Thursday, February 29, 2024

Images and ink (53)

: Everest and Makalu at sunset, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure. 

Ink: A Centenary Tribute to the Alpine Club, by Arnold Lunn, published by the Swiss Foundation for Mountain Research (1957).

The Makalu expedition, precisely because it was a model of organisation, lacked drama ... A famous journalist asked the expedition leader Jean Franco hopefully whether there had not been any incidents. “Alas!” replied Franco, “there was no crevasse into which we fell, no avalanche which swept away our camp. At 8,000 metres. we felt as though we were on the summit of Mont Blanc. Nine of us reached the top. Three ascents in three days. You can’t call that a conquest. And we didn’t even have frozen feet.” “Well, then,” said the journalist, “nothing happened.” “But what he did not ask,” comments Franco, “was why nothing happened.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (59)

17 January: in the supermarket, we spot a stall setting out red beans for Setsubun, the day before spring arrives in the old calendar (this year it’ll fall on 3 February). The “lucky beans” have been endorsed, perhaps even blessed, by the yamabushi up on Haguroyama, one of the three sacred mountains of Dewa. 

The mountain mystics are irrepressible. According to Carmen Blacker in The Catalpa Bow, a study of shamanistic practices in Japan, the Meiji government proscribed the Shugendō order in 1873 under legislation designed to suppress all cults in which Shinto and Buddhism were mixed. But the yamabushi held out until more liberal times by associating themselves more closely with Buddhist sects. 

After the war, Blacker adds, “several new groups made their appearance under the title of Shugendō”. And now, apparently, the Haguro sect is promoting demon-deterring legumes in a supermarket near you. They're full of beans again, these yamabushi ...

Thursday, February 15, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (58)

 15 January: while driving us into the foothills of the Hakusan range, the Sensei debriefs me on my solo visit to Adatara. She isn’t impressed by my route-finding expedients: “You know,” she says, “you can’t rely on following tracks in a whiteout – even your own footprints could be snowed over in half an hour.”

There's no time to reply – heck, she’s right – as we’ve reached the trailhead for Toritate-yama (1,308 metres). Except for us, the carpark is empty on this grey Monday morning, and snow is already swirling down. Yesterday, under skies of a flawless winter blue, probably a hundred people skied and snowshoed up this mountain.

“Well, at least we’ll have a trail to follow,” I say to the Sensei as we put our snowshoes on. And, indeed, something like a trench seems to lead off through a deserted holiday village and up into the forest. Half an hour later, we are still following the trench, now lightly snowed over, as it takes us across a plateau towards the summit slopes of Toritate.

Next, a wide track zig-zags up through the trees. Although there’s still a trench to show us the way, the going becomes harder as we gain height and the snow deepens. So I’m glad to hear voices behind us; they must belong to the three men who arrived by car at the trailhead just as we left. Surely we’ll be able to hand over the lead soon…

The track ends, and we start climbing a ridge. The wind gets up, as it must ever since Daniel Bernoulli of Basel (1700-1782) discovered his effect, driving the snowflakes into our face – these aren’t the fine spicules that sand-blasted me on Adatara a few days ago, but crisply formed and quite substantial six-pointed snow crystals, courtesy of the Japan Sea coast's maritime climate. So they sting.

Now the trench we've relied on fades into nothing – overnight, the wind and snow have effaced the tracks of a hundred people. The Sensei makes no comment: I suspect that, as a professional teacher, she is thinking that this will be a heuristic experience for me. So I weave an erratic path between the trees, feeling out the firmer footing left in the snow compacted by yesterday’s hordes. 

That works, more or less, until we emerge from the shelter of the woods on the windward side of the ridge – in this treeless gap, the brisk northerly has piled the snow into fluted drifts and dunes, with knee-high scarp walls. Even with our snow shoes, we find ourselves wallowing as if through a gigantic cake of mochi

The local mountaineering term  猛ラッセル (mō rasseru) floats to mind,  as in frenetic, rasseru as in the Russell Car & Snow Plow Company, incorporated in the state of Maine in 1893. As the firm's brochure proudly stated, “Russell snow plows have now been most successfully used in all kinds of snow, both East and West … they should not be confounded with the many other kinds of snow plows that have proven more or less inefficient when hard work was to be done …”

Russelling the way it used to be
Image: courtesy of the Glenbough Archives

Anxious not to be confounded as more or less inefficient when hard work is to be done, I russell my way frenetically onwards through the drifts.  Yet my efforts seem to be all but nugatory. At this rate, we'll be lucky to make the summit at all – where are the three young guys behind us, I wonder. Their voices seem to have faded out. 

At least the work is keeping us warm; I’m already wearing everything I have, including the outer jacket reserved for high alpine weather. In Scotland, you’d call these “full conditions”; here in Hokuriku they’re just the default setting.

After administering a heuristic dose of the mochi treatment, the mountain gives us a break. Higher up, the wind has blasted the snow into a firm crust, into which the steel teeth of our snowshoes bite eagerly. The summit is a snowy pate, open, treeless – we pay it the briefest of visits, as there is no view to admire. “Now all we have to do is follow our tracks home,” I’m tempted to say, but think better of it. 

In the car park, we meet the trio who had been following us up. One of them had started to get exposure – something to do with his jacket getting soaked through and then freezing – and had completely lost awareness. He was still looking a bit dazed, but his companions had managed to bring him down safely.

What was it that the taxi driver on Adatara said about the winter mountains … ?

Monday, February 12, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (57)

14 January: we are out of the house well before sunrise to attend the Sagichō bonfire (左義長), on which everybody in the neighbourhood burns up their New Year decorations. Like Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany in Europe, the Sagichō marks the end of the festive season, although with a bit of added gasoline to help along the stubbornly incombustible kadomatsu.

Elsewhere in Japan, the custom may be known as a Dondoyaki (どんど焼き). But the Sensei’s hometown prefers (like the Sensei herself) to cleave to the forms of antiquity. According to a post by Monk Kenkō (1283–1350) in his Tsurezuregusa blog (no 180), the mallets used at the Imperial Court’s New Year games were burned in just such a “Sagichō”. And if the term was good enough for Kenkō, then it’s good enough for us. 

Nobody would accuse Kenkō of being an outdoor type yet, strange to say, his very next blog post is about snow: 

The meaning of the word ‘koyuki’ in the song ‘Fure fure, koyuki, Tamba no koyuki” is ‘powder snow’, used because the snow falls like rice powder after pounding and husking … I wonder if this expression dates back to antiquity. The Emperor Toba, as a boy, used ‘koyuki’ to describe falling snow, as we know from the diary of the court lady Sanuki no Suke. (Donald Keene's translation)

Later in the morning, inspired more probably by our recent visit to the Nakaya Ukichiro Museum of Snow and Ice than by Kenkō, I stop off from emptying the kitchen bin to examine the precipitation that has fallen overnight in the garden. 

After all, Nakaya-sensei enjoins us to pay equal attention to all kinds of "letters from the sky". During his snow research on Tokachi-dake in Hokkaidō, he found that six-pointed flower-like crystals, which are commonly accepted as representative, comprise only a small part of natural snowfalls. 

Crystals with fewer axes and less regular shapes actually fall in greater quantities than the six-pointed kind, Nakaya found, but previous researchers tended to neglect them because such snowflakes were less photogenic. "I therefore made a general classification of snow crystals, always keeping in mind the necessity of attaching equal importance to every type of crystal observed in nature," he wrote.  

Last night's cold front seems to have scattered miniature white pithballs all over the Sensei's backyard. Ironically, though, these offerings are nowhere to be seen in Nakaya's seminal chart of snow crystal types. This is probably because they are just “graupel”, a form of sleet, rather than genuine snow:

But there's every reason to believe that Kenkō's koyuki was the real deal. Winters were surely colder in Emperor Toba's time. And so the lightest, most ethereally refined grades of powder snow could well have fallen as far south as the Imperial capital. Now if only those perfumed courtiers had taken time off from their New Year mallet games to invent a wider kind of ski….

Friday, February 9, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (56)

12/13 January: many thanks to the station clerk who – after hearing me ask for a window seat on the Shinkansen’s right-hand side (“migi-gawa”) – intuits that I meant the opposite and books the seat accordingly. For, if you want a view of Fuji when heading into Tokyo on the Tōkaidō main line, it is a left-side seat that you’ll need.

Mt Fuji shows up to best advantage on a clear winter day, just as it does now. But, wait a moment, what’s with the snow? In the old days, by this time of year, the mountain was more or less flawlessly white above the fifth station. 

Early winter high on Mt Fuji, c.1992

But, right now, it looks as if you could walk up to the summit on dry ground if you picked your way carefully. Real winters are so last-century, it seems ….