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.

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