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.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Snow country (5)

Travelogue concluded: in which we clear up, with a bit of help from the Heartful Dump Co.

8 February, Fukui: Twenty more centimetres have come down overnight. The Sensei’s back is hurting from three days of snow-shovelling, yet still she insists on coming outside: I want to make sure you dig in the right place, she says. We excavate alongside the car until we reach the tarmac, an exercise in snow archaeology. The bottom layer consists of graupel pellets, suggesting that temperatures were coldest during the snowstorm’s early stages.

Then I go upstairs to try dislodging the half-metre of snow piled up on the porch roof. When the weather warms up, roof avalanches can be just as bad for your health as their high-mountain analogues.

Over lunch, another ten centimetres of snow whirls down in two vigorous squalls, but it doesn’t take long to dig out the van again. Although the skies are still grey, there’s a sense that Peak Snow is past.

According to the noon TV news, JR will run a few trains this afternoon, and more tomorrow – yes, I might make that Sunday flight. If we can get to the station, of course. As for the roads, 324 trucks are still snowbound on Route 8. A unit of the Self-Defense Forces is keeping the drivers plied with blankets and hot drinks while helping to dig them out – some drivers have now been marooned in their cabs for almost 48 hours, but they should be free by evening.

Some outlying villages aren’t so lucky. Blockaded by more than a metre of snow on the roads, the often aged inhabitants will have to fend for themselves for another day or two. The snow is now up to 143 centimetres within the city boundaries, making this the heaviest fall for 37 years. NHK announcers are famously deadpan, but surely we detect a hint of pride in the voice of this one.

In the afternoon, we take a walk along the roads cleared by the municipal snowploughs. Whole families are out digging their forecourts: there’s a holiday spirit, as most schools and firms have shut down for the week. “You have to laugh,” says a neighbour in her seventies, who is busy shovelling her forecourt. Others grumble: “We pay our taxes: why don’t they do something,” mutters a passer-by.

We walk over to a neighbouring village, over a snowfield that pallidly gleams against a steel-grey sky. The snow laps over the hamlet’s old farm buildings and storehouses, recalling the scenes described by Suzuki Bokushi in his best-selling Snow Country Tales (1837), an account of winter life in old Echigo province.

Bokushi was proud of his region’s Big Snow. In those days, people dug snow tunnels between the houses, or started using the first-floor windows instead of the front door. Bokushi wouldn’t have thought much of a meagre 143 centimetres.

People are now up on the roofs clearing them. Not everybody is wearing the recommended safety rope. Greenhouses have come off worst: the snow has flattened many of the flimsy steel-tube-and-vinyl structures. Some were only recently repaired after last October’s super-typhoon.

In the evening, the Sensei makes bread; the supermarket has run out. Fresh eggs too are scarce, but overall there’s still plenty of food on the shelves. A more serious shortage is that fuel stocks are running low; the snowploughs have a massive thirst for diesel.

The city is also running out of places to put the cleared snow. Now and then, a snow-laden truck rumbles by, on its way to tip its burden into a river. I’m pleased to see a pink riband adorning a few of them. These belong to the (locally) famous Heartful Dump company, an all-girl trucking outfit. We met them just the other day, shipping out the spoil from a new tunnel under Monju-san.

You know, it’s an ill snowstorm that brings nobody any good…

Photo and logo by courtesy of the Heartful Dump company.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Snow country (4)

Travelogue continued: in which the Senior Cat chooses to shut out the world

7 February, Fukui: A pistol shot shatters the night. As armed intruders are rare around here, this has to be the roof timbers, adjusting to the weight of snow. It’s better not to think of how many tons are pressing on that roof. Twice more the explosive reports ring out, as we lie awake, like old-time polar explorers listening helplessly as the pack-ice crushed their ship.

Over breakfast, a pink flash lights up the snowed-up trees outside, followed by a muffled roll of thunder. The TV reports that hundreds of trucks have been snowed in on Route 8, the main road north to Kanazawa.

Worse still, when the police investigated a snowed-up car with its engine still running, they found that the unfortunate driver had been asphyxiated by the exhaust fumes. No trains will run today between Kanazawa and Tsuruga, yet strangely (it seems to us) the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which starts in Kanazawa, continues to run on schedule.

The weather forecast shows why – the radar picture shows the snow tracking in over the Japan Sea as if on a conveyor belt. But the precipitation spans a front that is only a hundred kilometres or so wide. Fukui is right in the middle of its path, while Kanazawa is almost in the clear.

This colossal snow machine is driven by two low pressure systems, one north and one south of Honshū. Mountaineers fear this configuration; it usually leads to a world of hurt in high places. From upstairs, the Sensei reports that she's finding it hard to open the doors on her built-in clothes closet: so the roof really has sagged.

It doesn’t look like I’m going to make the Friday flight either. I phone the airline again. Air Rhaetia is obliging, and suggests the Sunday departure instead. That should give us time to dig ourselves out. Meanwhile, the Senior Cat hops up on the windowsill and takes a look outside. Unimpressed, she retires to her basket and shuts out the world with her paw.

Snow country (3)

Travelogue continued: in which more snow falls and we all gotta dig it

6 February, Fukui: the weathermen are not exaggerating. In the morning, the front door has to be pushed open against a sill of snow. And somebody appears to have stolen the Sensei’s van. Ah no, there it is under a white hummock.

Over breakfast, we watch TV: the city has run out of money to pay for snow clearance and will have to ask the government for additional funding.

Meanwhile, JR announces that all rail services are suspended until the afternoon, when they will review the situation. What now, I ask the Sensei. We dig, she says. Before we go out, she rigs our boots with mountaineering gaiters, so that our socks will stay dry. Like Miss Smilla, the Sensei has a well-developed sense of snow.

The same can't be said for the driver of the red Toyota that emerges from a garage about three houses up the street. It slips and slides in our direction, before bogging down right in front of us. The driver gets out and starts shovelling – he is improbably clad for the work in a business suit and rubber boots.I switch from digging out the Sensei’s van to digging out the red Toyota. Finally, with the help of two more neighbours, we succeed in manhandling the car back where it came from. It’s taken the young man more than an hour to drive less than a hundred metres and back again.

One thing is obvious: whatever JR does, I’m not going to be on tomorrow’s plane. I go in and phone Rhaetian Airlines, who respond admirably by rebooking me. It probably helps that Fukui’s plight is now starting to hit the national news channels.

At lunchtime, the TV reports that Fukui is now under 127 centimetres of snow – you have to admire the precision – making this the biggest fall for 32 years. JR cancels all trains until further notice and the motorway too shuts down. Now what? I guess we go on digging, I say to the Sensei. You’re learning, she replies with a smile.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Snow country (2)

Travelogue continued: in which an entire city vanishes under a white pall

4 February, Fukui: The Big Snow starts almost diffidently. At some point during our lunch at a ryotei, the sunlight fades and the first flakes start falling into the manicured garden. Around teatime, a single thunderclap announces a vigorous snow squall, yet this too is not unusual – such demonstrations often accompany winter weather fronts on this side of Japan.

The night is weirdly bright, the low clouds reflecting the lights of the town back onto the snowy ground. I used to regret missing the chance to witness Fukui’s last Big Snow, which occurred back in my student days. Really, one should be careful what one wishes for.

5 February: we wake to the sound of silence. Outside, if you listen carefully, you hear a faint crackle from the snow falling onto to the nearby high-tension wires. About 10 centimetres has fallen overnight. We dig out the Sensei’s van, and later walk over to visit friends.

By now, the sidestreets are covered in snow, even after the municipal snowplough has passed by. Watch out, says the Sensei, you can’t hear the cars coming any more. We have to keep to the streets, though – the undisturbed snow in alleyways and on flat ground is now above knee-deep. As it is, my boots are awash with melted snow.

Swirling down on a chilly north wind, the snow is falling so thickly that the nearby hills fade into a grey pall. Later the TV reports that, out on the featureless plain near Awara, two trucks have run off the road and overturned, their drivers bemused by the Arctic white-out. Luckily, nobody was hurt.

On the way back from tea and cakes with our friends, the snow comes in showers. When it falls in flakes, the snow is damp and clammy; out on a mountain, one wouldn’t survive long in this without top-class clothing.

Sometimes the snow falls as graupel – dry, white pellets, as you often get in alpine thunderstorms. Traffic is still flowing easily along the main streets, which are kept clear by streams of water from buried pipes on the centreline.

At sunset, the clouds briefly rift open, revealing a wild hassle of cumulus tops. For a few hours, the snow relents. But the TV forecast says this is just the beginning. I hope the weathermen are exaggerating, as I have to leave tomorrow if I’m going to catch my flight back to Europe.

Snow country (1)

Travelogue: in which we learn that there can be too much of a good thing

2 February, Fukui: The train comes out of the long tunnel into the snow country. Echizen lies white under the afternoon sky. Fuji-like under its winter mantle, Hino slides by, and then Hakusan gleams between its foothills, a wave of flawless alabaster.

When the train opens its doors, a slant of cold air wafts in. Fukui's streets are dry, but lined with ramparts of cleared snow. By evening, when we go out for a jet-lagged walk on a nearby hill, the sky is clouding over again. Blue skies never last long in this North Country.

3 February: as the clouds are low, we opt to revisit Monju, a local Meizan, which has no more metres of stature than there are days in a year. Even at this humble altitude, though, we will be hiking on snow. So, instead of trekking boots, we don Wellies. Declassé, I know, but the best way to keep your feet dry in the mochi-like welter.

Accompanied by a colleague of the Sensei’s named for a mountain river, we wend our way up to the summit shrine where the Hyakumeizan author once inscribed his name. The little wooden fane is in a sorry state – last October’s super-typhoon has ripped off its roof-tiles and shoved the structure bodily off its footing, so that it leans drunkenly to leeward. I hope the famous graffito is safe.

When we continue to Monju’s third summit, its “Oku-miya”, we see that the storm also tore great gaps in the forest. Although the chainsaws have been tidying up, the trunks of some great trees still lie where they fell.

At the split rock below the Oku-miya, a sign says that Monk Taichō, who opened the mountain in the year 717, inhumed a complete cycle of the sutras up here.

The blend of Buddhist and Shinto elements on this mountain is intriguing – it’s as if the Meiji government’s forcible disentangling of the two traditions never happened here. Light snow is falling as we retrace our bootprints along the ridge path.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Unpredictable explosions

Some volcanic eruptions are less foreseeable than others

In today's tragedy at the ski-resort under the Kusatsu-Shirane volcano, one soldier was killed by flying rocks after a volcanic explosion. Several more people were hurt. The accident recalls the much greater disaster on Ontake three years ago, when 63 people died.

Eruption at Kusatsu-Shirane in December 1982
Photo: Japan Meteorological Agency
Both mountains belong to Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Reading his write-ups, one would never guess that climbing these peaks might be a hazard to life and limb. That’s not because the Hyakumeizan author was negligent in his research, but rather the effect of timing. When Fukuda wrote about Ontake, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the volcano had never erupted during historical times. Its first recorded eruption was in October 1979, eight years after Fukada’s death. Until then, the mountain was thought to be inactive.

Fissure eruption at Kusatsu-Shirane in 1942
Photo: Japan Meteorological Agency
Kusatsu-Shirane too appears quite innocuous in Fukada’s account. In the relevant Hyakumeizan chapter, he notes that the mountain was ascended by the Confucian scholar Asaka Gonsai in the summer of the ninth year of Tempō (1838). Today, Fukada adds, “one often meets old women and frolicsome children on this path.”

Yet Gonsai’s description, as quoted by Fukada, leaves no doubt as to Kusatsu-Shirane’s volcanic temperament: “All the peaks are scorched partly red, partly black, by the sulfurous vapors. Bare bones, stripped of flesh, not a tree or blade of grass, an exceedingly strange and ghastly scene.”

"An exceedingly strange and ghastly scene"
A pre-war postcard view of Kusatsu-Shirane

Indeed, it appears that Kusatsu-Shirane has erupted much more frequently than Ontake. About 14 eruptive episodes have been recorded since 1805. Taking a simple average, therefore, you'd expect such explosions to take place slightly more often than once every two decades.

In reality, though, the volcano erupts at quite irregular intervals, and it so happened that Fukada wrote it up roughly in the middle of a lull that lasted more than thirty years. So it’s fair to conclude that Kusatsu-Shirane’s eruptive potential could not be in the forefront of his mind.

Eruption on Kusatsu-Shirane (from a pre-war postcard)
On both Ontake and Kusatsu-Shirane, all historical eruptions have been phreatic – that is, caused by water coming into contact with hot rocks rather than by rising magma. Unfortunately, steam explosions are harder to predict than eruptions caused by upwelling magma, as they are less likely to give out clear seismic signals in advance.

“Eruptions can occur without warning, so stay alert to what is happening in and around the crater,” warned the Japanese authorities last year in a pamphlet distributed to hiking and climbing organisations. That advice remains as valid as ever. At the same time, it should be recognised that a volcano may give no usable warning.