainland. Like a sekiwake implicated in a sumo match-fixing scandal, Klyuchevskaya must be disbarred on suspicion of soliciting illicit help from the Russian continental Underworld.

When it comes to its peers on true island arcs, Mt Fuji more than holds its own. It overtops the highest volcanoes in New Zealand and the Philippines by more than a thousand metres. And it stands almost crater-to-crater with Indonesia's tallest volcano, Sumatra's Mt Kerinci (3,800 metres). That close coincidence of heights set Project Hyakumeizan wondering. Is it just chance that the greatest volcanoes of Indonesia and Japan top out at roughly the same altitude? And how high can a volcano grow anyway?

It turns out that few savants have considered this question. One who did was Peter Vogt of the US Naval Oceanographic Office in Washington. Looking at oceanic island volcanoes, such as Hawaii’s, he concluded that their heights were related to the thickness of the crustal plate on which they stood. The thicker the plate, the higher the volcano. Beyond a certain limiting height, the lava no longer has enough pressure to keep erupting from the volcano's summit.

Vogt ended his his 1974 paper with an intriguing speculation about the huge volcanoes discovered on Mars – Olympus Mons (火星富士: the Mt Fuji of Mars), the tallest, is almost three times as high as Everest, even though Mars is a much smaller planet. Such huge mountains, Vogt suggested, would need to be supported by a crust that is two or three times thicker than the Earth's.

If Vogt's hypothesis holds for island-arc volcanoes, it may be that Mt Fuji has already grown as tall as it ever will. After all, it is already more than 700 metres higher than Ontake, the next-loftiest Japanese volcano. Fuji’s most recent activity, from a side-vent in 1707, added nothing to its stature. We’ll have to wait for the next eruption to see if Japan’s top mountain intends to make another bid for that coveted 4,000-metre brevet.


Volcano height and plate thickness. Peter R. Vogt, US Naval Oceanographic Office, 1974

Image of Kasei-Fuji (火星富士) by courtesy of Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Measuring Mt Fuji (1)

As every Japanese schoolchild knows, Fuji is 3,776 metres high. More or less, anyway…

For one glorious hour, Mt Fuji was promoted into the ranks of the world’s 4,000-metre peaks. That was on September 11th, 1860 when the first ascent by a foreigner was made by Sir Rutherford Alcock, Queen Victoria’s envoy and minister plenipotentiary to the court of the “Tycoon”. In his retinue was a Lieutenant Robinson who, a few days previously at Hakone, had “set to work, to the infinite astonishment of some native attendants, to boil his thermometer – in other words to ascertain the height of the lake.”

Repeating the trick at the top of Mt Fuji, Lieutenant Robinson came up with a height of 14, 177 feet – some 4,321 metres. He might have saved himself the trouble. As early as 1727 (or the 12th year of Kyoho), a savant by the name of Fukuda had triangulated Fuji’s altitude at 3,895.1 metres.

In 1828, Ninomiya Keisaku – physician, Dutch scholar, medical botanist and student of the German doctor, Philipp Franz von Siebold, – climbed the mountain and, for the first time, estimated its height by measuring the air pressure - whether directly with a barometer or by boiling his thermometer is unknown to this blogger. That gave an altitude of 3,794.5 metres. After Siebold's expulsion from Japan, Ninomiya also brought up Siebold’s daughter, Ine, setting her on course to become Japan’s first woman doctor. But that is another story…

For the method and date, Ninomiya’s estimate was astonishingly close to the mark. Less than 20 metres off, in fact. Almost sixty years later, in the mid-Meiji era, the Japanese army surveyors came up with a figure of 3,778 metres, using modern trigonometric techniques and equipment imported from Europe.

Later, the Army's figure was refined to today’s generally accepted height of 3,776 metres – which, conveniently for historians, came into use in the first year of Showa (1926). This – or, more precisely, 3,775.6 metres – is the height of the triangulation point. A nearby rock makes the actual height of the mountain a shade higher.

Not everybody got swiftly behind the new official altitude. As late as 1943, Dazai Osamu, a literary type, was still referring, in his novel One Hundred Views of Fuji, to "the three-thousand, seven hundred and seventy-eight-metre mountain…”. Or perhaps the writer was ahead of the curve. In 2002, Fuji was re-surveyed using the latest technology. This time, the altitude came out at 3,777.5 metres…

Next: Is Mt Fuji as high as it should be?


富士山検定公式テキスト、富士山検定協会  (December 2006)

Sir Rutherford Alcock, The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years Residence in Japan (1863)

Prints: by courtesy of Sir Rutherford Alcock and Google Books

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“Mountains that women can climb” (3)

The story of Japan's mountaineering women concluded: how the ladies' climbing clubs made it to the top

Standing outside the Imperial Palace on a day of torrential rain in mid-1946, the Emperor proclaimed a new constitution. The bland opening of Article 14 – “All of the people are equal under the law …” – barely hinted at the legislative dynamite smouldering within. At a stroke, half of the Emperor’s subjects were newly enfranchised; for the first time, Japanese women could vote.

In the mountains, full enfranchisement took a little longer. The Japan Alpine Club – the country’s oldest – formed a women’s section in 1949. That wasn’t enough for some actual or prospective members, who started forming their own clubs. The most prominent was the Edelweiss Club, founded in 1955 by Sakakura Tokiko (see previous article) – an earlier Club Edelweiss, founded by Kobayashi Shizuko two decades earlier, had been dissolved during the war.

The new clubs helped women break into expedition climbing. In 1955, a group of working women led by Hosokawa Satoko went to the Punjab Himalaya and climbed Deo Tibba (6,001m). Others struck out on their own. In 1957, Kawamori Sachiko took an eight-month sabbatical in Europe and made ascents of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, the first by a Japanese woman.

Women also took part in mixed expeditions. A Waseda University expedition to Kilimanjaro in 1958 included two girls. In 1970, Watanabe Setsuko reached Everest's South Col as a member of an expedition to the southwest face. Increasingly, though, women were organising their own overseas trips. Watanabe Setsuko helped to start that trend in 1968, when she and Ashiya Yoko reached the top of Istor-o-Nal (7,200m) in the Hindu Kush.

In the same year, a Ladies' Climbing Club was founded, specifically to pursue ambitions in the Himalaya. As none of its members had been there, they needed help in finding an objective. And thus it was that a slightly built but intense young woman paid a visit to an ageing author at his modest house in Setagaya.

In their separate ways, both Fukada Kyūya and Tabei Junko had recently made their names – Fukada with his Nihon Hyakumeizan book and Tabei (right in picture above) with a winter climb on the fearsome cliffs of Tanigawa’s Ichinokura-sawa, a first for an all-woman team.

For his part, Fukada had established himself as a Himalaya guru – he’d published two books on the subject and he’d led an expedition to the Jugal Himal in 1958. It was this expertise that Tabei hoped to tap. “Hmm,” mused the writer as he pored over maps and photos with his guest, “Are there any mountains that women can climb by themselves?”

Apparently there were. In 1970, Tabei Junko and Hirakawa Hiroko made the second ascent of Annapurna III, reaching the 7,555-metre summit by a new route. Five years later, Tabei headed for Everest on an all-woman expedition sponsored by Nihon Television and the Yomiuri newspaper.

Snow conditions were dangerous: at Camp II (6,300m), the climbers were avalanched in their tents. A Sherpa dragged Tabei out of the snow by her feet; she had to be revived with oxygen. The team decided to continue with the expedition: “After all, nobody had been killed.” Twelve days later, on May 16, 1975, Tabei Junko became the first woman of any nationality to stand on Everest’s summit.

It would be tempting to leave the story of Japanese lady alpinists just there, on the summit of Everest with Tabei Junko. Tempting, yet specious. Such an account would not give the whole picture. It wouldn't explain, for example, why, all the way up the final slopes of Everest, Tabei was holding an imaginary conversation with a former climbing companion called Sasō Rumie: “Sasō-san, every step hurts but watch me, won’t you – ah, now I can see the Tibetan side.”

“Sasō-san” was the best partner that Tabei had ever climbed with. She’d phoned Tabei out of the blue while she was still working in her mid-twenties at the Japan Association for Physics. “I’d like to climb with you,” said Sasō in her inimitably direct way. They started out on the crumbling lava cliffs of Yatsu-ga-dake before graduating to Tanigawa-dake in winter. That was where the black-and-white photo above was taken, showing Sasō standing to Tabei's left.

It was Sasō and Tabei who made the first all-woman winter ascent of Ichinokura-sawa’s Central Ridge. That was in December 1966. The following autumn, Sasō was again climbing in Ichinokura-sawa when her partner slipped. Sasō reached out to grab her, lost her own balance, and fell to her death. The other woman was saved when her pack caught on a projection.

Eerily similar was the trajectory of Wakayama Miko’s life. One of the most stylish climbers of her generation – she also looked good in a kimono, said her friends – she teamed up with Imai Michiko to climb the north face of the Matterhorn. This feat, achieved in the summer of 1967, was another first for women anywhere. Six years later she returned to the mountain with her husband, on their honeymoon. Something went wrong and they both fell. She was 33.

Sekida Michiko too honed her skills on the hard routes of Tanigawa and the Northern Alps. Starting out as an Edelweiss member, she founded her own club in 1969, to focus on even harder routes. Calling themselves the ‘Ryōsetsu’ group, which might translate as ‘snow-defying’, they were as good as their name. In 1972, they went to the precipitous south side of Denali; three expedition members failed to return. Sekida herself survived, only to perish on the snowy ridge of Nishi-Hodaka four years later.

For all these tragedies, it was a golden age of sorts. From the late 60s to the mid-70s, an elite corps of Japanese lady alpinists had the world - sometimes literally - at its feet. As when they climbed the first 8000er to be scaled by an all-women’s expedition – that was Manaslu in 1974 (summit photo below) – as well as two of the great alpine north faces. They were enfranchised. A century after women had won the freedom of Mt Fuji, mountaineering Valhalla had gone equal-opportunity.


Tabei Junko, Everest Mama-san

William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964, Random House

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) - also the source for the black-and-white photos

Hiroko Seiwa and Akio Funahashi, History of Japanese Mountaineering and Women in the Light of their Relations to Religion, Faculty of Education, Kochi University, 1982

The anecdote about Fukada helping Tabei Junko choose a Himalayan mountain to climb comes from an article on Everest climbers, Everest Shomei Futatsu, by Fujishima Koji in the Asahi Shinbun, November 15, 2005 (thanks to the Sensei for this)

Previous posts in this series

Part 1: The story of Tatsu, the first woman to climb Mt Fuji

Part 2: How the Otenba of Taishō pushed out the boundaries

Related series

Chiyoko's Fuji