Monday, February 25, 2013

Hello kitty?

The curious history of cats who climb mountains

What about cats then? The question came from a follower of this blog. I mean, she remonstrated, you’ve posted about the exploits of dogs such as the Hyakumeizan-bagging Hana, and Toby, the canine conqueror of Mt Fuji. But where are the mountaineering cats? There’s at least one feline stationmaster in Japan. So somewhere there should be a climbing cat…

Now, if velvet-pawed alpinists really existed, you’d expect to find them curled up by the stove in a mountain village. And, strange to say, that is exactly where we did find one – or rather his posthumous pawprints. Azumino is a rural community that lies at the foot of Japan’s Northern Alps. Appropriately, it is twinned with the Swiss village of Grindelwald and – no less fittingly – it was home to Japan’s most famous mountaineering cat.

Improbably, Mikè was a male tortoiseshell cat – we say ‘improbably’, because almost all cats with the characteristic brown, orange and white brindled coat are female. In fact, “Mikè” means tortoiseshell. But the chances against a tortoiseshell tomcat coming into the world are about 3,000 to one, according to Wikipedia. Having defied the odds in being born at all, it was thus inevitable that Mikè should develop a most un-catlike interest in hill-walking.

All in all, he climbed almost 60 local mountains with his owners, Mr and Mrs Okada, sometimes following them, sometimes pushing on ahead. If this stretches your credulity, then please watch the video. His summits were modest; it’s not recorded that he ever tackled one of Japan’s One Hundred Mountains. But the exercise seems to have done him good. He lived until he was at least 15, a ripe old age for a cat.

Or perhaps he was just lucky. It so happens that those famous beckoning cats that you see in every Japanese shop – the so-called manikineko – are tortoiseshells. Nobody knows why. But everyone believes that manikineko bring you good fortune. Maybe some of it rubbed off on Mikè.

It does help to be lucky if you are an alpinist, whether feline or human. One who stretched his luck to the full was Tomba. We were reminded of his story – for Tomba’s fame is deathless – when we dropped in last weekend on the Schwarenbach Hotel. Ringed by peaks of more than 3,000 metres, this hostelry in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland is a favoured base for ski-mountaineers. And, as it once happened, for a top-flight feline alpinist.

Tomba came into the world at the Schwarenbach in August 1988. And, as in Mikè’s case, the deck was heavily stacked against his long continuation there. Just after he was born, his mother abandoned her newborn kitten for five days, returning only just in time to save his life. Perhaps this kittenhood trauma accounts for Tomba’s independent and self-reliant nature.

Be that as it may, his first mountaineering exploit is recorded in May the following year, when the hotelkeeper Peter Stoller learned that the grey and white tomcat had followed three mountaineering guests up to the top of the Rinderhorn (3,454 metres). A few days later, Tomba escorted another party to the top of the Balmhorn (3,699 metres). Thus opened a distinguished climbing career that took the cat to the top of almost every high mountain within reach.

Like any alpinist who wants to stay around, Tomba was careful about the company he kept. The night before a climb, he would fastidiously sniff the backpacks set down by visiting mountaineers in the hotel’s entrance hall. Next morning, the favoured party would find the cat padding along behind them through the pre-dawn gloom. As Hedy Sigg and Max Pfiffner did on September 6, 1989, just after they left the Schwarenbach at 5am.

It was then that they recalled their conversation with Mrs Stoller the previous evening. Would anybody else be climbing the Rinderhorn that day, they’d asked. They’d thought their hostess was joking when she replied “In all likelihood, nobody except the cat.”

But now their amazement grew as they watched the cat trot after them in the strengthening light, wending his way through a boulder field, up a snowy gully, and finally over steep and icy slopes to the summit (see photo). Max thought he’d have to bring the cat down in his rucksack but, no, Tomba was having none of that. A good alpinist comes down on his own four feet, and so he did.

On another occasion, the cat chose to accompany a young couple. Halfway up the mountain, the climbers saw Tomba veer from the normal climbing route and vanish behind a large rock. The couple followed him, thinking that perhaps he’d found something interesting. At that moment, an avalanche thundered down the couloir, wiping out the tracks they’d just been following.

Thanks perhaps to some kind of feline sixth sense, neither Tomba nor any of his companions ever came to any kind of harm on a climb. Alas, all his alpine skills were not enough to save him from an early death: when Tomba and his mother contracted a fatal feline illness in January 1993, both had to be put to sleep.

Tomba was certainly Switzerland’s most prolific feline alpinist. Oddly, though, the country’s altitude record for climbing pets of any kind goes to a much less famous and, indeed, anonymous black and white cat – one that belonged to Josephine Aufdenblatten, the cook at the Hörnli hut at the foot of the Matterhorn’s eponymous ridge.

On August 10, 1950, the day after Aufdenblatten noticed her cat was missing, mountain guide August Julen met with the animal somewhere below the Solvay Hut on the Hörnli ridge. The cat avoided the Lower Mosley Slab, a tricky rock step, but rejoined Julen and another guided party at the Solvay Hut, a refuge shelter perched on a ledge at 4,000 metres. There the guides gave her – for she was, apparently, a lady feline alpinist – some food.

Immediately above the Solvay Hut is the Upper Mosley Slab, which human climbers scale with the help of a fixed rope. The guides expected that this obstacle would stop the cat and, indeed, she tried her claws on the rope without success. But somehow she found another way around the impasse and reached the mountain’s shoulder. Here she nearly met her end, after she slipped on the icy snow and arrested herself at the last moment by clawing onto a ledge. And so she found her own way to the summit of the Matterhorn, at 4,478 metres Switzerland’s tenth-highest mountain.

This story too ends sadly. Julen wanted to catch the cat and bring her down in his rucksack, but she ran away. Later, an Italian guide did take her down the mountain, to the village of Breuil on the south side. And there she stayed, despite Josephine Aufdenblatten's entreaties to have the cat returned. The following winter, another Swiss guide found the cat again. She had been stuffed and now adorned a restaurant in Breuil. Perhaps she adorns it still.


Brochure about Tomba der Gipfelstürmer published by the Berghotel Schwarenbach (translation)

The History of the Matterhorn: First Ascents, Projects and Adventures, by Beat Truffer

Photo of Tomba on the Rinderhorn: courtesy of Hedy Sigg and Max Pfiffner

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The 102 mountains of Japan

Long before the Hyakumeizan, there was an officially approved list of famous Japanese peaks. Who will be first to climb them?

Could it be that we've been climbing the wrong mountains all along? The ones we climb, of course, are the one hundred Japanese mountains written up by Fukada Kyūya in his Nihon Hyakumeizan - a purely personal selection of peaks that was published in 1964. But more than half a century before that, an officially sponsored encyclopaedia had come out with a radically different list of mountain names. And there were 102 of them.

This earlier list appears in the Kojiruien, a 51-volume collection of historical documents that was compiled between 1879 and 1914. The encyclopaedia's moving spirit was Nishimura Shigeki, then working at the Ministry of Education. In his youth, Nishimura had studied Confucianism and gunnery. This set the pattern for his career as one of those Meiji intellectuals who saw themselves, without any sense of contradiction, as both cultural revolutionaries and guardians of the pure Japanese spirit.

The Kojiruien shared this dual character: it is a modern scholarly instrument designed to preserve the most venerable sources of Japanese tradition. And this ultra-conservative agenda informs its catalogue of notable Japanese mountains. Appearing within a volume that deals with Japan's regional geography, the list (see below) classifies its peaks into "famous mountains" (meizan), "high mountains (kōzan) and volcanoes (kazan).

As several peaks appear in more than one category, or twice under different names, the number of distinct mountains comes down to something like 95. We say "mountains" here, but the Kojiruien's "meizan" in particular are somewhat lacking in stature. Wakakusa-yama, for instance, towers all of 342 metres over the city of Nara. Yet this grassy hill is indisputably "famous", featuring in an ancient fire ceremony as well as in some of the oldest Japanese poems.

Not even all the "high mountains" are especially lofty. Atago, for example, rises only 924 metres above Kyoto. But it is perfectly sited to grace, without dominating, the "borrowed scenery" of many a temple garden. To the Kojiruien's compilers, it seems, a mountain's cultural and literary merits counted for much more than vulgar attributes such as its height.

When he compiled his own book of peaks, Fukada Kyūya was not insensitive to a mountain's cultural baggage. A meizan, he said in the afterword to his book, should have "history" as well as stature and an air of distinction. But the Kojiruien's meizan must have been altogether too lowly for him, not to say excessively concentrated in the old home provinces. For not one of them appears in Fukada's hundred mountains.

When it comes to the kōzan, there is more meeting of minds. Some 30 of the Kojiruien's 59 "high mountains" also appear in Fukada's Hyakumeizan. Agreement is even stronger in the volcanic category, where Fukada endorses 10 of the encyclopaedia's 17 choices. (In the Hyakumeizan as a whole, Fukada is roughly even-handed on the merits of volcanoes and other mountains, drafting 45 of the former and 55 of the latter.)

Did Fukada actually refer to the Kojiruien? As a literary man, he must have known the poems and essays that underpin the encyclopaedia's list. Yet he makes no mention in Nihon Hyakumeizan of the Kojiruien itself. In the end, every generation must decide for itself what is "famous" about its mountains. And, when such a gulf of history separated Fukada's generation from Nishimura's, it was inevitable that the idea of a "meizan" would change altogether beyond recognition.


Main source for this post is Takayuki Ogata: Geographic Information of the Listed Mountains in the Encyclopedia "Kojiruien", Geographical Studies, No 83, 2008. Table below is from this paper.

The Kojiruien list of 102 mountains

Famous mountains (meizan)
Ouchiyama, Arashiyama, Oiyama (Yamashiro province); Kasugayama, Narayama, Amanokaguyama, Miminashiyama, Unebiyama, Hatsuseyama, Mimoroyama, Tonomine, Asukayama, Tatsutayama (Yamato province); Sayononakayama (Totōmi province); Utsunoyama (Suruga province); Osakayama, Kagamiyama, Mikamisan (Omi province); Moyama (Mino province); Kuraiyama (Hida province); Obasuteyama (Shinano province); Kinkasan, Suenomatsuyama (Mutsu province); Imoseyama (Kii province); Amayama (Iyo province); Kagamiyama (Buzen province); Hirefuriyama (Hizen province).

High mountains (kōzan)
Atagoyama, Kuramayama (Yamashiro province); Yoshinoyama, Katsuragisan, Ikomayama, Kunimiyama (Yamato province); Fujisan, Ashitakayama (Suruga province); Komagatake, Shichimenzan, Houosan, Kinpusan (Kai province); Hakoneyama, Ashigarayama (Sagami province); Mitakesan (Musashi province); Tsukubasan (Hitachi province); Hieizan, Hirasan, Ibukiyama (Omi province); Enasan (Mino province); Norikuradake (Hida province); Ontake, Yatsugatake, Azumayasan, Tateshinayama, Asamayama, Togakushiyama, Komagatake, Usui-tōge, Torii-tōge (Shinano province); Myogisan, Akagiyama (Kozuke province); Nikkosan, Nantaizan, Koshinzan (Shimotsuke province); Komagamine, Iwatesan, Iidesan, Asakayama, Iwakisan, Iwahashiyama (Mutsu province); Chōkaisan, Hagurosan, Gassan, Yudonosan (Dewa province); Hakusan (Kaga province); Tateyama (Echu province); Naebasan, Hakkaisan, Yahikoyama (Echigo province); Oeyama (Tango province); Daisen (Hoki province); Koyasan (Kii province); Tsurugisan (Awa province); Ishizuchiyama (Iyo province); Hikosan (Buzen province); Sobosan (Bungo province); Asozan (Higo province); Kirishimayama (Hyuga province).

Famous volcanoes (kazan)
Fujisan (Suruga province); Asamayama (Shinano province); Azumasan (Kozuke province);Nasudake (Shimotsuke province); Bandaisan, Yakeyama (Mutsu province); Chokaisan (Dewa province); Hakusan (Kaga province); Tateyama (Echu province); Tsurumiyama, Yufuyama (Bungo province); Unzendake, Fugendake (Hizen province); Asozan (Higo province); Kirishimayama (Hyuga province); Kaimondake (Satsuma province); Uchiuradake (Ezo province).

Photos of Nishimura Shigeki, Wakakusayama and Atagoyama by courtesy of Wikipedia, the Kojiruien of our times.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wolves in the snow

Should Japan bring back the wolf? We summon an expert witness from the past...

Remember you read it here first. Some months after this blog reviewed a book on the sad fate of the Japanese wolf, the Wall Street Journal has reported on efforts to reintroduce the animal – or rather, to import Tibetan wolves, as the native breed died out a century ago.

Bringing back the wolf would solve one of Japan’s most pressing ecological problems: its out-of-control deer population. Or so wolf fans hope. Environmental officials are less sanguine. Wolves, they fear, might cause more problems than they fix.

One Hundred Mountains is staying out of this debate. Except to suggest that, before anybody lets loose a container-load of Tibetan wolves, they might want to read the following extract from Suzuki Bokushi’s Snow Country Tales, an account of life in Japan’s backcountry two hundred years ago.

As explained in the first book of this work, the wild animals of Echigo migrate during the winter, wandering over the mountains to regions with less snow than ours. This they do because they can no longer find sufficient food; all is buried deep under the snow. In spring, however, the animals return to their native haunts. Still, even in spring not all the snow has thawed and disappeared, and food remains scarce. It can happen then that wolves approach human dwellings and carry off a dog or, on occasion, even attack men. This usually happens in small mountain settlements; wolves are afraid to approach villages of larger size.

In one of these mountain hamlets, there lived a certain poor farmer with his old mother, his wife, and two children. I will withhold their names because their story is so tragic. The daughter was thirteen and the boy seven. The man was both a very good father and a good son. One year toward the end of March, the farmer had business in a place five miles distant. The way he had to travel to get there was all narrow mountain paths. ''Be careful,'' warned his old mother. “When you go, be sure to take your rifle along." "You're absolutely right,'' he said, and he left with his rifle slung over his shoulder. He had an official license that permitted him to carry a gun, for he hunted as well as farmed for a living.

Soon the day was spent, his business completed, and he hurried home. On his way, just as he was approaching his village, he saw in the distance, in the shadow of the snowy mountain, a wolf. It seemed to be chewing on something. He crept within shooting distance, struck the fuse of his flintlock, and, right on target, felled the animal. When he walked over to where it had fallen, he found that the wolf had been gnawing on a human leg. Stunned, it flashed through his mind that the wolf might have sneaked into his own house, and fear befell him for his family. He left the dead wolf where it lay and raced home.

Outside his cottage the snow all around was dyed crimson with blood. Wildly alarmed, he leapt into the cottage just as two wolves bounded past him in escape. As he scanned the scene, he saw his mother lying by the open hearth, gnawed off on all sides, one of her legs totally gone. His wife, swimming in blood, lay near the window. She, too, was mauled and chewed. Threads of her cotton crepe weavings lay scattered and trampled everywhere. As for his seven-year-old son-he found, outside in the garden on the snow, only half of his little body. His wife was still breathing. At the sight of him, she tried to sit up but could not, for all the strength had left her. All she could do was gasp "Wolves!" Then she was gone. The good man, not sure whether it wasn't all a horrible nightmare, stood clutching his rifle.

Then he remembered his daughter and began to call her name, half in tears. At this the hapless girl came creeping from underneath the floor and, with an anguished cry, threw herself on her father's neck. The father clutched his daughter to him and wept. Since houses in these mountain settlements lie rather far apart, set here and there, no one else knew of the tragedy. During a single day the farmer had lost his mother, his wife, and his son, all torn to pieces by the fangs of wolves. The stricken man gnashed his teeth in torment, and father and daughter moaned ceaselessly and raised their voices in wails of agony.

By and by the other villagers heard about the awful happening. They came one after another, each screaming in horror when they saw what had happened. As more and more neighbors arrived, they asked the poor girl how it had happened. "Suddenly three wolves came leaping in through the window. I was tending the hearth, and at once crept under the floor of the house. I heard the screams of Mother and Grandma and my little brother, but I stayed where I was, chanting ''Save us merciful Buddha!''

The event was reported to the authorities. At evening the next day, the farmer laid his wife and little son in one coffin and carried it along with the one for his mother to the place where the villagers burned their dead. There was no one among the assembled villagers whose eyes remained dry. Because, on his mother's suggestion, the farmer had taken his gun along and so was able to kill the wolf which was feasting on her leg, one could think that he somehow avenged her. Yet it was a terrible shame indeed that the other two wolves escaped him. After this blow, the farmer abandoned his homestead and left with his daughter on a pilgrimage. Since all this happened very near here, it is a well-known story.


Wall Street Journal, 28 December 2012 edition: “If the Japanese Diet Included Deer, It Might Keep Wolves From the Door”.

Snow Country Tales: Life in the Other Japan by Suzuki Bokushi, translated by Jeffrey Hunter with Rose Lesser.

Related post: The wolf and the wild boar

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Winds of yesteryear

Tracking a forgotten typhoon: an essay in weather archaeology

After topping out from our climb in Takidani, there was time to relax on the aery balcony of the Kita-Hodaka hut. We were taking in the northwards view when, like a starship warping out of hyperspace, a lenticular cloud materialised at our feet.

Waving by Alpine Light & Structure
Waving, a photo by Alpine Light & Structure on Flickr.

The photo has attracted interest from a reader. “I found another interesting point in this Dai-kiretto [ridge] picture,” she writes. “It's the wind direction. I've thought west winds always blow in this area by the influence of the Sea of Japan. However, your picture shows the wind was blowing from southwest at this moment. You took this picture from south to north in the morning. The "streamline" cloud shows there were mountain waves which produce lenticular clouds on top of the flows. It also indicates that a strong wind was blowing from southwest on this particular morning. Strong humid winds from southwest... That means bad weather, in other words, low pressure or tropic cyclone was close to you!”

Not for the first time, I am blown away by the expertise that this blog’s readers bring to the table. Mitch-san is certainly right about the tropical cyclone sneaking up. Next day, Typhoon 19 rode into town, with results that you can read about in Crack babies.

Mitch’s spot-on weather analysis sent me to the bookshelf, where I dusted off my copy of Skies over Mt. Hotaka (穂高の空―3000メートルの観天望気). This is a visual record of the weather around the Kita-Hodaka hut over two summer seasons in the early 1980s. The pictures are by Konno Takeshi, a nature photographer who worked as a member of the hut crew, and they are accompanied by explanatory write-ups from Iida Mutsujiro, a meteorologist and author of a slew of books about mountain weather.

I wondered if the book might describe a weather pattern similar to the one that produced the cloud in the photo. It turns out that it does. On pages 66–67, we see clouds streaming over the Dai-Kiretto a few days before a typhoon arrives. When the pictures were taken, the typhoon still lurked several hundred kilometres to the south. But its approach stirred a dormant front back to life, with the result that strong winds and rain assailed the Northern Japan Alps that very evening.

Our storm may have behaved in a similar way. It seems that the relevant year’s Typhoon 19 (aka “Abe”) didn’t hit the mountains full-on, but went rampaging out into the Japan Sea instead. On the Dai-Kiretto, though, conditions were full enough when I made my traverse over to Minami-dake next day – a bad idea, as it turned out.

Lashed by rain squalls that came blasting upwards in sheets, I nearly came to grief after starting down a gully that led straight to a big drop. I realised my mistake in the nick of time. The moral of the tale might be this. When clouds that look like starships start to materialize, heed Mitch’s warning and seek safer ground. And if you do insist on crossing the Dai-Kiretto in a typhoon, contact lenses might give you better sight than sprayed-up spectacles.


穂高の空―3000メートルの観天望気 (ビジュアル サイエンス) 今野 岳志, 飯田 睦治郎

Skies over Mt. Hotaka (publisher’s English title, but there is no translation) is an original and imaginative book. It chronicles the more dramatic weather happenings around the Kita-Hodaka hut over two summer seasons and matches them up to synoptic weather charts and meteorological explanations by Iida Mutsujiro, a prolific writer of books about mountain weather. The photographer, Konno Takeshi, worked at the hut for more than a decade. The book is out of print, but you might find an old copy on Amazon Japan. Publisher was Yamakei.