Full 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.
When I look back on my own winter solo mountaineering career, I began in February 1928 in the Hyōnosen mountains, then the following January I climbed Yatsugatake from Natsuzawa hot springs, then I climbed Norikura from Reisen hut (冷泉小屋) then in February I climbed Yarigatake from the Ichinomata hut, and in March, Tateyama from the Kōbō hut. In January 1930, after climbing Tateyama from Murodō, I traversed to Guntai-Tsurugi, and after climbing Yari again, went up Karesawa to the Hodaka hut and back. (The previous year, on April 1, I climbed Karesawa-dake and, on the following day, with Mr Kuwata, climbed Oku-Hodaka.) In February, I climbed Tateyama from Kōbō, then Oku-Hodaka, Karesawa-dake, and Kita-Hodaka. (On December 1, I went up Ichinosawa and climbed Jōnen-dake and Ōtensho-dake from the Jōnen hut.)
In January 1931, I started from Ōdawa and went via the hut beyond Arimine-Magawa to Ue-no-take hut and so to the summit of Yakushi-dake. Then I traversed across to Kurobegoro-dake, Mitsumata-renge, Washiba, Kuro-dake, Noguchigoro, and Mitsu-dake to the Eboshi hut and so down the Bunadate ridge. In February, I started from Kashima village and climbed Tsubetazawa Nishimata to the summit of Kashimayari. I also climbed Tsurugi from Murodō via Chōjirō-dani, then Tateyama. In January 1932, I climbed Goryū-dake from the Karamatsu-Nichiden hut, then downclimbed from a point between Karamatsu and Kaerazu-dake and returned from the first col. (After that, I also climbed Shirouma-dake from Sarukura with two friends.) In February, I climbed Yari from the hut on Yari col, then climbed Minami-dake, before returning and taking in Sugoroku-dake, Nukedo-dake (抜戸岳) and Kasa-ga-dake. Then I went up the Shirouma Great Snow Valley to Shakushi, Yari (鎗), Asahi-dake and Shirouma etc. In January 1933, I summited Fuji from Gotenba, then climbed Ontake from Kurosawa, descending to Ōtaki. In March, I went up Yarisawa, then traversed Yari, Minami-dake, Oku-Hodaka, Maehodaka, descending to Dakekawa. After that, I climbed Norikura. (In April, I went in one day along the ridge from Tateyama to Bessan; the next day from the Nokkoshi hut to climb Guntai-Tsurugi.) Unfortunately, I ran into heavy snowfall in January and had to retreat after pitching my tent at Buna hut half-way up Tateyama, much to my chagrin. (On April 3 and 4, with a friend, I climbed the North Ridge of Mae-Hodaka, then crossed to Oku-Hodaka. On the way, I got frostbite, so we abandoned our plan to traverse to Yari and went down from the Hodaka hut. Included in the above account are trips that weren’t solo (in brackets) or in winter, so that you can see how the progress was made from simple ventures to gradually more difficult ones.
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.
In March last year, I visited the Matsudaka cave bivouac (岩小屋) in Yokoo-dani. Nakamura and his friends, who’d climbed Byōbu-iwa in January, were there and made me welcome. I sat myself down on a silver-birch bough near the entrance, facing the campfire. At which, Mr Nakamura said, “You know, mate, you’re living on borrowed time.” When I asked why, he said that just this time last year, Mr Mitsuya of Kobe turned up unexpectedly, just like you, and Mitsuya sat down right where you are now. And it was the same with Mr Kanemitsu of Kobe and his guide, Tsukada from Arimine, they were sat right where you are now. And that’s why you won’t last long either. As you’d expect from somebody who climbs Byōbu in winter, Nakamura had a direct way of speaking. Tough as he was, though, he didn’t understand much about solo mountaineering. Then he said he’d climbed Byōbu with a companion. They didn’t use a rope, but the human contact between them was reassuring. He wouldn’t have climbed Byōbu alone; in fact, he wouldn’t even go into the mountains alone. Even mountaineers with as much experience and enthusiasm as himself didn't go solo, did they? 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.
Solo mountaineers sometimes meet a party with a guide staying in the same hut. The soloist, just because he’s a soloist, is unlikely to be welcomed with open arms by the guide. And the soloist, as a man of the mountains, is a taciturn type who’s not so bothered about other people’s feelings. Even so, he is a timid sort who doesn’t want to needlessly get on the guide’s nerves. This can lead to the situation where, in iffy weather, the guide declares that they’re not going anywhere that day. As it happens, the soloist is quite confident about the weather, but now he can’t make a start for fear of making the guide lose face. Then, if he sits in a hut for two or three days, the guide can say to him that, now winter mountaineering has become so popular, there are clueless folk who just turn up at a mountain village or hut hoping to find a party with a good leader or guide and follow in their tracks up a mountain. True or not, this is totally unacceptable. I suppose you don’t mind being considered the sort of person who fobs off the responsibility for taking risks onto others … that’s the sort of thing that can be said. And, of course, there are places where mountain huts are kept locked against folk without guides. As guideless parties and soloists are particularly unwelcome at such huts, soloists who want to go out even in slightly poor conditions will be told that, if they do and the weather turns bad on them, the villagers will feel responsible and that, quite possibly, they’ll have to put themselves out tracking down the lost climbers. And even if their fears turn out to be groundless, it’s still the fault of the mountaineer for causing all the worry. In this way, their kindness is turned into a bargaining counter, to extort a tip.
Or when we’re walking on a narrow path, I’ll keep marching forward and the people coming the other direction will give way, or I’ll try to make space and the other people will march on and keep going. It can also happen that on a narrow snowy path, when your party is larger, you won’t give way yourself. 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!
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