Sunday, November 19, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (44)

27 October: supper is shabu-shabu in northern Kyoto with senior members – let’s face it, we’re all senior in this company – of the university’s Academic Alpine Club. As mentioned elsewhere, the Academic Alpine club of Kyoto was founded in 1931 to pursue first ascents in the Himalaya, a mission it has pursued single-mindedly over the decades.

I do wonder, as we sit down around the dark wooden table in the homely ryotei, how many thousand metres of vertical Himalayan ascent my hosts have collectively accounted for but – apart from a chance mention of Shishapangma, probably not by the normal route – the conversation takes another turn.

Takahashi Kenji (circled) with members of the AACK, 1930s
Photo courtesy of the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto

We’re here because of a book – one that was given to an alpine club in Switzerland the best part of a century ago by Takahashi Kenji (1903-1947), known as Japan’s first geobotanist. Together with Imanishi Kinji (1902–1992) and Nishibori Eizaburō (1903–1989), two friends from his schooldays, Takahashi was one of the AACK’s principal founders.

Three climbers on Yari-ga-take, probably late 1920s
From Nihon Arupusu (The Japan Alps) as presented by Takahashi Kenji to the AACZ

When the three of them pioneered a new route up Tsurugi-dake’s formidable Chinne – this was still in their schooldays – it was Takahashi who led the crux pitch. He was also one of the first to explore Kita-dake’s Buttress. Later, he helped to modernise skiing techniques across the whole country, promoting them through two books and a series of “gasshuku” (training camps).

This was in the 1930s, following his return from Europe. It was while studying in Zurich under the renowned ETH geobotanist Eduard Rübel (1876–1960) that Takahashi presented our club with a book about the Japan Alps. Inside the front cover, is a dedication in fluent German to mark the AACK’s founding:

“An AACZ Zürich! Von Dr. Kenji Takahashi. Zum Andenken bei der Geburt von unserem AAC Kyoto. (1931. Juni),” the inscription runs.

The book's chance rediscovery is what has brought us together for the evening, together with what seems like an inexhaustible supply of Kirin. Senior as we are, nobody is old enough to recall Takahashi himself. But the colour plates in the magnificent book he gave us bring back a whiff of those heady pioneering days in the Japan Alps…

Around the campfire, Japan Alps, 1920s (?)

Morning at Kamikochi, late 1920s (?)

Crevasse in a snowfield, Northern Japan Alps
(all three colour plates above are from Nihon Arupusu,
published by Shinkosha, Tokyo, June 1930)

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A meizanologist’s diary (43)

26 October: on the flight from HEL, the sun comes up somewhere over central Asia. A range of nameless mountains scrolls by, their arid wrinkles thrown into crisp relief by the morning light. 

Was it not in these parts, somewhere near Kashgar, that Eric Shipton (1907-1977) had his revelation about the curious effect of too many unclimbed peaks on the alpinist’s psyche?

On even the most familiar journeys in this part of the world, unexplored ranges are such a commonplace, so much the order of the marching day, that to cross a side-stream whose source is known usually calls for excited comment; a peak distinguished with a name stands like a lighthouse in a limitless sea. This is enchanting, no doubt, but over-familiarity with these conditions has, I find , one unfortunate and rather disconcerting result. I appear to have lost a good deal of my interest in climbing mountains. Not entirely; but much of the rapturous enthusiasm seems to have gone. I recall, for example, my intense eagerness to make the second ascent of Mount Kenya, which for some months was a ruling passion of my life, and with some sadness contrast it with the nonchalance with which I gaze at a view of half a dozen peaks, greater in height, equally beautiful in form ...

Is this sense of satiety just a matter of ageing, or perhaps no more than a personal quirk? Shipton thinks not:

I am not alone in this. I have often remarked, for example, how little members of the Mount Everest expeditions used to avail themselves of the opportunity, for many of them unique, of climbing virgin peaks around the Base Camp or in Sikkim. The excuse was rarely valid that the exhaustion of high climbing or lack of time prevented them …

How, then, to explain this feeling, Shipton asks himself. Could it be that anonymous mountains fail to pique an alpinist's competitive spirit? Or that mountain-climbing has its roots in the instinct to explore, and so loses its allure once there is a whole new region to explore? But neither explanation, he decides, will hold water:

It does not account for the fact that, in my present mood, I would undoubtedly be more stirred by a view of the Peuterey Ridge than by a ridge of twice the size of an unknown mountain … There is some quality about a buttress on Scafell that urges us to climb it which is lacking in a cliff that is less well-known by reason of the very profusion of precipices in which it is set. So, I find, it is with mountains themselves. Some kind of intimacy, either personal or historical, seems to be necessary, without which we are oppressed by an overwhelming sense of loneliness and awed by the insignificance of our achievement.    (Eric Shipton, Mountains of Tartary)

I'm still ruminating about Shipton's musings when, some hours later, we coast in over Matsue, on the Japan Sea coast of Honshū. And there is Daisen! 

Even from a height of several thousand metres, the dissected edifice of this extinct volcano distinguishes itself as a Meizan. Although scarcely less barren than those nameless mountains of the desert, it stands aloof over all its neighbours. It is steeped in legend and history – even its shadow has featured in a famous novel. As the Airbus starts its descent into KIX, no mountaineer with a window seat on the left-hand side of the plane could fail to be stirred by the sight of that crumbling ridgeline….