Sunday, June 4, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (4)

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

Itakura "One Day" Katsunobu in 1922
And, indeed, there was much for me to ponder then. Dark, regretful thoughts pursued me; a great burden oppressed my heart. For the mountains exerted this mysterious hold on me, and all I could think was that death on a mountain would be a judgment of fate that I should accept with good grace when the time came.

At that thought, I felt an undertone, an “Unterton”, of youthful spirit and joy; a “Lebensglaube” spread through my heart. However much you think about death – and however strongly you feel it – the bright spirit of youth will shine through the gloom. Though none of us would wish for a death in the mountains, let alone seek one out, we should accept our fate without regret if it should come, as our “Prädestination”.

Above us, the night sky was clearing. The stars glittered in their countless numbers, as if hinting at the depths of eternity and setting in perspective the significance of a single life or the concept of a person’s existence.

And then it happened: a lone shooting star momentarily unfurled its dazzling tail across the sky, as if imparting a revelation. It was as if the world had been created anew. Suddenly, a friend’s voice broke through the heavy silence, as if some bond had been released. He was smiling as if some fount of happiness had overflowed within him:

“Hey, we’ll all die someday, and the mountains too will pass away.” I have to admit that I may not have recorded these events just as they really happened. Yet everything is set down here as it really was, whether that is the experiences on the mountain that I’ve described, or the fragments of our conversations that I’ve woven in. The only thing is that they may have happened at different times in different places. But, for the purposes of the above account, I’ve represented them here as if they all happened at the same time and place.

Every time we met, we talked about mountains, and from every angle. Sometimes, we’d talk about the practical (“praktisch) side of mountaineering, at other times the discussion would range widely over the metaphysical aspects. As we were young, we’d get really self-important while we talked all kind of things through. That kind of passion may be the true mark of youth. On occasion, our unvarnished fervour or “Leidenschaft” must have seemed rather childish. Or, looking backing on it after a while, there was a terribly jejune seriousness about it all. One might go so far as to admit the atmosphere was somewhat odd. But that was all the same to us. I think that people are always groping their way forward.

Yet I doubt whether today is quite the same as yesterday. So it makes no difference how great the gulf or how long the lapse of time since then. That’s why, with the aim of making this a kind of testament to our times, I’ve pulled together this account of things just as they were, without embellishing or making things up. It could be, then, that some of our thoughts might seem naïve, at least in part. But retailing all that wasn’t my intention in writing; this would have been foolish and mistaken. I will say this, though. What drove me to write this piece was to set down a part of what I could grasp in my hands when I had the power to pursue the true path of mountaineering in my youth. Trivial or strange as it may be, this is why I ventured to add this postcript.


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

The bad news about Ueli Steck came in just as Project Hyakumeizan was completing this translation. There is a moving and thoughtful tribute by Steve House on the Patagonia blog. Every generation or so, alpinists like Steck redefine the limits of the possible in mountaineering. Possibly we’ve progressed less far in dealing with the dark side of alpinism, its “penalties and dangers”. As Steve House observes,

When a major climbing figure like Ueli dies, there is always second-guessing and criticism. In my opinion, Ueli got more than his fair share of criticism. Most of the criticism, I believe, was rooted in human insecurity. People didn’t believe anyone could do what he did; their own personal fears were too overpowering to even allow the possibility of his excellence and achievement. Or they believed the risks he assumed were unjustified …

Over a century ago, Alfred Mummery anticipated such criticism in the last chapter of the book that sums up his alpinistic achievements – My climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, first published in 1895, the year that he disappeared while exploring the Rakhiot Face of Nanga Parbat. 

One generation later, in Taishō Japan, Ōshima Ryōkichi, drew on Mummery’s words to set down his own thoughts on the meaning of alpinism. The article translated above was published in the December 1924 edition of a climbing journal. Less than four years later, Ōshima himself fell to his death, on a spring ascent of the north ridge of Mae-Hodaka. He was just 28 years old.

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