It’s Up to You

Sometime in late May or early July, I received a message from a Mr. Kamiya in the editorial department of Yama-to-Keikoku magazine. Kamiya-san had been my contact when YamaKei (Yama-to-Keikoku’s nickname) published four of my photographs earlier this year in their Mountaineer’s Data Book, an annual supplement that comes with the January issue. Kamiya-san’s message said that YamaKei was planning to hold a discussion forum with foreign mountaineers, the theme being mountain manners and etiquette. I was certainly pleased to be asked and responded that I would be interested in participating. Details would come later.

About a week after our initial dialogue, I received further information which included a list of topics that we’d be asked about. Questions included things like, “What are some aspects of Japanese mountaineering that you find odd?” “How does mountain etiquette in Japan differ from that in your home country?” and “What aspects of Japanese mountaineering etiquette impress you?” In addition to the questions I was told that one of the three people they had originally asked had had to cancel, and as I had previously mentioned that I knew of some other foreign mountaineers of Japan, they asked me to contact them on behalf of the magazine. I sent messages to a Briton in Yamanashi and an American, Wes Lange, in Osaka. Of the two, Wes was free to come up to Tokyo. I was really pleased about that because Wes and I had exchanged comments and messages on the Net but had never actually met. This would be a chance to finally meet a new friend.

Wes and I met up a little before the meeting and took a moment to discuss our answers to the questions, he having given it a lot more serious thought than I had been able to conjure up. The meeting itself went very well, I felt. The third foreigner was a Frenchman named Matthieu Lienart. His command of Japanese was truly remarkable, certainly leagues ahead of mine. I was just grateful that the freelance writer who was recording our words and guiding the discussion was able to understand what I was trying to say. Matthieu is a licensed mountain guide who has worked in both Japan and France, though at the time he was looking for steady employment.

Three weeks after the discussion, I received my complimentary copy of the September issue that included four pages of us. Reading it over, I was able to further appreciate (and understand) some of the points that Matthieu had mentioned. One thing that really intrigued me was the European view of human activity in the mountains. Pointing out that Europeans have a long history of activity in the high mountains (hunting, cutting trees, mining, etc.) versus the fact that in Japan (where there are not the high valleys and plateaus that there are in Europe) religion dictated that the high mountains were the sacred abodes of the gods, Matthieu said that national parks in France are created not only to protect nature but to protect the historical livelihoods of the people who live there. This means that the maintenance of old houses is encouraged and the ways of life which include bringing livestock up to the alpine meadows for grazing in summer continues to be permitted. Matthieu expressed disdain for the stringent rules of the national park systems in North America. According to his perception, these places were not true nature but natural systems managed by human beings. I thought his perspectives were very important to our discussion because they added a third dimension to what was supposed to be just western ideas contrasted with Japanese ones. Now we had European, North American and Japanese views to compare. Had the third person not been a European but instead an Australian or New Zealander, we might not have had the same degree of contrast between the westerners’ viewpoints.

Matthieu’s other beef with the North American way was that there was too much regulation. In his blog (see link below), he wrote further explanation for the points he was making but which had to be edited down due to space constraints in the magazine. (Some of my points were cut too brief as well, I thought, but Matthieu’s arguments are more interesting to consider.) Reading over his post (entirely in Japanese!) I picked up on his point about over regulation. One thing that regulation leads to is user fees, and by chance or by design, the same issue features an article about the possibility of charging for entrance to some mountain areas in Japan. In addition, as Wes pointed out, some parks in the U.S. (and definitely in New Zealand as I have experienced and probably also in Canada) have a checkpoint where hikers must register and respond to questions about appropriate gear. If the warden deems you to be ill-equipped for the hike or climb then you will be denied access. Matthieu argued in the magazine and further on his blog that being properly equipped is a personal thing. He mentions people walking in sneakers on a glacier in France but points out on his blog that these is on the lower region of the glacier where there is no snow and the hard ice is easy to walk on. I have to admit that even though I pointed out at the discussion that Japanese often fail to change their climbing plans in spite of severely adverse weather (and as such there are deaths reported during every holiday period) I agree with Matthieu that each person is responsible for his own level of preparedness.

Let’s start a new paragraph here as I cite a couple of my own examples. One year in October I reached the trailhead leading up to Kasagatake and found that an unexpected blizzard had delivered 40 centimetres of fresh snow to the ridges and summits. A man at the hiker registration office advised me not to go up unless I had crampons with me. He said I could probably make it to Kagamidaira but after that I was advised not to climb higher. I went with a new plan in mind: to reach Kagamidaira and see how things looked from there. The day was warm and the snow was melting. From Kagamidaira I had not trouble reaching the Sugoroku tent site, and I hiked up on hard ice that night to the top of Momonokidake to see Yarigatake in the moonlight. Had the man at the registration office had the authority to deny me access to the trail due to my lack of preparedness for snow, I would have missed out on some beautiful views that led to a few great photographs. In May of 2010 I planned to climb Kita Hotakadake and knowing that there was going to be deep snow I ordered my first real pair of crampons. But the delivery was delayed and I did not receive the crampons in time. I went anyway and figured that I would see how far I could go with ascension snowshoes and small four-point crampons. The snowshoes were good in the early morning when the snow was iced over and the grips on the snowshoes could hold me on the slopes. But as the day warmed up, the slush only had me slipping around. There were so many people were climbing, however, that the deep foot holes made climbing relatively easy and I used the small crampons just for extra grip. When I reached the summit, a man said, “He climbed up in only small crampons!” Why not? I had been able to do it, hadn’t I?

A final note that Matthieu writes about on his blog: someone in the magazine mentions comfortable and safe experiences in the mountains. Matthieu rightly points out that comfortable and safe are not what mountaineering is about. I would add that it is exactly for the reason of moving out of our comfort zones and challenging ourselves in a dangerous environment that we go to climb. Since I have been climbing in Japan as opposed to hiking in Canada, I have learned a lot about myself and my ability to make quick decisions or change plans when necessary, or about challenging myself to get past some difficult section on an icy patch or rocky drop. Perhaps I ventured very near danger when a false move or a little too much applied weight could have had me tumbling down to broken bones or worse. But that I made it without a scratch was thanks my ability to feel the situation and find my way through it. I have learned and grown in the mountains. If mountain visits are meant to be comfortable and safe, says Matthieu, then you have places like Murododaira where the ease of access (trolley bus and cable cars), the abundance of comfortable lodging, and the certain paths that can be traversed in high heels make the place look like a “mountain-themed Disneyland”. His comments brought to mind remarks made by the late great climber/photographer/journalist Galen Rowel, who listed the Tateyama area and the Japan Alps in general as a Zone 1 (second worst out of ten zones) for wilderness experience, in a piece he once wrote for Outdoor Photography. Indeed, I firmly believe that the over-development around Yarigatake was the reason for the continuous chain of hikers waiting to climb up to the summit during my visit in 2007, and I brought this up at the meeting.

Perhaps Matthieu and I are not so far off in our ideas about the mountain experience. In a post-discussion message I sent to the writer, I mentioned that in Canada there are no mountains (that I know of) with lodging constructed near the summit. Minimal damage to the natural environment is encouraged, especially in national parks. This regulation of human activity is Matthieu’s number one gripe, but on the other hand, it prevents Murododaira’s from appearing in Canadian mountains. Furthermore, outside of the national parks there are plenty of wilderness provincial parks with no facilities whatsoever and also other places that are not even designated as anything other than wilderness. In these places, hikers are free to roam wherever they wish. Etiquette is left up to the individual, as is preparedness. In such places, wilderness is all there is to see. Only cairns mark the way sometimes. Here no one will tell you what you can and can’t do, and there are no hotels or huts with sleeping mats and duvets, or hot food and cold beer. Perhaps the paradox to proper wilderness management is to simply leave it alone and let the few hikers who are willing to venture into the true wild follow their own common sense. Overuse brings about environmental degradation. If the Japan Alps had no huts above the 1,500 metre mark, how much more pristine and lonely would the mountains be?

For further reading about the details of the discussion, please check out Wes’s post here.
And for Matthieu’s Japanese post explaining his views in more detail, read it here.

Look closely. Can you see all the people climbing up to the summit of Yarigatake? Talk about a popular peak!

The morning before I was warned that 40 cm of snow had fallen and without crampons I would not be able to climb up to the ridges and peaks. I went anyway and 24 hours later this is all that remained of the snow. Washibadake is the central peak.

My face and bio. Matthieu Lienart’s quote. Yama-to-Keikoku magazine, pages 40-43, September 2012 issue.

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3 responses to “It’s Up to You

  1. In Canada, and probably in the US, volunteers put their lives in danger to rescue ill-prepared hikers. Personal risk is one thing but when your loved ones call because you haven’t returned as planned, other lives are put in danger.

  2. Hi Shona. Yes, when in Canada I often thought how foolish those people were who crossed the safety boundary and ventured into dangerous territory and got lost or fell into a ravine. Then there were those three experienced climbers on Mount Hood a few years ago who decided to leave some gear behind so they could beat a winter storm to the summit and instead they perished in the storm exactly because they lacked the gear they had left behind.

    Most of the news stories about lost hikers in Japan are about people who didn’t change their plans when foul weather came in but decided to go anyway. The mountain rescue teams sure have their work cut out for them. But the French guide pointed out that there are plenty of people who are better prepared with gear and decision-making skills who don’t want to be told they can’t go just because the average Joe might get lost. It’s a difficult line to draw.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Pingback: A Day at Harunasan | Tsubakuro’s Blog

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