Thursday, March 30, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (1)

Investigating the links between life, liberty and climbing literature

Preoccupied with the abseils, we took our crag’s name on trust. The last rappel slid us out of a stone-raked slot and away into free air. While the ropes untwisted and our boot-tips described a slow downward spiral, the corrugations of Switzerland’s Alpstein massif scrolled by, viewed as if from a well-sited revolving restaurant. Then the wide-screen panorama cut to a close-up of an ice-choked recess in the cliff we were descending. To my relief, I touched down on the rubble glacis below our wall before another rotation could start. “Ropes free,” I called up to Allan. And so we arrived at the foot of Freiheit Südwand.

Pendant: abseiling into the Freiheit Südwand

The crag’s name had leapt out at me from an old book. Surfing a second-hand shop in Tokyo’s Kanda district a few years before, I’d lit on a copy of Im schwerem Fels (On hard rock), a compendium of alpine climbs by Walter Pause. Opening it, I happened on a dramatic black-and-white photo of a limestone wall, somewhere in eastern Switzerland. Freiheit! The idea of a mountain called freedom somehow resonated.

The Freiheit and Hundstein cliffs (photo from Im schwerem Fels)

After I moved to Zurich, Allan dropped by on a world tour. We’d already climbed together in the Alps of Japan and New Zealand; now it was time to sample the grand originals. I showed my visitor the topo in Pause’s book – Grade III/IV, yep, we should be able to manage that – and without ado, we drove down Switzerland’s A3 autobahn and up a forest track. Leaving the weatherbeaten Subaru at the end of the road, we walked over a pass and down to a guesthouse at the end of a lake. The valley reminded us of a Norwegian fjord, its walls soaring up at an alarming pitch.

Fjordland: or the Fählensee one summer morning
When you think about it, this part of the Alps is where you’d expect to find a mountain called Freiheit. Mountains are the “house of freedom God hath built for us,” says William Tell in the play by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Granted, Tell lived in another canton, if he ever existed, which the savants say he didn’t, and Schiller intended his play for a German audience. Still, the myth has taken root. Every year, at Interlaken, an extravagant open-air production of this play perpetuates Tell’s memory.

Montesquieu (Wikipedia)
As for the mountains, serious scholars have attributed Switzerland’s unique brand of democracy to them. Liberty, says Montesquieu (1689-1755), “reigns, therefore, more in mountainous and rugged countries than in those which nature seems to have most favoured”.

And this seems convincing until you look over the border at, say, Austria, whose political culture has developed quite differently. Take, for example, the late Jörg Haider, a controversial politician with a liking for Lederhosen. Worryingly, the right-wing party he used to lead bears exactly the same name as the mountain we now planned to climb.

Was it for some victory of the Swiss confederation, perhaps against those less democratic neighbours, that our Freiheit was named? This wasn’t the moment to speculate. The abseil had landed us on a slanting terrace of limestone fragments – and more of this stuff, it seemed, might come shattering down at any moment. Let’s admit it; we were impressed with our surroundings. Far below, as if seen from a BASE jumper’s perspective, the green waters of the Fählensee glittered; above beetled the cliff we’d come to climb. We edged carefully across the stony ramp to the start of our route.

One thing was clear; the only way out was up.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Putting Mt Fuji on the map

Who was the first Westerner to portray Japan's top mountain?

Some visitors to Japan are more productive than others. In a stay of just two years, the naturalist and physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) catalogued the country’s flora, discovered that the ginkgo tree was far from extinct, as then believed in Europe, made two visits to Edo, and presented himself to the Shogun.

"Fusino Jamma: een zeer hooge en Zonderlinge Berg"
Detail from a map in Engelbert Kaempfer's History of Japan (High Dutch edition)

On his way to and from the capital, Kaempfer passed close by the foot of Japan’s top mountain. In his History of Japan, published posthumously in English in 1727, he lauds "The famous Mount Fuji in the province of Suruga, which in height can be compared only to Mount Tenerife in the Canaries". Fuji, he continues, "is conical in shape and so even and beautiful that one may easily call it the most beautiful mountain in the world .... The poets and painters of this country never end praising and portraying the beauty of this mountain".

Map of Suruga Bay, showing Mt Fuji (top right)
The German doctor never got the chance to make the first gaijin ascent of the iconic volcano, leaving that honour to Rutherford Alcock a century later. Instead, according to Professor H Byron Earhart (see References), he may have made its first graphic depiction by a Westerner. A sketch appears within an engraving of the Tōkaidō route through Suruga Province that illustrates his book. Interestingly, the summit region is shown as divided into three peaklets.

Mt Fuji: the traditional view
Japanese artists had long depicted the mountain with three peaks – as shown in a famous ink painting of Mt Fuji and the Seiken temple once attributed to Sesshū (1420-1506). Yet this configuration had less to do with ground truth than with an artistic convention, probably rooted in Buddhist numerology, that sacred mountains should have triple crowns. It seems fitting, somehow, that Kaempfer's pioneering image of Mt Fuji should pay homage to this centuries-old tradition.


H. Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

Map images: courtesy of the East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (4)

Continued: a translation of Kogure Ritarō's A talk about mountaineering

When they went unescorted by a sendatsu, one might think it would be quite problematic for these unversed pilgrims to make their way safely on unfamiliar mountains without maps, but the fact is that the way was well thought-out, the route was always the same, as were the stops for food and lodging, so that they would eventually reach their preacher as long as they followed this routine. Then too, there were at least three signs on each of the guesthouses that clustered around every post station, marking them as the lodgings for various congregations such as the New (一新講), the Original (故信講), the Reverent (崇敬講), the Divine Wind (神風講) and the Kantō Schools (関東講).

Avenue of cryptomeria trees: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

As most of these names were used to show that the congregation so identified stayed here, the effect was somewhat provincial. For example, I seem to remember that the Divine Wind congregation came from the shrine of Ise, while the Reverents (Sūkei) were probably worshippers of Kompira. As for the New Congregation (whose name was also written as 一新講社), this was a widespread association of inn-keepers that was probably formed around 1881 or 1882, although I haven’t investigated the matter thoroughly. Anyway, there was at least one guesthouse with its sign at every post station.

A guide booklet, as issued by the New Congregation to its pilgrims

When staying at a guesthouse of the New Congregation, the landlord of the first lodgings would give a first-time traveller a booklet of about ten sheets of paper, of 3-5 size (about 9cm x 15cm). The cover was printed with the character for open (開) in white within a red circle, and the characters for the New Congregation (一新講社) below that. The landlord would write his name and stamp his seal in the book and give the traveller a letter of introduction to the next lodgings. Unlike one’s baggage, one would always keep the letter of introduction on one’s person, so that there would be no fear of dropping it or handing it to the wrong person on the way. The letter of introduction would say:-


I’d like to introduce this guest to you; please look after them well during their stay.



This guest stayed with us; when they arrive, please ensure they are well looked after and take good care of them.

Or, sometimes we were given a printed letter from the lodging house we were due to stay in next, and in that case there would be the following additional remarks:


We don’t send out touts. If touts from other lodgings pretend to be travellers and try to do you a favour by speaking ill of us and recommending another lodging house, or if rickshaw men say such things, please don’t listen to them and stay with us.

In this way, one could find the way to one’s destination quite easily, especially when travelling alone, and the letters were extremely valuable as a way of making a booking, as the custom was in the old days. Apart from showing the way between post stations, they had very useful maps to mark the sights and ancient monuments along the way.

Pages of a pilgrim's booklet, showing route and sketch maps

Of course, the paper and print quality of these booklets was poor, and the script would sometimes fade, leading to misunderstandings. In the booklet for the Nakasendo route to Kyoto that I got at the Tsutaya in Kiso-Fukushima, it said you could climb Kisokomagatake either from Agematsu or Nezame, and so I changed my plan to climb from Agematsu and saw the splendid sights of Nezame-no-toko before tackling Kisokomagatake on the following day. According to the map, there was a pond on the summit known as Tama-ike, but when I topped out I found only a hut and no pond. Then, when I found Nō-ga-ike, another pond, I thought this must certainly be Tama-ike and wrote it up as such in my account of the journey for my school magazine. Later, I was sorry to see that this passage was quoted, without much alteration, by Professor Yamasaki Naomasa in the Kisokomagake section of his Geography of Greater Japan.

However, after talking about this at the mountain meeting, when I got back to Tokyo, I found another booklet, which happened to have been issue in October, in which I saw that Tama-dake and Nowaka-ike were written side by side. As the characters other than “tama” and “ike” had been effaced in the notebook I originally looked at, it turned out that I’d carelessly confused this Tama-ike with Nō-ga-ike, so that I’m forced to redouble my apologies. However, in fact, it may be that the pond really was called “Nowaka-ike” because the katakanaワdoes not look as if the small stroke on top of that character (which would make it an ウ) had faded. Thus Nowaka-ike must be the correct name, which was later corrupted into Nō-ga-ike. The notebook also writes what seems to be the Kanekake Rock as Kanesashi Rock. So, if the current name is correct, then the notebook is mistaken. Even with the odd mistake like the one noted above, however, the notebooks were much more useful for people who rarely made journeys than today’s 1:200,000-scale maps.

Style of the well-dressed pilgrim
(Image courtesy of Kotobank)

Congregations like these were organised everywhere, not just in our village and, when on pilgrimage, the groups were led by experienced leaders. Interestingly, these leaders, the so-called sendatsu, often came from the lowest orders of society, and by some rigorous but unwritten agreement, as soon as a group came together, whether its members were rich or poor, and regardless of social status, every body was on an equal footing and the sendatsu’s word was law, so that to oppose it was unthinkable. Speaking of these arrangements, there could be no question of washing these precious garments, as the pilgrims’ white robes had received the inky stamp of each sacred mountain visited, so that one couldn’t help reeling back in disgust if one ever got into a carriage with them. Even in this age of the train, there must be quite a few people who have felt a bit faint if they’ve had the misfortune to be seated with such people.

The members of the congregation, except for the sendatsu, were allowed to wear their ordinary clothes while travelling to the mountain but, as soon as they reached it, they had to change into what we called gyō’i (行衣) or pilgrim’s garb. Even today you can see such scenes. Although this may be less true of congregations from the countryside, groups from the city tend to be fairly riotous and their sendatsu have lost the authority they used to have. So even if they don’t stink out their fellow passengers, they get on their nerves with their drinking and carousing. This is inevitable, as serious pilgrimages fade away, to be replaced with trips that have the atmosphere of a light-hearted mountain excursion. This is not to say that there wasn’t a pleasure-seeking element even in those mountain pilgrimages of old, once the pilgrims were away from the mountain, but the religious element has now greatly faded, leaving the pleasure-seeking to dominate.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Images and ink (34)

Image: A view of Fusiyama  from from Jules Trousset's Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré, Paris: La Librairie Illustrée, 1885-1891

Ink: An early European account of Japan's top mountain, from John Swan's Speculum Mundi; or, A Glasse Representing the Face of the World (second edition, Cambridge, 1643):

"In Japan there is a mountain called Figeniana, which is some leagues higher than the clouds. And in Ternate among the Philippine islands there is a mountain, which (as Mr. Purchas in his pilgrimage relateth) is even angry with nature because it is fastened to the earth, and doth therefore not onely lift up his head above the middle Region of the aire, but endeavoureth also to conjoyn it self with the fierie Element. And of the mountain Athos between Macedon and Thrace, it is said to be so high, that it casteth shade more than thirty & seven miles. Also the mount of Olympus in Thessalie is said to be of that height, as neither the winds, clouds or rain do overtop it. And (although I omit others of exceeding height) it is also written of another mount so high above the clouds, that some who have seen it do witnesse that they have been on the top of it, and have had both a clear skie over their heads, and also clouds below them pouring down rain and breaking forth with thunder and lightning; at which those below have been terrified, but on the top of the hill there was no such matter."

Image: courtesy of Old Book Illustrations.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dispelling the mountain gloom

A new look at how the Alps were appreciated in past centuries

It’s always refreshing to see a young scholar laying into received opinion. That kind of frisson comes from reading “Rethinking mountain gloom” by Dawn Hollis in the latest edition of Alpinist magazine. Hollis takes her axe to the idea that, before people started to climb in the high Alps late in the eighteenth century, most Europeans disliked and avoided the mountains.

Thomas Burnet
As her first witness, Hollis summons an English churchman by the name of Thomas Burnet (1635?– 1715), who crossed the Simplon Pass from Switzerland to Italy in August 1672 in the company of the Earl of Wiltshire. Almost a decade later, Burnet published his ruminations on the Alps in a book entitled The Sacred Theory of the Earth. He concluded that mountains were not part of God’s original design, but instead resulted from the chaos unleashed by Noah’s flood.

A controversy ensued, perhaps like the one that erupted in our own times when Luis and Walter Alvarez proposed that a giant meteorite had snuffed out the dinosaurs. But what surprised Hollis, when she read the responses to Burnet’s theory, was that most took issue with Burnet’s negative view of mountains. Mountains, these opponents argued, were useful as well as beautiful: they were the source of rivers, the habitat of wild animals, and served to keep warring nations apart.

Title page of the Sacred Theory

Taking the hint that at least some people thought well of mountains in pre-modern times, Hollis sought out additional accounts of alpine positivity. And she found plenty. One example she cites is by John Chardin, a jewel trader, who claimed to have ascended Mt Caucasus in December 1672 and was struck by the clouds that “roll’d under my feet, as far as I could see, so that I could not but think of myself i’ the Air, though … I trod upon the ground.”

Map (detail) by Johannes Schalbetter showing Mons Silvius (aka the Matterhorn), 1545.

It may be that one can take revisionism too far. For, surely, something must have changed at the end of the eighteenth century. Take the Matterhorn, for instance. A mountain of its description, although not necessarily under its modern name, was marked on maps from perhaps 1545. Yet the first full-on portrait of the mountain dates from as recently as August 14, 1806. The watercolour in question was painted by Hans Conrad Escher von der Linth (1767-1823), who was on a tour to elucidate the geological structure of the Alps.

August 14, 1806: the Matterhorn sits for its first portrait

So it seems that, even if Europeans didn’t actually dislike mountains before the nineteenth century, few actively bothered to seek them out. Even so, Hollis is surely right to insist that it is misleading to consign all pre-modern attitudes to a “mountain gloom” bucket  – she borrows “mountain gloom” and “mountain glory” from Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894–1981), a pioneer in this strand of literary research, who used them as shorthand for the pre-modern and modern attitudes to mountains. She, in turn, borrowed the terms from John Ruskin, who meant something completely different by them.

Conrad Gesner
Few of the witnesses summoned up by Hollis could be less gloomy than Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), the learned doctor and botanist of Zurich. In a letter of 1541, to a fellow scholar of nearby Glarus, Gesner set out a remarkably modern list of reasons for climbing mountains:-

Most learned Avienus – I have resolved for the future, so long as God grants me life, to ascend divers mountains every year, or at least one, in the season when vegetation is at its height, partly for botanical observation, partly for the worthy exercise of the body and recreation of the mind. 

What must be the pleasure, think you, what the delight of a mind rightly touched to gaze upon the huge mountain masses for one’s show and, as it were, lift one’s head into the clouds? The soul is strangely rapt with these astonishing heights, and carried off to the contemplation of the Supreme Architect …. 

Philosophers will always feast the eyes of the body and mind on the goodly things of this earthly paradise; and by no means least among these are the abruptly soaring summits, the trackless steeps, the vast slopes rising to the sky, the rugged rocks, the shady woods.

Yet, when Hollis presented her thesis at the Alpine Club in London, she made out in the gloom of the lecture theatre an array of pursed lips and frowning faces, together with just one doubtful, bemused smile. Her audience was unconvinced. Among the critiques she received was that Gesner & Co amounted to no more than a few exceptions, “many of them already well known”.

Well, it depends what you mean by a few exceptions. For Gesner was not alone in appreciating the Alps. Scanning the relevant chapter in an old Badminton Library book on mountaineering – surely the Alpine Club has a copy – we find mention of one J. Müller, also of Zurich, who wrote up an ascent of the Stockhorn in 1536 in Latin hexameters.

Then, Josias Simmler (1530–1576) published the first part of his treatise on the Alps in 1574 – it describes the use of ropes to protect against crevasse falls on glaciers – and, finally, in 1605, yet another Zürcher, Hans Rudolph Rebmann (1566-1605) published a verse dialogue between two mountains.
Albrecht von Haller

This work is described by the Badminton author as plausibly “the most rambling and tedious poem ever published in Europe”. Still, it resonated enough to leave echoes in the works of Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), a natural philosopher of, yes, Zurich, and even in Schiller's play, William Tell (1804).

And readers remained avid for poetry on elevated subjects. When Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777), a physician and botanist from Bern, obliged them with a verse paean to the Alps in 1742, it enjoyed an “immense reputation”, went through thirty editions in the author’s lifetime, and was translated into French, English, Italian and Latin. That must have been enough to keep popular interest in the Alps stoked until, a generation later, the philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) took up the baton of marketing them to the rest of Europe.

So, unless these Swiss authors were themselves no more than exceptions, there would seem to be ample material at hand to support Hollis’s case.  I look forward to the day when she converts her findings from a doctoral thesis into the kind of book that ordinary mountaineers can read. It should be refreshingly iconoclastic.


Dawn L. Hollis, "Rethinking mountain gloom", Alpinist 57, Spring 2017 edition.

C T Dent, Mountaineering, The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Third edition, 1901.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, 1959.

Jon Mathieu, "Ein «Gespräch zweyer alter Bergen»", Neue Zürich Zeitung, 25 October 2015.