Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Reading Mt Fuji (2)

Review continued: revisiting the dancing maidens in a Mt Fuji anthology

Browsing through Chuo University’s new anthology of classical writing on Mt Fuji – as reviewed in the previous post – Project Hyakumeizan was delighted to find a translation of the Heian-era Record of Mt Fuji (Fujisanki). Indeed, this is probably the first full translation of the Record directly from the classical Japanese.

The dancing maidens of Mt Fuji: a modern rendition
Source: http://toki.moo.jp/gaten/gatten/401-450/gate448/gate448.html
It was in this essay that the scholar and statesman Miyako no Yoshika (834-879) gave the first-ever detailed description of Mt Fuji’s crater – suggesting that, by this time, somebody had actually climbed the mountain. Or at least had sent a drone up there to take a look.

Part of this essay’s charm is that it promiscuously mixes the natural and what we would call the supernatural. On the one hand, there are details that any Fuji climber will recognise: “The mountain is covered in white sand, which easily crumbles, making it nigh impossible for those wishing to ascend its peak to get beyond the base of this mountain.”

On the other hand, we read of a mysterious jewel tumbling down its slopes. And of the festival day in the eleventh month of the seventeenth year of Jōgan (875) when, from Mt Fuji’s foot ,“two comely maidens dressed all in white could be seen dancing side by side on its very peak”.

Miyako no Yoshika’s account obviously made an impression on those who came after him. In the same anthology is an excerpt from a diary of a Journey to the Eastern Lands (Tōkan Kikō), completed around 1242. The anonymous fifty-year old traveller gazes up at Mt Fuji from the Bay of Tago and notices that its peak stands out blue against the heavens.

Then he recalls the legend of the maidens dancing on the summit and composes a deft tanka:

Those white clouds drifting in the wind
Over the peak of Mount Fuji
Look like the sleeves of some heavenly maiden.

Alas, we modern mountaineers are too literal-minded. All we see when we look up at the summit are plumes of spindrift blown out by that fearsome Mt Fuji wind. But a browse through this anthology can fix that, by reminding us how the mountain was seen in past centuries.

The Bay of Tago, according to a note under the diary quoted above, corresponds to the southern parts of modern-day Fuji City. I wonder if anybody has ever seen the dancing maidens from there.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Reading Mt Fuji

Review: a new collection of classical writing about Japan’s top mountain.

“Reading works of literature dealing with Mt Fuji is thus essential for understanding the Japanese spirit.” Prefacing a new anthology about Japan’s top mountain, this statement strikes one as remarkably bold. Yet the claim might almost be justified, so compelling is the collection of classical poetry and prose that it introduces.

The Literature of Mt Fuji: Japanese Classical Literature is published by Chuo University. Owing to the generosity of the university and whichever government agency sponsored it, the text can be downloaded for free.

An especially big hand here for Columbia University’s Kristopher Lee Reeves and Ngo Vu Nhat Phuong, who did the fairly direct yet fluent English translations. These are presented with the original Japanese texts on facing pages. Thanks, guys!

The collection consists of poems and prose about Mt Fuji from the eighth-century Man’yōshū through to the seventeenth-century haiku poet, Bashō. Selections are arranged chronologically, within three thematic chapters. This helps readers to trace out the ways in which later writers echo and develop the thoughts of their predecessors.

For instance, here is Monk Saigyō’s famous waka, composed while travelling on a pilgrimage to the eastern provinces in about 1186:

風になびく富士の煙の空にきえてゆくへも知らぬわが思ひかな

kaze ni nabiku / fuji no keburi no / sora ni kiete / yukue mo shiranu / waga omoi kana

Just as smoke drifts on the winds over Mount Fuji
Only to vanish – whither no one knows –
So, too, does my soul wander on

A century later, the widowed Lady Nijō alludes to the same poem when she ponders the vanity of life:

How futile that that all these thoughts should be piled onto one like me who must vanish without a trace. Now, when the smoke atop Mt Fuji can no longer be seen, I wonder what – if anything – could be blown by the wind.

Saigyo contemplating Mt Fuji, painting by Hara Zaizen, c.18

The tone is not everywhere so elevated. We have Saikaku (1642-1693) dissing a potential playmate because she takes an upturned bowl for a model of Mt Fuji. There is inept mensuration – “If I were to compare this with the mountains we have in the capital, I would say it is as large as twenty Mount Hiei’s piled atop one another, while its shape is something like one of those little mounds made for drying salt” (Ise Monogatari).

And there is the most shameless flattery, straight from some medieval politburo: “So brilliantly shimmered the peak! One could not help but think the God of Mount Fuji had come to wait upon the majestic presence of our lord, the Shogun” (Procession to Mt Fuji). Indeed, what’s striking about this anthology is the sheer medley of different voices. On this evidence, the Japanese spirit must be uproariously diverse.

Or, as the Hyakumeizan author put it, “Mt Fuji is there for everyone…” You could say the same about this anthology. As the introduction explains, the bilingual presentation was intended “to assist the teaching of works of classical Japanese literature in English”. But the ample and informative notes (again, thanks!) will help both literary scholars and general readers.

For meizanologists, this volume comes along like a proverbial London bus – you wait and wait, and then three roll up together. For years, it seemed, Mt Fuji lacked any English-language write-ups other than a hiking guidebook and some photo collections.

Then, all of a sudden, as if catalysed by the volcano’s accession to world heritage status, along came H Byron Earhart’s magisterial Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan and the Shizuoka-Yamanashi Joint Council’s Mt Fuji: The Wellspring of our Faith and Arts, complete with a foreword by former prime minister, Nakasone Yasuhiro.

And now, as if to complete a triple whammy, here comes this excellent literary anthology. By the way, Chuo University, how about following up with a second collection, to sample the Mt Fuji literature from the eighteenth century to the present? That too would be well worth waiting for.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Tripling the hundred mountain challenge

Korea and Taiwan too have honour rolls of their favourite one hundred summits.

If any yama-holic is reading this, perhaps sit down and pour yourself a stiff drink. Climbing the one hundred mountains of Japan is challenge enough, especially if you go about it by fair means. But what if you then set out to scale the hundred mountains of Korea? And, after that, the matching set in Taiwan?

Winter landscape (detail) by Sesshu
Turns out that mountain lists have been proliferating all over northeast Asia. Korea’s one hundred mountains were compiled in 2002 by the country’s Forest Service, a government agency, presumably to promote tourism. But a hiking organisation and a mountain goods company have put together other lists.

Understandably, the mountains in the official Korean list are all in South Korea. And most appear to be of modest stature. That can't be helped. For the sad fact is that all of the Korean mountains that top out above 2,000 metres – about one hundred of them – stand in the northern half of the peninsula.

The noises emanating from Panmunjon this week were encouraging. If they lead to an outbreak of peace, it might one day be possible to compile and climb a unified one hundred mountains of the Korean peninsula. Until then, however, the highest one, Mt Paektu, will be bestridden by the Supreme Leader alone.

While waiting for North Korea to open up, yama-holics would do well to consider the one hundred mountains of Taiwan. This list, like Japan’s Hyakumeizan, is completely unofficial. It was put together in the 1970s by a group of prominent Taiwanese mountaineers.

Known as the Baiyue (百嶽), the one hundred peaks are selected from among Taiwan’s roster of 260 peaks that top 3,000 metres. Actually, two of them turned out after a re-survey, to come in slightly under that height, but they kept their place in the list on the merit of their other qualities.

That’s an important point: the Baiyue are by no means all among the highest hundred mountains in Taiwan. Instead, they excel for their aesthetic qualities, including uniqueness, danger, beauty and prominence. This too makes them kith and kin to the Nihon Hyakumeizan, as curated in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a repurposed novelist.

The Hyakumeizan author, Fukada Kyūya, chose his mountains for their character, history and "extraordinary distinctiveness". And he would include a mountain only if he had climbed it himself. Height was a secondary consideration; ideally, a "Meizan" should top 1,500 metres, but two in the list - Tsukuba and Kaimon – do not.

The Nihon Hyakumeizan originated as a magazine series commissioned by Ohmori Hisao, then a young editor and today a doyen of Japan’s mountain literary scene. Later, the articles were collected into a book. Only then did the notion of actually climbing all these mountains take hold with the mountaineering public.

In Korea and Taiwan, things happened the other way round. The lists arrived first, and it may be that the definitive books about their one hundred mountains have yet to be written. But that’s OK too. As Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

You know, the same might be said for the idea of actually climbing them all. Yama-holics, remember you read it here first ...

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Images and ink (38)


Image: Mountain birch grove on Yake-dake, photo by Alpine Light & Structure

Ink: From the poem "Mountain woods" by Takamura Kōtarō, translated by Hiroaki Sato:

The framework of Japan, not any other country,
 exists sternly in mountain woods. 
Our country's reason for being in the world
must be based on this framework. 
Maple branches are burning in the hearth. 
Today I talked with a charcoal burner about dairy farming. 
May rain falls ceaselessly, 
in the quiet village which has finished rice-planting 
cuckoos are making chordal dots. 
The past is remote, and so is the future.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Brief idyll

How a visit to Kamikōchi, with some help from Mr and Mrs Weston, brought together two Taishō-era artists

Takamura Kotaro and Chieko
Readers of Nihon Hyakumeizan encounter the sculptor Takamura Kōtarō and his wife Chieko in Chapter 21. A poem by Takamura portrays the artist couple sitting on the slopes of Adatara-yama, a 1,700-metre mountain in Fukushima Prefecture. There’s hardly a hint in the Hyakumeizan chapter of the sad trajectory of Chieko’s life, which Takamura would later immortalise in a series of poems.

It turns out that mountains had earlier helped to bring Takamura and Chieko together. The story of their visit to Kamikōchi in the Japan Alps is described in a prose memoir of Chieko’s life that Takamura wrote two years after his bereavement. While staying in that mountain valley, the couple met several luminaries of Japan’s mountaineering and artistic scene, as Takamura records...

It was Chieko's pure, single-minded love that finally pulled me out of my go-for-broke mood of decadence and saved me. For the two months of August and September in the second year of Taishō, I stayed at the Shimizu-ya in Kamikōchi, Shinshu, and made fifty to sixty oil paintings for the Seikatsusha's exhibition that I held with Kishida Ryusei, Kimura Sohachi, and others at the Venus Club in Kanda that fall.

In those days, anybody who wanted to go to Kamikōchi used to start from Shimajima, go through Iwanadome, and over the Tokugō Pass; it was quite a distance. During that summer, staying in the same inn were Kubota Utsubo and Ibaragi Inokichi, as well as Mr and Mrs Weston who had just come to climb Hodaka.


View of Kamikochi, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
As September began, Chieko came to visit me with painting materials. When notified of this, I went over the Tokugō Pass to meet her at Iwanadome. Leaving her luggage to her guide, she had climbed lightly dressed. The mountain people were surprised at what a good walker she was. I guided her, again crossing the Tokugō Pass, this time with her, to Shimizu-ya.

Her joy at the scenery in Kamikōchi was great. From then on we walked around, making drawings, with me carrying our art supplies on my shoulders. At the time she appeared to have some minor problem with her pleurae, but while on the mountains it didn't develop into anything serious. It was then that I saw her paintings for the first time. She had a considerably subjective view of nature that was in a way unique, and I thought that it would be interesting if she grew to be great.


Kamikochi was used as a pasture for horses and cattle from 1885 to 1934.

I painted everything I observed: Hodaka, Myōjin, Yaketake, Kasumizawa, Roppyakutake, the Azusa River. Even in her sickbed in later years Chieko would look at one of the self-portraits I did at the time. Once the Westons asked me if Chieko was my younger sister or my wife. When I said she was a friend of mine, they smiled with some incredulity.


Bridge over the Azusa River
If the Westons and the Takamuras had sought to change the subject, they might have talked about the bulls. In those days, cattle and horses were grazed at Kamikōchi over the summer. In The Playground of the Far East, Walter Weston describes how he and Mrs Weston met a "fierce monster" during their evening walk, which they escaped only by dashing for cover in different directions. Something similar happened to the Takamuras. The incident is recorded in one of the Chieko poems:

Ah, you are so frightened because
You saw what just passed
Like a spectre,
thundering through those black pines,
an avalanche in this zone of deep silence,
now completely gone,
that cattle herd on a mad run....

Soon, unfortunately, the couple had more to worry about than stampeding cows. Kōtarō takes up the story again:

About that time, with the headline "Love on the Mountain", a newspaper in Tokyo wrote with exaggeration about the two of us in Kamikōchi. It had probably expanded on a rumor from someone who had gone down the mountain. The article again grated on the nerves of our families.


Autumn scene in Kamikochi

On the first of October all of us on the mountain went down to Shimajima. The magnificence of the yellow leaves of the katsura trees that filled the bosom of the mountain at the Tokugō Pass was unforgettable. Chieko, too, often recalled it and talked about it.

The newspaper article worried Takamura’s parents, with the result that, a year later, he asked them to let him marry Chieko. This they did, allowing the couple to set up a household in Takamura's atelier. And after that, he records, "for a very long stretch of time we lived in poverty".

References

A brief history of imbecility: poetry and prose of Takamura Kōtarō, translated by Hiroaki Sato, University of Hawaii Press. All quotations in italics are translations by Hiroaki Sato.

Photos of the bridge and the horses grazing at Kamikochi are by courtesy of the Chubu Regional Forestry Office.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mrs Main, mountain photographer

How a hard-driving Victorian alpinist advanced the art of high-altitude camera-work

Up on Piz Palü, the triple-headed ridge that towers 3,901 metres into the sky above Switzerland’s Engadine valley, a slight figure is seen wrestling with an unwieldy camera. In the early 1890s, all cameras are unwieldy. A long exposure will be needed for the “slow plate” to record a distant view of Piz Verona, as glimpsed against a backdrop of boiling afternoon clouds. Surprisingly, and against all convention, the lens is aimed directly towards the sun…

Piz Palu seen from Pizzo Bianco

Against all convention! When Elizabeth Burnaby first went up an alp, at the age of twenty, this was the thought that transfixed her great aunt: “Stop her climbing mountains,” screeched the aged relative, “She is scandalizing all London and looks like a Red Indian.”

Mrs Main (formerly Mrs Burnaby) in Norway
In the end, all Lady Bentinck’s worst fears came to pass. In recent years, her niece has been canonised as a pioneer of women’s climbing. Yet this may be to short-weight her. In truth, Mrs Burnaby pushed the limits of what was then possible – for men as much as for women. And, as we will see, she pursued her mountain photography in much the same way.

Ironically, Mrs Burnaby discovered the Alps only because she’d cleaved to the letter of the social code. As sole heiress to a family fortune, she’d married at the age of seventeen, in 1879, and duly borne her much older husband a son in the very next year. Fulfilling these duties may have taxed her. Soon afterwards, her doctors sent her to recuperate at an alpine resort.

While at Chamonix, she made a guided excursion on Mt Blanc. That was the start of her mountaineering. It was also the first time that she’d ever had to pull on her own boots: until then, maids had always done that for her.

Around the same time, probably in 1881, she learned how to use a camera. Her mentor was Joseph Tairraz (1827-1902), who founded a dynasty of mountain photographers. This was just twenty years after Louis-Auguste Bisson had exposed the first glass plate ever to be carried up onto the summit of Mt Blanc.

Ascent of La Sours in winter

In both alpinism and photography, Mrs Burnaby pursued the steepest of learning curves. In 1882, with guides, she made three first ascents, all in winter. By 1883, no guide was needed when she led a beginner – a gentleman, we presume – up the Col du Tour (3,281 metres). In the same year, she published her first mountain book, The High Alps in Winter; or, Mountaineering in search of health, illustrated with her own photos. And this was just the beginning of a remarkable alpine career.

Descent from Piz Bernina

From 1885, she sojourned most of the year at in the Swiss resort of St Moritz. The following year she re-married, following the death of  her first husband. Becoming Mrs Main did not slow her mountain activities. On the contrary. Sallying out from a first-class hotel and employing the region’s top guides, she made a string of first winter ascents in the region, including the first out-of-season traverse of Piz Palü.

Later, when the Alps got too crowded, she explored the mountains of northern Norway, notching up yet more first ascents. Thus, she was an obvious choice for president when a Ladies Alpine Club was founded in London in 1907 – the original Alpine Club wouldn’t let the ladies in until the 1970s. And she was re-elected to that post a second time in 1932, shortly before her death.

As you’d expect from somebody capable of climbing and descending 2,200 vertical metres all in a single winter day – this was on an Italian peak called the Disgrazia – Elizabeth Main took the same hard-driving approach to her photography. By 1895, she felt confident enough to publish Hints on Snow Photography.


The title is a bit of a sandbag. The slim brochure – running to just 14 illustrations – is really the world’s first manual on the challenges of alpine image-making. Mrs Main cuts to the chase in the section on “Above the snowline”, which starts with what might now be called a “humblebrag”:

Many climbers now-a-days carry a camera during their expeditions, and some have reached a high level of artistic feeling and technical skill in their work. My own mountain photographs are so far excelled by those of Signor Vittoria (sic) Sella, the late Mr. W. F. Donkin, and others, that I hardly feel I have a right to give advice. Still, I can perhaps help to smooth the path of Alpine photography for a beginner, so I reproduce a few examples of my work, with such comments as occur to me.

Odd that she let his name be misspelled. For she knew Vittorio Sella (1859–1943) personally. They’d joined forces at Zermatt back in 1883, when both were vying to make the first winter ascent of Monte Rosa, Switzerland’s highest peak. In the end, Arctic conditions turned them back at 4,200 metres, freezing the champagne and very nearly Mrs Burnaby’s nose too.

To invite comparison with Sella, even via a modest disclaimer, was to align herself with the top professionals of the age. In Wikipedia’s words, Sella was an Italian alpinist who took some of the finest mountain photographs ever made. The exacting detail and rich, silvery tones of his images were captured on glass plates measuring no less than 30 centimetres by 40 centimetres. As artworks, the resulting images are monumental in both scale and subject.

"Where none had yet ventured with a camera..."
The breche on Piz Bernina, seen from Pizzo Bianco

Not that Mrs Main had any intention of following in Sella's bootprints. For a start, his type of kit was too heavy. In keeping with her light and fast climbing style, she wanted to take pictures where none had yet ventured with a camera. So she looked to the latest technology for weight savings. In effect, her Hints on Snow Photography are a manual for the late-Victorian lightweight alpine photographer.

Crevasses on the Sella Pass
Take the “slow plate” she used for that contrejour portrayal of Piz Verona. Consisting of a gelatin-based emulsion on a paper backing, such products had only been available for a few years when Mrs Main slotted one into her camera on Piz Palü. This particular plate was made by the London-based duo of Wratten and Wainwright, who launched the first examples in the late 1870s. She doesn’t record, though, whether or not the plate was exposed in her beloved Shew Xit, a folding camera named after a character in a forgotten historical novel.

Plate captain: the Shew Xit camera

Film was an even more revolutionary medium. Although the first celluloid-based rolls didn’t appear until just a few years before Mrs Main published her Hints, one of the manual’s illustrations was taken on Fitch’s film “developed with Eikonogen”. Alas, Fitch’s film was too slow “for so-called instantaneous work”, such as pictures of skating, curling, tobogganing and “lawn tennis in winter”. These required faster Lumière plates, which could be obtained “in all sizes, both English and foreign, direct from the makers at Lyons”.

Top of the Cresta Run

Lumière versus Wratten, plates versus film; very probably, such debates raged among Victorian photographers much as they do among modern gearheads. But these eructations are a guy thing. In her Hints, Mrs Main concerns herself only with the skills and tools that get the job done. Lenses sometimes get a mention, but the differences between various camera marques are beneath her notice. As a result, most of her advice has aged well:

The following rules apply to the reproduction of snow-covered landscapes, whether in winter or above the snow line in summer, as distinct from photographs of moving objects on snow. Slow plates or films give the best and most certain results. The smaller the stop, the finer the detail. Fineness of detail is essential, as otherwise snow becomes monotonous owing to the uniformity of its colour. Expose for the high lights, rather than for the shadows.

View from Piz Corvatsch

Of course, once you get beyond these basics, photography becomes a question of interpretation. Here too Mrs Main has opinions. In her Hints, she notes that critics lambasted one of her photographs, a view over the snow-covered roofs of St Moritz, “as hard and unpleasing”, advising her “to focus, expose, and develope (sic) such subjects with the object of getting greater softness.” But that would not be her style:-

I admit that softness and those atmospheric conditions which veil a too harsh outline and vary a too uniform colouring are of great beauty, but I prefer to get them by choosing a subject in which they are present, rather than by introducing them where they do not exist, and would not be appropriate. One of the features of the scenery of the heights of Switzerland in winter is its extraordinary clearness of atmosphere, and the consequent hardness of its outlines and the deep blue of the sky. A dark blue sky, dazzlingly white snow, and well-marked shadows are what we are accustomed to in the Engadine in winter. So when photographing such scenes on such a day, I try to be truthful, and if the result is, as I think it ought to be, a dark sky, a glitteringly white outline against it, and here and there an inky shadow, say, if you will, that it is not picturesque, but do not blame me for refusing to mix the characteristics of a thunderstorm on the Italian lakes with the peculiar transparency of a winter's morning in the Alps.


As an artistic manifesto, this is a remarkably modern view of photography. It anticipates, by more than a generation, Group f64’s razor-sharp counterblast against the “fuzzy-wuzzy” pictorialists. She practised what she preached. In a photograph of the Morteratsch glacier, wishing “to get a great deal of detail in the foreground and the background being of little importance…” she gave an exposure of four seconds on another of Wratten and Wainwright’s slow plates.

On the Morteratsch Glacier

Yet the enduring lesson that Mrs Main draws from this picture goes beyond the gear: “It is always well,” she urges, “before taking such a picture, to have a clear idea in your mind as to what you want … Have what you want impressed distinctly on your brain, and you give yourself the best chance of having it reproduced on your plate.”

Have what you want impressed distinctly on your brain: such a nostrum might apply more widely than in photography. And, in her case, it did. When Mr Main didn’t work out – he died in obscure circumstances in America – she married Aubrey Le Blond, nine years her junior, and later travelled with him through China, Russia, Korea, Turkey and Japan in those last years before the first world war. This seems to have been a more equal and amicable match than her previous ones.

By this time, her mountain career was winding down. But she kept experimenting with new photographic techniques, even making short film clips around the turn of the century. She always travelled with her camera too, using her own photos, as before, to illustrate a book on Italian gardens.

View from St Moritz

Indeed, she’d always been more than a mountain photographer. In her Swiss days, she had documented lakes, woods and street scenes, as well as mountains. Passing visitors too were immortalised, Arthur Conan Doyle and Giovanni Segantini among them.

Tiefencastel

Especially poignant, to anyone who knows the place now, is the sight of cows roaming the streets of Tiefencastel. Taken together, Mrs Main’s images freeze-frame the belle epoque, in its sunniest years. There is no hint at the menace that, just a decade or so later, would overshadow that world. Perhaps that’s why her photography is all but forgotten now.

References

Elizabeth Main, Hints on Snow Photography, London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1895

Daniel Anker, Ursula Bauer, Markus Britschgi, Cordula Seger, Elizabeth Main: Alpinistin - Fotografin – Schriftstellerin, Eine englische Lady entdeckt die Engadiner Alpen (all photos by Mrs Main are from this book)

Rebecca Brown, Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering

Monday, March 19, 2018

In search of real winter

While applauding this year's great snows, we wonder what the price might be

In the last days of February, our “Geezer’s ski-tour” started in Davos. Of course, we’re not really geezers – well, not yet – just friends who’ve met up almost every year over the last two decades for an annual ski-mountaineering trip. Although, we have to admit, over that timespan, the packs have kept getting heavier and the mountains higher.

On the way up to the Swiss Alpine Club's Grialetsch Hut

No complaints about the weather, though. We stepped into our bindings right at the bus-stop. In most recent years, you’d have had to carry your skis for kilometres before reaching the snowline. At last, we’d reverted to a real winter, or so it seemed.

Adequate snowcover in the Dischma Valley

By coincidence, Davos is the Swiss alpine resort that hosts the World Economic Forum. This year’s iteration must have been a gift for would-be deniers of client change. In late January, when the WEF met, the walls of snow hemming in the streets rose higher than anybody could remember. Comparisons were made with the record winter of 1999, when giant avalanches roared down all over the Swiss Alps.

Snowdepth indicator in the Dischma Valley

Up in the real mountains, the facts looked a bit alternative. True, the snowdrifts lay deep early in the New Year, when the Sensei and I snowshoed up a minor eminence near Zurich. But rain and meltwater had furrowed the snow with rills and gutters, a sight that you’d normally not see until late spring. And, at the month’s end, Swiss Meteo confirmed that, overall, this had been the country’s warmest January since records began, in 1864. So far, then, this winter was a fake.

Rain channels in the snowpack, Furggelenstock, January

Fortunately, no rills or gutters obstructed the Geezer’s ski-tour. We headed south into the Dischmatal valley, where snowdrifts lapped the alphuts up to their eaves, just like the old days. Turning uphill, we broke trail up slopes of wind-blasted snowcrust. The skis skidded sideways on the icy glaze or broke through into sloughs of unconsolidated powder. Any fun was definitely of the Type Two kind.

Approaching the SAC Grialetsch Hut, late February

Cresting the col into the Grialetsch region, our extremities tingled in a wind that must have originated somewhere near Archangelsk. Grialetsch means “sheep pasture” in the local dialect; today it felt more like the High Arctic. In the ultra-dry air, clear as a high vacuum, distant ridgelines stood out like mountains on the moon.

Summit day on Piz Grialetsch

Minus 12°C was forecast for our summit day. Sadly, neither of us had a thermometer when we topped out on Piz Grialetsch (3,131 metres). What we can say is that a wet glove, when removed to work the camera, froze solid in less than a minute. Swiss Meteo later confirmed that, in the mountains,  this was one of the coldest Februaries for three decades. Up on our summit, perched above a sea of heaving vapours, we felt like time travellers who’d somehow flown back to a winter of long ago.

Taking the wide view: Piz Grialetsch

Or were we, like spendthrifts maxing out a bank overdraft, just borrowing our winter from somewhere else? For it seems that, even as our gloves were freezing solid , temperatures in the real Arctic were soaring unimaginably far above normal. If the New York Times is to be believed, our mountain top was around ten degrees colder than the North Pole at exactly the same moment. 

If this was a real winter, then we need to be careful what we wish for in future years.