Wednesday, April 29, 2020

“Mountains that women can climb by themselves”

How three bold ladies named a Big White Peak and what happened next

Last Sunday, Monica Jackson’s obituary appeared in the Guardian. She passed away recently, after an energetic 99 years of mountaineering, scholarship and family life.

Monica Jackson
(Photo courtesy of the Guardian)
In 1955, Jackson set off on what is often said to be the first all-woman expedition to a Himalayan peak.* With two other Scottish climbers, Evelyn Camrass (later McNicol) and Betty Stark, she made the first ascent of Gyalgen (6,151m), a mountain in Nepal’s Jugal Himal region. And they also dubbed one of its neighbours the Big White Peak.

Their choice of name may have been fateful.

Big White Peak (photo by Kazami Takehide)

Known today as Loengpo Gang (7,083m), this was the mountain that the Japanese author Fukada Kyūya set his heart on a few years later. As Fukada was already somewhat of an expert on the Himalaya, having published two books on them, it is likely that he based his choice on reports of the Gyalgen ascent.

In fact, when planning his own expedition, Fukada wrote to a contact in Nepal to see if he could sign up the Scottish trio’s sirdar, Mingma Gyalgen (for whom they named their peak). Alas, it was not possible to track the Sherpa down.

The Big White Peak team (Fukada second from right)
Photo by Kazami Takehide

With three companions, Fukada took ship for Calcutta in the spring of 1958, arriving in Kathmandu some forty-five days after leaving Kobe. With Fukada at the head of fifty porters, an experience that made him feel like Napoleon, the expedition then marched to its base camp in the Jugal Himal. Their intended mountain turned out to be a wildly ambitious goal. Three high camps would be necessary to reach the summit, the party judged.

The comforts of Camp Three were scant. By the time it was established at 5,000 meters, the climbers’ lack of high-altitude experience was starting to tell. Age may have had something to do with it too; as Fukada had put it to a journalist just before leaving Japan, he was "only" 54 years old. Just to clamber in and out of the high-altitude tent's round hatch during a blizzard was a torment that had to be repeated several times a night.

Fukada Kyuya (?) at a high camp (photo by Kazami Takehide)

Kazami Takehide, the expedition’s photographer, did manage to reach the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds.

Honour satisfied, Fukada decided to abandon the peak, impressing one colleague with his Buddhist spirit of self-abnegation. The party then moved on to the Langtang Himalaya and, after two months under canvas, back to Kathmandu, and so home.

Could it be that the Big White Peak’s name swayed Fukada’s judgment, leading him to pick an objective beyond the party’s capabilities? It’s a tempting hypothesis, given that he’d grown up within sight of Hakusan (2,702m), Japan’s very own “white mountain”.

Be this as it may, the expedition proved far from unrewarding, even without a first ascent. First, travelling through Nepal seems to have sharpened Fukada’s appreciation of his own landscapes. Thus, soon after returning to Tokyo, he revived the idea of writing about a hundred eminent Japanese peaks. A young magazine editor got wind of his thinking and urged him to go ahead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Cover and slipcase of the expedition book by Fukada and Kazami 
Secondly, the expedition cemented Fukada’s reputation as a Himalayan guru. After all, he was now an expeditionary practitioner, rather than just a purveyor of book-learning. Young climbers made their way to his house in Setagaya to ask his advice. Indeed, if you are lucky, you can still meet some of them today.

One such supplicant was a slightly built but intense young woman, who introduced herself as a member of the Ladies' Climbing Club. Could Fukada help them find a suitable objective for their first Himalayan expedition? “Hmm,” mused the writer as he pored over maps and photos with his guest, “Are there any mountains that women can climb by themselves?”

Apparently there were. In 1970, Tabei Junko and Hirakawa Hiroko made the second ascent of Annapurna III, reaching the 7,555-metre summit by a new route. Five years later, Tabei headed for Everest on an all-woman expedition sponsored by Nihon Television and the Yomiuri newspaper. Again, the rest is history.

So could it be that Monica Jackson made another signal contribution to world alpinism? By naming the Big White Peak, she may have drawn Fukada Kyūya’s attention to the Jugal Himal. Indirectly at least, the ensuing expedition helped to launch the career of Japan’s most famous lady climber. And, as a bonus, it fomented the writing of Japan’s most famous mountain book.

*although this seems to short-weight Hosokawa Satoko, who led a successful expedition to Deo Tibba (6,001m) in the Punjab Himalaya, also in 1955. 


Fukada Kyūya and Kazami Takehide, Hyōga e no tabi: Jugaru Himaru Tansa-ko, Meibundo, October 1959. All photos except the top one are from this book.

The anecdote about Fukada helping Tabei Junko choose a Himalayan mountain to climb comes from an article on Everest climbers, Everest Shomei Futatsu, by Fujishima Koji in the Asahi Shinbun, November 15, 2005 (thanks to the Sensei for this).

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