Saturday, December 23, 2023

A Christmas story

Not even trench warfare could dampen their sense of humour: a climbing story by C F Holland from the winter of 1915 …

After marching about a farmyard in a snowstorm most of the night, guarding sundry articles, mainly broken spades, I had retired to the guard-room and was endeavouring to make myself comfortable on a bed of ammunition boxes. Alas! the goddess of sleep, discouraged by the hard circumstances, fled from me. By chance, I observed a magazine lying near, and on opening same was charmed to find a climbing story among its contents. Speedily I was engrossed in its thrilling episodes and entranced by the vistas opened up of new climbing possibilities.

It really was a most wonderful tale and may be summarized as follows. (May I say that I have tried to make this summary as veracious as possible and have erred rather on the side of understatement than the reverse). The party consisted of five, led by a Swiss guide named Fritz who spoke English with any amount of local colour, and was completed by two men and two girls; the scene being laid in the Rockies. 

Swiftly are we plunged “in medias res.” They are “doing rock work,” and are attached to a rope, twelve feet between each couple, they are descending and come to a steep slab, as I took it to be, with a profound precipice beneath. There are no holds. What to do? Obvious solution of difficulty - to slide. The guide slides, the hero slides, they all slide, the guide first because he is leading, the heroine last because she is the weak member of the party; but according to the illustration she is attached to a rope fore and aft, so that the suggestion occurs to me that they may have roped down this obviously difficult place without knowing it. Horrors! She slides badly and is just going over the edge when the hero seizes her, by the leg, and she is saved. Strange to say though, she is annoyed because she considers the hero too masterful.

However, after a few words they proceed. Thrill follows thrill, the rope behaves badly and makes at one point a most dastardly attempt to belay the leader, but with great presence of mind and at great personal risk the heroine removes it and another danger is averted. But worse is to follow; the rope, evidently annoyed at being thwarted, gives all its attention to doing the heroine in. A second time it is foiled, this time by the hero, who again seizes the heroine, by the leg, who is thus saved from being thrown over another precipice by the now thoroughly infuriated rope.

We breathe again, but it is a cunning as well as a determined rope and alters its tactics. This time it saws itself against a convenient rock and breaks between the heroine and the person above her with the awful result that the portion of the party above her proceeds in blissful ignorance of this fact and eventually reaches the top of the mountain before the broken rope trailing behind is discovered, while hero and heroine are left an embarrassed couple, so embarrassed in fact that the idea of shouting does not seem to have occurred to them (a weak point in an otherwise convincing narrative).

I mentioned that the lady was previously a bit fed up with the hero, and now a trial of willpower ensues. She refuses to be led and repeatedly tries to advance but is as often foiled by her companion who seizes her each time, by the leg, and pulls her back. In the end he leads, but the result is hardly satisfactory as after overcoming countless difficulties, such as crossing a slope of shale just above the usual fathomless abyss, and dodging several avalanches, an unclimbable slab appears. No real attempt is made to climb it but no holds can be found, and the hero, upset by an incessant stream of sarcastic comments from the girl, breaks down and weeps. The scene is an affecting one “I wish I could die to save you,” sobs he, and she weeps too, whereupon he calls her his darling and they embrace. “I wish I could die too” cries she , a wish which seems likely to be gratified. However, mutual endearments follow, apparently for several hours.

“But” says the author, “do they die?” Sly dog, he knew all the time. No! is the joyful answer. At this point I paused and indulged a while in contemplation, wondering how the author would extricate them from their perilous position. Perchance some great airman would fling them a rope and drag them to safety, the hero holding the rope in his teeth and the heroine in his arms; or an avalanche falling upwards might take them over the mauvais pas.

But the solution proved commonplace. Suddenly a cheery face peers over the top of the impossible slab, it is the face of Fritz, the Swiss guide. He points out to them “invisible crevices in the rock by means of which they may climb up.” This they do, and reach the top of the mountain. And so this remarkable tale draws to a triumphant and happy conclusion with their marriage on safely getting to the bottom again.


Text was originally published by C F Holland as “Another climbing story: a MS from ‘Somewhere in France’” in The Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District, War Issue, vol 3, no 2, November 1915 – this issue is also of interest to meizanologists as it contains a report on “Two climbs in the Japanese Alps” by the Rev. Walter Weston, MA, FRGS, AC.

The image is from an illustration (for an advertisement, detail) by Ernst Platz in Bergsteigermaler: Ernst Platz by Maike Trentin-Mayer, published by the Deutscher Alpenverein, Bruckmann, 1997.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (48)

2 November: as there is the flight back to HEL this evening, we can afford only a short walk. Monju should fit the bill: it has just one metre of altitude for each day in the year.

Ascending this miniature Meizan by its northern flank, you pass by places such as Murodō and Ōnanji, names that echo those on the sacred mountains of Tateyama and Hakusan. But today we dispense with this cultural baggage by taking the west ridge. From a layby at the end of the road, a muddy runnel leads up into the woods.

No shrines or jizō statues are met with until we reach the Oku-no-in (“Inner sanctuary”). Here a gigantic split boulder goes by the name of Tainai, like the famous lava caves at the foot of Mt Fuji.

Leaving the Sensei to take a rest, I step over a col to the summit shrine. The wooden fane has been magnificently rebuilt, after a typhoon shoved it bodily from its foundations a few years ago.

A new signboard promotes Monju's connection with the Hyakumeizan story – it records that Fukada Kyūya, then in his fourth year at Fukui Middle School, came up here with three companions in November 1919 and inscribed their names inside the shrine.

How exactly these graffiti have been preserved is unclear – are they still in situ inside the shrine’s doors, or have they been taken down to some archive or museum? I’d like to take a closer look, but people keep coming up to pay their respects to the shrine.

Another signboard attracts my attention, this one revealing a darker side to Monju’s history. Meizan or not, the mountain served as a fortress during the Warring Country period, to either defend or subjugate the people below, depending on your viewpoint.

As an army veteran himself, the Hyakumeizan author had no illusions about the military usefulness of mountains. After he has expatiated on the medicinal herbs of Ibuki (1,377 metres), for example, the summit view prompts these thoughts:

The plain looked so peaceful, yet it was precisely there, in the Genki and Tenshō eras (1570-1592), that the most bloody battles had taken place. Right in front of my eyes lay the killing fields of Shizu-ga-dake, Anegawa, and Sekigahara. Looking at the little hills spread out below, I could imagine how the generals of old found this ideal terrain on which to practice their deadly stratagems.

Well, it was probably naïve to have overlooked the strategic potential of this well-placed Meizan, I tell myself as I aim my phone camera at the signboard. In peace time, we tend to forget that mountains have other uses besides hiking, climbing and collecting herbs.

Just then, atop the sign’s supporting post, I notice a dragonfly basking in the sun. The strangest thing, though – did it just wink at me ... ?

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (47)

1 November: “Let’s climb the mountain,” says a gaudily painted signboard at the foot of Shimoichi-yama. Then we pass placards enjoining “Let’s keep the beautiful scenery forever” and, while we’re at it, “Let’s walk sprightly”.

As she is teaching this afternoon, the Sensei has sent me on a 6km route march along the local river bank, to a hill overlooking her native city. A path known as the “Miru-king” circuit (ミルキングロード) leads to the summit and then loops down to the starting point. “I find it best to go anticlockwise,” she adds without explanation.

I’m still wondering why anticlockwise, and whether “Miru-king” has anything to do with cows, when the next series of exhortatory placards is met with: “Let’s enjoy the natural woodland” and “The satoyama is enjoyable.”

On this sweltering afternoon, the satoyama looks more scruffy than enjoyable – Tokyo is boiling up to its hottest November day since 1923

The sign that urges “Let’s keep ourselves hydrated” has it right. It’s more than warm enough for hornets too, as another sign warns. Fortunately, none are buzzing about. 

In spring, though, the forest floor must shimmer in a purple haze of fawnlilies (katakuri) under the shade of the magnolias (ho’o-no-ki), redvein maples (urihada-kaede), mountain ashes (azukinashi) and sawtooth oaks (kunugi) – needless to say, we’re obliged to helpful labels for these identifications. 

Are these trees native to the hill, or were they planted? I’ll have to ask a geobotanist – where is a Takahashi Kenji when you need him?

On the summit, such as it is at 260 metres above sea level, an elderly man is taking in the view. Turns out he is a retired chemical engineer. On a clear day, you could see Hakusan from here, he says. “Miru-king”, it seems, has to do with “miru”(seeing) the sweeping panorama from this eminence. Naruhodo na.

Then the conversation turns to the Russo-Japanese war – just how did we get there? It seems that the British helped to finance Japan’s war effort, via the so-called Takahashi Loans. I confess to having once visited the Battleship Mikasa at Yokosuka, one of the assets so financed. The fact that Takahashi Korekiyo was later assassinated for his pains is out of scope for this discussion. 

A grass snake slithers off the path as I start down. Remarkable: a grass snake in November, although – come to think of it – the Sensei met with a viper on a nearby mountain at around the same season a few years ago. 

I'm going to have to walk sprightly now to get home before dark. Carrying on down and anticlockwise – perhaps the Sensei wanted to keep the heavy stuff till last – I encounter one last signboard:

Instead of encouraging me to ganbare, it records that the hill served as a fortress during the Warring Country era. In those days, the expansive view had a strategic purpose, and it was armed men who did the miru-king up on Shimoichi-yama.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (46)

31 October: the Sensei is concerned about me visiting Tokyo at Halloween – scary things happen on the Yamanote Line, she says. Even so, I manage to navigate the badlands of Okubo without encountering more than a couple of witches and vampires. My destination is heralded by a sign proclaiming the Society for the Valid Utilization of the Mt. Fuji Weather Station.

But today’s morning coffee is to be taken with members of the Fuyō Nikki no kai. This is an association dedicated to researching the story of the meteorologist Nonaka Itaru and his wife Chiyoko, who sojourned on the summit of Mt Fuji in the winter of 1895 – where they made round-the-clock weather observations to within an inch of their lives.

In the chair is Professor Dokiya Yukiko, a moving spirit behind the re-utilisation of the former Mt Fuji Weather Station buildings for wider-ranging atmospheric research. Also present are Satō-san and Takahashi-san, two former members of the former weather station summit crew – Takahashi-san helped to toast the famous weather radar farewell, when it was shut down for the last time in 1999.

And it’s very good to see Ohmori Hisao again, who – in addition to commissioning the series of magazine articles that became Nihon Hyakumeizan – also edited the Mt Fuji memoirs of Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko. Surprisingly, this was the first joint edition of their writings. 

It’s not often that scientists and literary folk sit down around the same table. And not for the first time, I wonder about the overlap between the Fuyō Nikki no kai, with its literary and historical focus, and the Mt Fuji Research Station – which supports hard science, such as the programme that recently discovered microplastics in clouds.

Yet today it all makes perfect sense: the Mt Fuji Research Station traces its origins to the tiny summit hut occupied by Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko in 1895. It carries on tradition of scientific adventure that goes back for more than a century …

Back in the Sensei’s hometown, after a four-hour journey by Kagayaki and Thunderbird, a very lively Halloween party has broken out on the station concourse. Surely it must be quieter on the Yamanote Line this evening....

Sunday, December 3, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (45)

30 October: as it’s a Monday, only the leisured classes can visit the mountains. Almost everyone in the group is retired, including our leader, the president of the local mountaineering club. By the same token, we are all – as Falstaff so eloquently put it – if not clean past our youth, then with some smack of age in us.

The president is leading us up his local “Hausberg”, Nosaka-dake, this time by its western ridge. In the cool morning air, we gain height at the kind of stately but steady pace favoured by the best Swiss guides.

The view out over Tsuruga bay has already started to expand when we pass a sign to a “pilgrim’s rock” (Gyōja-iwa). Could it be that this mountain has more of a history than it lets on at first acquaintance?

Emerging onto the wooded summit ridge, we look in vain for the woods of autumn. Here and there a maple tree, or some of its leaves at least, have assumed their customary scarlet. For the most part, though, the trees look drab, as if uncertain of the season.

Arriving on top in less than guidebook time, I realise that we’ve just received a masterclass on how to go about mountaineering when starting to relish the saltness of time. 

Taking advantage of the warm sun – though it is a pity about the kōyō – we distribute ourselves around the summit marker to eat our rice balls and sweet potatoes; four years ago, a chill wind drove us into the refuge hut.

Small wonder that Nosaka-dake boasts one of those prestigious primary triangulation points. For a mountain of just 914 metres, the views are spacious – northwards, to the Japan Sea’s horizon and, to the south, more like a sea than a lake, the glinting shield of Biwa-ko. From here, you could easily credit the legend that Mt Fuji was built from the spoil left from digging out the lake.

Reluctantly, we start down. This time, we’ll do a traverse, descending via a ridge on the mountain’s north side. The beech woods have been cleared here, to make way for a line of pylons distributing electricity from Tsuruga’s nuclear power stations. 

But it is right under one of these steel intrusives that we find a community of autumn gentians. They seem to like it out here, under an open sky.