Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Images and ink (50)

Image: The Wetterhorn from Rosenlaui, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure.

Ink: From Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, translated by John Oxenford, George Bell & Sons, London, 1883.

I turned the conversation back to Shakspeare. "When one, to some degree, disengages him from English literature," said I, " and considers him transformed into a German, one cannot fail to look upon his gigantic greatness as a miracle. But if one seeks him in his home, transplants oneself to the soil of his country, and to the atmosphere of the century in which he lived ; further, if one studies his contemporaries, and his immediate successors, and inhales the force wafted to us from Ben Jonson, Massinger, Marlow, and Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakspeare still, indeed, appears a being of the most exalted magnitude ; but still, one arrives at the conviction that many of the wonders of his genius are, in some measure, accessible, and that much is due to the powerfully productive atmosphere of his age and time." 

 "You are perfectly right," returned Goethe. "It is with Shakspeare as with the mountains of Switzerland. Transplant Mont Blanc at once into the large plain of Lüneburg Heath, and we should find no words to express our wonder at its magnitude. Seek it, however, in its gigantic home, go to it over its immense neighbours, the Jungfrau, the Finsteraarhorn, the Eiger, the Wetterhorn, St. Gothard, and Monte Rosa; Mont Blanc will, indeed, still remain a giant, but it will no longer produce in us such amazement."

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Images and ink (49)


Image: View from the summit of Mt Blanc, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure. 

Ink: From Mark Twain's account of climbing Mt Blanc virtually, via a telescope view from Chamonix,  A Tramp Abroad, 1880
Presently we all stood together on the summit! What a view was spread out below! Away off under the northwestern horizon rolled the silent billows of the Farnese Oberland, their snowy crests glinting softly in the subdued lights of distance; in the north rose the giant form of the Wobblehorn, draped from peak to shoulder in sable thunder-clouds; beyond him, to the right, stretched the grand processional summits of the Cisalpine Cordillera, drowned in a sensuous haze; to the east loomed the colossal masses of the Yodelhorn, the Fuddelhorn, and the Dinnerhorn, their cloudless summits flashing white and cold in the sun; beyond them shimmered the faint far line of the Ghauts of Jubbelpore and the Aiguilles des Alleghenies; in the south towered the smoking peak of Popocatapetl and the unapproachable altitudes of the peerless Scrabblehorn; in the west-south the stately range of the Himalayas lay dreaming in a purple gloom; and thence all around the curving horizon the eye roved over a troubled sea of sun-kissed Alps, and noted, here and there, the noble proportions and the soaring domes of the Bottlehorn, and the Saddlehorn, and the Shovelhorn, and the Powderhorn, all bathed in the glory of noon and mottled with softly gliding blots, the shadows flung from drifting clouds.

Overcome by the scene, we all raised a triumphant, tremendous shout, in unison. A startled man at my elbow said:

“Confound you, what do you yell like that for, right here in the street?"

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Legends from the Alps

Review: an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum shows that folk tales have propagated themselves far beyond the alpine valleys

Loose scree and steep snow are the least of your problems if you want to cross over to Alp Blengias, an almost deserted valley in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. On a bad day, when the clouds scud low over the ridges, you might also encounter, guarding the pass, a phantom rider on a ghostly palfrey. Just one glimpse, they say, will seal the doom of any wayfarer unlucky enough to meet him. Bearing this tale in mind, I chose a fine day for the traverse but still I wondered - what if ...

"Sennentuntschi" figurine from the Calancatal, Grisons
Photo: Swiss National Museum

If you need to know what kind of supernatural terrors you might face in the mountains, then you might want to take in “Sagen aus den Alpen” (Legends from the Alps), the current exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. It is guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.

“This exhibition contains photos which may not be suitable for children,” says a sign posted at the entrance. Nor are the curators kidding. A crude doll in a showcase (see image above) is enough to give anybody nightmares. Carved by nameless cowherds on a high pasture in the Calancatal, an obscure corner of Graubünden – that canton again – it almost thrums with a voodoo vibe.

The folktale underlying this exhibit recalls the legend of Pygamalion – the classical sculptor who carved a statue so exquisite that it came to life. But while Ovid’s rendering of this metamorphosis ends happily, the alpine version takes a much darker turn.

The Sennentuntschi comes to life: from the 1972 stage play
Photo: Swiss National Museum

Having fashioned a "Tuntschi" out of wood, rags and straw on their lonely alp, the cowherds ("Sennen") treat it like a companion. They speak to her, and some even – as the exhibit’s label euphemistically puts it – “abuse her”. When the creature comes to life, she seems at first to put up with her lot. But when the time comes for the cows to be driven back down to the valley, the Tuntschi exacts a terrible revenge …

In the 1970s, the Basel author Hansjörg Schneider turned the ”Sennentuntschi”story  into a successful stage play. But, when aired in 1981, the television version caused an outcry among Switzerland’s more conservative viewers. A so-called Action Committee for Customs and Morals filed a lawsuit against the television company, getting as far as Zurich’s district court before they were forced to desist.

Legends from Graubünden, we surmise, are apt to take a particularly sombre and moralistic turn. The ghostly rider of Blengias is typical of the genre: the protagonist, after cheating his brother out of an inheritance, was condemned to roam eternally in the guise of an equestrian ghost. But the Grey Leagues have no monopoly on alpine gloom.

Witches making weather, woodcut by Michael Greyff, 1489
Photo: Swiss National Museum

Whether or not related to the Sennentuntschi, witches are another of the exhibition’s themes. (Could it be that misogyny is a bit of a thing here?) A broadsheet (below) reports on how three “Hexen” were burned at the stake in 1555 at Derneberg, a locus safely far away from today’s Zurich in both time and space (Lower Saxony). Yet it was just down the road, in Fribourg, and as late as 1731, that a Swiss community most recently turned an alleged witch to ashes.

Books too could be consigned to the flames. For good or ill, legends have enormous staying power. William Tell is a case in point. Although the folk hero is supposed to have inspired the founding of what became the Swiss confederation, in 1291, there is no trace of him in historical records from that time. Yet, when a scholar pointed out in 1760 that the Tell legend bore a suspicious resemblance to a traditional Danish saga, the people of Altdorf publicly incinerated a French edition of his work.

William Tell, as depicted (post-Schiller) by Heinrich Jenny in 1868
Photo: Swiss National Museum

Being outed as a fable did nothing to harm William Tell’s literary afterlife. After Friedrich Schiller dramatised him in 1804, the Tell story went global – there is even a Tagalog version of Schiller’s play.

You could argue that the “Toggeli” has had a similar export success. According to the exhibition’s blurb, this is a spirit that “usually visits through the night, forcing its way through cracks or knotholes to settle on a sleeper’s chest. It weighs sleepers down or throttles them, and causes them to have nightmares.”

Toggeli in action, illustration by Melchior Annen/Peter Balzers, 1908
Photo: Swiss National Museum

It was surely a Toggeli that the Zurich-born artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) depicted in his painting “The nightmare” (1781), which shows an incubus crouched on a woman’s chest. Mary Shelley was sufficiently impressed to have fashioned a scene after it in her Frankenstein novel. And Fuseli’s style, if not the picture itself, is said to have inspired the poet and painter William Blake. When it comes to the supernatural, the exhibition suggests, what starts in the Alps might well not stop there.

Fuseli's Nightmare, 1781

Up on the pass to Alp Blengias, I'm happy to say, no phantom rider was lying in wait. Grassy slopes led down into a valley completely deserted, according to the map, except for a single alp hut. Approaching this dwelling, it seemed that somebody had planted beside it a gnarled piece of wood. Or perhaps it was a crudely fashioned statue that, from a distance, looked convincingly like slim human figure standing on one leg, arms raised in the classical yoga pose. Then, as I came closer, the figure started to move….

You know, even on a fine summer day in the Alps, you sometimes get to see the strangest sights.

Sagen aus den Alpen, an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, runs from 16 December 2022 to 23 April 2023.


Peter Egloff, Pygmalion forever!, Blog zur Schweizer Geschichte, Swiss National Museum

Leo Tuor, Giacumbert Nau: Bemerkungen zu seinem Leben, Roman, Limmat Verlag, 2014.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Images and ink (48)

Image: Mountain lake on Rophaien, Canton Uri, Switzerland, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure. 
Mountains were not new to him; but rarely are Mountains seen in such combined majesty and grace as here. The rocks are of that sort called Primitive by the mineralogists, which always arrange themselves in masses of a rugged, gigantic character; which ruggedness, however, is here tempered by a singular airiness of form, and softness of environment: in a climate favorable to vegetation, the gray cliff, itself covered with lichens, shoots up through a garment of foliage or verdure; and white, bright cottages, tree-shaded, cluster round the everlasting granite. In fine vicissitude, Beauty alternates with Grandeur: you ride through stony hollows, along strait passes, traversed by torrents, overhung by high walls of rock; now winding amid broken shaggy chasms, and huge fragments; now suddenly emerging into some emerald valley, where the streamlet collects itself into a Lake, and man has again found a fair dwelling, and it seems as if Peace had established herself in the bosom of Strength.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Retreat of the snow monsters

Back in the 1980s, Project Hyakumeizan was astonished at the snow monsters on Hakusan. More soberly known as “juhyō” (tree ice), these are the fantastic figures wrought by the trees encrusted with the snow and hoar-frost swept in by the blizzards from the Japan Sea. You can still see them up there, but perhaps not for much longer.

Ice monsters on Hakusan, Advent Sunday 1981

The problem is the climate. Ice monsters will all but vanish from Japan by the end of the century unless climate change slows, warns Fumitaka Yanagisawa, a professor emeritus at Yamagata University’s Research Institute for Ice Monsters and Volcanoes of Zao, as reported in the Asahi Shimbun.

Using historical records, Professor Yanagisawa has established that juhyō previously flourished in a wide arc stretching from Hokkaidō in the north to Ishikawa’s Hakusan massif in the south. But this range has has been shrinking, both from southern end and, less obviously, from the north – where, in Hokkaidō, the mountains are no longer high enough to support the special conditions in which juhyō thrive, namely temperatures of minus 10–15 degrees, two to three metres of snow, and strong northwesterly or westerly winds with a speed of 36 to 54 kph, among others.

Yōteizan, Hakkōda, Zaō, Hachimantai, Azumaya, Hakusan, even humble Makihata – many of the mountains named by Professor Yanigasawa as current and former juhyō habitats also belong to the One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Indeed, the snow monsters put in an occasional appearance in Japan’s most famous mountain book:

I first visited Zaō when word of its frozen trees was first reaching the outside world. At that time, the only shelter above Takayu hot springs was the Kobold Hut belonging to the former Yamagata High School. After that visit, I went to the massif to ski every winter. After the war, however, I have not returned, fearing the crowds that must now overwhelm it …

It would be a pity if the juhyō were to join the Kobold Hut* and a pristine Zaō as half-forgotten footnotes in the history of Japan’s mountains …


Sakata, Tatsuro, Climate change quietly slaying Japan’s ‘juhyo’ ice monsters, Asahi Shimbun, 12 March 2023

Alan Taylor, Juhyo: The Snow Monsters on Japan’s Mount Zao, The Atlantic, 22 January 2020

*It seems that the Kobold Hut has survived to this day, now owned by Yamagata University: see this blog post.

Friday, March 3, 2023

“New ways” renewed

A forgotten path through Japan's Northern Alps is to reopen. Or perhaps even two of them.

Just at the point when it would have been too tedious to go back, the path vanished. A washout had gouged into the ridge, taking the trail with it and leaving a steep scarp of choss. We teetered across on sketchy footholds, trying to ignore the misty abyss below. “Another one of these and this will start to be not such a great idea,” I muttered. 

Sawa Control prospects the Takemura Shindo, c.1992

 We had been warned. Discussing our plan to take the shortest line back to Shinano-Ohmachi from the Mitsumata Hut, the hut warden had hinted that the Takemura Shindō – our intended way – had long ago fallen into desuetude (perhaps not his actual words).

The heavy rains and snowfall of the Japan Northern Alps will quickly obliterate a path, once it's left to look after itself. Had we thought about that, we might not have plunged down this dilapidated “new path” so carelessly. But, heck, we’d just come up the Kurobe River. And – as Sawa Control put it – we might as well go and take a look …

Thirty years after we teetered across that sketchy washout, some welcome news has just come in from Kyodo. Next summer, an even more direct route down to Shinano Ohmachi will reopen, thanks to the efforts of the Mitsumata Hut’s present warden, Itō Kei. For the past year or so, Ito has been restoring the path that his late father opened in 1956, at the height of Japan’s first post-war mountaineering boom.

Kei’s father, Itō Shōichi, started out researching aero engines for the military in the 1940s. After the war’s end, he turned his attention to the remote Kurobe region, clearing trails, and building or rebuilding several huts, including those on Kumo-no-daira and Mitsumata. He inaugurated the Itō Shindō – an entirely new route – as a direct way down to Shinano-Ohmachi, making the trip possible in a single day. And, for two decades or more, summer hikers thronged the path.

Building the Ito-Shindo in 1953
Photo courtesy of the Kumonodaira Hut

By the 1990s, though, it seemed as if a lull had fallen over Japan’s mountaineering scene. Older maps showed huts that no longer existed, and more than one long-distance path in the Northern Alps had fallen into disuse or even faded from the maps. Fortunately – after that sketchy traverse – Sawa Control and I were able to find enough traces of the Takemura Shindō to take us safely down to the Takase River valley, and so home. The autumn colours in that wilderness were unforgettable.

So it's good to see that, in parallel to Mr Itō’s efforts, the present Mr Takemura – a grandson of the Takemura who built the eponymous path – is also hoping to attract more traffic to this region. As the Takemura Shindō runs past the Seiransō, the hot spring refuge run by the Takemura family, this would help to revive the valley as a destination for hikers and mountaineers.

Judging from the Kyodo News article, the mountaineering scene is currently enjoying a revival. To pay for the expensive new suspension bridges for the new Itō Shindō, Itō Kei turned to crowdfunding – and raised 13.6 million yen, far exceeding his target. At the same time, the report says, he doesn’t want to over-restore the path. Instead, the idea is to leave some places for the hikers to find their own way.

According to a founder of the Japanese Alpine Club, Japan has both high mountains and deep mountains. The deep ones (深山) are where “no roads nor even forest tracks can penetrate, where you find your way along paths as faint as dreams, or along narrow ways, clambering over rocks and tree roots – such are the rigours and the rewards of the deep mountains.”

Now thanks to Messrs Itō, father and son, and to Mr Takemura, mountaineers will soon have two new/old routes back into the heart of the deep mountains. Just don’t forget your bear-bell.


Kyodo News, “Son reviving legendary mountain trail to fulfill father's dying wish”, 10 February 2023

Asahi Shimbun, 廃れた登山ルート、願う再興竹村新道開削の後継者ら (Heirs to the builder of the Takemura Shindō hope to revive abandoned mountain path), 29 October 2022

Kumonodaira Hut website: History of the Kumonodaira Hut


Wednesday, March 1, 2023

“The most beautiful pyramids of ice”

Translation: Horace-Bénédict de Saussure visits the Glacier des Bossons at Chamonix during the Little Ice Age

Like that of the Bois, the Bossons glacier is a spectacle of the Chamonix valley that most visitors will see. We pass below this glacier on the way to the Prieuré and there, at a small hamlet called the Bossons, which doubtless lent its name to the glacier, the guides await who offer to conduct travellers thither. 

Ice pyramids on the Glacier des Bossons
Engraving by Samuel Birmann of Basel (1793-1847)

It is a charming path, first through a small alder wood along the stream that comes out of the glacier, then through meadows and finally through a forest of fir trees. This last stretch is difficult because of its steepness, which is some thirty or thirty-one degrees. After overcoming this slope, the glacier is at hand, and one has the pleasure of seeing very close by the most beautiful pyramids of ice. As I have remarked before, wherever glaciers rest on a level plane, their surface is also more or less flat, but where they rest on a slope, their ice blocks topple and cram themselves together, taking on varied, often grotesque shapes and attitudes. Continuously washed by the waters that melt from them, the steep sides of these ice towers are absolutely clean and brilliant; neither sand nor gravel is to be seen on their flat surfaces, and they gleam a dazzling white where they reflect the sunlight, or a beautiful aquamarine green where the sun shines through them. Seen through the fir trees, which they often overtop, these brilliant and colourful pyramids make the most striking and extraordinary sight.

At the top of this short if steep ascent, one finds a stretch where the glacier rests on a level plane and offers a more or less equally flat surface. There, after crossing the dyke of stones and gravel that bounds borders almost any glacier, one can climb down onto the ice, cross the glacier and return to the Prieuré by a different route from the way up. As it is much narrower than that of the Montenvers, this glacier exhibits only a few of the great phenomena which we see on the Glacier des Bois. Nevertheless, there are quite large crevasses, and one can get an idea of the waves which we have compared with those of a rough sea. Travellers who have seen the Glacier des Bois can therefore dispense with the Bossons glacier but those for whom the Montenvers excursion is too strenuous would do well to go up to the Bossons, which is much lower.

Seen from the top of the Brévent, the Bossons glacier seems to descend directly down the side of the Mont Blanc valley. It is true that some optical illusions must be in play here, since the extreme brightness of the snow and ice, together with the absolute lack of aerial perspective because of the air’s purity, deprive the eye of any means of measuring distances, so that Mont Blanc, seen from Plianpra or from the top of the Brévent, appears to hover almost directly above the lower end of this glacier, even though there is really a horizontal distance of more than a league and a half. In spite of this distance, however, it is quite certain that snow and ice stretches uninterrupted from the summit of Mont Blanc to the bottom of the Bossons glacier. More than once, people have even attempted to reach the summit of Mont Blanc by entering this glacier at the top of the eminence known as La Côte, which separates it from the Taconay glacier.

Going up the eastern bank of this same Glacier des Bossons, one arrives at the Glacier des Pèlerins under the foot of the Aiguille du Midi, and then one can skirt the foot of the other aiguilles as far as Montenvers, making one’s descent along the Glacier des Bois. I did part of this route in 1761 but with too much haste; fearing benightment among these wildernesses, my guide made me descend with such haste that, as I was not yet fit enough to run through these mountains, I stumbled at almost every step. I did not return to Chamonix until well into the night, and this in a state of agitation and fatigue from which I had great difficulty in recovering.


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