Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Unpredictable explosions

Some volcanic eruptions are less foreseeable than others

In today's tragedy at the ski-resort under the Kusatsu-Shirane volcano, one soldier was killed by flying rocks after a volcanic explosion. Several more people were hurt. The accident recalls the much greater disaster on Ontake three years ago, when 63 people died.

Eruption at Kusatsu-Shirane in December 1982
Photo: Japan Meteorological Agency
Both mountains belong to Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Reading his write-ups, one would never guess that climbing these peaks might be a hazard to life and limb. That’s not because the Hyakumeizan author was negligent in his research, but rather the effect of timing. When Fukuda wrote about Ontake, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the volcano had never erupted during historical times. Its first recorded eruption was in October 1979, eight years after Fukada’s death. Until then, the mountain was thought to be inactive.

Fissure eruption at Kusatsu-Shirane in 1942
Photo: Japan Meteorological Agency
Kusatsu-Shirane too appears quite innocuous in Fukada’s account. In the relevant Hyakumeizan chapter, he notes that the mountain was ascended by the Confucian scholar Asaka Gonsai in the summer of the ninth year of Tempō (1838). Today, Fukada adds, “one often meets old women and frolicsome children on this path.”

Yet Gonsai’s description, as quoted by Fukada, leaves no doubt as to Kusatsu-Shirane’s volcanic temperament: “All the peaks are scorched partly red, partly black, by the sulfurous vapors. Bare bones, stripped of flesh, not a tree or blade of grass, an exceedingly strange and ghastly scene.”

"An exceedingly strange and ghastly scene"
A pre-war postcard view of Kusatsu-Shirane

Indeed, it appears that Kusatsu-Shirane has erupted much more frequently than Ontake. About 14 eruptive episodes have been recorded since 1805. Taking a simple average, therefore, you'd expect such explosions to take place slightly more often than once every two decades.

In reality, though, the volcano erupts at quite irregular intervals, and it so happened that Fukada wrote it up roughly in the middle of a lull that lasted more than thirty years. So it’s fair to conclude that Kusatsu-Shirane’s eruptive potential could not have been in the forefront of his mind.

Eruption on Kusatsu-Shirane (from a pre-war postcard)
On both Ontake and Kusatsu-Shirane, all historical eruptions have been phreatic – that is, caused by water coming into contact with hot rocks rather than by rising magma. Unfortunately, steam explosions are harder to predict than eruptions caused by upwelling magma, as they are less likely to give out clear seismic signals in advance.

“Eruptions can occur without warning, so stay alert to what is happening in and around the crater,” warned the Japanese authorities last year in a pamphlet distributed to hiking and climbing organisations. That advice remains as valid as ever. At the same time, it should be recognised that a volcano may give no usable warning.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The meaning of Mt Paektu

How North Korea taps into the symbolic voltage of a mysterious volcano

Has Kim Jong-un taken up winter mountaineering? Exactly a month ago, he was again bestriding the Korean peninsula’s highest peak. A local newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, reported that "His eyes reflected the strong beams of the gifted great person seeing in the majestic spirit of Mount Paektu the appearance of a powerful socialist nation which dynamically advances full of vigour without vacillation at any raving dirty wind on the planet."

Kim Jong-un bestrides Mt Paektu in December 2017
It’s easy to mock the style of North Korean pronouncements. But this may run the risk of underestimating their effectiveness, warns B R Myers, a North Korea-watcher based at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. In his view, the regime’s “ideology has generally enjoyed the support of the North Korean people through good times and bad”, adding that about half of the refugees who make it over the border to China end up by voluntarily returning home.

Mt Paektu (the "white-headed peak") figures prominently in this propaganda. Visits to its snow-covered summit by the Supreme Leader often preface or follow important decisions, alleges a popular UK newspaper. Kim Jong-un last visited the peak in September 2016, right after the country’s fifth nuclear test. He was also there in April 2015, just before executing a former defense chief, and in November 2013, before executing his own uncle, among other top officials.

North Korean commemorative stamp showing
Kim Jong Il atop his native mountain
And this is to say nothing of the mountain’s ubiquity as a backdrop for the Kim dynasty in all manner of official productions, from postage stamps to oil paintings.

In his book, The cleanest race – how North Koreans see themselves and why it matters, B R Myers offers a convincing explanation for this prominence. Many see North Korea as a hardline Marxist-Leninist regime. Yet this is misleading, Myers says. For, when Kim Il-sung established his regime in the late 1940s, he chose not follow the model of his Soviet mentors but reached instead for Japan’s pre-war emperor cult, to which Korea had been intensively exposed during the country’s period as a colony.

Painting of (l to r) Mrs Kim, the infant Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-Il 

This thesis explains a lot. It makes clear why members of the Kim dynasty are often depicted riding on a white horse – typically in a mountainous setting – an imperial motif that can be traced back as far as Napoleon. As for Mt Paektu, it simply replaced Mt Fuji as a symbol of national prowess. This, in turn, explains why official sources so assiduously insist on Mt Paektu as the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, the present Supreme Leader's progenitor.

In doing so, they tap into a legend that a mythical founder of the Korean nation descended on the peak thousands of years ago. In effect, “Kim Il-sung turned his whole family into a divine entity. He knew theocracies last longer than any type of regime,” says Song Bong-sun, a historian at Korea University in South Korea, as quoted in the Taipei Times.

Even the snow in our header picture fits this narrative, as a symbol of the cultural and ideological purity that North Korea preserves from corruption by the foreign-dominated south. So the answer to our opening question – has Kim Jong-un taken up mountaineering – is clearly “no”. Rather, he’s revealed himself as a master of misapplied meizanology – the art and science of divining a mountain’s meaning. And, in Kim's case, of exploiting it too.

The majestic spirit of Mt Paektu ("White head peak")
Photo: Wikipedia
Of course, Mt Paektu is no Mt Fuji. Sited on the remote northern border, it never figured as centrally in Korea's classical literature and art as Mt Fuji did in Japan’s. And at 2,744 metres, it tops out a full kilometre below its Japanese counterpart – although its altitude is curiously similar to that of another "white mountain", Hakusan (2,702 metres), one of Japan’s three most sacred peaks.

A crater lake from central casting (Landsat image)
Even so, Mt Paektu does have a "majestic spirit", to borrow the Rodong Sinmun's wordsIt has mystery – nobody is quite sure how a volcano managed to grow so far from an obvious plate boundary – and it has a magnificent crater lake, on a scale that hints at the incalculable menace lurking beneath. But suggestions that a gigantic eruption might be triggered by nearby bomb tests – thus hoisting the regime with its own petard – are probably wishful thinking.

In the end, you almost have to applaud how adeptly the three Kims have co-opted their top mountain into shoring up their legitimacy. At the same time, one wonders how long it will take their regime’s arch-antagonist – himself no slouch at self-aggrandisement – to take a leaf out of their meizanological playbook. Or, on second thoughts, perhaps it really is better not to go there.


B R Myers, The cleanest race - How North Koreans see themselves – and why it matters, Melville House, 2010.

Banyan column, "Peak patriotism", The Economist, December 16, 2017

"Only a rumbling volcano could make North Korea and the West play nice", New York Times, December 9, 2016

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Freedom of the hills?

Aiguille de la Tsa, September 2011

"Mountain is mountain, and city is city," our club's president used to say. This koan meant that, while the city dweller's life is minutely regulated, mountaineers take responsiblity for themselves. But what happens to mountaineering when well-intentioned authorities start setting rules in the name of safety? The philosopher/boulderer Francis Sanzaro weighed the consequences in a required-reading op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times:

Keep our mountains free. And dangerous.

Monday, January 8, 2018

“How to be a master climber in six easy lessons”

Hints on mountain safety and life-leading from a pioneer of hard rock

Pat Ament in the 1970s
(Photo: Wikipedia)
Any claim to deliver mastery in six easy lessons sounds like clickbait. Except that, in this case, the title belonged to a blue pamphlet on the shelves of a local second-hand bookshop. And the author was none other than Pat Ament (right), who helped to lift American rock-climbing into the 5.11 grade during the 1960s. So, for a trumpery coin, the slim volume (it runs to just 78 pages) was redeemed from its dusty limbo.

How to be a master climber in six easy lessons is no textbook, I discovered. If you want to find out how to equalise slings or set up abseils, look elsewhere. Instead, it offers a philosophy drawn from a long climbing career and distilled into print during the 1990s. Climbing, writes Ament, is an art, where art is defined as “anything that expresses uncommon care”. Master climbers strive for self-perfection through the perfection of their art.

Mastery is not about grades or competition. “The master climber is above all trustworthy. He exercises care in everything and reveals no lack of guardianship over the safety of companions.” His only allegiance is to good judgment. One's grade is what one leads on-sight, in good, strong style, in safety. Master climbers climb for the right reasons, consider each hold, pay attention to detail, and back up everything. Wry ink-drawings by the author press home his points.

Ament’s final lesson is about listening to your inner voice – climbers have lived or died, depending on whether they took the hint: “One must attune oneself to whatever subtle ideas strike and may prove to be guidance or warning – if only from an inner, more intelligent, perhaps spiritual self. And one must be willing to respond to the guidance.”

One may be saved again and again by virtue of the ability to hear, says Ament. For those who can listen, "Each day becomes a kind of calling, with space and beauty and light." Climbing has the potential to speak to the soul a certain calm, but this feeling speaks to a person most loudly when his heart and thoughts are the most silent.

To this, the reader can only say Amen(t).

"How to be a master climber in six easy lessons" by Pat Ament, published by Two Lights, Boulder Colorado, May 1997, with illustrations by Pat Ament.

The six lessons as summarized in Pat Ament's own words:

Lesson 1: Grow Up. Climb for your own reasons, as a means of personal joy, art, and fulfillment, and also with a desire to contribute to the wellbeing of others. Perfect the experience of climbing and safety. Most of the attributes of mastery are available to all climbers, not just the elite. Learn who you are and what is best for you. Respect others, but be yourself.

Lesson 2: Look Closely At Each Hold. Develop an acute sense of awareness of footwork and the relationship between safety and good, careful, artful technique. Practice constant and continual awareness, no matter the difficulty of the climbing and no matter your general level of ability.

Lesson 3: Climb Only What You Want To Climb. Try not to follow the persuasions of the mainstream, unless those persuasions are good. Beware of the unconscious influence of the media, peer groups, and friends. Don't let friends or others determine what is right for you. Make your own choices and judgments about everything in climbing.

Lesson 4: Start With Your Shoelaces Tied (Get everything in your favor). Adjust everything, even to minute details, so that it suits and helps you. Climb with the right friend, when the weather is right, etc. etc. Be good at experience. Create and apply care to all that you do. Nurture your life.

Lesson 5: Double Everything. Double everything -- not only at each rappel and belay anchor. There are hundreds of doubling nuances and a backup system for almost anything. Make a fine science of doubly protecting yourself. Double, i.e. expand, your level of safety, awareness, and understanding.

Lesson 6: Listen To The Inner Spiritual Guidance Or Warning. There is guidance to be had in life. Some of it comes from within or from intuitive and perhaps spiritual sources. The most important aspect of safety, as well as joy, may be to attune oneself to (and respond to) such promptings when they occur.

(c) Pat Ament, 1997

More to read by Pat Ament:

To become as a child

Look to your soul, by which you might be

Topical quotations (from "To become as a child"):-

Royal's first climbs up the 3,000-foot walls of El Capitan were done in a spirit of festivity. Climbing, above all, was play. Climbers are, in essence, children. French philosopher Denis Diderot described children as essentially criminal. According to Diderot, it's our good fortune that the physical powers of children are too limited to permit them to carry out their destructiveness. We wouldn't want a child to be in charge of the nuclear arsenal, for example, although world wars have been the result of people who, as adults, hadn't progressed beyond the selfishness of a child. A vision of the child taken from scripture suggests that children are innocent and follow their hearts as best they know how. This kind of child, a vision of receptiveness and purity, of honesty, and simple play, seems an appropriate model for the climber.


I didn't have to grow into the world very far before I sensed and saw the spiritual carelessness and sometimes viciousness of the climbing world. There were poisoned spirits in the Boulder community and also in the larger world of climbers—the jealousy of one, and the smallness of another. C. S. Lewis said, "We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment." Such a statement attaches itself to the way things began to exist in and around climbers, as I began to make that transition out of childhood into adolescence.