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Divine Wind

27-Feb-2012
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Late last winter, Masatoshi Kuriaki awoke alone, more amazed than rattled as an explosion shook the glacier beneath his tent. He listened intently as a gargantuan slab of ice roared off Big Bertha, the infamous hanging glacier on Denali's south face. The phenomenal displacement of air began.

Kuriaki was attempting to solo the crevassed and serac-strewn Japanese Ramp Route, never soloed in summer, let alone attempted by any team in winter.

Here in 1992, as the accomplished alpinist Mugs Stump descended while roped to two clients, a massive crevasse bridge collapsed, sucking him in before the slack rope could tighten, burying him beneath tons of ice. Kuriaki had studied the accident report. He also knew that Stump had unlocked nearby Mount Hunter's 5000-foot North Buttress, dashed alone up Denali's Cassin Ridge in a day, and negotiated the execrable East Face of the Mooses Tooth. Kuriaki admired Stump, and thought of his demise as a terrible disaster.

Yet Kuriaki has his own strengths. While his chosen route had its dangers, he had repeatedly found safe solutions to other hazardous passages. More important, he considers it his life's work to witness in private the seldom-seen wonders of the Alaska Range in winter. Watching sunrises, northern lights, or collapsing glaciers were all part of a colossal gift package that rewarded him with awe and respect.

 

Now, as he sat alone in his tent, a minus-40-degree F. avalanche cloud mushroomed. Luckily, or by design, depending on how well one has studied his life's work, Kuriaki's tent lay sheltered behind a high corner of granite called Kahiltna Notch. He stayed inside, amazement growing, as the vortex of avalanche-displaced air did something new: It bent around the Notch, shaking, grasping, and pummeling the tent as if by the hands of Big Bertha itself.

Until the long night ended and the sun grudgingly warmed the blue-gilled East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier several degrees, Kuriaki lay still, his 50-below down bag cinched around his nose. Across the glacier, he had stashed his climbing rope, crevasse poles, ice screws and snow flukes. Did the monster ice avalanche bury his cache? He closed his eyes and forced himself to continue composing a haiku in honor of Big Bertha.


Kuriaki practices a hybridized form of solo winter mountaineering that numbs the minds of experienced Alaska Range traditionalists and alpinists. He knows this game has killed several Japanese superstar climbers, so in effect he has stepped away from some of their methods, and even the evolution of modern alpinism, by weaning himself of demanding sponsors. In lieu of choosing unclimbed routes with continuous technical difficulties, or rushing, he takes his time and lets the weather dictate his pace, amid unfathomably desperate wind and cold, with strict obeisance to those December and March dates that signal the beginning and end of winter. Even better, he loses no weight during his climbs and sits in an unfazed torpor inside of deep snow caves for days on end as ferocious wind events vibrate the mountain and rip the roofs off houses at sea level.

Kuriaki is the only contender for the ultimate hat trick of Alaska Range mountaineering: winter solos of Denali, Foraker and Hunter. Several teams of climbers have made it up all three in summer, but until Kuriaki, no one has rationally courted such a challenge in winter, solo. After 10 winter solo trips, which collectively have absorbed 14 months of his life, Masa only counts one summit on Denali as a success. But that doesn't tell the whole story. It is one of other summits, and of a perfectionist who, over a decade and during 416 days (and counting) logged alone here in winter, has never been frostbitten.

At Gifts and Collectibles store in Talkeetna, the nearest town to Denali, the owner, Suzie Kellard, echoed the sentiments of some when she said, "He's asking for trouble by repeatedly going up there alone in winter."

Until now, no one has figured out how he keeps pulling it off.

The nearsighted Japanese mountaineer, 33, deferentially describes himself as a "mountain traveler" amid the elite subculture of speed-climbing alpinists. A David among the band of staid and bearded Goliaths who have climbed Denali in winter, he admits to being meticulous and easily excited. He watches each step, and listens to nature. "Masa," as his language-challenged American friends call him, stands 5' 5", is 130 pounds wet, with boyish stubble -- sparing him the usual trouble of facial-hair ice-melt dampening the hood of his sleeping bag.

==

The bush pilot Doug Geeting describes picking Masa up after months alone cheerfully humming the tune "All By Myself." Geeting adds that his client "looks more like a Poindexter studying books in the library than the mountaineers I usually fly in." In fact, three anthologies of classic haiku have been Masa's only companions during the last decade of winter climbs in the Alaska Range.

Defying expectations of a laconic or prideful loner, he owns a radiant smile and a magnetic personality that endears him to strangers. Scores of Alaskans have taken him in, fed him and laughed at his self-deprecating humor.

Before this most recent climb, during a weeklong spell of minus-30 temps followed by days of storm that kept ski planes grounded, he crashed at South District Ranger Daryl Miller's house. Masa bided 10 days of latter January by reading haiku, writing in his journal, and replaying one of his favorite videos, The Terminator.

"What do you do in Japan?" people often ask, trying to plumb his depths.

"I am househusband and dishwasher for my wife, Seiko," he replies, eyes unblinking. Masa does not volunteer that he is in demand throughout Japan as a lecturer, flashing slides of mountains and northern lights on the screen as he plays the harmonica and reads haiku compositions to his audiences -- causing both laughter and sniffles.

Masa is a rare species. He comes in winter bearing gifts of Japanese soda pop and flies back out in spring. He doesn't drink, smoke or chase skirt. His devotion has nothing to do with any particular religion because, despite at least one near-death experience -- dropping into a deep crevasse on Foraker -- he is agnostic. He is not blessed with an athlete's body, a genetic predisposition to high altitude, a thick fat layer for the cold, or a remarkable command of the English language.

"I don't rike cold," he insists to his many disbelieving hosts in Talkeetna on the potluck dinner circuit.

To attempt the Japanese Ramp, Masa had flown in five weeks earlier, to become accustomed to the cold and to ferry loads and wait out the storms. His deliberately slow ascent schedule would allow him another two weeks to acclimatize.

 

Winter renders Alaska's highest peaks into physiological Himalayas. Consider tropospheric depression: the thick belt of oxygenated atmosphere hanging over the equator dissipates into a thin layer of colder air near the poles. Even in summer, Denali has four percent less oxygen than similar peaks near the equator. Due to the physiological effects, the summit, at 20,320 feet, feels a thousand feet higher than the same altitude on Everest. In winter, as the sun's southern arc and long nights freeze the Alaska Range, the air becomes even thinner, with about half as much oxygen, essentially turning Denali into a 23,465-foot peak.

While Everest and hundreds of other Himalayan summits are technically higher, none is colder than Denali. Summer in the Himalaya is, on average, 22 degrees warmer than Denali. Winter around Denali -- measured in the middle troposphere, from 3 to 8 km high -- becomes 38 degrees colder than in the Himalaya during the coldest time of year. Denali is also arguably windier than Everest because of the venturi effects of the polar jet stream, which funnels, accelerates and then blasts through 18,200-foot Denali Pass.

Only 16 people, including Masa in 1998, have climbed Denali in winter; 14 have summited Everest in winter. Out of two dozen climbers who have reached above 18,000 feet on Denali in winter, five have died (not counting Jacques Batkin, who fell unroped into a crevasse on day two of the 1967 first winter ascent). Thirteen percent succeed on Denali in winter, compared to 52 percent of summer aspirants.

To succeed -- meaning, in this most dangerous game, to survive -- one continually has to play the head game of accepting retreat when conditions aren't perfect. Repeatedly tolerating retreat and failure is counterintuitive to most of us. So Masa's success in this bizarrely specialized solo-winter-mountaineering game is really about survival, and about tolerating what many would perceive as failures.

==

Masa favors an Asiatic-styled personification of Denali, Foraker and Hunter. He speaks of them by their original Athapaskan names: the High One, the Wife and the Child. In 2001 and 1999 he climbed the Wife inwinter by the Southeast Ridge and the Sultana Ridge. Although he spent four months on these two climbs, mostly in winter, he didn't reach Foraker's 17,400-foot summit until April 3 and March 31. Occurring past the defined winter season of December 21 to March 20, these weren't successes to Masa, but he is nothing if not persistent (as of press time, he is on Foraker again). He returned in winter 2002 and failed again because of high winds and avalanche conditions. Before descending, he bowed in deference to the Wife, and he set one new record: carrying down 38 pounds of trash bags containing 56 days' worth of his feces.

Except for Masa, only one climber, Dave Johnston, out of over a hundred suitors has made successful repeat winter visits. In 1967, Johnston saved himself and two companions -- Art Davidson and Ray Genet -- on their way down from the successful first winter ascent by uncovering an old fuel cache that allowed them to survive a six-day windstorm. Twelve years later, Johnston and two friends -- Brian Okonek and Roger Cowles -- made the first ascent, and in winter, of Mount Foraker's Sultana Ridge. In 1985, Johnston spurned the bush pilots and walked alone into Denali, 80 miles from his cabin at 400 feet above sea level, climbing to 13,000 feet before refreezing the toe stubs left from amputations after his first winter ascent.

Still, until Masa, no soloist has made the quantum psychological leap of repeatedly returning to tiptoe across crevasse bridges, bare his genitals to subzero toilets, assume the self-arrest position to prevent wind "lift off," endure lumbar pain from endless shoveling, or generally cope with the loneliness, storm-bound ennui, and sterile-white, cornea-burning deprivation that is winter climbing in the Alaska Range.

Sitting in Talkeetna's Latitude 62 Restaurant, wolfing down a mountainous plate of burger and fries that could only be fueling an extraordinary metabolism, the gentle bantam-weight Masa claimed, "I enjoy my winter criming."

While enjoy might be a verb lost in translation by his Oxford Japanese-English dictionary, he says he does not entirely enjoy living in a country with a tradition of subway pushers, people whose job is to shove passengers behind the closing doors so that the commuter trains will be on time. He does enjoy being alone in the Alaska Range "having the chance to read or write haiku" and "quieting my mind down after being amid the crowds of Japan."

Over the years, for their sanity, Talkeetna mountaineering rangers have learned to avoid mingling with climbers they are likely to retrieve in body bags. Yet Masa's coolheaded approach and clean safety record make him a welcome guest in their homes. Unlike most Alaska Range climbers out to push the limits, eagerly spurring their bush pilots to fly, Masa exerts no pressure. In this regard, his patience and humble acceptance work poorly. In 2005, he never questioned a pilot's judgment in making him wait a record 26 days in Talkeetna before flying into the Range. Eventually, an outraged American friend switched Masa to another bush-pilot company.

Waiting for good flying weather has made him a fixture at the Talkeetna Ranger Station each winter. As he greeted Ranger Roger Robinson in mid-January 2006, he feigned the Schwarzenegger accent, saying, I'm back, while shaking hands with a polite, faint grip.

Daryl Miller, Southside District Mountaineering Ranger, says, "He is one of the most thoughtful persons ever to go into the Denali National Park regarding leave no trace.' He is also very helpful to us in getting real time winter glacier and snow conditions." In exchange, the Park has waived Masa's special-use fees to climb the mountain. Recently, Masa translated the rangers' Mountaineering Booklet -- a cautionary guide to surviving Denali -- into Japanese. He spent months toiling over the work so his countrymen would better understand Denali.

Masa represents a changing trend in Japanese mountaineering philosophy. The old pattern has its roots in the Japanese determination to achieve lofty goals and restore their honor after the ignominy of World War II. Unknowingly, and under sponsorship obligation to accomplish a "first," green, cash-strapped Japanese teams often chose routes that were unclimbed and objectively dangerous, rather than technically difficult routes that were a lot safer. As a result, many of the Yukon's and Alaska's greatest and most difficult peaks have avalanche-prone Japanese routes. The Japanese Direct South Face on Denali takes an unconscionably perilous line directly beneath Big Bertha (three Japanese were buried without recovery here in 1981). Neighboring Mount Foraker's Northeast Ridge Route, vulnerable to hanging-glacier avalanche, attracted dozens of Japanese until six were buried here in 1976. And on Mount Saint Elias' North Face a huge hanging glacier precariously overhangs the entire route, so it seems a miracle that the only ascentionists -- Japanese -- made it off unscathed.

==

Given the coarse euphemisms and nationalistic competition around Denali -- with place names like the Autobahn to describe a frequent German crash site -- the word "kamikaze" caught on here to describe suicidal routes. Most Americans mistakenly believe that the Japanese define kamikaze as suicide attack, ever since the word for that country's World War II death pilots was incorrectly translated from complex Japanese language characters by 1940s U.S. Military personnel. Kamikaze, or Divine Wind, however, is actually the name of a 13th Century typhoon that saved Japan from a fleet of Mongol ships.


Masa offered further clarification about dangerous Japanese routes that began emerging on Alaskan mountains in the 1960s. Until the yen strengthened against the dollar in the 1980s, he said without a hint of defensiveness, poor and inexperienced climbers, often from university climbing clubs, were greatly honored in receiving sponsorships from wealthy patrons. But the Faustian deal meant that, in expensive Alaska, "Japanese climbers have one-time shot to ..." Masa stopped and typed a word into his calculator-sized, electronic Oxford Japanese-English dictionary, and said, "perform first ascents to fulfill sponsors." He doesn't accept money, he explained, because this kind of pressure, even in recent years, has killed more talented climbers than he.

For example, in winter 1989 -- when the thermometer at 17,200 feet on Denali registered minus 77 degrees -- one of the world's most accomplished high-altitude climbers led his two companions to Denali's final camp. Noboru Yamada had climbed Everest three times: in winter, without bottled oxygen, and as a grand traverse. Whatever happened to the three Japanese can only be imagined, because the rangers couldn't fly until the sub-200-mph winds abated nearly three weeks later. The ground crew found the climbers "flash frozen" and tangled in the ropes below Denali Pass on the Autobahn.

 

At 14, hair died blue, Masa was a guitarist in an urban rock band in Japan. A year later he joined the high school climbing team and as quickly dropped music.

To train for climbing, the slight 16-year-old, then 121 pounds, dropped 112 pounds of sandbags in his pack, and joined his classmates, who at similar sizes carried packs weighing up t0 90 pounds, by walking a block to the subway, riding to Tenjin, catching a bus to Red Road Station in Sasaguri, walking half an hour on pavement to the trailhead, then jogging 15 miles through the hills. In summers, he traversed ridges in the Japanese Alps. Shuyukan High School, despite its otherwise rigid schedule, promoted this sort of "unsafe behavior," Masa believes, because unlike newer schools, the 223-year-old school was famous for promoting the samurai spirit.

At that time, Masa read Naomi Uemura's book, My Youth's Venture. Uemura had been lost on Denali five years earlier, when Masa was 11. Among the Japanese his inspiration is like that of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon. This solo explorer planted the rising-sun flag on Denali on February 12, 1984, his 43rd birthday, but disappeared during the descent. In all probability, the beloved Uemura was buried by an avalanche or fell in a crevasse. The young, impressionable Masa read about his hero: "When Uemura started on an adventure, he would never try to conquer the awesome forces of nature against him. He tried to make himself part of nature and followed suit after what nature offered."

On Denali in winter 1984, Uemura stuck to a protein-rich diet of raw caribou, gnawing it off bones in his igloos. He had learned these tricks from Eskimos in 1978 during a solo dog-sledding expedition to the North Pole, followed by a solitary trek across Greenland. In crevassed terrain, he strapped a long bamboo pole through his harness to catch him if he plunged through a crevasse bridge.

At age 22, in May 1995, Masa began cautiously. Eating noodles and rice, instead of risking the gastrointestinal distress of raw caribou, he climbed Denali's well-trodden West Buttress. On the summit, with another student from Kyushu Institute of Technology, he dreamily gazed at the eight- and 12-mile-distant mountains, Hunter and Foraker, lofting in origami form above a sea of clouds. After attempting those mountains in summer 1996, he knew he'd be back. Alone, and in winter, like Uemura.

==

As an engineering student -- conscious of every extra ounce in his pack and the precise amount of calories he would burn to stay warm and maintain his weight -- Masa calculated that the occasional minus-20 degrees he experienced on summer expeditions did not provide an accurate impression of the continuous minus-40 degrees in winter.

Returning to Japan, Masa charmed the president of Western Pacific Company by offering him a cash-free sponsorship of his upcoming climb, and began camping in the company's minus-67 degrees fish freezer.

Eventually, through repeated returns to the tuna locker, Kuriaki learned several lessons. He began wearing just enough layers of fleece and down to prevent shivering, but not enough to sweat. All equipment with moving parts had to be repeatedly tested to ensure that it could withstand continuous cold. Tent fabric shrunk so tightly that the poles wouldn't fit unless cut a half-inch short. If he had waited to make these discoveries amid the extremis of Denali in winter, he wouldn't have had much chance as a soloist.

During his second winter trip, Masa reached Denali's summit, on March 8, 1998. (That year and the next he said, "No, thank you" to two different Japanese television crews who wanted to film him at basecamp.) The trail-breaking, whiteouts, route-finding, howling winds and thinly drifted-over crevasses were distinctly different from Denali's easiest route in summer -- strung with a chorus line of climbers and a medical camp, under the routine whine of aircraft. In winter, the mountain is one of the loneliest places in the world. On the summit, Masa's thermometer recorded a relatively balmy minus-34 degrees. The barometer began falling, the fog lay so dense that he couldn't see up or down, and the wind blew briskly from the south.

"I think of all the people who help me get there," Masa recalled. "Make me very happy. Not lonely."

After the summit, Masa raced down to his 17,200-foot Attack Camp before the wind picked up, and then took his time descending. For the next week, he rested in Talkeetna. Here the American climber Vern Tejas -- who soloed Denali in March 1988 -- found Masa at the airport.

The shaven-headed, long-bearded and voluble Tejas, who needs no introduction to anyone in that town, warmly shook Masa's hand.

"You completed Naomi's journey," he said.

"Thank you so much," Masa said, "but you, Vern, completed Naomi's journey."

Tejas objected -- even though he made the first winter solo, round trip to boot, he wasn't Japanese.

Masa then told Tejas about how he would now walk in the footsteps of another one of his heroes, Frank Yasuda, subject of a Japanese biography, who had immigrated to Alaska, founded the town of Beaver, and become an unofficial ambassador of Japan. The best way to emulate this man, Masa figured, would be to walk across the state, while interacting with as many Alaskans as possible.

"Be sure to dip your hand in Pacific," boomed Tejas, "then dip your hand in Arctic Ocean when through."

"This good idea, Vern," replied Masa softly.

He then began walking 860 miles north from the asphalt shores of the Pacific Ocean in Anchorage to the smoke-stacked Beaufort Sea at Prudhoe Bay. Unlike Naomi Uemura, who constantly carried a Japanese flag, Masa Kuriaki believed that overt patriotism might invite disaster. So with a red magic marker, he drew a parody of Japan's flag, reshaping the rising sun into a giant red "chestnut" (literally, "Kuriaki" in Japanese).

While modestly displaying his chestnut flag on the two-wheeled cart behind him, Masa became an Alaskan sensation, featured on TV and in a series of thoughtful newspaper articles. Most of Masa's nights on the frost-heaved highway north, someone would pick him up, drive him home and feed him cheeseburgers, moose or salmon steaks. After giving him a huge plate of sourdough pancakes in the morning, they'd drive him back to where they'd found him, and he'd walk another dozen miles. He fished, and encountered plenty of wildlife, including hundreds of eccentric yet generous Alaskans. It took three months and four days until he dipped his hand in the Beaufort Sea. Back in Japan, he described the journey in his book Alaska Vertical and Horizontal.

==

On March 11, 2006, while repeatedly dodging the runout zone of Big Bertha, Masa spent three days probing for his vital cache of climbing equipment. He had marked it with six-foot red wands. But the cache lay beneath ice-block debris so hard and gem-blue he could barely dent it with his crampons.

The summit lay another 9,000 feet up the torturously crevassed Japanese Ramp. Unlike the nearby Japanese Couloir, the Orient Express and the Japanese South Face Direct, this is the only mountain feature named after Masa's country that hasn't yet experienced Japanese fatalities. The 30-degree, avalanche-swept, perforated Ramp intersects the South Buttress at 15,600 feet and then rears steeply to the summit.

Three days later, Masa continued hauling loads up from a remaining cache. In another week, the winter climbing season would end. Despite losing gear, he had no intention of giving up. It came to him that the last five trips, over the last five years, had been unsuccessful. It seemed statistically improbable that all of his summits had coincidentally preceded his marriage -- also five years ago. Was marriage mellowing him out?

Certainly, the Big Bertha avalanche hadn't caught him off guard because he carries three pairs of glasses, three stoves, extra crevasse poles and a spare short rope. His only accident in a dozen expeditions had occurred seven years ago on Foraker, when a hidden bridge broke beneath his weight, and since his pole lay parallel to the crevasse instead of across it, he plunged 50 feet to the bottom, bruising his thigh and twisting his ankle. If the crevasse had been any deeper, the fall could have killed him. It took all of his cunning and strength to climb out on a ladder of ice screws.

Now, at 12,300 feet on the Japanese Ramp, he found himself blocked by a half-mile-long crevasse -- 100 feet wide and 150 feet deep. Without his long rope and ice screws, lost in the avalanche, he had to retreat.

Ten days later, on March 27, he reached the deserted 7,200-foot basecamp landing strip, then radioed to a passing ski plane that he wanted to stay. For nine days he remained at his shadowed tent, carefully watching the stars above. He played the harmonica, read and finished his Big Bertha haiku:
"OoNadare
GiaNominarazu

ShikiMoKiyu."

("Monster avalanche/ Steals my hardware along with/ My summit morale").

Two nights before he had to leave, still studying the night sky, he finally found redemption and a key to the tolerance he sought. He called it "a gift from the mountain for turning around."

Behind him, Mount Hunter -- the Child -- was lit by the waxing moon. Miles above his tent, far above the peaks that have become his life's work, the northern lights swayed in green-pleated curtains across the heavens, pushed by a divine wind.

 

 

Jonathan Waterman climbed Denali's Cassin Ridge in winter 1982, and worked as a Park Service ranger on that mountain for three years. The author of Surviving Denali, High Alaska, and In the Shadow of Denali, he lives in Carbondale, Colorado.

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