Sunday, January 18, 2009

On solo mountaineering (単独行について)

Excerpted translation of the essay by Katō Buntarō in Solo Climbs (単独行)
As these thoughts on solo mountaineering are my own, and make no reference to those of other soloists, they are inevitably a personal view. But I don’t doubt that common ground will be found in places with the experience of other mountaineers.

A good number of people go to the mountains solo in our country, but most of them could be described as hikers. There’s all the difference in the world between these and the hardy solo ascensionist (I take the term from Mr Mizuno’s book on rock climbing), who, like one of those alpine “Alleingänger”, favours the avalanche-and stonefall-raked routes shunned by others, scorns to follow in other people’s dust and boldly tackles one impossible line after another.

Yet this kind of soloist starts out in much the same way as a solo hiker. He has a liking for nature, a disposition towards a sport that gets him out into it, and also a kind of self-willed yet timid streak in his character. Too timid, that is, to want to pester an expert to show him the way, and too self-willed to put up with a slower, less expert companion. In this way, he finds himself increasingly inclined to set off into the mountains alone. So that’s how he gets into soloing, but his timidity won’t let him admit there’s the slightest danger in it and keeps him prudent to a fault. There’s no saying how many humdrum hikes he’ll make or passes he’ll walk over. Then, after wandering all over the place to burn himself in, he’ll finally start climbing to summits. In other words, he’s followed the typical path of the hiker. Thus the soloist proceeds from summer to spring and autumn and finally winter mountains, making sure of every step, and never trusting himself to a flying leap. And, as long as he takes no flying leaps, you can’t say that his solitary mountaineering is in the least dangerous.


Why climb mountains? I climb because I want to climb; surely it’s a good enough reason to climb if one is moved to do so by some irrepressible instinct of the spirit. And if it’s objected that this is just like drinking, even though you know it’s bad for you, because you can’t help it, then so be it. For we climb mountains because we believe climbing mountains is good. Mountain climbers may from time to time compare climbing to a boozer’s drink or a smoker’s cigarettes but this is, in reality, quite absurd. If mountaineering is about gaining knowledge and hence solace from nature, then surely the most knowledge and the highest degree of solace is gained from solo mountaineering. This is because, if you have a companion with you, you sometimes forget to look at the mountains whereas, when you wander through the hills and valleys alone, no stick or stone can fail to captivate your heart. Or, if mountaineering is about doing battle with nature and prevailing, and gaining solace that way, then surely the battle and the solace thereafter are that much more intense when you are alone, counting on nobody but yourself. Rock-climbing is entirely different when climbing alone than it is when somebody else is looking on.


So who is he to make a judgment on soloing, whether it’s dangerous or what kind of skill level it needs? People who want to solo should solo; only people who want to are qualified to solo.


Abroad, there are said to be “Alleingänger” who learned their trade climbing on terrific cliffs where nobody could possibly have stopped a falling companion on the rope. Yet, even so, there are people who’ll lecture these excellent “Alleingänger” on the dangers of solo climbing. So, I advise all soloists, pay no attention to the nay-sayers. If you do start listening to them, then you’ll have to give up soloing. That’s because you’ll already have started to have doubts about solo climbing. To solo in a state of self-doubt is a crime: you’ll just be tortured by guilt, whether it’s mountains or soloing or booze or smoking that’s bothering you. But if you solo because you know it’s the right thing to do, then you can make progress without agonizing about it. The weak will be tormented, crushed; the strong will become stronger and flourish.

So, soloists, be strong!

December 1934

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