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.

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