Saturday, March 30, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (62)

16 March (cont’d): having voyaged through space in the morning, we opt to travel backwards through time in the afternoon. And thanks to the munificence of the local authorities, there is even a choice of vehicle: we can visit either the Fukui Prefectural Varve Museum and/or the Wakasa Mikata Jomon Museum, which stand side by side close to the Five Lakes of Mikata.

This is the ticket for a date with Deep Time

Since we have a long drive home, we opt for the varves only – which may be a false economy. For it turns out that both museums owe their existence to the Jomon people who lived beside the lakes from 12,000 to 5,000 years ago. When archaeologists started excavating their trash dump or "midden" of oyster shells in the 1960s, they found that the nearby lakes preserved a particularly fine and deep series of ancient sediments.

Paying our respects to a reconstructed Jomon dwelling

Thanks to its sheltered location, and with a bit of help from the local geology, Lake Suigetsu has yielded up one of the world's best series of varves, as such annual markings in the lakebed are known. And, for the trumpery sum of 500 yen each, the Sensei and I are ushered into their presence.

Vis-a-vis the world's longest unbroken varve series

During the 1990s, explains our guide, four sediment cores were taken from the bottom of Lake Suigetsu. When these were overlapped to cover gaps, the varves could be traced back for 70,000 years at a stretch, showing more or less one varve for every passing year. This – and surely we detect a note of pride in our guide's voice – represents the longest unbroken series of varves in the world. 

We are looking at a wall-mounted display of brownish strips. At first glance, these seem about as exciting as the understated neckties favoured by Japan’s more senior businessmen. Then the guide starts pointing out grey shimmers that cut across the general background of fine-grained stripes. “This one is the Tenshō earthquake in 1586,” he says, referring to a shock so violent that some islands in Ise Bay reportedly sank beneath the waves.

Signs of a shock that would spoil your day

Floods and volcanic eruptions too have signed the book of varves. Further along the wall – and so deeper in the stack – is another grey smear. This one, explains the guide, is ash from the Krakatoa-like explosion about 7,300 years ago of Kikai, a volcanic island south of what would one day become Kagoshima. The eruption not only obliterated the island, leaving only a flooded caldera, but it may also have terminated Jomon habitation in Kyūshū. Tephrochronologists love these ash deposits, of course, as they help establish more precise dates for volcanic eruptions. 

Pollen gets in your varves: expanded model of a typical grain

But there’s more. The Lake Suigetsu record is so long and detailed that, thanks to the organic material such as pollen grains preserved in the mud, it has become a kind of international yardstick for calibrating the carbon dating of archaeological finds. So, by counting up the varves, it is possible to know more exactly, for example, just when the Jomon folk turned their hands to pottery.

The climate changes before our very eyes

The Suigetsu yardstick is a long one. It covers the period for which carbon-14 dating can be reliably used - to about 50,000 years ago - and the oldest varves in the continuous series go back to the time when humans first left Africa, driven quite possibly by climate change. Meanwhile, the landscape around the lakes has morphed from a cold, dry steppe into a forest containing beech, oak and walnut trees during the Jomon era, and then again into today's cedar and camellia woods. 

Gazing in the general direction of Deep Time

Contemplating Deep Time can make the head spin: there is, as a pioneer of the discipline observed no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end in the geological record. So, for a breath of fresh air, we walk out onto an outdoors terrace. 

A fresh sea breeze ruffles the waters of Lake Mikata, into which the Jomon folk used to toss their discarded oyster shells. Over there, but out of sight behind a low ridge, lies Lake Suigetsu. Under its placid surface, the varves are still piling up at a rate of about two metres per millenium, our guide had said. And I find myself wondering how they will record our Anthropocene Era over the coming centuries ...

Monday, March 25, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (61)

16 March: the president of the local mountaineering club invites us to hike the Kurosaki peninsula near Tsuruga. Driving towards the rendezvous, we see sluggardly bales of fog roll in from the Japan Sea. 

We leave the cars beside a hot spring hotel and set off up a steep, muddy path through an unpromising factory forest.  Before we reach the ridgeline, though, we can see that a more variegated woodland seems to be pushing back against the serried cryptomeria. This seems a good place to take a break.

Sitting on fallen branches and munching on konyaku jelly and the Sensei's homegrown sweet potatoes, we discuss factionalism in mountaineering clubs – a tendency as old as the hoary debates about guided vs guideless climbing in the original Alpine Club a century and more ago.

Speaking of alpine history, it seems that our president is enthusiastically reading the latest book about Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance. The grey ceiling truncates the hills around so that – like those fated climbers on the 1924 Everest expedition – it looks as if we too may soon vanish into the clouds.

Here and there, a camellia bush has scattered its red blooms across the forest floor. They lie there forlorn, rather like the medley of lopped heads on the ground after one of Toshiro Mifune’s more extravagant swordplays. Apparently, this is why the warriors of old tended to shun the camellia. And why you shouldn’t present them to invalids.

We’re now heading along the high spine of the peninsula, towards its seaward tip. High is relatively speaking of course. Unlike Mallory, we’re not going to have trouble with our oxygen supply. Our summit for the day is Taiyō ga Oka (293.7 metres), named for the sun that is now starting to burn through the fog. Good: we aren’t likely to vanish into the clouds after all.

By this point, the camellias have grown up into a mixed forest. Some have even managed to keep their blooms aloft. A forest of camellias? Before this morning, I didn’t even know that was a thing.

Yet, to my surprise, the savants report that such forests are found all the way up the Japan Sea coast, even as far as Akita. There’s even a “snow camellia” that has learned to hunker down under the heavy winter drifts of Niigata and other parts of the snow country … Naruhodo, I murmur to myself.

I glance across at the Sensei, but she appears quite unfazed by our surroundings: I guess she knew about the camellia forests all along …

Thursday, March 21, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (60)

15 March: some of the best trips happen at short notice. Yesterday, I was still on the train from Kansai International Airport when the email from Wes Lang came in: “Tomorrow I will climb Mt Hino (日野山) in Echizen city …” it read.

At the shrine

Now this was no ordinary invitation. Wes long ago climbed all of the One Hundred Mountains. And, more recently, he and co-author Tom Fay have published their magisterial guidebook to Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji. But what is he up to now? There was only one way to find out …

So, early on a Friday morning, the Sensei and I find ourselves walking into the precincts of the Hino shrine. Up ahead, Wes up seems to be setting up a tripod. “We’re afraid we’re going to hold you back,” I say. “Not to worry,” he replies, “I’m going to be making a video.”

Soon I understand the logic – while the Sensei and I make our leisurely way upwards, Wes, like a videographic Tigger, is effectively climbing the mountain twice, as he places his video camera on a tripod, runs on ahead of it to make the footage, and then runs back to pick up the gear and repeat. I had no idea that making a vlog is so vlabour-intensive …

Turns out that video is now Wes’s favoured means of mountain expression – on his YouTube site, you can find mini-documentaries on everything from hiking Nogō-Hakusan to eating dried persimmons (great hill food, by the way, but watch your teeth on the stones).

By the same token, updates on his Tozan Tales blogs are fewer: a man can’t be everywhere at once, especially if – like Wes – he is teaching at no fewer than three universities and helping to bring up a nine-year old daughter who seems to have inherited his high-energy genes.

But right now we are on Hino-san, and Wes has briefed himself well on the mountain's features. Indeed, like the well-known haiku blogger Matsuo Bashō, he caught sight of the mountain’s Fuji-like form on a previous trip to the Hokuriku region, and there and then resolved to come back and inspect it more closely.

Faito to the chojo ....

There should be plenty to inspect. Although Hino is hardly a fifth the height of Mt Fuji, the ascent path is divided into ten “stations”, just like those on Japan’s top Meizan. And each station is marked by a cheery sign hand-painted by the students of a local primary school, urging us to ganbare! or faito! Besides, Hino is said to afford a great view of Hakusan.

Encountering Fudo-myo-o at Murodo

We take a break at Hino’s Murodō, or intermediate shrine, which like the one on Hakusan is named for the pilgrim’s huts (“muro”) that once stood here. I take the chance to ask Wes where all this vlogging is going. The idea, he replies, is one video about a representative mountain in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures and administrative areas – how to climb them and what you’ll see there.

A-zero terrain on the west face of Mt Hino

Some muddy slabs, rigged with ropes, lead us up through Hino’s snowline. By the time we reach the summit shrine, we are crunching through a crusty old snow. It’s time to don our sunglasses; the glare has reached an almost alpine intensity.

Behind the summit sanctuary, we pay a visit to a mysterious modern monument to the pilgrims of old. Or perhaps the pilgrims of today – a plaque in the summit refuge hut celebrates a local man who ascended Hino 3,000 times in his bare feet.

A mysterious monument to mountain mystics

Sitting in the shrine's lee in the warm sun, we munch our lunchtime rice balls and try peering through the haze towards Hakusan. Alas, not even high-contrast sunglasses will penetrate the yellow dust from the continent. We’ll have to come back another day to patch in a view worthy of Wes's vlog ...

Gazing into the haze ...
(Photo by courtesy of Wes)

Sunday, March 10, 2024


Sorry this is a bit late for International Women’s Day. Then again, Nicole Niquille really deserves a day to herself. An interview in the latest edition of the Swiss Alpine Club’s bimonthly magazine brings us up to date with her story. 

Back in the 1980s, Niquille was one of Switzerland’s top alpinists – notice that the phrase isn’t “top female alpinists”. She went to K2 in 1985 and Everest in 1986, qualifying as a mountain guide, the first Swiss woman to do so, in the same year. “There was no feminist motive, I just wanted to live in the mountains,” she is quoted as saying in the interview.

Eight years later, on a Sunday evening in May 1994, her life changed forever. While she was picking mushrooms just a few hundred metres from her house, a falling stone hit her on the head. When she woke up in hospital, she was a paraplegic. 

During the next two years, she had to relearn everything, from speaking to moving her fingers and limbs. Despite all her efforts, she could not learn to walk again. Yet the mountains continue to give her strength: "When I freeze at night and can't pull up the blanket, I think of the nights in the airy tent on K2." 

“You never accept your disability, but you have to live with it,” Niquille says. Living with it meant, in this case, opening “Chez Nicole”, a mountain hostelry which she has run since 1997 with her husband Marco on the banks of Lac de Taney at an altitude of 1,408 metres. 

The restaurant led, in turn, to her next project. One of her kitchen helpers, a Nepalese Sherpa, told her about her sister Pasang Lhamu Sherpa. In April 1993, Pasang was the first Nepali woman to reach the summit of Everest, but lost her life while descending. 

Deciding to get involved, Niquille set up a foundation and invested 100,000 francs of her disability capital in building a hospital at Lukla, the starting point for treks to the Everest region. Opening its doors in 2005, the hospital runs on funds raised by Niquille’s foundation, about 450,000 francs annually.

Without the accident, Niquille says, she “would have led a different life and the hospital in Lukla would not exist”. For herself, she has no regrets: “There is no happiness or unhappiness in life, only people with different life stories,” she says. 

And even if she were to be offered the use of her legs again, she would accept this only every other day. “That way I would really appreciate them and I would know exactly what I had to do on the days I was able to walk.”


«J’ai dû trouver une utilité à ma chaise pour pouvoir l’accepter» Rencontre avec Nicole Niquille, interview by Martine Brocard in Les Alpes/Die Alpen, the bimonthly journal of the Swiss Alpine Club, edition 1/2024.

Hard core (3)

While climbing Les Ecrins by the south-east face, the extreme alpinist André Roch (1906-2002) encountered loose rock:

The climb became complicated, slabs succeeded cracks and the wall was always sheer and exposed. The clearest recollection I have of this ascent is the following. Somewhere Gréloz got up on to a big block at the foot of a wall. He was able to reach hand holds at the top of the wall and was endeavouring to pull himself up. Hardly had he taken his feet from the big block when over it toppled, disappearing into space. This time I really thought Gréloz must fall, but he remained hanging by his hands and then succeeded in pulling himself up. Once he was safe I reassured him by explaining that I had had him well belayed round a rock the whole time. It was then my turn to go up, and the minute I left my famous belay, it too disappeared into space. This goes to show that the south-east face is not exactly sound. We had a good laugh over this adventure, which had caused us considerable agitation.


André Roch, Climbs of My Youth, Lindsay Drummond London, 1949. Header image is a photo by André Roch of climbers on the north face of the Dent Blanche, published in Mountaineering in Photographs by André Roch, Adams and Charles Black, London 1947.

Hard core (2)

While bivouacking during the first descent of the Aiguille du Dru’s north face, the extreme alpinist André Roch (1906-2002) dreamt that the mountain itself had taken on a personality:

Sitting back to back on some stones we endeavoured to sleep, but in my state of feverish over-excitement my thoughts ran thus:

The Dru is so beautiful, so graceful, so radiant in the sunshine when he thrusts upwards into the blue sky. But now he is terrible, gigantic, furious, as he leans over us. He is a demon—a cyclops perhaps. At times it grew lighter and I could see his head, but I could not make out whether he had two eyes or only one. The black, streaming muscles of his chest, towered over us. How huge and frightening he was! Were he to see us, he would be infuriated and, with one flip, would send us down to the Nant Blanc glacier.

But, old Dru, you can’t see us, and you can’t touch us with your foolish great stones hurtling down some sixty feet wide of us. Hush! not a word—something’s going to happen. He is stirring. A fierce wind howls. It must be the hour when old man Dru takes his shower.

And sure enough, a veritable water spout poured down; and how pleased he seemed to be! Crouching on our perch we caught it full force without daring to move.

Wait a bit, Dru, old fellow; we may be small, but we still have some tricks up our sleeve and among them more than another 300 feet of rope still untouched.

Gradually the moon rose and then dawn broke. The old Dru cannot have slept much and, because of his queer notion of taking a shower at two in the morning, we hadn’t slept at all. But this was no time to argue with him. We tried to swallow some squares of chocolate, but without success. We could see the glacier, which was not far away. Beneath us opened an immense chimney some 300 feet high, down which we resumed our long series of rappels. Weakened by so many trials, feverish, stiff and trembling, we slid painfully down the length of our wet line. Beneath the continuous cascades of water that splashed the entire wall, we discovered a bed of crystals. There on a ledge I espied an enormous smoked specimen. But to get at it I should have had to stride round a tricky crack, and I preferred to give up the gem…


André Roch, Climbs of My Youth, Lindsay Drummond London, 1949. Header image is a photo by Georges Tairraz of the north face of the Petit Dru, published in Mountaineering in Photographs by André Roch, Adams and Charles Black, London 1947. 

Hard core (1)

The extreme alpinist André Roch (1906-2002) started learning his trade at an early age. His autobiographical work, Climbs of My Youth, explains ….

When I was ten my father had already introduced me to mountaineering. In summer we would stay at some centre for excursions and on Sundays in the spring and autumn we would explore the Préalpes or the Saléve.

One day a solitary climber had fallen on a climb on the Saléve known as the “Grande Varappe’”’ and the rescue party had brought him down on a stretcher to a quarry shed at the foot of the mountain. We were passing, and my father was called in to certify the man’s death. As my brother and I were full of ardour and enthusiasm for climbing, my father decided to let us see the body, in order to give us food for reflection. As far as I can remember the dead man was in a pitiable state, but nothing very dreadful was visible; he was tied to the stretcher and well wrapped up in tarpaulin. Half the face was smashed in, but the whole head was muffled up so that we could not see much, One leg was broken and the shoe that stuck out from beneath the wrappings could be twisted about in any direction; and this my brother and I did each in turn. The bloodstains were dry and coagulated and did not look very bad.

Nearby, over a drink, the rescuers were discussing the accident, and judging from their conversation, they had had great difficulty in.recovering the body and getting it down. When my father had finished we continued on our way. He asked us what we thought about it all, and I replied that it had rather spoiled our taste for anything much that day.

My father said nothing, but he judged that the effect had been slight and would not be lasting.


André Roch, Climbs of My Youth, Lindsay Drummond London, 1949. The header image is the frontispiece from this edition: Roch was as talented a mountain photographer as he was an alpinist.