Tuesday, May 30, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (3)

Continued: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

So the four of us held our peace, each of us sensing, in himself, the mood of the others. And we were well aware that what each of us was silently thinking about was the fate that would inevitably befall some of us when climbing mountains. While we’d been chatting after dinner just now, we’d fallen to talking about a companion we all knew, whom we’d lost last winter, and how the previous summer he’d been with us up here, in the rock cave, and we’d spent a pleasant few days together. And then, as if by tacit agreement, we’d dropped the subject and fallen silent. We went outside, sat ourselves down on the rock and fell silent.

Kita-Hodaka: photo from an early editon of Oshima's writings
So, until that moment, we’d all, each in his own heart, been focused on the same thought, as if on a single point of light that appeared in all our minds – when suddenly the sound of a stone falling from the crumbling heights of Karesawa-dake rang out, breaking the silence two or three times as it bounded from the cliff. Then that impenetrable silence descended again.

That was the moment. As if tired of thinking, somebody threw out a question.

“Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?”

Since we’d all been thinking about the same thing in the same way, it was as if we’d been looking for somebody to break the ice. Then these words were spoken. And, of course, they struck a chord. Up there on the high mountain, in the dark, we’d all been struggling to find the words to describe a new creed about these cruel “Gefahren”, the mountain hazards that could at any time rob us of our friends or even our own lives.

Somebody replied at once:

“Well, if you go climbing mountains, that’s what you’ve got coming to you.”

“Well maybe, but does that mean that everybody who climbs has it coming?”

“Not everybody, of course not. If you’re lucky, you can get away with it. There are people who climb and nothing ever happens to them.”

“And what kind of people are those that get themselves killed?”

“Come to think about it, they’re people like ‘One Day’ (Itakura Katsunobu). That’s what his older brother said to me, when we were on the train together to Toyama, after ‘One day’ was killed. My own brother was always saying to me I’d get what was coming to me in the mountains one of these days, so that was music to my ears. You could say his words caught my attention, although I was also moved by them. They reminded me of what Mummery said – it was something like this, I think: “It is true the great ridges sometimes demand their sacrifice, but the mountaineer would hardly forgo his worship though he knew himself to be the destined victim.” And so I talked with H. all night, so that I was completely exhausted the next day … But when you look at people like Mummery and One Day and see what happened to them. Well, they both got killed, didn’t they. But it’s not just this kind of person who gets killed in the mountains. People who behave recklessly or carelessly, they get killed too. But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem’s getting killed when you take care, you’ve done your homework and you’re sure of yourself. In that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering, he goes into the dangers in detail, and there are a whole bunch of them. But there are a whole bunch of ways of avoiding them, and so winning through. But then he says there’s no way that a mountaineer can avoid bad luck, and that’s when he comes up with the sentence I just quoted. That was what happened to One Day."

"In Mountains and skis, One Day says this: “As far as one can be certain of anything, if you make cautious and modest progress, step by step, then another aspect of the mountains, one you’ve never dreamed of, will gradually start to resonate in your heart.” Maybe that was what drove him; why he was killed. If you go that far, the rest is up to luck; I’m convinced it’s luck. For people like him, mountaineering is not just a hobby or a sport, is it."

These words came vigorously, without a trace of fatigue:

“A sport or hobby? Of course not. For me right now, mountaineering is much more special than a hobby or sport. I can’t say exactly what it is, but it befits me much more than either of those things.”

Sitting there in the dark, somebody else gave a terse reply to the previous speech. There was silence for a while. Then, “Anyway, when people recognize that you can die doing this, they’re not joking about,” murmured somebody, as if cutting himself off. It was one of our company who’d been with our friend when he’d died. Out of all of us, he was the one who’d had the most intense experience at that point. More than any of us, he knew the inner meaning of a disaster in the mountains. Yet, he’d never spoken about this, making no move to reveal his thoughts to the rest of us. But now he had just this to say: “Since then, I’ve had a hard time keeping myself away from the mountains. I loved Tateyama before, of course. But since then I’ve loved the mountain even more.” He said nothing further. Again, our conversation stalled and everyone was left to mull over his own thoughts alone.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

"Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?" This question, in the above passage of Ōshima's essay, leads to a discussion that leans heavily on the Edwardian alpinist A F Mummery's defence of alpinism in the last chapter of My Climbs in the Alps & Caucasus. As Ohmori Hisao points out, Ōshima refers to "that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering" - whereas Mummery actually wrote about the "Pleasures and penalties of mountaineering". This may explain why Ōshima's essay ends on a less positive note than Mummery, whose last words are these:-

But happily to most of us the great brown slabs bending over into immeasurable space, the lines and curves of the wind-moulded cornice, the delicate undulations of the fissured snow, are old and trusted friends, ever luring us to health and fun and laughter, and enabling us to bid a sturdy defiance to all the ills and time and life oppose. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (2)

Continued: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

Oshima (centre) and Maki Yuko (right)
on the summit of Yarigatake, March 1922
There were four of us, and we’d just come down through the coire of Karesawa from the north peak of Hodaka. It was now getting dark. Somehow, we’d threaded our way through the rocky debris that obstruct the floor of Karesawa. It was a perfectly clear, calm summer evening, with the sunset clouds still glowing above the jagged ridgeline of Byōbu-iwa, right in front of us.

Down below, not a sound disturbed the silence that had descended over the rock cave that evening. In that all-pervading evening calm, the mountains enfolded us. Now, on Karesawa’s floor, we were just returning to that dusky abode, the rock cave where we’d so often enjoyed a good conversation and rest. Just then, to our right, the sunset’s embers were still glowing on the very spire of Hodaka and the deep purple shadows were stealing upwards toward the top of Sennin-iwa.

Meanwhile, the dark shadow of night was already creeping over the distant valley. It was exactly then that we reached the rock cave and lit our fire of creeping pine boughs. By the time we’d finished our modest supper, night had embraced us. It was a quite splendid night, sprinkled with stars. The silence enfolded everything, as if wrapping the heights in its embrace.

Abandoning the fire, we tumbled out of the cave and sat ourselves down on a rock in the midst of that chill summer evening in the mountains. In the black night sky above us, stars glittered like fish scales in every colour and brightness. We sat there silently, the four of us on that rock, sucking on our pipes, each wrapped in his own thoughts.

Our mood was attuned to everything around us that night. We weren’t in awe of the mountains, as we would have been on a night of thunderous rain and gales; instead, they conveyed to us this tranquility, this peace, this somehow significant silence. “While the mountain may sometimes impress its mood on the spectator, as often the spectator only sees that which harmonises with his own,” writes Mummery in his account of the first ascent of the Matterhorn's Zmutt Ridge, and certainly our mood that evening was of the latter type.

Behind and beside us, rock walls and towers loomed as jet-black shapes in the gloaming, but they neither intimidated nor overawed us. Rather the mountains that more than half-encircled us felt as if they were sheltering the rock-cave in their midst, as if gently rocking us mountain babies to sleep in a cradle. Perhaps my phrasing is too fanciful, but that’s how beneficent the mountains felt to us. Yet this great silence did not tempt us to sing or jest, for the mountains’ mood and our own were in perfect harmony.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

Ōshima Ryōkichi (1899-1928) crammed a whole lifetime’s worth of mountaineering and writing into a brief decade. In just the year after his compulsory military service, he managed to spend fully 110 days in the mountains. He explored the ranges of Tōhoku and Hokkaidō as well as the Northern Alps. And he learned French, German, English and Italian in order to read alpine literature in its original languages. Two particular influences were A F Mummery and the French-Swiss alpinist Emil Javelle. According to Ohmori Hisao, the opening section of this essay owes something to Javelle’s evocations of the alpine pastoral.

The photo is from this blog.

Friday, May 26, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (1)

Translation: a meditation on life and death in the mountains by pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi

We were fond of that bivvy rock in Karesawa. It’s hard to think of any other high place that was so welcoming. “Rock cave” (iwa-koya) was the right name for it, formed as it was by the hollow under a big flat rock on top, and surrounded by piles of rock fragments in front. There was no trace of anybody’s handiwork, so that it looked natural, in keeping with its name, which was all the more pleasant. Around it, Japan’s highest, most magnificent rocky peaks rise to more than 2,500 metres.

View from the Karesawa bivvy cave
There are few lodging places to be found so high, so free, and so congenial. Or so splendidly remote from human existence. Lying on a bed of withered creeping pine boughs, you can look out from under its rocky eaves towards the summit of Mae-Hodaka and the spreading snowfields on the ridges (Grat) and corries (Kar) of Byōbu-iwa. The roof is so low that you have to crouch or lie down the whole time. As far as the scenery goes, since the cave lay on the corrie’s floor, all you could see was the peaks of the surrounding crags, the corrie’s walls, and the scoop of Karesawa, and you couldn’t even see the Azusa River valley.

Few people come this way; it’s a quiet place, and that’s exactly what we like about it. After bringing up rice, miso, a few sweet things and a bit to drink, so as to set up camp and settle in here for four or five days, I feel quite refreshed, as if for the first time I’ve come to a place where I can really smell the mountains.

When the weather’s fine, and as soon as we’ve had breakfast, we set off with ropes over our shoulders to tackle any of the surrounding rock walls we fancy, or topping out on one of those nameless “Nebengipfel” (subsidiary summit), we grant ourselves a bit of a “Gipfelrast”, or it might be interesting to clamber up a “Gratzacke” (jagged ridge) and build a “Steinmann” (summit cairn) there.

And when we’ve had enough, we’d come down to the cave and do a lizard on the big rock that forms its roof. When I say “do a lizard”, that’s what one of us said two or three years ago when he came up here, and so that’s the term we use. It means lying down and sunning oneself atop the flat rock, belly flat to the sun-warmed stone, just like a lizard, closing one’s eyes and pleasantly dozing off without a thought in one’s head.

If the weather’s bad, we’re more like mountain rats, though. We don’t think of coming out of our hole until the clouds lift. In fact, we can’t get out; we can hardly move, for fear of accidentally hitting our heads, so low is the roof of our cave. So then I lay my head towards the back of the cave and just lie there. As we’re high up here, when the weather’s bad, it’s very cold. Rain drips from the rocky eaves and seeps through the rock. Wind blows in from nooks and crannies.

Even so, there is nowhere as pleasant to be as this cave; it’s a tolerable place in both fine and rainy weather. We say what we want to say, eat what we want to eat, and climb to our heart’s content. From time to time, we toy with the idea of having a hut worthy of the name, but only in winter or spring. But we don’t need one in summer, if we can find a natural one like this more or less anywhere. Even in summer, though, our rock can be buried in snow if you come up here too early in the season.

Anyway, one of the pleasures of visiting Kamikōchi in the summer is to come up here with my companions, talk things through, and climb our hearts out. I write here, though, about one particular summer evening with my friends at the rock cave. My hope is in some way to record our companionship at that particular time.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

Ōshima Ryōkichi (1899-1928) was one of the student mountaineers mentored by Maki Yūkō when he returned from his first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi Ridge in 1921. Ōshima took part in Maki’s ski ascent of Yarigatake the following winter, also a first. In this heady but dangerous epoch, the young climbers were rapt with enthusiasm for developments in European alpinism – hence the German terms embedded here and there in Ōshima’s essay above. At the same time, their ambitions too often ran ahead of their experience in the high mountains. The first victim was Itakura Katsunobu, son of a Meiji-era prime minister, who died in a snowstorm on Tateyama in January 1923. The essay translated here is a meditation on the death of Itakura, known as “One Day” to his friends, and what it meant for Japan’s pioneer alpinists.

The photo, showing the view from the rock cave bivvy in Karesawa is from this blog. According to the same blog, the rock cave no longer exists.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How not to have a blast

Japan’s authorities issue volcano safety guidelines for hikers

One-third of Japan’s popular One Hundred Mountains are active volcanoes. This can lead to tragedy. In September 2014, a sudden eruption on a volcano in central Honshū killed 63 people. Some of the victims were never found. To raise awareness of these hazards, Japan’s Home Ministry and its Meteorological Agency have recently issued a leaflet for hikers.

How volcanoes can damage your health

What follows is an outline summary of the Japanese text (PDF). The front sheet of “Be prepared for hiking on volcanoes” (火山への登山のそなえ) marks the location of Japan’s 110 active volcanoes – “active” means showing signs of life, or having erupted within the last 10,000 years. The 33 active volcanoes selected by Fukada Kyūya for his One Hundred Mountains are distinguished in red.

Red captions mark the active Nihon Hyakumeizan

Next are points to keep in mind when climbing a volcano:

  • Eruptions can occur without warning, so stay alert to what is happening in and around the crater.
  • If you see any unusual venting of steam or gases, take refuge or descend immediately and warn the local authorities, police or Meteorological Agency (which is responsible for monitoring volcanic activity in Japan).
  • As volcanic gases are heavier than air, they tend to collect in hollows and valleys. Stay out of such locations.
  • Keep your mobile phone on and check for official hazard alerts. Be aware of whether your phone has a connection to the network. Information about mobile phone coverage is published on the websites of some phone companies, or marked on certain hiking maps. Try to establish whether and where you will have mobile phone connectivity before you leave home.
  • During an eruption, there is a major risk of death or injury from flying stones and lava bombs near the crater. Get away from the crater and take shelter in a hut or behind a rock. If you have them, put on a helmet and goggles, and breathe through a face-mask or towel.

Things not to leave home without
In addition to your normal hiking kit, map and compass, you should consider carrying a copy of the local volcanic hazard map, which will show you the range of previous eruptions, and also places to take shelter. A helmet, goggles and a towel will protect against ash and other fall-out, as will a rain-jacket. A headlight will help in bad visibility. And don’t forget a spare battery for your mobile phone and emergency rations/water for yourself.

The last sheet of the leaflet starts with a reminder of the 2014 Ontake disaster. Then (see top graphic) two cartoon volcanoes present the various types of eruptive threat – showers of heavy rocks that can fly up to four kilometres from the vent; smaller stones with a lethal range of 10 kilometres; volcanic ash that may, in the leaflet’s measured language, “affect your breathing”, pyroclastic flows that burn and bury; volcanic gases and mudflows. Each category is illustrated from an eruption in living memory.

The message is clear: these hazards are for real.

Related posts: volcanic excursions

Asama: Serious steam

Asama: The inner world

Asama: Fires of Tartarus

Bandai: Sole survivor

Mt Fuji: Journey to the centre of Mt Fuji

Gassan and Chōkai: The twentieth-century Tōhoku express

Kaimon: Slow train to Kaimon-dake

Ontake: The gateway

Sakurajima: The hot and cold Hyakumeizan challenge

Yake-dake: Burning mountain, bad snow

Yake-dake: Seasons of a stratovolcano

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (5)

Concluded: a translation of Kogure Ritarō's A talk about mountaineering

In this way, the people of a congregation would go on long pilgrimages to their special mountain for a week or more, or even several weeks. Thus, most of the notable mountains had already been climbed, except for those in a small part of what’s now known as the Japan Alps. But if there had been any indomitable monks like those pioneer mountain mystics of old, who tirelessly opened up new mountains and proselytised their faith, I can scarcely imagine that they would have left any mountain untracked. So this is a piece of good luck for us.

Climbing a snow valley at Harinoki, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)
The important thing to note is that most of these mountaineers were commoners. While the city-dwelling aristocracy and the literati were celebrating Mt Fuji simply as something to look at, the commoners were climbing mountains all over the place. Of course, the power of faith is part of the explanation, but one can’t help feeling that the vigour of this mass mountaineering movement and that commoners were organising group ascents from quite early times can be put down mainly to the fact that Japan’s mountains are easy to climb in the summer.

These mass ascents meant that there would be thousands or even tens of thousands of climbers, but except on their chosen route, the mountain wasn’t devastated. For example, when we had to relieve ourselves, we dug a hole, did our business on a sheet of paper, and tidied up afterwards; we were always extremely reluctant to desecrate the mountain. Standing on the top of Shirouma, I couldn’t help feeling sad at the way that beautiful sward was being trampled from end to end. As we keep climbing the mountains that our forebears opened for us, in new ways, and pass them on to the next generation, surely we should want to avoid passing them on in a shop-soiled state.

As my mountain-climbing evolved from such circumstances, it’s only natural that I can’t entirely escape my origins. So I wear Japanese garb over my straw sandals and leggings, don a rush mat against the rain, keep an oiled paper cape ready, hang my baggage from panniers, and wear a hat of cypress bark instead of a straw one. I’ve been told by Mr Fujiki that this makes me look like an itinerant swordsman of old, and indeed there could be some similarities, as this was the traditional garb for travelling. Of course, as a pilgrim, I didn’t carry a short sword or a fighting staff, but fortunately I was able to keep climbing mountains in this way up to the end of the Meiji years, without any accidents, and it was only when I first met the new city-dwelling type of climber, never having heard of such a thing, that I realised to my amazement just how many people like climbing mountains. And among those people are the founders and inaugural members of the Japanese Alpine Club.

Sunrise on Mt Fuji (Goraiko): woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

The downside of traditional mountaineering dress is when a storm hits. As you can’t put up an umbrella, all you can do is wrap it tightly in the straw mat and tough things out. I once got caught in this way while climbing Kaikoma from the Todai valley, and I still remember how we struggled to avoid succumbing to the cold. In those days, we’d stay the night at the summit, so as to enjoy the view of sunrise at leisure on the next day, as we felt safe sleeping on an open summit, even if it was colder, rather than camping in a gloomy wood. As for food, I sometimes walked carrying enough large balls of baked rice for three days, but I doubt if such tribulations can be imagined by anybody who hasn’t experienced them.

Well, I’ve rambled on for long enough with my talk, but if you’ve learned something from it about the way mountain-climbing was in those days, then I will consider myself more than amply rewarded.


This is a beta translation of a chapter (登山談義) from Mountain Memories (山の憶い出), as republished by Heibonsha in 1999 and edited by Ohmori Hisao. Kogure Ritarō (1873-1944) grew up in a mountain village where people still made regular pilgrimages to Mt Fuji and Ontake. He made his way via the new Meiji educational system to Tokyo, where he joined the Japanese Alpine Club a few years after it was founded, and later became its president. For more about the celebrated mountain meeting at Kirigamine in August 1935, see the introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Images and ink (36)

Image: "Pollinger breaks through", photo by Edward Whymper, from Whymper’s Scrambles with a Camera, edited by Peter Berg, former Hon. Archivist of the Alpine Club

Ink: Poem by I A Richards, the literary critic and alpinist, to his wife, Dorothy Pilley

Recall the Epicoun:
Night, welling up so soon,
Near sank us in soft snow.
At the stiff-frozen dawn,
When Time had ceased to flow,
- The glacier ledge our unmade bed -
I hear you through your yawn:
"Leaping crevasses in the dark,
That's how to live!" you said.
No room in that to hedge:
A razor's edge of a remark

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sakura diary (5)

19 April: Narita again: after circling back over the airport, the Airbus heads due north, tracking up the spine of Tohoku.

Looking through gaps in the cloud, passengers in the right-hand seat rows can play Meizan sudoku.

Over Hokkaido, the track turns slightly left, so that we coast into Siberia far to the north of Vladivostok. At first the big Siberian rivers roll brown with meltwater; after lunch, washed down with a glass of economy-class pinot noir, they’re frozen into silent braids.

We continue on this hyperborean heading, overflying nameless mountains, until Siberia’s northern coast heaves into view under the starboard wing, somewhere north-west of Norilsk.

The Barents Sea winks blue at this season; the water is open as far north as the eye can see. In just one place, though, ice-floes have crowded up on a lee shore.

Perhaps it's the pinot noir. Looking down on the brash ice, I so far forget myself as to think of ... white petals floating in an old castle moat. How mortifying: even at this distance, the cherry flowers have cast their spell. As they always will.