Thursday, February 23, 2023

Chiyoko’s centennial

The Tokyo-based Fuyō Nikki Society yesterday published a blog post to mark the 100th anniversary of Nonaka Chiyoko, The Fuyō Nikki no kai is named after the travel diary in which Chiyoko recorded the epic sojourn that she and her husband Itaru made on the summit of Mt Fuji during the winter of 1895, while they took weather observations. She died a century ago on 22 February 1923, during a flu epidemic, at the age of 53. 

Nonaka Chiyoko in 1914, at the age of 43

The couple held out on the summit for almost three months, surviving both blizzards and beri-beri, a deficiency disease. As they eventually had to be rescued, novels and films have represented their feat as a heroic failure. Yet, in fact, they did succeed in paving the way for a more permanent summit weather station. From 1932 onwards, meteorologists lived year-round on the summit for more than seven decades.

That chapter of the mountain's history ended in 2004, when the weather station on Mt Fuji closed. After automated instruments replaced the human observers, the summit buildings were scheduled for demolition. But at this point, a volunteer group stepped in, with a plan to borrow the facility from the official sector and turn it into a centre for high-altitude research and education. And this they have done by setting up a registered non-profit organisation with an operating budget of some 30 million yen a year.

There is a certain symmetry here. By personally taking the initiative, Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko showed that year-round high-altitude research was possible on Mt Fuji. And now, after many decades when Japan’s official meteorological agency ran the weather and radar station, high-altitude research on the summit is again back in private hands. Some hundreds of researchers have taken advantage of the repurposed Mt Fuji summit station duirng the summer seasons. But nobody spends the winter up there anymore.

Related posts

Chiyoko's Fuji

And see also "Eighty-Two Days on Mt. Fuji" in Alpinist, no 78, Summer 2022 edition.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Tozan-shi (5) – Japan discovers the Alps

Among Japan’s earliest emissaries to Europe, who was the first to see the Alps? Was it Kurimoto Jōun (1822-1897), who stayed in Bern and crossed the Mont Cenis Pass while travelling on a diplomatic mission in 1867. Or, as Ohmori Hisao speculates, could it have been the four youths sent to Italy by a Christian daimyō in the tenth year of Tenshō (1582), who might just have glimpsed the distant Dolomites from some high tower in Venice?

Men in black: Kaga Shotaro and his guide on the Jungfrau, 1910

To mountaineers, the question is moot. For, alpinistically speaking, Japan’s discovery of the Alps had to await its first mountaineering boom, which took off in the Taishō era (1912-1926). True, Kaga Shōtarō (1888-1954), had scraped in at the very end of Emperor Meiji’s reign, when he made his guided climb of the Jungfrau in 1910, but it took a few more years for real momentum to gather.

Although Kaga was the first of his countrymen to summit a Swiss four-thousander, he was more tourist than alpinist – while holidaying in Switzerland, he was supposed to be attending an international exhibition in London, and he dropped his newly purchased ice-axe into the river at Lucerne before he even got to the mountain. But his feat found a ready audience at home, and a report duly appeared in Sangaku, the Japanese Alpine Club’s house journal.

View of the Bernese Oberland by Tsujimura Isuke

One who heard Kaga’s message, and at first hand, was the botanist and writer Tsujimura Isuke (1886-1923). In January 1914, Tsujimura made guided climbs of both the Mönch and the Jungfrau, thus making the first Japanese winter ascents of any Swiss four-thousanders. In an echo of Japan’s mountaineering past, Tsujimura’s party found Walter Weston’s business card tucked into the guest book at the Bergli Hut.

On the heels of these triumphs, nemesis followed. On the way down the aptly named Schreckhorn, Tsujimura’s party was avalanched. But he got to marry Rosa, the kind nurse who had looked after him in hospital. And the accident also made good copy for his fluently penned Swiss Diary (スウィス日記), which in turn promoted the Alps to the up-and-coming generation. “It was the Swiss Diary that taught me what the Alps were about,” wrote Matsukata Saburō (1899-1973), “and what beautiful realms of nature and human emotions are to be found there.”

Tsujimura Isuke

In the event, it was Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune (1894-1989), the son of a newspaper proprietor, who got there first. Arriving in England, nominally to study, he wasted no time in heading for Switzerland and making the first Japanese ascent of the Matterhorn, in August 1921. In September, he and a trio of elite guides from Grindelwald followed this up with the first ascent – by anybody – of the Eiger’s Mittellegi ridge.

In the same summer, the diplomat Hidaka Shinrokurō (1893-1976) danced on the summit of Mont Blanc, after making the first Japanese ascent. Later in his career, Hidaka was the last foreign diplomat to see Benito Mussolini alive.

It was the Mittellegi climb, though, that galvanised Japan’s mountaineering world. Coached at the Keio and Gakushūin universities by Maki, who’d brought back trunkloads of climbing gear from Europe, and inspired by his example elsewhere, student climbers rapidly upped their game, undaunted by the occasional casualty.

One of Maki’s most fervent disciples was the above-quoted Matsukata Saburō. The son of a former prime minister (by his third concubine) and a graduate of Gakushūin’s High School, he went on to study economics at Kyoto University. While a student there, in July 1922, he took part in the first ascent of Yarigatake’s gnarly northern ridge, the Kitakama.

Prince Chichibu's party traverses the Matterhorn, August 1926

In 1924, Matsukata moved to Europe to study and climb. In 1925, having picked up progressive ideas under Kawakami Hajime, his sensei at Kyoto, he published a book on Marx and Engels together with Kaji Ryūichi, another economist. In the same year, he joined the Swiss Alpine Club and, by basing himself at Grindelwald’s Hotel Adler, just like Maki before him, he positioned himself to team up with Matsukata in escorting Prince Chichibu – also notionally studying abroad – on his alpine climbs in August 1926.

Boot camp: Uramatsu Samitaro

Uramatsu Samitarō (1901-1981) was another of the gilded youths who climbed in the Alps during the 1920s – for, in that era, it was very necessary to be one of the former in order to indulge in the latter. Like Matsukata, he went to Europe as a student, but ended up spending four summers and three winters (or possibly three summers and four winters) in the Alps, reaching about forty summits in all.

To traverse the Meije, one of the more difficult peaks, Uramatsu teamed up with Matsukata. They were guided by Sam Brawand, who'd climbed with Maki on the Mittellegi, and Emil Steuri from Grindelwald. An epic ensued when a thunderstorm assailed the party on the summit ridge. Unfrazzled, Uramatsu went on with Brawand and Steuri to make the first ascent of the Wetterhorn’s South-West Ridge on 24 August 1928. The route is still graded D+. This time, the weather gave them an easier time on the summit ridge. As Uramatsu recorded in the Alpine Journal:

We lighted our pipes. I felt my thought was melting away into the endless Alpine sky. The valley of Grindelwald was flooded with the midday light. Eiger, Monch and Schreckhorn were sleeping under the blue sky. I was happy to be a mountaineer.

Matsukata could not share in this adventure, as he’d already gone home to Japan, where he took up a post with the South Manchurian Railway Company. But he and Uramatsu were still willing to stick their necks out. When the League of Nations came out with its Lytton Report in 1931, criticising Japan as the aggressor in Manchuria, the climbing duo, with a cousin of Matsukata’s, hastily translated the report into Japanese, hoping to produce a version that was less likely to inflame public opinion than the official one. Alas, their efforts to change the course of history proved far more evanescent than their mountain writings, some of which have become classics.

Kagami Yoshiyuki in full flight

Then there was Kagami Yoshiyuki, who went up to Cambridge University at the age of 18. Relatively unknown in the Japanese climbing world, he engaged the Swiss guide Gottfried Perren in 1929 to put a new line up on the southeast face of Mont Maudit. This the Alpine Journal recognised as the “Kagami Route”. A few years before, he’d traversed from the Dent d’Herens to the Matterhorn in record time, and climbed two-thirds of the way up the Matterhorn north face, more than half a decade before the Schmid brothers got there. He was equally proficient in skiing and, on the ice rink, he is said to have partnered both Sonja Henie, a top skater, and the singer Josephine Baker.

As Kagami’s record suggests, the leading Japanese climbers were now as proficient as the top alpine guides. Kagami climbed without guides too, as when he teamed up with Frank Smythe, a professional mountaineer, on a cold and dangerous attempt on the Eiger’s Southwest Ridge in January 1929. “I have seldom imbibed any fluid more gratefully than the hot tea from Kagami’s thermos flask,” recorded Smythe in his account of the adventure, “A winter tussle with the ‘Ogre’”.

By this time, of course, the Alps were almost passé in the minds of the next generation of Japan’s student climbers. Inspired by the first European expeditions to the Himalaya, they were now mulling ways to follow suit. But this is another story…


The prime source for this post is Ohmori Hisao’s chapter “Nihonjin to Yoroppa-Arupusu” in Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka, volume 103, Taiyō Bessatsu: Nihon no kokoro, Heibonsha 1998

Uramatsu wrote up his Wetterhorn climb in the Alpine Journal, 1930 edition, pp 260 ff.

F S Smythe describes his Eiger winter attempt with “Y Kagami” in Climbs and Ski Runs: Mountaineering and Ski-ing in the Alps, Great Britain and Corsica, William Blackwood and Sons Ltd, 1931

For Matsutaka and the Lytton Report, see Ian Nish, Japan's Struggle with Internationalism, Kegan Paul, October 2000, p 182. Matsukata is quoted as follows:

Around the beginning of October 1932, we were shut up in a room in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, absorbed in the task of translating the newly-published report of the League of Nations Lytton Commission on the Manchurian Question. The nature of the report was a matter of great concern for Japan at the time, and for three days we concentrated on the work from morning to night without once leaving the hotel, feeling that it was necessary to translate the document into Japanese as accurately and speedily as possible and to publish it.

Images are from Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka and the Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社)

Friday, February 3, 2023

White risk and what to do about it

A timely reminder on good avalanche safety practice from the Nagano Prefectural Police

It’s been a bad January for ski-mountaineers in Japan. In just the first month of this year, there have been six fatal accidents, compared with eight deaths in the whole of 2021. 

Ski-mountaineers in the Tanigawa massif, central Honshu

An article in the Japan Times today puts matters in perspective. Entitled “The risks, and safety measures to take, for backcountry skiers in Japan”, it reports that a prefectural governor has called for government intervention to “implement more effective avalanche safety measures for backcountry skiers”.

In fact, those avalanche safety measures are already right to hand. They are crisply summed up in a set of guidelines issued by the Nagano Prefectural Police, complete with an English-language version. Among their recommendations is to check the local avalanche forecast before setting out.

Memorial to an avalanche victim, Mutteristock, Central Switzerland

The Swiss experience confirms the wisdom of this advice. Of the 17 fatal Swiss ski-touring accidents in 2019, a year that was neither particularly bad or good by historical standards, 10 occurred when the forecast avalanche risk was “considerable” (level 3), three when it was “moderate” (level 2), and just one when the risk was “slight” (level 1). 

These figures speak for themselves.

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Thursday, February 2, 2023

"Suddenly transported to a world forgotten by nature"

A visit to the Talèfre glacier on Mont Blanc during the Little Ice Age, as described by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure 

The view of the Talèfre glacier is majestic and awe-inspiring. As it descends an extremely steep slope, its jostling seracs surge up into towers and pyramids leaning this way and that, and threatening to obliterate any reckless traveller who dares approach them. To reach the glacier’s upper tier, where it is less steep and hence less broken up, we scaled the rocks to its left on the western side. Known as the Couvercle, this crag is dominated by an inaccessible summit, which as usual in these parts is called an “aiguille”, and taking the name of the nearby glacier, is known as the Aiguille du Talèfre.

View of the Talèfre glacier and the "Jardin" by Jean-Antoine Linck
Courtesy of the Alpine Museum of Chamonix-Mt Blanc

The slope by which one climbs the Couvercle is excessively steep; one follows a sort of groove that Nature has carved in the rock. Clinging to some nubbins of rock, we climbed with our hands as much as on our feet, or rather more so, which moved us to name this passage the “égralets” or ladders. However, the climb is not dangerous because the rock, a very coherent granite, always gives secure holds for one’s hands and feet, although its steepness would make it somewhat offputting on the descent. After reaching the top of these ladders, the slope angle eased and we walked over grass and large granite slabs to the edge of the Talèfre glacier basin. The basin is the high and more or less horizontal part where the glacier can be crossed.

It took us an hour and a quarter to climb from the Léchaud glacier to the Talèfre’s basin. We were tempted to rest for a moment before stepping onto it. Everything invited us to do so here, a beautiful lawn watered by a brook which emerged from under the snow and rolled its crystalline waters out onto silvery sands. Even more compelling, there was a view so vast and magnificent that no amount of description could do it justice. How could one, indeed, paint for the imagination these scenes that have nothing in common with anything seen in the rest of the world; how would one convey to the reader's soul the mingled impression of admiration and terror that is inspired by these immense masses of ice, which are surrounded and surmounted by these yet vaster pyramidal crags; the snow’s brilliance contrasting with the drab colour of the rocks streaming with the snow’s meltwater, the purity of the air, the radiance of the sunlight that lends an extraordinary sharpness and vividness to all these sights; the profound and majestic silence that presides over these vast solitudes, a silence disturbed only from afar by the crash of some great block of granite or ice falling from the top of some mountain, and the very starkness of these lofty crags, barren of any beast, or shrub or verdure of any kind.

Glacier du Jardin (detail) by Gabriel Loppe (1866)
MAH Museum of Art and History, Geneva

And when one calls to mind the beautiful herbage and the charming landscapes that one recently saw in the lower valleys, one could believe oneself suddenly transported to another world forgotten by nature. The view from Montenvers gives only a very imperfect idea of it; there you see only one glacier, whereas from here you see the three great glaciers of Les Bois, Léchaud and Tacul, not to mention a large number of less considerable ones which, like that of the Talèfre, pour their ice into the main glaciers.

View of Mont Blanc from the "Jardin", c.1890

After resting, and enjoying this beautiful spectacle, we walked onto the Talèfre glacier, and in twenty minutes came to a ridge of debris that divides the glacier along its length. As this was the highest point of our excursion, we took a long break to make observations with our instruments. To the south, the view from the middle of this glacier is similar to that from the Couvercle, but behind us to the north the Talèfre glacier itself, on which we stood, presents a scene as exquisite as it is singular. The glacier rises in stages to the foot of an exactly semicircular cirque, which walls it round it on the northern side. This cirque is formed by extremely high granite peaks, which end in sharply pointed summits of infinitely varied forms. The gaps between these peaks are filled by glaciers that flow into the Talèfre glacier. The same glaciers are crowned by snowslopes that rise in festoons sculpted in the shape of acanthus leaves between the black and vertical granite faces, where no snow can settle. The crest of this magnificent amphitheatre rises into the vault of the sky, which here takes on a blue so deep and azure that one could never see the like in the lowlands, and which singularly brings out the brilliance and contrast of the snow and the rocks.

A very singular piece of this picture is the flattened rock, situated like an island in the middle of the ice and snows of the Talèfre glacier. It is more or less circular in shape, standing a little above the glacier’s level. The eternal frosts that weigh on this whole region seem to respect it; they do not touch it, or at least they leave it much sooner than the rest of the mountain. This rock is even covered with a little greenery, which at this moment was only starting to appear, because early spring does not reach these high mountains until the middle of July, but at the end of August it would be covered with a beautiful lawn, spangled with a great variety of pretty Alpine flowers. The place is also known as the Courtil, a word that means 'garden' in both Savoyard and old French,. It is even walled in like a garden, since the glacier has deposited a ridge of stones and gravel around it, exactly in the manner of an enclosure. I very much wished to go there to see if there was not some hot spring, or some other local cause that melted the snow and favoured vegetation, but the deep crevasses of the glacier, lurking under soft and not very firm snow, would have made the way so dangerous then that our guides absolutely refused to take us there. Such a phenomenon is not unique in the history of glaciers; I have seen the like on Swiss glaciers, but perhaps not in such a beautiful situation, or covered with such beautiful verdure. When the snows have melted, this Jardin would be neither dangerous nor difficult of access.

After completing our observations, we set off again to finish our glacier crossing. We aimed to make our return on the opposite side, both to see new scenery and to avoid having to descend the “ladders”, which we reckoned would be even more awkward on the descent than they had been on the ascent. In crossing the glacier, however, we encountered more difficulties than had been apparent at first sight. If we moved on upwards, we would have to cross crevasses covered with snow, like those between us and the Courtil, and below us we saw frighteningly steep ice-slopes, while the middle way seemed to combine the hazards of both these extremes. While our guides were holding council, one of them, Pierre Balme, who is the one for whom I have the most regard and confidence since the death of Pierre Simon, and who was then in charge of the magnetometer, grew tired of the discussions and, deciding to underline his opinion by example, set off by the most direct route, and all but ran down the extremely steep slopes of sheer ice, edged as they were by declivities. We shuddered as we watched; the slightest false step would infallibly have cost him his life; but he came out of it scot-free. In such cases, there can be no middle way; either one must safeguard every move by cutting steps in the ice, or walk firmly enough for one’s bootnails to bite into the ice, and quickly too, so that there is no time to slip. Pierre Balme’s example decided us, and we followed, not exactly in his footsteps but down the fairly steep slopes, preferring these obvious yet transient dangers to the more drawn-out hazard of falling unexpectedly into a crevasse.

On leaving the glacier, we found ourselves on a slope of broken rock, by which we descended along a sort of corridor or gorge between the glacier on our right, and a large granite rock on our left, and this long and steep descent brought us back to the Léchaud glacier.

We were now facing the bottom of this glacier, which ends in a cirque bounded by the Aiguilles de Léchaud and by the Grande and Petite Jorasse. Like that of the Talèfre, this cirque is enclosed by granite walls crowned by extremely high peaks. Rising against these rocks, the ice gives way to very steep snow slopes that dwindle into narrow tongues between stark and vertical granite faces. Visiting this glacier in 1767, I went as far as the floor of the cirque and then climbed these snowfields as high as their ever-steepening pitch would allow; I then returned, skirting the foot of the Aiguilles de Léchaud and passing the boutes or caves of Léchaud, a sort of den made under the granite rocks to serve as an overnight refuge for crystal-hunters from Chamonix. There, for the first time, I had the pleasure of collecting Achillea nana, Gnaphalium alpinum and other alpine plants that grow there in small recesses with a good southern exposure.

On this occasion, we hurried back to Montenvers: clouds were piling up on the summits and the change of wind direction threatened bad weather, as already presaged in the morning by the sky’s deeper shade of blue. Walking as fast as we could on the ice, it took us nearly two hours from the bottom of the Talèfre glacier to the freshet near where we had stepped onto the glacier. On the way, we crossed several of those pretty streams, glinting like beryl or aquamarine in the sunlight, that flow along beds they have scoured into the ice. While quenching our thirst with this pure fresh water, we saw how several of the streams had joined together into a small river that cascades into a chasm of living ice, forming a beautiful waterfall.

Nearing the western edges of this great valley of ice by a somewhat different route from our outward way, we passed over great avalanche debris that had fallen in the spring from mountains above the glacier. Riven by large crevasses, just like the glacier, these snows had already congealed to a density close to that of ice, and, as they become saturated with water as the sun melts their surface, they will freeze during the following winter into ice exactly like that of the glacier itself. We returned to the château of Montenvers at five o'clock in the evening and, taking just a moment's rest there, descended thence in two hours to the Prieuré, somewhat fatigued but well satisfied with our day.


Translated from Horace-Bénédict de SaussureVoyages dans les Alpes, édité et présenté par Julie Boch, Genève, Georg éditeur, 2002