Friday, March 28, 2014

For what it's worth

A Taishō-era meditation on the meaning and worth of mountaineering

Is it worth it? This is the question that floats to the surface after a mountaineering accident. Following his epoch-making first ascent of the Eiger Mittelegi ridge in September 1921, Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune (1894-1989, picture left) returned to Japan and set about training up a new generation of Japanese alpinists.

At first, all went well. On March 30, 1922, he led a group of young ski-mountaineers to the top of Yari-ga-take. In the summer, he held a technical training camp in Karesawa, in the heart of the Northern Alps.

Then came nemesis: in January 1923 on Tateyama, one of Maki’s companions collapsed and died of exposure in a snowstorm. The victim, Itakura Katsunobu, was one of the most promising and experienced of Japan’s young alpinists. As the son of a former daimyō, he was also a scion of the aristocracy.

Explanations were needed, and responsibility had to be taken. Maki fulfilled both obligations in an essay entitled “On the death of Itakura Katsunobu” (板倉勝宣の死). In the opening passage, he also weighs up the meaning and worth of mountaineering itself:

The evolution from summer to winter mountaineering is a natural one. If we want to get to grips with ice and snow, we have to go to the mountains in winter. In the summer mountains, all that remains to be developed is climbing technique – that is, rock climbing or “klettern”, to use the German word. Now, if we were happy just to follow in the footsteps of our predecessors, there would be no particular problem – we would have no need to seek out any new paths for ourselves. 

But if we wish to build on the experience and knowledge of our predecessors and to push out the frontiers, even if only a little way, then we’ll always be seeking out new paths. That said, it’s quite permissible for a mountaineer to have ordinary, humdrum ambitions, as long as these don’t diverge from the true path. In any mountaineering activity worthy of the name, I believe that the people involved derive some value from it. 

In this particular case, however, I would deeply regret it if confusion were to be caused by my own failure or by the aspects of mountaineering that can invite misunderstanding. As Sir Francis Younghusband observed, one could look at mountaineering either as an art form or as the youthful spirit of a people finding expression in a sport. Yet, whatever one’s view or interpretation, mountaineering is a complex and multifaceted activity. 

As one might surmise from the existence of a word such as “oromania”, mountaineers have an undeniably compulsive disposition, one that couldn’t contemplate a life without mountains to climb. There are the delights they find in exploring the vast and beautiful mountain world of nature. There are the hardships they overcome or the tranquil state of mind they attain as they stand aloof from the world. Each mountaineer finds his own kind of satisfaction. 

One thing is constant, though; once you are dealing with the vagaries of mountains and weather, a certain level of risk is unavoidable. Some might say that it’s unwise to expose oneself to danger. I would say, rather, that one should oppose that risk by proceeding with both courage and the maximum degree of caution. To go forward not defensively but with resolve – this is surely the sound and substantial way.


Maki Yūkō, "On the death of Itakura Katsunobu", in selected essays published as "Mountain journeys" (山行).

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