11 The Sharp End

Posted on: January 14, 2013

[Map] Carta Marina, Martin Waldseemoeller, 1516; Courtesy Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

The silver peak rose above a dark pine forest like the tip of a half-moon. Quick with desire, the Reverend Walter Weston leapt up the riverbed from stone to stone, amid a blaze of rushing water. It was August 1892: the British missionary's second attempt to climb Mt. Yarigatake in the Hida Mountains of Japan. As usual, Weston hired local guides. Past tree line, the light fell undimmed over broken rocks, bright grasses and rays of snow. Holds formed, as if by magic, up a pinnacle of gnarled, palegrey slabs. He stepped, at last, onto the narrow summit. "Yarigatake is ours," he later wrote, "and save for Fuji the peerless, we stand on the loftiest point of the whole surface of this mountain empire."

Beneath his feet, the country unfolded like a giant map. The faint plume of a volcano hovered in the distance. The blue fringe of the ocean flashed. One by one, he traced the dense, meandering lines of peaks and gazed into the green shadows of wild ravines. Mountaineers had already climbed many of the great summits of the European Alps. Here, there was still so much that seemed unexplored. Two years later, his guides led him through a tangled wood of deep moss and rotting trees, over snowfields and water-burnished stone to the top of Mt. Kasagatake. There, Weston noted: "We found a tiny cairn, erected by the hunters on some former visit.... Excepting themselves—or some of their comrades— [the guides] told us we were the first climbers, European or Japanese to set foot on the top."


In 1896 Weston published Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, describing "almost the least known, though in many respects, the most interesting regions of Japan." The Hida Mountains were, indeed, mostly "uncharted," in a certain sense. On the few available maps, the ridgelines were inaccurately drawn. No detailed guidebooks existed (Karen Wigen, Journal of Japanese Studies 31:1). But, as the Slovenian alpinist Marko Prezelj points out, "uncharted does not equal unknown."

In this same range, local people had hunted bears and held religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Since the seventh century, mountaineering priests (known as yamabushi) had guided pilgrims up summits and dangled from rock walls in search of visions. A village temple conserved the handwritten account by the monk Banryu (1786-1840) of his route up Kasagatake. As he clambered over "crags and pinnacles so precipitous that words could not describe them," he left behind small Buddhist statues to mark the way for others. On the tops of both Kasagatake and Yarigatake, he beheld the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light emerge from a rainbow of mist. It was his cairn that Weston had seen. (See Scott Schnell's "Believing Is Seeing," Nature, Science, and Religion, ed. Catherine Tucker, 2012.)

Nonetheless, to many of Weston's readers, the British missionary's adventures were the first "historically significant" ascents of those peaks. At the time, most European audiences considered ranges to be "unknown" until they appeared in Western books, articles and maps. Local topographic knowledge seemed to flicker in and out of exploration literature, like cloud shadows too unsubstantial or fanciful to reflect a measurable earth. In 1905 Weston cofounded the Japanese Alpine Club. Today, he is remembered as one of the originators of "modern Japanese mountaineering." His sculpture is embedded in a rock in Kamikochi. A "Weston Festival" takes place each June. Only in recent years have villagers begun to look for the traces of Banryu's climb, finding a few of the original markers lost amid the cliffs, the moss and trees.

October 1879, Alaska: John Muir traveled north in a red-cedar canoe. A cold rain pelted him and his companions: the American missionary Samuel Hall Young and the Tlingit guides Toyatte, Kadachan, John, and Sitka Charley. As Muir recounted in his Travels in Alaska, they were headed into "then-uncharted" waters, "in search of the wonderful 'ice mountains' that Sitka Charley had been telling us about." Waves crested like shards of green glass. They camped on a shore of polished rocks and petrified wood. In the morning, Muir climbed 1,500 feet up a ridge. The mist lifted: icefields shone in livid blue. "This was my first general view of Glacier Bay," he recalled, "a solitude of ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious."

To the Tlingit, the land was thick with spirits. Before the Little Ice Age, a native settlement existed in a nearby cove called L'eiwshashakee Aan ("town on the glacial sand cutbanks"). Legends told of a young girl who called to an icefield, mockingly, as if it were a dog. The glacier rose in anger, swelling the earth beneath it, and pushing the clan house out to sea (Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen?, 2005). Stars, rocks, ice and mountains formed part of a known, living and sentient world. As the travelers sat by the campfire one night, a howl resounded across dark waters. Muir's guides said they'd been taught that wolves had souls.

In the 1890s, Muir turned in several Glacier Bay stories to Century Magazine. His editor crossed out much of the Tlingit lore, dismissing it as "extraneous matter." With the dimming of prior histories, Muir's role crystallized as the "discoverer" of Glacier Bay. Swept along by the arc of his heroic journey, more people strove for the protection of such wild places (Ronald H. Limbaugh, John Muir's "Stickeen" and the Lessons of Nature, 1996). Not long before, the US Census had declared the end of the American Frontier. Soon thousands of readers traveled to Glacier Bay in search of a realm that still seemed, as Muir described it, "trackless" and "unspeakably pure." Gradually, the area became a national park. But the native people lost their hunting and fishing rights. In their fantasies of The Last Frontier, many visitors envisioned only Muir's cathedrals of ice: grand, luminous and, seemingly, forever empty.

Amid the familiar jargon of modern climbing stories, it's easy to forget a time when "frontiers" didn't just refer to "the limits of the possible," but to specific political and military boundaries. Yet during the Age of Imperialism, mountaineers often served, consciously or unconsciously, as the cartographers of empires, accumulating knowledge that facilitated the extraction of resources, the spread of influence or the seizure of land. As the colonial era faded, its legacy remained in an invisible fortress of dominant metaphors and narrative styles. In the 1970s, Ove Skjerven lamented:

Terms like 'discover,' 'explore,' and 'conquer,' are to be found on every second page of Himalayan expedition writing. Driven by a desire for fame, and backed by sports equipment factories and biscuit companies, courageous climbers supported by armies of porters have penetrated jungles and 'discovered' valleys where people have lived for hundreds of years. They have climbed the most sacred mountains and left all sorts of litter and junk...(The Himalayan Journal 1974-1975).

In 1971 Skjerven joined a Norwegian "anti-expedition" to Gauri Shankar (7134m), with Arne Naess and Nils Faarlund. Some 900 meters below the summit, they turned back, honoring Nepalese villagers' requests to leave the holy peak unclimbed. Skjerven's Himalayan Journal account became a manifesto against the "imperial attitude" in mountaineering. He protested the tendency to disregard local traditions, to attack mountains with warlike sieges and to exploit alpine environments for "prestige and money." As an alternative, Faarlund proposed the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv ("free-air-life"): a way of approaching climbing not as recreation, commodity or sport, but as a philosophical and sensory art, a joyful means of communicating and identifying with "free Nature" (Wisdom in the Open Air, ed. Peter Reed and David Rothenberg, 1993). Naess argued that once you envision the entirety of a mountain, including all its symbols and myths, you realize that any "conquest" is merely a mirage (Mountain 11).

Surrounded by the chaos of my growing library, I've come to see mountaineering history not as a linear arc, but as a kind of chambered nautilus: expanding and evolving with each ascent, spiraling through similar patterns. Every moment seems distinct, yet also part of a larger whole. Throughout the ages, stories of domination or harmony appear again and again, sometimes in stark contrast to each other, other times twisting together into irreducibly complex designs.

Each of the tales I've just retold, with minor changes, could take place now. Visiting alpinists still claim "first ascents" of locally climbed peaks. Western media still mostly concentrates on the feats of famous European and North American climbers, as if only those familiar-sounding names are discernibly "significant" and real. The Internet, with its possibilities of mass-dissemination and its illusion of totality, often obscures print journal accounts, just as mountaineering books and articles subsumed handwritten manuscripts and indigenous lore. Older histories still get erased, sometimes dramatically, like the ancient pictograph on a Hueco boulder, smeared with a thick comet tail of climbing chalk. Many video clips, photos and blogs focus purely on athletic performances, detached from any sense of place. Popular crags begin to look like outdoor gyms, the ground beneath them trampled until it seems like a vacant, polished floor.

And yet, some great climbers like Marko Prezelj still wander the hills on private, mystic quests, telling few stories and leaving almost no trace. They seek to engage with the whole terrain, "history, cultures, people...emotions... personality and experience." They choose, at times, to turn around. "Maybe the question is not the tiresome why [do we climb]," Kelly Cordes says, "but what do we seek?" As the climbing population increases, our answers acquire more weight. For too many decades, we've imprisoned our minds in outdated cliches of imperialism. It's long since time for more unbounded, more creative, freer forms. We need to take more risks with our writing, to allow more uncertainty (as we do in our climbs), to seek out more diverse forms and voices that might reflect the infinite variety of individual dreams and that might still foster (what Jason Keith calls) "a constituency of people who are passionate about wild places and who can learn to care about their specific landscapes."

Rather than only chasing after blanks, we need a few more maps of the fragile terra cognita of our vertical world, preserving some of the endless layers of what might yet be deeply imagined and partly known. For when you begin to look more closely, as Prezelj says, you realize that the routeline itself is only a small fraction of all that is happening: "Everything is in interaction during every experience in the mountains and this unpredictable mixture is the real beauty of it."

In The Playground of the Far East (1918), Weston insisted that the yamabushi Kobo-Daishi (774-835), credited with many early climbs, was not, in fact, a "mountaineer":

He felt the true inwardness [of Buddhism]... could not be properly apprehended from the written word. He therefore sought for full enlightenment through meditation in the solitudes of the mountain regions.... It is rather as a worshipper among the mountains than as a devotee of mountaineering itself that the famous sage is to be regarded. Whatever his actual ascents may have been, they were only incidental to a loftier purpose, a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

Even today, to many people, the notion of ascent as a form of meditation—rather than as a conquest of peaks or numbers—may seem unrecognizable as "climbing." Yet it is that "loftier purpose" that holds out the promise of something more valuable than any summit: the fading of all boundaries between our selves and an immeasurable, radiant world.

[With research assistance from Scott Schnell, Harry Vanderlist, Marko Prezelj, Kelly Cordes, Brady Robinson, Jason Keith, Ed Hartouni, John Hessler, Jeff Apple Benowitz, Jeremy Frimer, Sarah Martin-Ontiveros, Sarah Ives —Ed.]

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