Monday, October 31, 2011

Good kama, bad kama (2)

The Kitakama ridge continued: unknowingly, we take a break at the scene of a famous mountain tragedy ...

Perched on the roots of a mountain birch, we ate our cheese butties and looked down on the wooded col. The dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, suggesting to us a sylvan idyll - until we noticed, scattered among the weeds, the rusting tins, empty gas cartridges, and shreds of tent fabric that hinted at desperate struggles against the elements. This col, we sensed, could be a happening place.

Indeed it can. In the summer of 1949, a search party moved south from here, scanning the snow for tell-tale clues just like the ones in front of us. Soon they found an abandoned cooking pot, then a shovel and a glove. Acting on this evidence, another group struggled up the trackless valley to the west of the Kitakama. And there they discovered the bodies of the two climbers, still huddled in the melting snowbank of their last bivouac.

Matsunami Akira was born in 1922 at Sendai, in the same year that the Kitakama ridge was first climbed. He made a name for himself as a mountaineer before graduating from middle school, even soloing a route on the fearsome cliffs of Tanigawa's Ichinokura-sawa. Because it was convenient for the Northern Alps, he applied to Matsumoto's elite high school, but was detained on Hodaka by a snowstorm on the day of the entrance examination.

That forced a change of plan. Moving to Tokyo, he joined the famous Tosho-keiryūkai club and passed the entrance exam for Tokyo Agricultural University, already a hotbed of mountaineering activity.

Now began the heyday of Matsunami's career. While some top climbers specialise in a particular cliff or region, he was everywhere, putting up new routes on Tanigawa, on Yatsugatake and in the Southern Japan Alps. The first winter ascent of No 1 Ridge (topo below) in Takidani in February 1939 was a milestone in the advancement of Japan's alpine climbing standards.

When the war came, he was drafted into the army for two years, being demobilised in 1946. Those were hungry and bleak years in Japan's burned-out cities. They didn't quench Matsunami's spirit. In July 1948, he made the first ascent of Kitadake Buttress's Central Ridge (Chuo-ryō), a climb that most mountaineers still prefer to admire from a safe distance.

Around the same time, he conceived his boldest plan yet. With just one companion, Arimoto Katsumi, he would traverse the highest mountains of the Japan Northern Alps from end to end, in mid-winter. They would start by climbing the Kitakama, cross the narrow and exposed Dai-Kiretto, and scale the heights of Oku-Hodaka before descending at the foot of the Yake-dake volcano.

As if the route's length and technical difficulties were not enough, Matsunami and Arimoto decided to do without pre-placed dumps of food and fuel. Nor would they call on support parties, as was common practice for winter expeditions. That meant they'd have to carry twenty days' food and fuel on their own backs, as well as all their climbing and camping gear.

The weather was against them from the start. Matsunami went into the mountains ahead of Arimoto, planning to lift one load of supplies to the ridgeline before his friend joined him. While he was camping on the Kitakama, a day of unseasonable heavy rain soaked his tent. Then the temperature plummeted, freezing the canvas into an icy block.

When Arimoto came up to Yumata, the climbers decided to leave the tent behind; it was now too heavy to carry. Instead, they would dig snowholes or huddle under a flysheet ("zelt"). This was a fateful decision. On December 30, they crossed the suspension bridge at Yumata, heading for the Kitakama. The next day, they made their first bivouac on the ridge, shivering under the flysheet as it was lashed by hail and sleet. It was the worst night out that either had yet experienced.

On New Year's Day, the storm strengthened into a full blizzard, piling a foot of new snow onto an icy crust. Neither crampons nor snowshoes would work in this pother, but the pair made it as far as Kitakama col - where we were now sitting - into which they dug a snowhole. Then they did their best to dry out their sodden clothes over the roaring stove, until it started sputtering and misbehaving.

The storm pinned them in their snowhole for the whole of the next day. Until Matsunami could fix the stove, they had to burn petrol in an open can to stay warm and melt snow. Soot blackened the walls of the snowhole, but their clothes stayed sodden. Now they had to decide whether to go on or go down. Just at this critical juncture, the climbers looked out of their snowhole and saw a starry sky. Then Matsunami managed to jury-rig the stove.

Next morning, they went forwards. With Arimoto breaking trail, they made it to the foot of the Doppyō, a large pyramid-shaped peaklet on the ridge, by the evening of 3rd January. As the weather seemed to moderate the following morning, they succeeded in climbing the obstacle only to be caught in a blizzard of renewed ferocity as they came down the other side.

It was on this afternoon, in hindsight, that the jaws of the trap sprang shut. In the snowhole that evening, Arimoto discovered that he had second-degree frostbite to his feet. Later, the gale blew in the door of their shelter, covering the climbers with spindrift and soaking and freezing them anew.

With retreat to the north blocked by the bulk of the Doppyō, the climbers decided to jettison as much gear as possible - these would be the telltale relics found by the search party - and stake their lives on a dash towards Yari. But when they struggled out of the remains of the snowhole into the relentless blizzard, they found the straps of their crampons frozen into a solid tangle.

Without crampons, they were forced to start step-cutting their way along the icy flanks of the ridge. Blinded by the buffeting gusts of spindrift, Arimoto slipped and fell into a gully on the western side of the ridge. As he was too exhausted to climb back, Matsunami went down to join him. Unable to regain the ridge, they forced a way downwards through chest-deep snowdrifts. At 3pm, they dug another snowhole.

On January 6th, the blizzard still raging, Matsunami begins to sense there is no way out. His whole body is freezing; he's at the end of his strength. Arimoto can no longer move. Somehow, he himself could probably get down to Yumata, but that would mean leaving Arimoto alone. He can't do that, so he decides to stay and die. It is six o clock when he makes the decision to die with Arimoto, he records.

"Mother," he writes in his diary, scribbling with a pencil stub gripped in frost-bitten fingers, "thank you for your love - I'm about to join my father. We can't do anything more. Please forgive me. Ask Inoue-san to fix everything." He writes to Inoue, and puts in a note to other friends too: "Arakawa-san - sorry I couldn't return the sleeping bag."

And then: "We die, we dissolve into water, we flow into the sea, we feed the fish, then we become some body again; we just borrow our shape and go round for ever. Matsunami." He stops writing and wraps the diary in a waterproof pouch, and that is where the search party finds it, next to his camera, six months later.

We allowed ourselves ten minutes on that greenwood col. Then Donald nodded at the cumulus clouds that were starting to boil off nearby ridges: "We'd better get a move on," he said. I bolted down the remains of my cheese butty, got to my feet and swung the faded army-green pack to my shoulders. Yes, we'd better get going. We knew little of the Kitakama's illustrious history, but the scattered gear in front of us told its own story. We didn't want to spend the night out on this ridge.



Main source for the account of Matsunami Akira's last bivouac is his diary, which is reprinted with other of his mountain writings in "Fūsetsu no Bibāgu" (風雪のビバーグ Snowstorm Bivouac), a Japanese mountaineering classic. The book also contains an account of the search parties sent out after Matsunami and Arimoto were reported missing.

Photo of Matsunami above is copyright of this blog. Photo of Matsunami and Arimoto together on the Kitakama expedition is copyright of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社). This photo was recovered from Matsunami's camera, after the accident. Aerial photos of Yari-ga-take and the Kitakama ridge are copyright of Ohmori Kohichiro from Kusatsu Kita-Arupusu (Japan Northern Alps from the Air).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Good kama, bad kama (1)

Getting to the foot of the irresistible ridge takes longer than expected...

Skiving off work early on Friday, we sprinted through Shinjuku station on a sweltering summer's afternoon. If we missed the 2pm Azusa express, we'd probably not finish our climb in time to park our black office shoes under our respective desks on Monday morning.

The day before, we'd run our plan by Etsuko, who worked for a foreign bank's operations department. That is, when she wasn't climbing tough routes in Tanigawa. Etsuko hadn't been positive: "Friend of mine fell off it in spring - never found the body. I think you should go for something easier," she said, looking vaguely intimidatory as she stood there in her blue office suit, arms folded.

Since Donald and I had only recently arrived in Tokyo, we sought Etsuko's advice for most of our alpine projects. And, like as not, ignored it. What deafened our ears to the voice of good sense this time was the encomium we'd found in the Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains Volume VII: "With its illustrious history, the Kitakama Ridge of Yarigatake is a classic alpine route that calls into play every aspect of mountaineering skill."

That irresistible write-up propelled us first to Shinano Ohmachi, the Big Town in the highlands of Shinshu. Alighting there from the train, we just had time to threw down a katsu-donburi before taking a taxi up into a river valley as far as the second of three dams. We started walking at dusk, up the sloping face of the third dam, and then along a wooded valley. Above its velvet-black walls, the Milky Way luminously marshalled us forwards.

The stars shone steadily, undimmed by haze, as bats flitted in and out of our head-torch beams like night fighters. The weather would be good tomorrow. After three hours, we reached the Seiran-sō hut at Yumata for a late-night beer and a dip in the onsen. The sulphurous waters eased our muscles while steeping us in a vaguely Mephistolean scent. Fortunately, it was too dark to see our ridge looming up to the south.

Next morning, we woke at four and set out at five. From the map, we reckoned we'd deal with the approach to our ridge in about two hours. We reckoned without "friction", as infantry tacticians might call it. The path southwards, overgrown with waist-high panda grass, hinted at what lay in store. Few seemed to pass this way.

And with good reason. The path led to a derelict suspension bridge that careened towards the rushing waters of the Amagami river. That took us into a deep gorge, which we traversed warily, now boulder-hopping just above the water, now crab-crawling worrisomely across washouts where the old trail had crumbled away. At one point, we teetered over a scarp-face on half-collapsed wooden catwalks.

The river has to be re-crossed just before the Deai, a meeting of streams. But the bridge marked on our sketch-map had quite vanished. With misgivings, we inspected the waist-deep torrent of meltwater and judged it worthy of our rope - the only time we would use it. After Donald had fixed a sling around a tree, I launched myself into the current like a high-speed drogue on the end of a log-line. The bracingly cold water surged up to my neck before I got across, gasping, to the other side.

Five or so hours after leaving the Seiran-sō, we squelched our way out of the shadowy gorge - taking our boots off for the river crossing had been out of the question - and emerged into a green amphitheatre, bounded to the east by the green walls of our ridge, still flecked with snow. At our feet, the mid-morning sun reverberated from a dazzling flood-plain of white boulders. 

Only now could we appreciate the scale of this ridge - we'd taken five hours just to bush-whack along its base, covering perhaps one-third of its five-kilometre length. And we hadn't yet gained much height towards that serrated ridgeline at 3,000 metres. We glanced anxiously at our watches; at least, the day was still young.

Our sketch-map showed that we should climb the gully opposite the ruins of a hut. But the encroaching woods had covered all traces of this lodge, leaving us without a clue as to the right gully. Unfazed, Donald took a compass fix off the spike of Yari, which now rose diffidently above the riotous press of trees, and proclaimed that we stood more or less in the right spot.

And he was right: walking over to the base of the ridge, we spotted a cairn, half-hidden in the weeds. A rugged scramble ensued, over boulders and the occasional dry waterfall. 11.30am saw us to the ridge-line, which at this point (between pinnacles P7 and P8) is still wooded. The weather was still perfect and the gully had yielded up to Donald a Goretex bivvy bag, fortunately without its former occupant.

More abandoned kit littered the small patch of level ground on the col. Clearly this was a happening kind of place in the snow season. I was about to sit down for a bite of lunch when Donald raised his hand. "Let's move out of the sh*t zone first," he said.


Friday, October 14, 2011

The lost wolves of Japan

A history of Japan's wolves packs some hard-hitting ecological lessons

Excuse me while I howl. I’ve been reading Brett Walker’s book on “The Lost Wolves of Japan” and it’s a sorry tale. Japan’s last wolf was killed by hunters near Washikaguchi, in the eastern Yoshino mountains, in January 1905. A monument marks the spot.

For much of Japan's history, wolf and human had rubbed along well enough. Wolves rarely attacked people, and people tended to hunt them only when lupine depredations got out of hand. (It seems that Japanese wolves had a special weakness for fresh horse.)

Indeed, the wolf was often seen as a kind of guardian spirit. Up near Morioka, in the North Country, when farmers encountered a wolf, they’d ask “O lord wolf, what do you say? How about chasing the deer from our fields?" Elsewhere, at shrines dedicated to a wolf-spirit known as the Large-Mouthed Pure God, his help was invoked to keep the fields clear of deer and other pests. The Ainu elevated the wolf to an even higher place in their pantheon. Their wolf-deity, Horkew Kamuy, is the hero of a resurrection myth.

The live-and-let-live attitude to wolves ended in the eighteenth century, when a devastating rabies epidemic spread through Japan. Infected wolves turned into ferocious killers; some even came down into the villages to attack people. (In Kaga, it is recorded, the animals acquired a particular taste for young serving wenches.) Village councils and feudal authorities took the matter in hand, organising mass hunts to deal with the menace.

In Hokkaido, the story was different. When modern ranches were set up in the 1870s to raise cattle and horses, wolves threatened their profitability. In one case, the Niikappu ranch lost 90 foals to wolves within a week. Why were those Hokkaido wolves so aggressive? Perhaps because they were hungry. The woodland deer on which they would normally feed had been decimated by severe winters and also by human predation – canneries had recently been set up in Hokkaido to export venison.

Whatever the reason, the ranchers responded without mercy. Taking their cue from American advisors, they set out traps laced with strychnine and even dynamite. An effective bounty scheme was set up: a wolf pelt or set of feet was worth seven yen. Wolves appear to have been extirpated in Hokkaido before they succumbed in Honshu.

A century later, many of Japan’s mountain regions are overrun with deer. Overgrazing has stripped hills that just twenty years ago were still lushly vegetated. If wolves still existed, they certainly wouldn’t go hungry.

Do they still exist? From time to time, hikers or foresters report that they’ve seen large dog-like creatures running through the woods. A few years ago, writes Professor Walker in his epilogue, members of a wildlife protection committee played recordings of howling Canadian wolves in the woods of eastern Yoshino - in the hope of luring out any survivors. But the forest remained silent.


Brett L. Walker, The Lost Wolves of Japan, University of Washington Press, 2008.

This post is (misleadingly) tagged as a review, but it can't in this space do justice to the depth and range of Professor Walker's book - which also delves into the evolutionary history of the Japanese wolf; investigates the question whether, in fact, there were two species of wolf or wolf-like creature roaming the backwoods; and compares various theories about the wolf's extinction.

See also Wolves in the snow: should Japan reintroduce the wolf?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Et in Arcadia Cs-137

Famous mountains fall victim to the taint of the Fukushima reactor accidents

In those days, on the way back to Tokyo, we'd pull off the Kan-etsu Expressway at the Tanigawa Parking Area, just after the long tunnel. Then we'd slew the weatherbeaten Subaru to a halt next to the public fountain, and fill every water bottle we had.

We might think twice about doing that now. The big city's tap water probably hasn't improved, but it may contain less radioactive caesium than do the mountain streams. That, at least, is my guess after looking at the "heat maps" of radioactive contamination recently published by Japan's science and technology ministry.

These charts show that the mountain ranges around the Kanto plain have generally soaked up more radioactivity - specifically the caesium 134 and 137 isotopes - than the low ground. Rain falls more heavily in the hills, washing out more of the plume that emanated from the derelict Fukushima reactors.

Quite a few "famous peaks of Japan" stand within the scope of the ministry's survey. What would Fukada Kyūya have made of this modern-day threat to his mountains?

There's no way of knowing, of course, as the Hyakumeizan author died (on a mountain hike) on March 21, 1971. This was just five days before the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant officially went into service. It's as if one era ended and another began in that far-off month forty years ago.


Many thanks to Wes for pointing out the relevant post in Michael Cucek's estimable current affairs blog, Shisaku. An article on the science ministry's survey can also be found in the Japan Times, which is also the source of the map shown here.

Advice for hikers:-

Interview in Yama to Keikoku magazine with Professor Katsumi Shozugawa on Wes Lang's Hiking in Japan website.

Japan Times articles:-

Okutama cesium level seen spiking

Effect of contaminated soil on food chain sparks fears

Economist article:-

Hot spots and blind spots

New York Times article:-

Radioactive hotspots in Tokyo point to wider problems