Friday, November 15, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (29)

31 October: stumbling, jetlagged, after the Sensei up the steep path, I fell to thinking. If one wanted to define a mountain – and some philosophers struggle to do just that – Hakusan might be a place to start. It was once higher than Mt Fuji, the savants believe. And people have been climbing it for one and a third millennia. This is a mountain with stories to tell.

Just look at that stone embedded in the path. A frozen bouillabaisse of fossilised mussels, it wouldn’t look out of place on some limestone peak in the Swiss Alps. It must have congealed in some epicratonic sea. So what’s it doing on an active volcano?

While pondering this one, we come up on the ridge. Now our way merges with the Echizen Zenjōdō, the pilgrimage route opened by Monk Taichō himself in the first year of Yōrō (717). “I like the gentle look of Hakusan from here,” says the Sensei. Mercifully, the path too moderates its angle of attack.

“Urusai!” says a middle-aged mountaineer as he passes – were we chattering too loudly? Then we realise there’s a drone buzzing about overhead. Too high to be seen, the device pesters us with its hornet-like hum all the way across Midagahara.

By the Buddhist ring of its name, this high plateau should be a place of meditative stillness – indeed, once a year, you’ll find the Zen monks of the Eiheiji temple processing across it on their annual outing to Hakusan.

We’re high enough now to see the Japan Alps straggling across the eastern horizon. The small tump at the northern end must be Tateyama. That volcano too has a Midagahara, to say nothing of other identical place names, suggesting that the Tateyama and Hakusan faiths must be intertwined.

Harried by the drone – somebody must be furnishing it with a bottomless supply of spare batteries – we come up on Murodō. On both Tateyama and Hakusan, the name once indicated a single, smoky pilgrim’s hut. Now it’s a cluster of blockhouses large enough for seven hundred hikers all at once. Is this is the Hyakumeizan effect, I wonder.

For lunch, we park ourselves on a stone revetment, out of the wind. Later, on the carefully laid stone steps leading to the summit shrine, brown crickets hop out of our way. An improbable sight for so late in the autumn. At the summit, we so far forget ourselves as to take a selfie. The granite pillar there is engraved with the characters for “Reizan” – holy mountain.

Today we’re going to inspect the crater lakes on the summit’s far side. The path leads across a snowy ridge, before winding down a gully. The second lake is called Midori-ga-ike. “And on a cloudy day it really does look green,” says the Sensei, whose native mountain this is. Today the pool outdoes the sky in a deeper shade of blue. Was this where Monk Taichō saw his vision of the Eleven-Headed Kannon? A stiff breeze chases ripples across the ultramarine waters.

On the way to the third lake, Hakusan reminds us of its geophysical agenda. A huge bulwark of lava looks as if freshly extruded from the depths.

A noticeboard tells us that it probably dates back to an eruption in 1554. Even now, the mountain still stirs occasionally in its sleep.

Back on Midagahara, we happen across the drone crew. The three young men are collecting footage for a video spectacular on Japan’s national park, they tell us, to be shown at a museum in Tokyo during next summer’s Olympic bash. Gentlemen, I hope your auditorium has good air-conditioning.

Clouds drift by as we drop towards the treeline. The woods are particoloured – part green, part brown, part gold, as if struggling towards autumn. Probably the nights are still not cold enough to turn the leaves red and yellow all at once. Climate change: another chapter in the story of Hakusan.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A relationship

Project HaMo (translation): falling in with a favourite mountain

What a wondrous bond a mountaineer can sometimes weave with his favourite mountain. Whether he made the first ascent, or climbed a new route or did some other great feat, their names are linked forever. The Matterhorn and Whymper – what a noble pairing is that.

Approach to Piz Urlaun c. 2001
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

One day, I’d like my name to be linked to the Cima Aeterna. But, really, this is too absurd. To think of linking one’s name to a famous mountain is sheer ambition – a mountaineer’s arrogance.

Especially when you’re well aware that you can quietly carry on the most pleasant relationship with much smaller mountains, like … and without a soul knowing about it.

Now I must confess: I was besotted with Piz Urlaun for years. I guess you’ve heard the name. And you’ll ask how on earth one can fall for such a minor neighbour of the mighty Tödi. Well, I have no idea. Could it be, perhaps, because he almost presided over an icy grave for me? That would certainly be a curious reason.

Well, I have climbed him by five different routes, again and again. Twice, we put up new lines, and once I climbed him alone – that was best of all.

A pleasant fellow is Piz Urlaun. Quite lowly, at just under 3,400 metres, yet he belongs to a noble lineage and leads a quiet, secluded life. To be up on his snowcap is enchanting, and in autumn you should see how every evening the sun glitters and glances off his steep ice spine, way over towards the Bifertenstock.

We struck up a fine friendship from the first time we met. “You, Urlaun, look over there at the lame old Tödi, who’ll put up with anything,” I said. “No, I wouldn’t stand for it myself,” came the answer from Piz Urlaun as he threw down a minatory rain of ice-blocks.

This convoy of eighty people, this human snake, that feeble Tödi lets roam over his head. Can any of them actually understand him?

Our friendship is quite different, though – isn’t that right, Urlaun? Just the two of us visit you, and quietly enjoy your favours. Not that we haven’t ever fallen out. Even the best of friends can’t get by without the occasional squabble. Just when I thought we’d be together for ever, he twice roughed me up to the point of tears. Once, to give me the brush-off, he resisted my advances with flashes of lightning that came blazing over his back. The other time, right at mid-summer, he pulled on an overcoat of snow so thick that it scared me just to look at.

Yet, quickly and stealthily, I finally made my approach. How amazed he was! Quite alone, I ran up his south flank, before it was even daylight, before he had time to open up his schrunds and crevasses in self-defence. The Biferten Glacier was still in shadow when I stepped onto his head and let out a cheer.

When he saw I was alone, he recovered from his shock and invited me to a sunny rest. From that moment, when we first conversed, stems our deep respect for each other.

Urlaun, you have granted me many rich hours. Though I’ll probably not visit you again so soon, we will often greet each other from afar. Never will I fail to send you silent thanks. And then, Urlaun, will you not cheerfully recall how much you once meant to one small human being?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mountains of mystery

Project HaMo (translation): puzzling out a new route in the Bernese Oberland

I’m lying on my back in front of the Finsteraarhorn hut, my face ruddy with sunburn, windlessly ensconced on the warm flagstones.

View from the SAC Finsteraarhorn Hut
Photos by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure
A late afternoon sun stands over the Grüneckhorn. Sailing along sluggishly before a light fine-weather breeze, shimmering clouds send down their dazzle into overstrained eyes. The Gross Grünhorn casts lengthy fingers of shadow halfway over the snowfields of the Fiescher Glacier. The lesser Grünhorn does much the same as his big brother. The obsidian pyramids of the Gabelhorn and the Kamm stare across glaringly white snowfields at the wood-shingled hut.

The hollow under the Grünhornlücke is warm enough to sunbathe in, its snowfields flawed only by the occasional early-summer crevasses and cracks, and all this framed by the sun-glazed flanks of the Weiss Nollen and the blue-violet shadows of the Grünhörnli. Behind me break the icefalls and bergschrunds of the glacier surrounding the hut.

Meltwater is gurgling stealthily somewhere. The glacier is embalmed in this Saturday afternoon silence; the only human sound is the shuffle of hut-slippers. Now and then I glance up as another chute of snow rattles down from the sunny walls of the Finsteraarhorn. Now the north wind weaves delicate strands of mist around the Bernese Oberland’s highest peak. Lying beside me are my Zeiss field-glasses – will they magnify the wonders of these mountains? As if they could.

Far back in the shadowy glacial basin silently beckons the secret of a steep, still-virgin wall. This is what brings me here. Up it soars, out of the bergschrund, through avalanche-swept gullies and black rock ribs up to the bright cornices – a full 600 metres. The southeast wall of the Hinter Fiescherhorn is still unknown to men. Is that due to its dangers and difficulties? Or has it simply not been worth the effort? Why have alpinists so far steered clear of it, although they’re usually thirsting for new routes? Well, this is my life’s highest aim, my one and only thought – until I have won through to that knowledge.

Again and again, I sweep the wall with my binoculars, searching for weaknesses. Ever and again, the light changes, constantly tricking my eager and searching gaze.

Although the day is still not over, we are trying to get some sleep, so that we can wake up refreshed in the middle of the night and get going. Going to bed so early is not easy. Light still pierces through the window shutters, annoying us. The heavy blankets are too warm. We’re still thinking about the mountain as we fall asleep – still not sure about those cornices, on the summit rocks. If the sun hits them too soon, it’ll trigger avalanches. Or stones. We need to be closer in. We’ll see tomorrow. The mountain wind tugs at the roof, as if it wants to help us.

The Gross Grünhorn, seen from the Finsteraarhorn Hut
One o’clock in the morning. The moon is a slim crescent, dull red, hanging just above the Grünhornlücke. A lake of molten silver has pooled on the firn, edged on all sides with pitch-black margins. The peaks too are touched with droplets and splashes of the noble metal.

Roped together, the two of us stumble down the snowslope, not yet frozen hard, to the silver lake. Then we plunge into the utter darkness of its shoreline. Driven by an unslakeable desire, we move over the firn, brittle as glass.

Now the lake has drained out. A last glowing bight falls along the Finsteraarhorn. When it fades out, all is dark. An ice-cold wind blows down on us. Little stones sparkle tremulously. On our left looms the dark wall of the Grünhorn peaks. Ant-like, tiny, we crawl steadily along under their feet. Flakes of snow are flung in our faces; the wind rushes in the cliffs. I think of falling stones.

Day breaks just under the bergschrund. Quick, point those Zeiss glasses at the cornice. Looks better than I thought.

So, let’s go!

The bergschrund is the gateway to a new world. We finagle our way over it onto steep, icy slopes. We need to move it out, hacking steps as fast as we can. Three hacks with the ice-axe for every step. Hard labour for hundreds of metres, racing the rising sun. Lungs heaving, we make the rock-rib leading to the summit. Now we’re out of harm’s way. And the cornice is small.

A rose-red glow wafts over the snow, rose-red glow the rocks, lighting our new route right up to the summit.

Amid the silence, a great happiness.

So you’ve solved a problem with amazing ease, simply and quickly, a problem that once looked all but impossible. Which was better then, getting to grips with the problem in all its gnarliness, scrabbling for a solution? Or feeling pleased that you’d finally cracked it? Aren’t you sorry now, just a bit, that the hapless, harmless problem has just ceased to be a problem?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Famous mountains, forgotten mountains

Project HaMo (translation): a first ascent in the Bernese Oberland

Every year, hundreds of mountaineers pass the Finsteraarrothorn by, on their way to climb the Finsteraarhorn. How many of them would take the chance to climb the forgotten peak instead of the famous one?

Finsteraarrothorn and Finsteraarhorn from the Vordergalmlücke
Photo by courtesy from Alpine Light & Structure
When she saw just the two of us coming, the Rothorn must have been amazed. Baffled, she watched us approach. Her hopes had been dashed too often. So she could hardly have expected that, from the Gemslücke col, we’d veer off the usual track towards her– merely in passing, as it were.

Did she not swoon when she suddenly realised we thought her worth spending a whole day on, just to try her untrodden ridges for size?

And did she not shrug off her clouds and fogs, just to show us that she was worthy of a visit? And what we might experience with her? Could her illustrious neighbour ever have offered such a welcome?

Summit mists 
Three hours we’ve been at this. Thick, grey fog. My ice-axe hacks small notches into the ice, just enough to take half a boot-sole. Steeply upwards, from step to step, on ten metres of tight rope. Not too far left, not too far right. Yesterday, though my scope, I saw a massively overhanging cornice there. Under our boots, three hundred metres of glittering ice sweeps away. Everything is horribly deceptive in this treacherous fog. I can’t see more than a few steps ahead, but it’s brighter than ever in the valley. Flickering vaguely, off to the left, the cliff-edge dances under my eyes; surely it had to be further away. But suddenly I’m right there with my axe; my fear is that I’ve been lured onto that brittle-creaking cornice. Then I go too far over on the other side, so that my left boot can hardly clear the steep ice to land on the next hold.

The mountain’s knife-edge fades steeply into the formless grey, raking summitwards through the dense-knit vapour. But where is the top, and will we ever find it?

We could be at this for hours, fighting our way up. Or, in just a minute, the clouds could part and a ridge of fine-spun silver might usher us to a summit soaring up out of the clouds.

Then these gloomy shrouds could keep their lethal cornices and icewalls back in the depths, while the sun brightens above us and we feel ourselves shiver with anticipation.

Original illustration from Ihr Berge

Now we know you, Finsteraarrothorn. But may we sing your praises? Are you really worthy to be compared with your mighty neighbour? For us two, you meant more to us almost than him. We experienced you to the full, as nobody had before and nobody will ever again. When we stole up on you, you were a shy country maiden, sweeter than the great monarch beside you. Maidenhood was your charm – and we have robbed you of it.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Thursday, October 3, 2019


Project HaMo (translation): the aldermen of the Alps and their ill-kept secrets

At council, in some sun-drenched assembly hall, convene the venerable aldermen, white-bearded and surmounted with snowy periwigs, revered by all. For these are men of dignity, noblemen, the natural aristocracy of the stark mountain scene, the most exalted of their rugged tribe, overtopping all their electors by a head.

Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in an old postcard (c. 1912)

Born to their station, these worthy lords look out with a freeman’s gaze. Their mien is serious, their vestments dignified, and their steeply raked backs exude authority. Looked up to on all sides, there they stand, peerless, and yet – is there none among them who harbours no secret weakness among the highest and best of his mountain peers?

Since time immemorial, these eminences have gazed proudly over their foothills, beaming magnificently and watching over the people of the plain. Time-honoured are their titles and names. Robed in silver and rose-red gold, tilting their ridges aloft, they have stood there in earnest convocation for ages eternal.

The great mountains are the first-born of the young mountain gods. By birth and blood they were ennobled. So what need have they to exert themselves? Invincible by sheer stature, they prevail without a struggle. Those of low degree, strive as they might, could never rise against them. Yet, should one or other of these make the effort to challenge the power of those hereditary heights, what mighty giants they will meet with. Then will you see the sacred mountains of your dreams made manifest.

With their glittering locks of snow, their rivers of flowing ice, their flanks sheer to the heavens, these four-thousanders are the noblest treasures of the world. And yet – surely there is not one without some hidden flaw of weakness.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Cima Aeterna

Project HaMo (translation): a young mountaineer's fantasy

Thousands of nights, I’ve slept long and dreamlessly, slipping into nothingness one evening to be abruptly hurled back, next morning, into everyday life.

Now and then, though, rarely and unexpectedly, I have strayed off the path of dreamless sleep and, instead of sinking into blind oblivion, find myself regaled by a scene set as if for divinities.

Lhotse at sunset
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Rapt with joy have I then beheld the Queen of Mountains, a dreamlike summit, her golden evening glow veiled by light, feathery clouds. This vision, I sensed, was reserved for my eyes alone. And with that soaring spur on the mountain’s edge, shrouded in icy mist – a god-like line for climbers – she kisses the messengers of distant stars.

Floating there, the Queen of Mountains rests on walls of chthonic rock, on the granite foundations of the world. From the depths of my dream, she soars up to the heavens. For thousands of metres, she soars straight upwards, unblemished by snow, into a summit of shimmering ice. Her feet are washed in the silvery flow of glacier streams, frozen waves that silently rush forward, and still more silently, towards the depths and my Tartarus below.

Then yearns my innermost being for the highest one, to fly up to the Cima Aeterna, all earthly sorrows cast away, light and free as desire itself.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ye mountains!

Project HaMo (translation): Hans Morgenthaler's invocation to the Swiss Alps

And so the centuries gushed forth from their limitless source, like the shock waves of eternity. New ones rolled in, old ones passed, one by one they came and passed, raising in their train countless generations of men. Ye mountains! Feared, ignored, you kept your sad vigil, waiting and watching for the dawn to break when finally you would touch the fate of men.

Original illustration from Hans Morgenthaler's Ihr Berge

Yet, bastioned by faith in your future deliverance from death’s rigid spell, you defied endless ages of assaults from the stormwinds, the burning sun, the grinding ice-fangs, and the water’s gnawing, all to fulfil your destiny as benefactors of mankind.

And you stood fast!

At last, when you had already half-crumbled to grey ruins, men came to their senses and finally opened their eyes to you, ye castles of freedom, woke to a burning love for mountains.

Like a sacred torch, you touched off in the human race first a few paltry sparks, then steady flames, before whipping a wildfire of mountain passion that blazed to heaven.

Your fatal splendour, the mysteries lurking within your death-dealing glaciers, shunned by older generations, were suddenly sought out by the young. All of a sudden, you lured them irresistibly in. The wonders of the high mountains lifted them from the tedium of their circumscribed lives, as if with a single jolt, onto the plane of a nobler existence.

Ye mountains! Can you know what you mean to so many today? That your mere existence enriches so many lives? That legions of good men think of nothing higher or nobler than devoting themselves to mountains, in their strength and obduracy? To serve you for the rest of their lives, to the last breath?

To them, you have become as gods.

Nothing in this world is more sacred to these men. Besotted, smitten, none can wrench themselves free of your love. You hold them in your iron grip. And even when your abyss yawns for them, even as the pulverising rockfall roars and thunders and takes their lives, still they keep their troth in you.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The mountains of my home

Project HaMo (translation): how a Swiss mountaineer was made

I can’t recall when it lighted on me, the spark that ignited my deep love for the mountains. But the flame it lit flared up very early in my life.

"The Jungfrau was the one I liked best"
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

It was while I was still in the pram, or very soon afterwards, that the mountains first swam into my ken. My home view then comprised a hoary old castle nestling cozily into a small town, and best of all, a hilly green valley flanked with spacious pine forests. But only later did I make this important discovery.

Far, far in the distance, beyond my old home valley, there rose up on a sudden – this was on a clear summer evening – a host of white pinnacles. Today I would call them the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, from the Wetterhorn to the Blümlisalp. And from that moment onwards they have always kept a special place in my heart.

It seems like yesterday to me – I could already name a few of them, and this meant a lot to me. The Jungfrau was the one I liked best. The mountains were hard to tell apart, yet this name was worthy of them all.

One thing was for sure: I already respected these mountains deeply; they held me in awe. If some wretch came along and tried to make fun of my mountains, I took their side, and never would I have let slip their names to anybody I deemed unworthy, like a little girl.

From that time on, all I wanted was to hear more about mountains.

Soon I got to know my first mountaineer. He was remarkable most of all for his long, bandy legs, which took him stalking past our home every day. For a while, he rather scared me. It was only when, one fine evening, I saw him gazing with longing at those rose-tinged peaks that I started to warm to him. From then on, there were two kinds of people: mountaineers, and the common run of folk, with whom I’ve even now not wholly come to terms.

Then I was allowed to get to know the mountains better and better, or at least look at them from closer and closer. What yearnings they awoke in me! And what intimations came to me from those grassy green hilltops that my father sometimes now and then took me to on a Sunday.

I was always taking refuge in them. When I was sad, the mountains stayed cheerful; when I was beaten down, they stood fast, when I was miserable, they still greeted me, bright and amiable, over the green treetops along our quiet valley.

When they glittered through the schoolroom window, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, what should I care about tedious mensa, mensae, Pythagoras and the July Revolution? We soon became well acquainted, thanks to many a splendid book.

When, on some gloomy autumn day, I’d almost forgotten what might await me above that pall of fog, I used to run up some hill near the town after school, and even if I was too late ten times, then on the eleventh try, I’d be on top in time to see the sunset. Then I drew its red glow right into my heart, and this small happiness would tide me through the dark winter.

Since then, I have come to know a good many mountains, and I hope to sample a good many more. All have their beauty. But you, my mountain comrades from all over the world, from Africa, Australia, South America, who rate all mountains equally, from Mont Blanc through to the Ortler, can you guess now why I rank these ones highest, our Bernese Oberlanders, the mountains of my home?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

From the life of a snowflake

Project HaMo (translation): meditation on a winter sky

It's snowing. Gently and quietly, soft snowflakes flutter from a grey-speckled sky – the grey speckles are young snowflakes, newly born. One after another, they swirl down together, mingling and mixing, brushing each other. A quick one hastens ahead of a hesitant one, a heavy one clings to a light one, as if it would slow its onrush to the pace of the slowly hovering one. How they leap and gyre. But of course they do! They delight in their very being, sailing round like little birds of paradise. Can you hear them sing? What a joy it must be, to be a soft little flake among snowflakes.

Snowshower at the Aua da Zeznina, Swiss Engadine
Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure
Tender as a maiden, snowflakes cast a quiet glow ahead of them as they drift softly and easily down. To be young forever is what they wish for. What infinite happiness: a life of dancing!

But woe is us. In all their softness and delicacy, they fall to the warm earth. How they tremble! One breath, and they are ruined. One sigh of air and, hardly wakened to life, they have already perished, in their hundreds and thousands, all at once. Hundreds of thousands of snowflake souls fly up to heaven. Alas, poor snowflakes!

It's snowing. The wind whips sharp ice-needles from the wild clouds. Hard knives cut your cold face. Today, the snowflake tribe is in a grim mood. Ice-cold in its furious intent, every flake makes war on the earth. In endless hordes, they drive down like polished projectiles, in dense phalanxes, spoiling for the fight. Showering down like spray, they close ranks, multiplying their force a thousand times, as legions of brave pellets drive after them. How they scour and rush, harried by the wind into slanting files. Try following one with your eyes, and a hundred hit you, thousands of henchmen to every leader, bold and quick, sifting down like sand.

What savage joy, to be a snowpellet among snowpellets!

How they defy the earth, these rough warriors. They prevail by sheer weight of numbers. Grim as a conquering army, they cover the earth, piling up thicker and thicker.

Yet they too will yield. One gleam of sun will vanquish the weakest and drive the stronger ones into each other’s embrace. Now the sunlight strengthens, and even the proudest are wilting. The grey-white masses, tough as they are, melt away; bold snow-spirits ascend to heaven. Did you hear their high, defiant song. What a farewell was that!

Did you see how the snowflakes died? Each knows it will rise anew, invisibly, so that it can lay down its life again and again. Is it because they know something we don’t that they die so easily and cheerfully?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Hapless mountains

Project HaMo (translation): a very short story from the Swiss Alps 

In front of the hotel, the old man sits in a cane chair, his left leg slung over his right. This gentleman’s hair is snow-white. He has his gold watch and a telescope out on the table in front of him. “It’s still too early,” you can hear him murmuring to himself.

On the traverse from Morgenhorn to Wyssi Frau
Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Several hundred metres above, a little white path comes vaulting out of a side valley on a slope – there, by the black rock next to the pluming waterfall. The path and the torrent hurry down to the valley, now alongside each other, now crossing over, until they suddenly part ways, one zigging left, the other right.

“Still too early!” says the old man. His telescope follows the path. “Yes that was a long and tough one, that route, we got back pretty late.”

“But, hello, there they are. They’ve done it, by Jove!” Still lithe, despite his years, he jumps to his feet, beaming his warmth towards them. He loves his boys.

“The icefall! The icefall! Did you get through all right? Bravo! That couldn’t have been easy. It took us more than three hours to get through to the edge of the rocks on the other side.”

“Good evening, Papa! No, that was easy enough. We found somebody’s footprints, hardly a day old, still quite fresh.”

“So how was the rock-step from the ice onto the ridge? My, that was hard. And difficult to find too! I won’t ever forget how rotten and slippery those rocks were. Just that place took us more than an hour.”

“Hmm, it wasn’t anything special, father. Almost a footpath. Steps in the rock and some solid iron stanchions.”

“Was there a lot of ice, on top of the ridge?”

“All ice, from bottom to top.”

“Really, and you’re back already? That’s really something!”

“No, father, everything was already chopped out for us, a staircase right up to the rocks.”

“The summit rocks aren’t half bad, are they? When we made the first guideless climb – this was with my friend W. – we almost had to back off there. We struggled for hours. That was a fight; we didn’t know whether it would go until we finally made it!”

“Well, the rocks were pretty steep. They took us twenty minutes. There’s a fixed rope there now.”

“That’s shameful, damn it. But you soaked in that great summit view, didn’t you? I took a look in my old climbing diary: we sat on top for two full hours.”

“Father, you know, it was unspeakable up there. A whole bunch of people came up the normal route. One of them – the guides kept calling him ‘Mr President’ – went droning on about mountain sport and the opening of the Alps – so we just went on our way. But this evening, if you don’t mind, do tell us how the mountains were in the old days!”


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Images and ink (41)

Image: View from the Italian Ridge (Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Ink: From The cross of the Matterhorn, being Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of La Croix du Cervin (1919) by Charles Gos.

Icy stalactites bristle from the black walls of the Zmutt face. Lilac-tinted mists drift, as if nonchalantly, along the streaked and stained cliffs, and through the deep-cut gullies where the stones go whistling down. The glacier gleams pallidly from the abyssal depths. What brings you here is the void that lurks in the shadow of the mighty cliffs, the void that watches you, enfolds you and follows your every step. The void that you cannot see, sense or hear, the void you adore, the void that does you in ...

Des stalactites de glace cuirassent les noires murailles des précipices de Z'mutt. Au long des parois, rongées de taches, et par les ravins découpés où les pierres dégringolent en sifflant, des brumes, finement nuancées de teintes lilas, flottent nonchalantes. Du gouffre sombre monte la blancheur du glacier. Et le vide, embusqué à l'ombre des puissants escarpements, est là qui vous attire, vous guette, vous enveloppe et vous suit. Le vide qu'on ne voit pas, qu'on ne connaît pas, qu'on n'entend pas, le vide qu'on aime et qui tue...

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The cross of the Matterhorn (1)

A tale from the days when smugglers plied their trade over the alpine passes

The smuggler must have crossed the Za-de-Zan glacier. He was coming slowly down the moraine, moving with care and taking cover behind the boulders. His odd demeanour was explained by the huge sackcloth bag he was carrying on his back. The rushing stream drowned out the sound of the stones grinding under his feet. Thinking for a moment about his route, he made for the paths and couloirs below the cliffs of the Tour de Creton, as if aiming for the grassy ledges that seam the scree slopes looming over the hamlet of Prarayé.

Let’s not foul up here, Jean-Joseph, the man grumbled to himself as he walked. You’re sticking your neck out a long way as it is, strolling through here in broad daylight. What a life, always creeping around, always on the qui vive, always looking like you’ve got something to hide. Still, a man’s got to live. And it wouldn’t be a bad life without these bastard customs officers. Better put out that pipe, mate; they’ve got good noses, the bastards.

Jean-Joseph tapped his pipe on the handle of his iron-ferruled stick, blew the last ashes out of it and put it in his pocket. The morning was getting on, the sun riding high. Meltwater burbled off the glaciers. Small pools glittered, green and gently rounded. Except for its usual murmurings, the mountainside was quiet. And Jean-Joseph, always wary, bent under his load, paused to think about his route, seeming to sniff the air and his way, and went on, still hugging the rocks.

Suddenly, the whine of a bullet pierced the silence. A shred of white smoke puffed into thin air over by the moraine. A dry report went rolling across the glacier of the Grandes-Murailles, scaring off a covey of snow partridges, and the smuggler fell heavily forward.

A kind of trance followed the thunder of the gunshot. Then there were only the groans of old Jean-Joseph, dying alone among the rocks, under the blue sky and the beautiful sun. He was dying, and he couldn’t grasp a thing, not even who’d shot him. The drama had played out, devastating, incomprehensible. And down there, over by the moraine, a customs officer was slowly lowering his rifle, its barrel still smoking ...


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the title story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Guide to the high mountain trails

Review: Tom Fay and Wes Lang's Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji

Now this is big. Tom Fay and Wes Lang have brought out their guidebook to Japan’s high mountains, the first new one for almost two decades. It follows in the Vibram bootprints of Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan (2001), long out of print, and Paul Hunt’s Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer's Guide to the Mountain Trails (1988).

You can trace the lineage of these authors all the way back to Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes, who came out with their A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan in 1881. This was a general vade mecum that included side trips to many high peaks, Fuji, Hakusan, Yari-ga-take and Tateyama among them. It was this guidebook that sped Walter Weston on his way to his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps.

If Tom and Wes are part of a long tradition, how do they stack up against it? The question is easily disposed of. The two writers know their territory as if it were their backyard, being long-term residents of Japan and certified meizanologists. And they had the wit to team up with Cicerone, a specialised publisher of hiking and trekking guides. Heck, the very name of this imprint means “guide”.

The result is all but a foregone conclusion. Applying two decades of progress in printing technology, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji regales you with full colour pages, all photos, maps and elevation profiles included (Wes's posts on these topics over on Tozan Tales are well worth reading). The crisply written route descriptions come with course times based on ground truth. If you still get yourself benighted, this guidebook won’t be to blame.

Introductions then and now
You get the measure of a guidebook’s ambitions by dipping into its introduction. Back in 1881, Satow and Hawes prefaced their Guide with more than a hundred pages on Japan’s geography, botany, zoology and religions. The sections on ferns and Buddhism are particularly good, as is the practical advice:

The shooting season begins on October 15 and ends on April 15. Licences can be obtained at Tōkiō from the Police authorities, and the open ports and Ōzaka from the Prefecture, fee 10 yen (paper). The applicant has to enter into a written engagement to observe certain regulations … This covenant expressly stipulates that the holder of the licence shall not shoot beyond Treaty limits.

Picking up the baton just over a century later, Paul Hunt chose to go light on religion in the introduction to his 1988 guidebook. On the other hand, and as you’d expect from an author who came to prospect for oil in the Japan Sea, he provides a very lucid and complete summary of Japan's natural history and geology:

The present zone of active volcanoes, which is known as the Green Tuff Zone, has been active since the Miocene, and is the youngest tectonic zone. It is found on the continental side or the inner belt of the island arc systems, where subsidence and deposition of sediments in basins has occurred. During the Miocene, large-scale submarine volcanism occurred in these basins … These lavas, extruded in an aqueous environment, were altered and changed to a green colour – hence the name Green Tuff.

In their own introduction, Tom and Wes stay away from the Green Tuff. Instead, they zero in on practical matters such as how to get a SIM card for your mobile phone (be reassured in this: “Japan is a technologically advanced country… “). Alas, they have nothing to say about shooting licences  – although, for Bambi’s sake, there are enough deer up in those hills to justify a bit of culling.

 Their route descriptions focus on the practical too. Where Paul Hunt mashed up guidebook with travelogue, blending his personal reminiscences into route descriptions, Tom and Wes are all business. Instead of picking just a few flagship hikes, as Hunt does, they outline a dense web of trails through the highest mountains – and, of course, on and around Mt Fuji.

Each approach is, or was, the right one for its time. While Hunt had to reintroduce Japan's mountains to a foreign audience after a long hiatus in English-language guidebooks, Tom and Wes have a readership that already knows a bit about hiking in Japan. So detailed coverage is the right way to go.

So much information is packed in here that not much room is left for background colour. Here and there, the authors do drop a tantalising detail or two, such as the hut-warden’s “notorious” temper on Notori-dake. Or the rumour that rocks were piled up on the summit of Oku-Hotaka (3190m) in the Northern Alps so that it could overtop its southern rival, Ai-no-take (3189m), as Japan’s third-highest mountain.

It’s no coincidence that both these vignettes involve mountains in the Southern Alps. For my money, one of Tom and Wes’s achievements is to drag this shy and retiring mountain range out into the limelight. For various reasons – difficult access, less obviously dramatic scenery – these mountains have always played second fiddle to their northern and central counterparts. By stoking many a hiker's ambition, the write-up of Trek 13, a traverse of the entire Southern Alps, will do much to correct this deficit of attention.

The southern reaches of the Southern Alps are particularly remote. Tom and Wes can’t alter that fact, but they do show you how to use such transport links as there are to best effect. And they are particularly good on what flowers and rocks you’ll see along the way. I learned from their route descriptions that the pinkish (radiolarian?) chert which forms Kita-Dake Buttress actually outcrops on many mountains further south too.

So there you have it. A solid, practical guide, based on decades of mountain experience, and all packaged – at a reasonable price – in a durable plastic wrapper. It’s good that the book will hold up well, as, on past performance, it will be a decade or so before we get another English-language guide to any of the Japanese mountains.

Next up
When we do, here’s a wish-list. Now that Tom and Wes have so thoroughly written up the Japan Alps, the big remaining blank on the map is Hokkaidō – surely those Hidaka and Daisetsuzan mountains deserve an English-language guidebook to themselves. The same might be said for many individual regions, such as the Kansai or Kyushu. Or, if you're into the Green Tuff, how about a guidebook to Japan's burgeoning population of geoparks and geomuseums?

There’s no need to go far to find other terrae incognitae. Yes, Mt Fuji, I’m looking at you. Hidden in plain view of Tokyo, Japan’s top mountain is surprisingly reclusive when it comes to English-language hiking information. Tom and Wes include workmanlike information on four of the main climbing routes, plus a satellite peak – but that still leaves the Murayama trail, the O-chū-dō, the lakes, lava fields and caves, and the circuit of the mountain’s foot, among scores of other possible Sehenswürdigkeiten.

A detailed guidebook to Mt Fuji: now there’s an idea – you know, if you started compiling one now, you might even get it published in time for the Tokyo Olympics.


Tom Fay and Wes Lang, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji, Cicerone, 2019

David Joll , Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall, Hiking in Japan, Lonely Planet, 2001

Paul Hunt, Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer's Guide to the Mountain Trails, Kodansha International, 1988

Ernest Mason Satow and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Northern & Central Japan, John Murray, 1881

Wes Gibbons, Teresa Moreno and Tomoko Kojima, "Field geotraverse, geoparks and geomuseums", Chapter 12 in Teresa Moreno et al, The Geology of Japan, Geological Society, 2016.

Monday, June 3, 2019

"At the same time good nerve is indispensable"

Continued: from Tateyama to Kurobe with Satow and Hawes in 1884

The Muro-dō hut is open for the accommodation of pilgrims during 50 days, from July 20 to September 10. No bedding is procurable, nor any food but boiled rice. To the summit (of Tateyama), called Go-hon-sha, is a distance of 1 ri. A short stretch of level ground, partly covered with snow lies between the hut and the base of the upper ridge. The ascent thence is almost direct and, as far as the first shrine (860 ft. above the·Muro-dō), tolerably easy. Beyond this point, however, it becomes difficult.

View of the Kurobe River
Woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi 
From the second shrine (1,050 ft. above the Muro-dō), the first view of Fuji is seen, and a short climb then lands the traveller upon the ridge, from which the actual summit of Tate-yama, crowned with a very picturesque temple, rises sharply. The ascent from the Muro-dō can be accomplished in 1 hr., not including stoppages.

The summit, on a clear day commands a most imposing survey on every side. The number of mountains to be distinguished is perhaps greater than from any other elevation in Japan. To the extreme left, looking eastward, are seen Miō-kō-zan, Miō-gi-san and Yone yama in Echigo, Nan-tai-zan near Nikko, To-gakushi san and the volcano of Asama yama in Shin-shū.

Towards the S. rises the range of Yatsu-ga-take, with the isolated peak of Tateshina yama, beyond which are seen the simple cone of Fuji, the high summits of Shirane and Koma-ga-take in Koshū; further S. again are Koma-ga-take and Ontake in Shin-shiū; Yari-ga-take, Norikura, Kasa-ga-take, and, in closer proximity, Yakushi-ga-dake, all in Hida; while almost due S.W. is Haku-san, on the borders of Kaga. Below to the W. lie the plains of Kaga and Etchū, the latter watered by the Jin-dzū and Jō-gwan-ji, and to the N. the view is bounded by the Sea of Japan.

Instead of descending to Ashikura it is possible to take a short cut to Kurobe by crossing over the ridge of Jō-do-san and entering the valley of Gozen-dani. The distance is said to be only 2½ ri, but the difficulties of the journey are so great that Kurobe can hardly be reached in less than 6 or 7 hours. The path branches off left from the first shrine above the Murodo, and descending a grassy slope, comes to a difficult and dangerous talus of loose stones.

It next follows the rocky course of a cold mountain stream, then crosses a gentle snow slope, and rejoins the river-bed of the same stream. Further on it ascends a tributary stream flowing down the valley on the left of Jō-do-san, and then diverging to the left up a smaller bed, crosses the ridge dividing Tate-yama from the valley of the Zara-goye. This part of the journey is extremely fatiguing, the ascent to the top of the ridge being very steep and precipitous. Near the summit the path winds to the 1., and soon begins rapidly to descend.

Great care is now required to avoid bruises from the sharp stones which form the side of the hill, as they are treacherously hidden by the creeping dwarf alder and thick masses of bamboo grass. On reaching the stream at the bottom of the ridge, its course should be ascended for ½ hr. to the point where it is crossed by the Shin-do (see p. 314). At the hamlet of Kumano, 1½ ri from Toyama, the road crosses a bridge over the Kumano-gawa, and continues on to Okubo, a village straggling along a tedious avenue of fir-trees and bamboos.

From this point, it ascends to the hot springs of Yaki, where it enters the mountains and ½ ri on crosses a ferry over the Jiodzū-gawa to Sasadzu, which, like most of the hamlets along this route, consists of but a few miserable huts. Ascending the left bank through very pretty scenery, it reaches Ioridani (Inn, by Akaza Kiū-shi-rō). In summer, when the silkworms are being reared in every room, the odour which these insects emit and the flies which they attract make it almost impossible to stay anywhere in the valley except at this inn and the temple mentioned below…

Advertisement from the Satow and Hawes guidebook, 1884 edition

Yoshino (accommodation at the house of Muramatsu Kichi-shi-rō; the quarters are poor, but the people are very obliging) Close to this village, the Jin-dzū-gawa is crossed by a kago-no-watashi.

This substitute for a bridge is constructed in the following manner. Four stout hempen ropes are secured to each bank of the river, at a point where it narrows and cuts its way between some fine rocks.Suspended to these ropes is a cradle of very simple structure, consisting merely of a plaited wicker circular bottom over which are bent two hoops made of tough branches crossing each other at right angles and firmly secured to the bottom. The ropes across the river pass under these hoops and thus the cage is hung.

Pole-bridge at the foot of the Abo Pass
Photo by H J Hamilton, in Walter Weston's Mountaineering & Exploration in the Japanese Alps

The cradle is hauled across by lines attached to it from either side of the river, and the method of crossing is to get into the cage and to be pulled over by men on the bank. Another way of crossing, and the one which is usually adopted by the peasant, is thus. He enters the cage, plants his feet firmly against the lower part of the hoops, leans well forward, and clasps the rope above him with his hands, and then by a series of jerks like the leaps of a frog, takes himself and the cage across to the opposite side. It requires great practice to be able to perform this antic, and at the same time good nerve is indispensable.

The main point seems to be not to lose the hold with the feet; the jerk is performed from the knee and hip, and unless great care is taken an inexperienced person may find himself hanging from the rope with the cage left behind him.

Fine masu (salmon-trout), weighing from 4 to 8 lbs., are taken in the river. A four-pronged spear, which fits into a staff having a stout line attached to it, is used for catching these fish. Ai and iwana are also taken by netting. The seasons for fishing are the end of spring and the beginning of autumn.


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray. The link leads to the 1881 edition, but the text above comes from the 1884 edition.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

“The Muro-dō is in a most wretched condition”

With Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes to the top of Tateyama in 1884

Tate-yama is the name given to the lofty summits lying on the eastern border of the province of Etchū, and which, together with the jagged peak of Tsurugi-dake, form the northern extremity of the most considerable range of mountains in Japan. The highest of the peaks (Go-hon-sha) is about 9,500 ft. above the level of the sea.

Tateyama-Bessan: a woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The main ascent leads up the western side of the mountain from the hamlet of Ashikura, which can be reached either from Kamidaki or Harimura (see p. 315). There are no inns, but good accommodation can be found at the house of Saiki Masanori.

In a grove of trees close by is situated a small temple dedicated to Ariyori, the hero who first succeeded in ascending Tate-yama. After death he was deified and to the present day pilgrimages are made to the mountain, which is still sacred to his memory. His grave stands close behind this temple within a small railed enclosure. It differs from the ordinary style of grave, being a mound about 8 ft. square, built up to a height of 4 or 5 ft. with stone-faced sides.

On the top of this mound grows a small evergreen called shirokake. The temple, name Ōyama no jin-ja, is simply an unpretending wooden building. It contains a shrine of red and black lacquer ornamented with the crests of the family of Ariyori and of the former dai-mio of Kaga. The ceiling consists of square panels, on which are painted various designs of birds and flowers.

Advertisement from the Satow and Hawes guidebook (1884 edition)

The road up the mountain at first winds along the r. bank of the Jō-gwan-ji-gawa, and crossing a rapid stream which flows down from the Sho-mio taki, a cascade of some considerable height on the slope of Tate-yama, reaches the Zai-moku-zaka, where commences the actual ascent, which at first is extremely steep, in many places up almost precipitous rocks.

The trees of this part of the forest are singularly magnificent. Some well-formed hexagonal columns of andesite over which the way passes are the subject of the following legend. Ages ago, when the original Tate-yama temple was being built, a quantity of timber had been cut and prepared on this hill to be brought down, but a woman who had ventured up carelessly walked over the prostrate trunks, which immediately changed to stone. The name of Zai-moku-zaka, 'Timber Hill,' was bestowed on the place in consequence.

Near the top of this hill from an opening on the l. the Shō-miō-taki can be indistinctly seen through the trees. For upwards of 3 ri beyond this point the ascent is very arduous, especially after heavy rain, when the path is little better than a track of liquid mud, in most places more than a foot in depth. Occasionally deep pools, decayed roots of trees, branches and other rotten debris add their quota to the difficulties. Emerging on to a plateau, and continuing for 1 ri, the path from the baths of Riū-zan-jita falls in on the r. (see p. 315).

Higher up the road ascends the rocky beds of several small streams, and passes r. a large flat block of stone, supported vertically and called kagami ishi (mirror rock), beyond which, on looking back, there is an extensive view of Etchū with its numerous rivers, of the promontory of Noto and of the sea, and nearer, of the Yu-gawa valley. A little further on a narrow path on the 1. leads to a point from which a distant view is obtained of the Shō-miō-taki.

The road now ascends the boulder-covered side of the mountain, passes over several streams, and skirting the bottom of a snowy slope, crosses a bare shoulder to the Muro-dō (hut). During the whole ascent from Ashikura to the Muro-dō, a distance of over 20 miles, the only shelter to be got consists of 3 wretched sheds. One of them, however, about 4 ri from Ashikura, possesses a spring of good water. Beeches and huge cryptomerias are the most common trees on this mountain, but they occupy separate localities, divided off by deep ravines. Chestnuts and horse-chestnuts are also met with.

In a valley situated about 6 ch. to the 1. of the Muro-dō are the remarkable solfataras of Ō-Jigoku The road thither, after passing between two tarns, one of which, to judge from the appearance of its almost vertical sides, is most likely an old crater, reaches the brow of a hill which commands a birds-eye view of the springs. The whole valley below seems as if it were alive with bubbling pools of boiling mud and sulphur.

Descending the stony side of the hill the soft and crumbing bottom of the valley is reached. It is here advisable to be careful in picking the way, for in some places the small hillocks of sulphur over which it is necessary to pass are unbearably hot and a false step might plunge the unwary visitor into the depths of the boiling liquid below.

The bottom of the valley is broken up by two or three mounds composed of a mixture of sulphur and a white rock. Jets of steam mixed with sulphuretted hydrogen issue from clefts in the sides of these mounds, in one place with a terrific noise, and with such force as to carry lumps of the deposited sulphur 10 to 15 ft. away.

In some of the pools boiling water of a dark green colour is projected to a height of several feet, and falling back into its pit, is again thrown up with equal violence. In others, a yellowish mud is tossed about with the same activity. The temperature of these pools varies, that of the highest being 190°F.

The Muro-dō is in a most wretched condition, and the traveller must not be disappointed at having to put up with great discomfort. One of the worst annoyances is the wood fire. The hut becomes filled with smoke, blinding and painful in the extreme, and it is only possible to avoid its suffocating effects by lying flat on the floor.

The hut is open for the accommodation of pilgrims during 50 days, from July 20 to September 10. No bedding is procurable, nor any food but boiled rice ....

(Continued in next post)


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray. The link leads to the 1881 edition, but the text above comes from the 1884 edition.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

“An egg may be fairly cooked in about half an hour”

Around the top of Mt Fuji in 1884 with Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes

The summit of the mountain consists of a series of peaks surrounding the crater, the diameter of which is not far short of 2,000 ft. The descent into it, down the loose talus of rock and cinders close to the huts at the top of the Murayama ascent, is extremely easy, but it is advisable to take a guide from the hut. In 20 min. the bottom is reached.

Pilgrims on Mt Fuji: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The floor, which is formed of cinders, inclines slightly from W. to E., and is intersected by small stream-beds, which at the E. end terminate among the loosely piled lava masses which form the core of the mountain. All round, except where the descent is made, rise precipitous rocky walls, from which large pieces detach themselves from time to time with a loud crackling sound like that of musketry. On the W. side, immediately under Ken-ga-mine, there is usually a large snow slope. The depth has been variously calculated at 416, 548 and 584 ft. The return to the edge may take about 25 min.

Before dawn the pilgrims betake themselves to Ken-no-mine, the peak on the W. of the crater, and the true summit of the mountain, to await the sun's rising. As the luminary approaches the horizon and all the clouds about it glow with the most brilliant hues of red flame, the feeling of longing expectation seems almost to overcome them; but as soon as the burning disk appears, they greet it with devoutness, rubbing their chaplets between their hands and muttering prayers to the great deity.

Map of the Mt Fuji region, from the Satow and Hawes guidebook

This point commands the most extensive view over the surrounding country. To the S. stretches the deep gulf of Suruga, shut in on the E. by the lofty promontory of Idzu, and confined to the W. by Mio-zaki at the termination of the long range which divides the valley of the Abe kawa from that of the Fujikawa.

S.W. is the broad pebbly bed of the Fujikawa running out to sea, its course above the point where it crosses the Tō-kai-dō being hidden by the lower hills. Westwards are seen all the lofty peaks of the border range of Ko-shiu and Shin-shū, from the angular granite obelisk of Koma-ga-take, with its lesser neighbours Ji-zo and Ho-o-zan, the three summits of Shirane, known as Kaigane, Ai-no-take and Nodori, the Koma-ga-take of Shin-shū that rises between the Tenryū-gawa and Kisogawa, Ena-san in Mino and the top of Shichi-men-zan near Minobu.

Further to the right, extending northwards, come the Japanese Alps, the great range that divides far-off Hida from Shin-shū, among which may be distinguished Norikura, Yari-ga-take and further remote in Etchū the volcanic summits of Tateyama. Gradually moving E. again, along the northern horizon, we distinguish the mountains near Zen-ko-ji, Ken-no-mine and the extinct volcano Mio-ko-zan, on the edge of the depression through which passes the road to Echigo.

Nearer in the foreground rise the innumerable summits of Yatsu-ga-take, and then casting our glance further N. we perceive Asama-yama's smoking crater, the mountains of the Mikuni pass, then all the Nikkō mountains, Shirane, Nan-tai-zan and their attendants. E. of Yatsu-ga-take is seen Kim-bu-sen, easily known by its rounded shoulder and the pillar of rocks at the summit; then Yakushi and Mitsumine in Chichibu, till the eye loses itself in a confusion of lower ridges.

On the eastern side of the crater, from almost at any point that may be chosen, the eye rests on a prospect less sublime, but surpassing this in beauty. Far away across the plain is distinctly visible the double top of the sacred Tsukuba in Hitachi, while further south we see the outer edge of the rich Kwanto plain, with Tokio lying far up the bay of Yedo; then in succession Capes Sagami and Su-no-saki, the smoking summit of Mihara yama on Oshima, the coast of the gulf of Sagami, and nearer in the foreground the beautiful lake of Hakone peacefully embosomed in green hills.

The traveller will rarely be fortunate enough to obtain a perfectly clear view from the summit of Fuji, but the best chances undoubtedly are just before and at sunrise. Nor will the pilgrim be wholly fortunate unless he sees the superb cloud effects which the mountain affords. These are most likely to be enjoyed in ordinary summer weather, between noon and 6 o'clock in the evening, and they are truly magnificent.

The summit of the mountain remains clear, but its shoulders and waist are surrounded by billowy masses of dense white vapour of indescribable splendour. Here and there a momentary break may permit a glimpse of the earth beneath, but usually nothing can be seen landward but this vast ocean of cloud, amid which the peak stands as the only island in the world. Turning seaward, the ocean itself can be seen over the circumambient vapour, and affords a striking contrast to the turmoil and restless change of form of the clouds themselves.

A curious phenomenon may also sometimes be witnessed at sunrise from the western side of the summit. As the sun's rays appears above the horizon the shadow of Fuji (in Japanese, Kage-Fuji) is thrown in deep outline on the clouds and mist, which at that hour clothe the range of mountains to the west. Descending again from Ken-ga-mine, the path passes under it, and just above the steep talus called Oyashirazu, Koshirazu (‘recognising neither parent nor child’), from the notion that people in danger of falling from it over the edge of the crater would not heed their dearest relations who might be sharers of the peril, but strive to save themselves as best they might. The name is found in many parts of Japan.

Continuing N., it skirts the edge of the cone, passing a huge and precipitous gorge which appears to extend downwards to the very base of the mountain. This is the Ō-sawa, the lower limit of which is perhaps about 6,000 ft. above the sea, or only about half-way from the summit. Passing across the flank of the Rai-iwa, it goes outside the wall of the crater, ascends the 'Shaka no wari-ishi,' Sakya's Cleft Rock, and leaving Shaka-ga-take, the second loftiest peak behind, descends to the Kim-mei-sui (' golden famous-water'), a spring of ice-cold water, situated on the flat shelf between the N. edge of the crater and the outer wall. This is probably supplied by the rain-water which falls on the side of the encircling wall of the crater, and percolates through the porous rock and cinders.

Ascending again, it passes the row of huts at the top of the ascent from Yoshida and Subashiri, and reaches a torii which commands the best view of the crater. Here it turns again to the left, and goes outside the wall of the crater, underneath the Kwan-non-ga-take.

Here the interesting phenomenon may be observed of steam still issuing from the soil in several places, one of which is so close to the path that it is almost impossible to avoid stepping on it, while another lies near at hand on the left, about 50 ft down the exterior of the cone, and a third is seen immediately underneath a wall of rock about 50 yards ahead. A few inches below the surface the heat is great enough to be unbearable, and an egg may be fairly cooked in about half an hour.

Beyond this point the path crosses a depression known as Sei-shi ga kubo, ascends the E. Sai-no-kawara, dotted with piles of stone in place of images of Ji-zo, the protector of children, descends to the Gin-meisui ('Silver famous-water') at the top of the Suyama ascent, and passing under the low peak named Koma-ga- take, arrives at the huts by the top of the path from Murayama.

Between this last point and the Ken-ga-mine is a small crater, named Konoshiro-ga-ike accessible from the N. The total distance round the large crater is said by the Japanese to be 1 ri or 2 miles, but this is no doubt an exaggeration. An hour may profitably be devoted to making the circuit, which will allow for pauses at all the best points of view.


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray. The link leads to the 1881 edition, but the text above comes from the 1884 edition.

Note: If you take eggs up Mt Fuji today, best to hard-boil them before you leave home - the hotspots described by Satow and Hawes have all but faded away since their day. Or so it is said. But perhaps somebody should go and take a look, just to make sure...

Friday, May 10, 2019

"No part of the country in so primeval a state"

Climbing Yari-ga-take in 1884 with Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes

Shimashima (accommodation at the Tsu-un Kwai-sha): Yari-ga-take (' Spear Peak') can be most conveniently ascended from this village. The way, a mere mountain path, strikes up the narrow wooded gorge of a torrent, crossing and recrossing it many times by log bridges. Here and there the bottom of the gorge being too narrow for both torrent and path, the latter is carried along platforms of small fir logs supported on struts above the stream.

View of Yari-ga-take
Woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950)
Occasionally very picturesque spots occur, where rugged precipices of rock dotted with creepers and sparsely perched trees, rise from the boulder-strewn ravine. After a distance of 3 1/2 or 4 ri the road rises steeply up a pass, leading now and then through dense growths of bamboo grass and beds of a stinging-nettle which greatly impede progress.

The top of the pass is 7,000 ft. above the sea level, but high forest-covered mountains prevent a view from being obtained, excepting to the N., and here it is limited to the fine snow peak of Mio-jin-dake, seen just across the valley, and at whose foot the sleeping hut is situated. On the other side of this pass the landscape becomes more extended, and Jo-nen-dake comes in view, while just below, the Adzusagawa, even here a large torrent, is seen rushing in several streams over its wide bed.

At various points there are traces of an old road, along which in former days considerable traffic crossed this pass to Yamada and thence to Takayama. Descending to the torrent, some time is generally lost in finding suitable places for fording it, especially in July, when the snows are melting freely.

The sleeping-hut stands on the bank of a small stream, and is reached immediately after crossing (elevation 4,950 ft.) It is about 7 or 8 hrs. walking distance from Shimashima, but is rather too far from Yari-ga-take for a convenient ascent and descent on the same day; that at the base of the mountain, 3 ri further on (Miyagawa no Koya) is the best starting point, but it is difficult to reach in one day from Shimashima unless the baggage be sent on in front.

The traveller should start from here at daybreak, and in addition to the guide, should take with him a strong coolie to carry him across the torrent, which has to be forded many times, occasionally in places almost waist-deep.

The route for about 3 hrs. lies alternately up one side or the other of the bed or banks of this torrent: on the left, fine, steep, craggy granitic mountains rise to a height of 7,000-8,000 ft., but on the right are tamer wooded hills. Grand mountains are these precipitous masses of granite, surpassing in wildness any to be seen elsewhere in Japan, their curiously steep forms being not unlike some of the ideal crags depicted by Chinese artists.

Perhaps there is no part of the country in so truly a primeval state (with the exception of some parts of Yamato) than this torrent valley in the heart of the Shinano-Hida range, hunters seeking bears and the sheep-faced antelope or lesser game, being its sole frequenters.

Yari-ga-take is still not yet seen, but now the path strikes up a tributary gorge to the left, and passing the second hut, leads up the mountain through a forest. At an elevation of 6,400 ft. a rude shed called Akasaka no Iwa-goya, a camping-place for hunters, is passed, and just above here the forest ceases, and the first snow-field is crossed.

Hence the road lies mostly over snow, but just below the summit, between the peaks, the route winds up and among huge bare masses of rock piled in indescribable confusion. From the irregular resting of some of these crags, so called 'caves' are formed, and in these hunters take up their quarters whilst watching for bears. Ptarmigan are common here.

Hence, a stiff climb up snow and over debris and a rather dangerous scramble up one side of the peak, land the traveller on a table of a few square yards of rock, the top of the 'spear' of the mountain. From the Miyagawa sleeping-hut to the summit is said to be 6 ri. The ascent can be accomplished in 7 hrs. and the descent in 4 hrs.

The peak of Yari-ga-take consists of a hard weather-resisting brecciated porphyry, which is traversed by numerous foliated siliceous bands inclined at high angles and frequently contorted. To this hard rock it owes its height, and to the siliceous bands its jagged spear-like form.

Beyond Shimashima the road recrosses the stream, which is here lined with willow-trees, and passing through a pleasant grove of red pines, emerges on to the Matsumoto plain. At Niimura (accommodation at the Tsu-un Kwai-sha) kuruma can sometimes be obtained. The road is practicable for them all the way, even from Shimashima, were there any to be had.


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray, 1884 edition.

This route description may have helped to foment the first stirrings of modern alpinism in Japan. Shiga Shigetaka (1863-1927) is thought to have drawn on it in writing the chapter on mountaineering in his Theory of the Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fūkeiron), which appeared in October 1894. It was this book - and specifically this chapter - that inspired the young banker and journalist Kojima Usui to climb Yari-ga-take in 1902. This adventure led to Kojima's meeting, the following year, with the mountaineering missionary Walter Weston, who first suggested to him the idea of a Japanese Alpine Club. The rest, as they say, is history ...