DEAR NOBUYUKI OGAWA,
I am now at the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. This evening, I had dinner with old American friends. We talked for a few hours about business, and then our conversation drifted from the history of Vietnam to that of Shanghai, where one friend had traveled several times looking for remnants of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English, American and French concession districts. We consumed many glasses of local beer, wine and brandy. By midnight, I felt drunk. The pavement from the bar to the hotel was dark. The super-moon had a strong gravitational pull, and the Saigon River had flooded the area during the high tide. I reeled, avoiding puddles. I do not know why your figure emerged in that shadowed, narrow alley–or why I suddenly felt as if we were back in the old Kathmandu bazaar in the early 1970s.
Nobusan, forty years have passed since we climbed the north face of Jannu. Do you remember how you shouted so abruptly, “Jannu is next!” in 1973, when you, Kondo and I had barely come back from our 7300-meter bivouac on Annapurna II? You were so light, by then, like a man who had gone hungry for weeks. A hundred times, we’d sat down in the snow, depleted. But your spirit was amazingly strong.
During our Jannu expedition, storms delayed the summit push. I cannot remember clearly why I stayed in Camp V with two Sherpas, Ungati and Penuri. All the other members were below Camp IV. The whole night, violent gusts whirled around the frozen Whillans box tent. When I got out to urinate, I gripped the fixed rope above a 2000-meter void. For a second, the liquid danced in the air; then an upward wind washed my face. The next morning, Ungati, Penuri and I struggled through cold blasts to the summit ridge, each of us carrying 15kg packs to establish the final camp. Ungati got frostbite.
Nobusan, it was a kind of miracle to go to the top of Jannu with you and Suzuki. Originally, our leader Konishi intended for Fukada and Konno, the most reliable members, to make the summit bid. Then Fukada got sick. Since I was the only member in Camp V, I replaced him by chance.
After fixing six to seven pitches in a whiteout storm, Konno and I returned to the final camp. You had climbed up with Suzuki to serve us a cup of hot tea.
Nobusan, it was really delicious tea for our dry throats.
On our summit day, the wind calmed, but the sky looked like snow. We spent an hour discussing whether to go or not. Eventually, we decided that you and Suzuki would start early to fix ropes. Konno and I would follow, carrying a tent, food and fuel for four men in case we had to bivy.
After you left, I was a little surprised when Konno told me he wasn’t feeling well and he wanted to stay in camp. I hurried to catch up with you. I was in good shape that day, and I found it easy to climb above 7600 meters, even with my heavy pack. Suzuki and I believed the summit was still far away. We were relieved to hear you cry, “Hey, Naoe, no need to carry the pack! Only two pitches remain.”
From your anchor, the sharp-edged snow ridge pointed toward the top. For forty more meters, I traversed the steep, hard-packed slope of the north face. Then I sat astride on the thin saddle. Clouds hid most of the voids below, but I knew steep faces plunged for 2000 meters on either side. The summit was only ten meters away. I decided to stop, to wait for you and belay you there. Jannu was your mountain.
“Nobusan, it is your turn.”
“Naoe, shall I climb?”
“It’s your turn.”
You moved very slowly on that narrow bridge to the sky. Finally, you stood on the summit. And when I gazed at you through the lens of my camera, you appeared like a wild goose, wings spread, ready to fly. I cannot tell you why I looked at you so, and why I thought so until now.
Do you remember the coffee shop near Ochanomizu station? After Jannu, we frequently met there and discussed future Himalayan climbs for us and for our club members–all small, lightweight expeditions: an alpine-style traverse from the north ridge to the southwest ridge of Ama Dablam; the north faces of Thamserku and Kangtega; the south face of Annapurna I; the north ridge of Kangchenjunga; the west face of Makalu. Meanwhile, you got married and went back to work in your father’s printing company. I got a job at a large corporation. For a while, we tried to be responsible family men.
Nobusan, I was very lucky, later, to climb the north face of Kangchenjunga with Fukada, Kawamura and Suzuki, to solo the southwest ridge of Ama Dablam, and to attain its west face with Ariake. Yuda and his team climbed Kangtega; Okano and his team achieved Thamserku–they are all our club members.
So your dream came partly true, but the dream that you and I would experience all these peaks together did not. I was in Kathmandu, negotiating a permit for the north face of Kangchenjunga, when I received the call from Tokyo: “Hello, Naoe. Nobusan died on Mt. Hodaka this week. Hello? Hello, Naoe? Hello?”
I walked into the chaos of old bazaar.
Next summer, I am going to Mont Blanc to climb the Red Pillar of Brouillard and the Central Pillar of Freney. When I reach the summit of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, I will yell, “Hey, Nobusan, I have done most of the major climbs you did.”
You will shout back to me, “You are slow! You took seventy years to finish them, while I merely took thirty-three.”
I will hear your laugh across the sky.
See you then,