[This story first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is available in our online store. You may also listen to it on the Alpinist Aloud podcast here. Yasushi Yamanoi was recently selected for the 2021 Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award and he was also included on the long list for the 2018 Piolets d’Or in recognition of a first ascent of an unnamed 5970-meter peak in India’s Zanskar Range that he climbed with Takaaki Furuhata last year. They subsequently named the peak Rucho, which means “horns” in Ladakhi. The author of this story was a liaison officer for the pair’s expedition, and he co-authored a report about the climb with Yamanoi for the American Alpine Journal.–Ed.]
SUMMER DAYS IN THE TRANS-HIMALAYA seem endless. Even after the sun sets behind the mountains and shadows creep up the opposite slopes, the light lingers: a soft glow that dissolves all edges, blending everything and everyone that it falls upon into the landscape. On one such leisurely evening, August 2017, the members of our expedition sat sharing stories in the Zanskar Valley of Ladakh. As I watched the distant clouds turn from peach to orange, I was overcome by awe for the man beside me. A few days ago, with his climbing partner Takaaki Furuhata, Yasushi Yamanoi had descended from the first ascent of a 5790-meter peak. His thick hair fell onto his forehead, sprinkled with a few white strands. Only the crinkles at the corners of his eyes hinted at decades of experience. If I didn’t already know some of his tales, I’d never guess that his smooth face had been stitched up after serious injuries, or that he was fifty-two years old.
“In 1988 I was soloing the west face of Mt. Thor, on Baffin Island,” Yamanoi was telling us, “I heard a loud rumble and saw this truck-sized rock fall from above.” As he hugged the granite face, the enormous boulder hurtled past and missed him by an arm’s length. “I was so afraid,” he said, “but I kept hoping that another rock would fall.” He smiled. “Because I hoped to see again that tremendous power of nature.”
There it was: the kind of unexpected revelation I found so compelling ever since I joined this expedition as a liaison officer. Before the climb, I’d had to meet with various government officials at the district headquarters to let them know about the team. What got everyone’s attention, I realized, was a reference to Yamanoi’s speed ascent of the South-Southeast Spur of K2 in 2000: forty-eight hours, non-stop, from base camp to summit without supplemental oxygen. To mountaineers, his solitary climb in 1994 on the southwest face of Cho Oyu is perhaps an even more unusual feat. In the 2014 American Alpine Journal, longtime Himalayan chronicler Lindsay Griffin made a reference to this achievement as he included Yamanoi in the “small, highly elite” list of “people who have made an alpine-style solo ascent of an independent new route to the main summit of an 8000-meter peak.”
But Yamanoi is more than a cutting-edge climber. In this modern age of commercialized climbing and high-profile athletes, his career seems like a throwback to an era of Romantic, almost poetic mountaineering. Year after year, he returns to high peaks with a quiet, loving thoughtfulness that reminds me of the classic essay “The Art of Suffering,” in which the great Polish alpinist Voytek Kurtyka wrote: “What is unveiled to the individual when involved with creative mountaineering forms part of a new bond with the mountain experience… It is in forging true bonds rather than the collection of numbers or establishment of records that unveils a bit of mystery.”
All color now leached from the landscape, except for the tips of snowy peaks that flickered like candles about to go out. “Yamanoi san, I’m going to write about you,” I said. It seemed unfair that so few people outside of Japan knew about him.
“You know, it is possible,” he said quietly, “that you find me interesting now, when we’re high up in the mountains and you have nothing else to do but listen to me. Maybe you’ll forget all about me once you go back to your life. Maybe.”
BUT I HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN YAMANOI’S stories, and I draw strength from the memory of this short, good-natured man, so easily overlooked in a crowd. It is only when Yamanoi begins to climb that you realize how strong he is. He and Furuhata finished their ascent with a week to spare before their flight home, so we decided to explore the boulders near our camp. Our tents were pitched on a grassy slope beside the debris-covered mass of the Hagshu Glacier. Amid the flowering bushes and meadows, large rocks lay scattered: some rounded and smooth, others rugged and pockmarked; a few as big as two-story buildings, layered and cracked like the ruins of some ancient, misshapen city formed under the Tethys Sea.
It was mesmerizing to watch Yamanoi move over stone. He is missing the last two joints of both pinky and ring fingers on each hand and the last joint of the middle finger of his right hand, where the bone now is close to the surface. On a tricky overhanging traverse, he would lean over and look at a hold, tap the rock to make sure it was solid, and then narrow his eyes and blow the dust away, brushing the stone again with one hand before he grasped it. He wasn’t just climbing, he was having a conversation with the rock, and his body spoke with confidence and grace, beauty and pain. It was a dialogue that seemed to go back years and years; it brought to my mind everything that Yamanoi must have seen and everything that the rock, over the ages, must have been. I felt compelled to try to understand his connection with the mountains and to learn to listen to them as he did.
I grew up in boarding schools in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. There, I used to marvel at the distant peaks of the Dhauladhar and the Pir Panjal ranges, imagining them to be dragons curled up in sleep, and I looked for the shapes of their limbs among ridges and spurs. Long walks fueled a love for the outdoors that drove me to specialize in wildlife biology. I opted out of academics early on, choosing to help scientists collect data in the field while leaving the fundraising and report-writing to them. Though the pay was meager, by hopping from one project to another as a freelance field assistant, I could experience a variety of wild places–from thick rainforests that teemed with ticks and leeches and fifty meter-tall trees, to chilly heights where tiny warblers the size of my thumb came to breed above treeline in the summer months. I’d hoped to spend more time in the mountains–that’s where my heart truly lies–but going on a Himalayan expedition on my own was too expensive. So I took climbing classes and worked on a glaciology project.
At the beginning of 2017, when I became eligible to join the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, I applied to become a liaison officer for foreign teams. Early in 2017, I got the call from the IMF, asking if I’d like to join a Japanese expedition to Jammu and Kashmir. “Of course,” I said. To find out more about the team, I wrote to Mariko Obikawa, a Japanese guide I’d met during a course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. After making some enquiries, she wrote back, “You’re going with Mr. Yasushi Yamanoi, the most famous alpine climber in Japan.”
I didn’t follow mountaineering news all that seriously, then, and so–I must shamefully admit–I’d never heard of Yasushi Yamanoi. Online, I found a list of major ascents that spread over two pages. There was a major climb, sometimes two, for most years since 1984. He’d been mountaineering since before I was born. That meant he knew more about climbing than I knew about living. On an expedition with him, I wouldn’t have to worry about the moral dilemmas of exposing high-altitude staff to the enhanced risks of avalanches, altitude sickness or storms. Yamanoi now did all his ascents in alpine style, usually by new routes, either in small teams or alone.
At the time, I was reading Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless, and I was drawn to the French climber’s description of alpinism as “an essentially individual experience almost like artistic creation.” A mountaineer may resort to large teams, support staff, supplemental oxygen or fixed ropes to overcome otherwise seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I thought. But such aids take something away from the original charm of being a climber, straining the relationship between human and mountain, putting a distance there. And isn’t mountaineering really all about being one with the mountain?
FOR OUR EXPEDITION, YAMANOI AND FURUHATA looked for a particular kind of peak: one that stood tall against the sky, with natural lines that led over ice and rock to the summit. It had to be unclimbed because they wanted to experience the challenges of the first mountaineer on the first mountain, and they didn’t want their ideas to be biased by previous attempts. At age forty-three, Furuhata is both passionate and meticulous, and he searched patiently through the list of 140-odd open peaks on the IMF website, checking Google Earth images to shortlist five. Ultimately, he and Yamanoi chose an unnamed peak west of the glacier that flanks Hagshu Peak in the Zanskar Range.
After flying from Delhi to Leh, we drove for three days past arid mountains tinged with beige and rose and through the greener Suru Valley to the Zanskar Valley and then off the road to the village of Akshow. From there, we trekked up the Hagshu Nala, alongside Davinder Thamang, our cook, and Dorjey Aangchuk, our base camp manager. Local horsepackers brought our gear on ponies. Mountains of the Indian Himalaya are in a politically sensitive region, and detailed topographic maps can be hard to come by. Using printouts from Google Earth instead, we nearly walked past our peak. The computer image resembled a smooth, inverted ice-cream cone, with a shadowy, concave slope of stone and snow to the northeast where Yamanoi and Furuhata planned a tentative line of ascent. The real mountain proved to be much steeper and more ragged, its sickle crest broken into two jutting peaks. What looked like a large rock feature in the photo turned out to be a massive cave-in probably caused by erosion. The whole climb would have to be re-thought.
From the southeast side, a moraine spur led directly onto the glacier below the east face. A steep expanse of snow passed to the side of some loose overhanging rock and continued on to the south ridge. From there, a traverse east led back to another white slope below the summit. Yamanoi and Furuhata spent a few days reconnoitering the approach and determining the best descent route–which they climbed halfway up to acclimatize and to be sure it was viable. Each time they cached supplies at their advanced base camp, I accompanied them, but they never let me carry equipment. They wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible. I helped make cairns, though, so they wouldn’t lose their way in a whiteout.
When we were walking in Delhi, Yamanoi would look straight ahead or gaze down at his feet, and he would be taken aback if I pointed out a bird in a tree, as if surprised there could be things worth noticing in a city. On the mountain, however, he was constantly studying the slopes, the route, the snow. One morning in base camp, as he drank his cup of tea, he stared into space for a while. Then he turned to Furuhata and said, “One long and two medium ice screws should be fine.” Sitting there in the warm sun, he’d imagined the conditions high on the peak at 2 a.m., when they’d be on their way up. He told me it’s as if his vision opens up in the mountains, and he moved his hands away from his face to illustrate the blinders coming off.
Yamanoi doesn’t carry any form of communication equipment because he believes that once he starts an ascent, it’s just between him and the mountain. Thus, I had to be sure that I knew when to expect the climbers back. We went over their tentative plans in detail three or four times because–Yamanoi later admitted–he was “so nervous that the English wasn’t going into my ears!” Furuhata showed me pictures on his camera from their most recent climb together–an attempt on Mt. Abi, a 6097-meter peak near Chomolungma (Everest), with another Japanese climber, Toyama, in 2016. They’d moved more slowly than expected, and at 5800 meters, Yamanoi had made the call to turn back. “We could’ve made it to the summit, but we probably wouldn’t have made it down alive,” he said. This had been Furuhata’s first Himalayan expedition, and he wasn’t able to hold back his tears. In one of the last photos from Mt. Abi, back at the foot of the mountain, Furuhata slumped onto his rucksack–a picture of despair.
This time, they planned three days for their climb. If they weren’t back in five, I was to go to the nearest village that had a satellite phone and call for help. Yamanoi and Furuhata left advance base camp at 1:30 a.m. to cut across the undulating mass of the glacier. It was a clear cold night, and–as they later told me–they moved swiftly up hard snow and gleaming ice. They’d pinned their hopes on reaching the ridge by evening. Instead, they found themselves already there at dawn, and the whole long day before them.
Used to observing faraway animals, I spotted the pair from advanced base camp through my binoculars: two tiny specks traversing a steep, white slope. To avoid the fragile rock of the lower face, they kept to the snow for as long as possible. Gradually, they headed toward a chicken-neck-shaped couloir, where the thin snow gave barely enough traction for crampons and axes. Loose stones hurtled from above. From where I stood, the climbers seemed so disorientingly high that the mountainside became foreshortened beyond dimension; the rocks appeared to defy gravity and fall in arcs through space.
At last, the climbers broke free from the couloir. The slope above was steeper, but with deeper drifts of snow, and they continued to a final stretch of precariously balanced rock. They climbed carefully under a flawless azure sky, tapping the rock at each step. And just as the first clouds of the morning floated overhead, they stood on the table-sized slab of the summit. It was 9:11 a.m., seven and a half hours since they’d left advanced base camp. Yamanoi is never joyful on a summit–not even on the tops of hills near his town in Japan–and his companions often ask if something’s wrong. “It’s when I get back down that my happiness is complete,” he explains.
I’d lost sight of him and Furuhata as they neared the top of the peak, and at 10:30 a.m. I saw them again, descending: two figures attached by a sixty-meter rope, coming together and moving apart like the two ends of a yo-yo in slow-motion until they disappeared behind the south ridge. I’d expected them to bivy–they had a tent and enough food for three days and they’d climbed for eleven straight hours already–and so I was surprised to see them stagger over the ridge again at 2:30 p.m., Yamanoi moving sideways, Furuhata with his face to the slope. Every few steps, they stopped to beat off the soft snow that stuck to their crampons. They’d decided to push on, choosing the safety of advanced base camp over spending a night high on the mountain.
At 4:30 p.m., their drooping shoulders straightened as I rushed out onto the glacier to meet them. We hugged and shouted, and raised ice axes to the sky. I don’t remember what we said, but I recall the weary sunburnt smiles as they drank long draughts of the water I’d brought.
While we fussed over an early dinner, dark clouds swelled from the east. The patter of rain woke me in the night. I was glad that the climbers were sleeping soundly in their tents after a good meal. Over the next few days, in consultation with Aangchuk, they suggested the name Rucho for the peak, “Horns” in Ladakhi, after its two-pronged shape. After the climb, Yamanoi told me he’d been thinking of his partner: he worried that if Furuhata failed on his second Himalayan expedition, he might have felt he wasn’t good enough for the range. And Furuhata had been thinking about how Yamanoi hadn’t reached a Himalayan summit in almost fifteen years–and how he might believe that maybe he no longer had it in him.
OUR LAST WEEK IN THE MOUNTAINS became a string of bright, sunny days with yaks grazing on green slopes and tall flower stalks nodding in a chilly breeze. Thamang and Aangchuk told me that they found Yamanoi’s habits endearing: the way he asked for a little hot water and then used a steel plate for a mirror to shave; how he and Furuhata took turns washing each other’s hair. After a morning of bouldering, and a late lunch, we’d talk over endless cups of tea until it was time to sleep.
Furuhata had downloaded a Japanese-English translator onto his smartphone. He called it “Mr. Computer,” and he pulled it out to assist us whenever the conversation got tricky. If I asked a difficult question, Yamanoi grunted and replied, “Muzukashii na!” which translates to something like “Now that’s a tough one!” but he always tried to answer. He repeated that phrase often as I strove to learn more of the thoughts behind the frustratingly crisp articles in English-language journals. Consider the following excerpt from his American Alpine Journal account of his solo climb on Kasum Kanguru:
Many friends have criticized my penchant for soloing, but it really suits my temperament. I do not like to compete and, at the same time, I like to make my own decisions. Furthermore, soloing is not as dangerous for me as people make it out to be. Finally, solo climbing in a remote location leads to a better understanding of one’s self and of nature….
One such experience was camping on the desolate tundra of Baffin Island in 1988 as I waited to climb the west face of Thor in the eternal light of Arctic summer. The feeling of isolation while soloing the 1400-meter wall and the wild and natural view from the summit far exceeds what can be felt on El Capitan. Two winters later, climbing Patagonia’s Fitz Roy in the worst weather imaginable on earth taught me courage to face nature alone….
A rapid free solo of a mixed route in winter on Ama Dablam’s west face, where there is no big wall climbing, made me feel like I was a ballet dancer on a mountain; it also taught me to quickly assess a mountain’s weaknesses. My southwest face ascent of Cho Oyu in 1994 was an experience akin to climbing to outer space.
“I’d like to read about your climbs,” I told him, “as would so many other people out there. Why don’t you get someone to translate your diaries for you?” Yamanoi told me that they’re full of page after page of C’mon Yasushi! Summit! Go for it!… Tomorrow go for it! and nothing much besides. “And moreover,” he said, “to understand my climbing, you have to know how I live.”
Yamanoi now lives in the town of Okutama, near Tokyo, with his wife, Taeko Nagao. He enjoys fishing and bouldering in the forested hills. On bad weather days, he goes hiking because he thinks that’s good preparation for the mountains. Inside his house, he has a climbing wall that he built himself. For practice, he climbs while holding a paintbrush between his teeth. Hanging on by one hand, he creates a picture with the other. He’s painted a flying squirrel, an owl and a lizard. The painting takes his mind off his position–until hanging from a wall seems as natural as, say, sitting comfortably at a table. Perhaps Yamanoi embodies the ideal of minimalism even more than many other great climbers do: the stronger you are, the more you can dispense with, until everything seems dispensable, and there is nothing between you and the immediate experience of the elements. Mottainai is a Japanese word for “not wasting,” and Yamanoi seems to live by it. His rain pants, he explains, are now “only 40 percent rain pants and 60 percent duct tape.”
He refuses new equipment from his sponsors. A couple of years ago, they offered him new ice axes. He insisted he didn’t need them, and he still uses his old ones today. He wears the same clothes on the mountain as he does on the streets of his village, or to the meetings of his climbing group in Tokyo. And there, if it begins to rain, he keeps his raincoat rolled up in his bag, because, as he says, “My body is still strong, but the raincoat must be made to last.” He’s saving it for the mountains, where he’ll really need it.
Living Is Climbing
BORN IN 1965 IN TOKYO, Yamanoi grew up far from snowy peaks, amid the temperate, green hills of the Chiba Prefecture, on a peninsula that juts into the Pacific Ocean. His father was a labor union leader at a big newspaper company. As a child, Yamanoi became enthralled with the popular adventure books by the solitary adventurer Naomi Uemura, a Japanese man who was the first to trek to the North Pole alone, to raft the Amazon alone, and to summit Denali alone.
At age eleven, Yamanoi stood atop his first 3000-meter peak in the Japanese Alps. He also took part in the Japanese tradition of sawanobori, or stream-climbing, venturing up mountain drainages, swimming through gorges and climbing up waterfalls.
Around this time, he discovered the Japanese climbing magazine Iwa to Yuki, and became fascinated by articles on history and style. He longed to try rock climbing, but he didn’t have a partner or a mentor, so he practiced on the old walls of a nearby castle. Soon, it felt normal to scale cliffs alone. He got a used harness from a fireman he knew and a helmet from a construction-site worker. By fifteen, he was delivering papers to save money for better gear.
One day, he was halfway up a twenty-meter-high rock when a hold broke, and he fell. The ground was flat and grassy, and he didn’t break any bones, but he was bruised all over. Afterward, his father asked him to give up such a dangerous sport. As they argued, young Yamanoi reached for a knife and threatened to commit hara-kiri.
When Yamanoi narrated the story to me, he illustrated the term hara-kiri by holding an imaginary knife in his hands, pointing to the left side of his abdomen, then stabbing and slicing to the right. Yamanoi mimed pressing the tip of the knife against his skin and winced. “Ouch!” he exclaimed, and he broke into a smile at me as he reenacted moving his body away. “It hurt too much.” His father got the message and didn’t ask him to give up climbing again. His mother has never asked him to stop: she knows that to him living is climbing.
At sixteen, Yamanoi climbed Mt. Tanigawa, a 1977-meter peak near Tokyo, known for its avalanches and loose stone, and often called the “mountain of death” for the fatalities commemorated by plaques on its slabs. But as Yamanoi free soloed a 200-meter cliff, he exhilarated in the sheer jagged peaks that rose above trees of every shade of green, and the ground that sparkled with new-fallen snow. A sense of vibrant life, peace and beauty drew him back to the mountain again and again.
At nineteen, when he’d saved up enough money, he headed to America. “I wasn’t going to the US,” he says, “I was going to Yosemite Valley.” He’d read so much about the place in magazines that he believed that he had to go there to become a real climber. He wanted to touch El Capitan, the world-famous big wall. He’d seen photographs of climbers dangling free at the end of the roof crack of Separate Reality, their bodies silhouetted against the sky, and he pictured himself in their place. He’d never been out of the country before, and when he arrived at the LA airport, he didn’t speak a word of English. He laughs about his struggles to find his way to Yosemite, now, in a joyful, unhesitant way.
When he finally got to the Valley, he tried the Salathe Wall on El Cap, but he became nervous and gave up after about 100 meters. Nevertheless he fought his way to the top of Separate Reality, and he came back to Yosemite every year for the next three years, striving to get better at crack climbing. By 1987, he was able to climb the Sphinx Crack in South Platte, Colorado, a clean line that runs diagonally up a polished granite face. At 5.13b, it was then one of the toughest trad routes in the US. That same year, he began applying this experience to granite big walls on icy peaks, with a solo ascent of the storied West Face on the Petit Dru, his first major climb in the Alps. A year later, he spent eight days on Mt. Thor, its vast overhanging west face like the crest of a massive wave frozen in time. By the time he reached the summit, he’d gone without food or water for two days.
In the winter of 1989, Yamanoi spent two solitary months below the rime-crusted granite spire of Fitz Roy, in Patagonia, but the weather never cleared. He went back the next year with two friends, Mitsuhiro Iwata and Kenji Iwata, who hoped to climb the 1968 Californiana route while Yamanoi planned to solo Supercanaleta. After Kenji Iwata abandoned the climb, Yamanoi joined Mitsuhiro Iwata. Then Mitsuhiro Iwata got frostbitten hands, and he too quit, leaving Yamanoi alone again. Gusts of wind buffeted Yamanoi as he hung all night from his ice axes, high on the mountain. In the morning, still alive, he staggered to the top.
When I asked Yamanoi about Fitz Roy, he didn’t tell me about the difficulties of the climb, or about his feelings when he reached the summit. Instead, he talked about the experience of waiting at the base, by himself, for a fair-weather window. All he had to read was a travel guidebook for South America, which he’d carried along hoping to practice his Spanish. I could see him in a little hut made of old wood at the Rio Blanco base camp, perusing lists of hotels, restaurants and tourist sites, while the wind and the snow swirled around him, and storms howled like demons in the night.
Lines of Beauty
IN 1991 YAMANOI’S FIRST HIMALAYAN CLIMB was in some ways an anomaly: he joined a large Japanese expedition to Broad Peak. But he gained high-altitude experience, and he found a partner who shared his intense ideals, his future wife Taeko Nagao, the only team member who went bouldering with him on rest days. That autumn, on the way down from an ascent of Makalu, Nagao suffered severe frostbite and one of her partners, Takumi Ishizaka, died. Although Nagao ended up with major injuries to her hands, feet and face from the cold, she soon returned to climbing. She and Yamanoi moved in together, and they got married in 1996. Nagao is the strongest woman he’s ever met, he says. “Stronger than me, even, and morally unshakable.”
Over the next few years, Yamanoi returned to the Greater Ranges, sometimes to climb alone; other times to share summits with Nagao. He felt drawn to the geometry of beautiful lines up sharp, isosceles peaks such as the west face of pinnacled Ama Dablam, where he made a solitary ascent in December 1992; or the rock spire of Bublimotin, where he and Nagao, along with their companion Daisaku Nakagaki, completed the first ascent of the Southwest Face in 1995, surrounded by the glow of big snowy peaks.
Around the same time, Yamanoi was becoming known for his endurance. In 1993, during his solo attempt on the east face of 7925-meter Gasherbrum IV, an avalanche swept him eighty meters down an icefall. He brushed the debris off and kept going higher, through soft drifts and over burnished rock. When fresh snowfall forced him to retreat from 7000 meters, he headed straight to Gasherbrum II, where he joined Nagao and her teammates on a successful climb of that 8035-meter peak. A year later, Nagao and her partner Yuka Endo set out to make an all-female alpine-style ascent of a route on the southwest face of Cho Oyu that Voytek Kurtyka had first climbed with Swiss alpinists Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan.
Yamanoi soloed a new 2200-meter route to the left of his wife’s itinerary, reaching the summit after one bivouac. He descended the normal route, where he spent the night again at 7000 meters. The next day, he met two other climbers on their way up. They stopped to gush about his achievement and offer him tea or coffee. Yamanoi wavered, not sure whether accepting a hot beverage would take away from his solo climb. Then they all sat down and shared celebratory cups of coffee before going their separate ways.
Back at base camp, Yamanoi was so exhausted he just lay in his tent, occasionally crawling out on all fours to pee. “Of course I was hungry,” he said, laughing to me, “but I was thinking, ‘How do I make boiled potatoes?’ I was so tired that I couldn’t use the stove.” He ate a few biscuits instead. Meanwhile, Nagao and her friend were struggling through powder snow so deep and loose they had to pack it down with their knees, and they were forced to bivouac at 8000 meters. The next morning, they dug through drifts that rose to their chests, but they reached the summit by the afternoon. It was only when they made it down a day later that Yamanoi managed to rouse himself, and the three climbers cooked a proper meal together.
Modern climbers often describe high-level alpinism as “the art of failure,” the willingness and vision to venture to the thresholds of what’s possible, along with some combination of skill, intuition and sheer luck to survive. In 1996 Yamanoi reached 7300 meters on his second attempt of the west face of Makalu–then one of the most daunting unclimbed routes on an 8000-meter peak–when a rock tumbled down and struck his helmet. In the AAJ, he described his decision to retreat: “I was not injured outside but got a bad feeling.” (A large Russian expedition completed the first ascent of the face a year later, relying on thousands of meters of fixed rope.) A year later, on the northeast ridge of Gaurishankar, he and Nagao had to extricate themselves off a thin, steep crest, hemmed in by enormous snow mushrooms and precarious seracs.
During the spring of 1998, Yamanoi completed the first ascent of the east face of Kasum Kanguru alone in a thirty-five-hour round trip. To decrease the risks of falling debris, he waited until dark to approach the top. Under a new moon, he peered into the sooty night for hidden pathways up rock slabs and ice walls. Though the small headlamp beam made the terrain seem even steeper, he noted in his report, the restriction of sight made it “easy to concentrate on just the immediate problem.” As giant seracs glimmered above him, the sense of foreboding narrowed his vision even more. “The final climb to the summit was not particularly dramatic, but the intense cold, the hint of light in the sky, and occasional lightning over Mera were enough to emphasize the insignificance of my existence,” he observed.
As the light grew brighter, he down climbed through cascades of falling stones, and he admitted to himself that the route was too dangerous to be recommended. Yet by the time he’d returned to the safety of the wildflower meadows below the peak, he was already scanning the surrounding walls for future climbs. “I have now done ten Himalayan climbs in eight successive years, but alpine-style climbing, with its constant sense of discovery, affords no chance to rest,” he concluded. “There are always other mountain ranges and climbs that pass through my consciousness…. Rats–I wish I had unlimited funds and physical strength.”
That very autumn, Yamanoi and Nagao attempted a new route on Manaslu. At 1:00 a.m., they were climbing around 6100 meters through the moonless dark. Yamanoi recalls, “I had a bad feeling about the conditions, and so I tied in with my wife. A few moments later, I heard a loud BURDUNG! Where? I’m looking, and then a snow slab hits me bang in the torso and sends me flying. They say hold your hands over your face, but I was tumbling every which way, hands flying. I fell about 300 to 400 meters, and then all of a sudden I was frozen in cement, upright, my hands before me. I was utterly unable to move even a finger, with ice even inside my open mouth and my nostrils. I struggled to breathe, feeling the ice push against my chest.
“Luckily, my wife was fine. She picked out the rope and found me, and in a couple of minutes, she dug me out, first with an ice axe and then with her hands. She’d badly hurt her knee, and my ankle was sprained. I had to crawl back to Base Camp over the crevasse-ridden glacier on my hands and knees, going around the crevasses. I thought we would leave our gear there, but my wife insisted we take everything back. She limped, and I crawled back with fifteen-kilogram bags each. It was all our equipment, and also our rubbish. She let me throw the ramen and the rice, but we carried back the empty covers.”
A mere two years later, however, Nagao and Yamanoi were on K2 with Voytek Kurtyka himself–a climbing partner Yamanoi talks fondly of–planning to try the east face. When the weather did not let up, Kurtyka left, and the Japanese couple decided to attempt the South-Southeast Spur. After Nagao turned back, Yamanoi kept going to the top in what was then the fastest ascent of the route–forty-eight hours. Another climber might have promoted that feat as a means to worldwide fame and lucrative sponsorship. Yamanoi and Nagao just went back home. To an Alpinist reporter, he later commented simply, “I have no interest in speed records.”
Reaching the top matters to him, of course. “I am unhappy when I don’t summit,” he told me, but something else matters more. It is something to do with his desire to experience a close bond with nature–to uphold the same ideals behind Nagao’s insistence that they remove every piece of trash from a wild place, even at the risk of their lives. It was an intensity I was still struggling to grasp.
The Art of Suffering
IN ADDITION TO HARROWING CLIMBING TALES, Yamanoi shared stories that left us rolling with laughter, or cringing with sympathy. He lost his belongings and all his money more than once and in more than one country. “I had some climbing equipment though,” he said, as if that was all he needed. On one shoestring-budget trip to Nepal, he, Nagao and another friend trekked from mountain to mountain near the border with Tibet, living almost entirely on tsampa, roasted barley flour. To fund his journeys, he has held various temporary jobs. After hearing about cheap flights between Greece and Patagonia, he cleaned rooms and changed sheets in a Greek motel until he earned enough for the journey. For almost ten years, he worked as a porter on Mt. Fuji, carrying 35 kilograms of supplies from November to May to the summit weather station. At times, temperatures plummeted below -30 degrees, but he says, “it was good training for the Himalaya.” Once, in the dead of winter, he descended through a snowstorm. The winds were howling so loud he didn’t hear the falling rocks. One stone fractured his shin.
Pain is part of climbing to him. Yamanoi has a rough patch of skin on the back of a hand where it’s been repeatedly scraped from climbing cracks. At a crag in Japan, a friend he was belaying peeled off the rock, and a piton–the only piece of protection–shot out with a sharp PING! Yamanoi managed to cushion his friend’s fall and save his life, but the climber’s head hit his forearm and broke it. On another occasion, a hold snapped off, sending a friend tumbling down toward Yamanoi. This time, the stone bashed Yamanoi’s teeth. He stuffed a T-shirt into his mouth to stop the bleeding and then broke two fingers punching rocks to deal with the pain. Instead of going to the hospital, he took a train home because he couldn’t pay any extra costs. Eventually, he was able to afford a new set of front teeth edged by two silver ones that now flash in the sun when he smiles.
PEAKS THAT ARE JUST BELOW 8000 meters have an almost emotional appeal for Yamanoi. “They get neglected just because they’re a few meters too short. But that’s not reason to ignore them. They’re just as beautiful aren’t they?” he says.
In October 2002 Yamanoi and Nagao attempted the Slovenian route on 7952-meter Gyachung Kang. This peak has come to be the one associated with the couple more than any other–and it’s the one that’s most difficult to write about. The facts, from the Alpinist article I read, were these: on the evening before their summit bid, Nagao had trouble eating, and Yamanoi noticed frostbite on his toes. In the morning, Nagao felt dizzy and returned to their tent while Yamanoi went alone through a near-whiteout blizzard to the summit. He crawled back to his wife, exhausted.
After a night in a wind-battered tent, they descended into the ongoing storm. Nagao assisted her husband, whose feet had become so numb he could barely kick steps. They spent another sleepless night on a ten-centimeter ledge that they chopped out, holding the tent over their heads like a blanket. Three avalanches swept over them. When they continued down, two more avalanches struck in quick succession. Nagao fell and hit her head against a rock. She lost a lot of blood, one glove went missing, and the vision in her left eye blurred. Yamanoi’s goggles were swept away in the second slide, and he struggled to see.
After the slope stopped moving, it took them four hours to find each other again. That evening, they lost their lighter. Unable to melt water, they were reduced to swallowing fragments of ice. They passed two more nights on the mountain, one in their advanced base camp and the other in an open bivy, where they collapsed from thirst and hunger. The next day, Yamanoi continued to base camp to get help for his wife. Gyaltsen, the cook, was the only one still waiting for them. Everyone else thought they were dead. The article ended with the words: “At the time of this writing, Yasushi has lost five fingers to frostbite, as well as all the toes on his right foot. Taeko…had the remaining joints of her fingers [the ones she had not already lost on Makalu] amputated.”
Despite their injuries, they carried all their equipment back to the glacier. “And then I had to convince my wife to leave it there if we were to have a chance to get off alive,” Yamanoi told me. “She made me promise that we’d retrieve it later, before storing it safely in a place she’d remember. We went back for it two years later, in 2004, but the debris-strewn glacier was unrecognizable by then.”
Yamanoi often gets invited to give public talks in Japan, and the “accident” on Gyachung Kang is what he gets asked about the most. He calls it the “climb,” and it is the one that he likes talking about the least. “People don’t understand it,” he said, “and by talking about it, I end up losing my mountain. It is special. I want to keep it.” Since then, Yamanoi walks a little bow-legged because he has to keep his right foot taped up, where the toes are missing, to mitigate the pain. While climbing, he wears a US size 8 for his left foot and a size 5 for his right, which still has a three- to four-centimeter space at the tip so he can effectively only use the side of the shoe. His hands trouble him much more than foot does when he climbs. Caressing his hands occasionally, he tells them he is sorry.
After the accident, the couple continued to go on trips together in Greenland, Kyrgyzstan and other places. For Nagao and Yamanoi, there could not have been a greater test of their strength and their partnership. Experiences of facing the unrelenting forces of nature in the solitude of the mountains–and how you react to them–are essentially untranslatable. When you attempt to put them into words, you end up crudely misremembering the past. I’m sure to Yamanoi those memories are precious and he wants to hold onto them. In an interview for the Japanese sports magazine Number, though he refuses to talk about the climb, he says, “Since then, we’ve often been asked about this, and we’ve thought about it a lot, but we believe that, if we got into the same situation again, we’d still come back alive any number of times… We had just about enough competence to deal with it.”
In 2005, three years after Gyachung Kang, Yamanoi trekked with Nagao to the base of the north face of Putala Shan, where he made another solo first ascent. “I hoped success would be the sign of my comeback, and I wanted to prove to myself that I was not finished as a climber,” he wrote in his report. Rain, snow and ice fell on him ceaselessly, and it took him seven exhausting, cold, sunless days to reach the crest. “The snow and ice sticking to the upper part of the wall made the climb very stressful,” he recounted. Frostbite had even begun to form on his hands and feet, affecting the old injuries that he has considered his “Achilles heel” since Gyachung Kang. Since then, he’s been climbing again, every year, including first ascents of remote alpine walls. He now jokes about his amputations. While we bouldered together, Yamanoi would pull out his hand from a crack and turn to me with a look of shock on his face. “Oh! Fingers missing,” he’d say, and then he’d burst out with a laugh.
In recent years, he has started to slow down, but only a little: he now takes a few months to rest between big climbs instead of planning the next trip right away. “When I was your age, I could do a one hand, one finger pull-up,” he told me. “It’s been down, down, down, since K2, weaker and weaker,” he says, “but that’s also nice.” It’s as if he’s closely observing his own body and reveling in an understanding of how it reacts to everything that he wants it to do: how long before it gets exhausted, how long it takes to recover, and how all that process is changing over time. “I like this experience of getting old,” he said.
Life on the Ground
ON OUR LAST EVENING IN CAMP, Aangchuk had gone to Akshow to make sure the yaks and donkeys would show up the next day. As the rest of us sat sipping hot chocolate, watching the twilight fade seamlessly into a bright moonlit night, I asked Yamanoi the question that he probably gets asked most frequently and that he must find annoying: Why does he climb? Yamanoi remained silent, watching the moonlight shine on the distant Hagshu peak. It seemed so benign, so close. Even Rucho appeared softer, gentler. Thamang sang as he prepared dinner, and the stream murmured nearby.
“Because I feel like myself on the mountain,” he said. “I am myself on the mountain.” Then he laughed and added, “I give a different answer to that question every time. You know, I think if I wasn’t a mountaineer, I’d have been a boxer.”
“Boxing! But’s that’s so different from mountaineering. You’re actually competing with another human being there,” I said.
“And yet so similar,” he said. He later told me this comparison was a joke, but for now he turned to look at Rucho. The pale light washed over the peak until it appeared smooth, featureless; with shadows so deep they seemed to absorb all thought.
I was still searching for the similarities–agility and grace, a test of how much of a beating you could take–when he continued, “In Japan, I often go to watch boxing matches at the arenas.”
“Yeah? It must be great being part of the crowd,” I said. I’d never been to a boxing match myself. “But I’m sure you have to watch the action on the big screens they have put up.”
“Not at all, I get front-row seats,” he said. His smile flashed. “I’m quite famous in Japan, you know.” And then he couldn’t stop himself from laughing. He didn’t set out to be famous; he just wanted to climb.
We’d named one of the boulders near camp “Picture Hang,” because you could watch a climber hang from it with the snows of Hagshu Peak and Glacier far behind, all framed by the brilliant blue sky. Yamanoi shouted and grunted at each move up the smooth dented rock. “When I was doing it, I was thinking of nothing else,” he told me that evening. “Then I topped out and it took me a moment to figure out where I was. Where am I? I thought. Oh! India. Oh! There’s our mountain, Rucho.”
It’s like that for him on the mountain as well. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the stuff takes place after I leave base camp. And then when I return to the glacier, it’s all over. It’s behind me already, and it’s impossible to share. Once I get off the mountain, I still have it in my heart, but in a way, it’s gone.” It’s as if he inhabits two different worlds; and he’s here in this one just waiting and preparing to go to the other one. The place where he actually comes alive.
BACK IN LEH, OUR HOTEL was indifferently furnished, as if redecorators had halted halfway in a transition from a traditional homestay to a modern hotel. The corridors had an odd scattering of laminated pictures: local landscapes mixed with contemporary Ladakhi movie posters and a few images by the San Francisco Art Institute professor Linda Connor, best known for her photographs of spiritual places in the Himalaya and the Andes. On the landing that led to the dining room, one of her pictures caught my attention: a rectangle of sunlight fell upon a little clay statuette of a robed monk in a corner, deep in meditation, while skeletal demons danced on the walls. It was titled “The Patient One.” It reminded me of the starkest image that remained in my mind of Yamanoi below Fitz Roy, just him and the mountain, both adamant and unwavering.
It was as easy, I realized, to miss Yamanoi in a crowd if you didn’t know about his accomplishments, as it was to miss the man for who he was, if you knew too much about them. He wasn’t just the mountaineer who soloed Fitz Roy in the winter, he was also the person who stayed for months alone at the base. And only by understanding the one who sat at the foot of the mountain, could you hope to get a glimpse through the eyes of the one who looked out at the world from the summit. The monk wasn’t trying to overcome the demons; he was just waiting for them to subside, as he knew they surely would. He wasn’t the strong one, or the brave one; he was the patient one. As long as his mind was calm, the demons could not get to him. His strength lay in his knowledge of himself–his true self.
Back in Delhi, Yamanoi once again seemed only to think of bare essentials: shower, eat, wait to go back to Japan. Furuhata, however, was eager to see some of the sights. It took considerable cajoling to persuade Yamanoi to join us. At last, I lured him with a promise of chilled soda. After visiting a Mughal-style tomb, we went to an art gallery. There was a ceramic sculpture by Ray Meeker, an American sculptor who’d come to India in 1971. This particular piece, which the plaque described as “inspired by megalithic stone circles of prehistoric Avebury in the United Kingdom,” was a massive, fractured stone-like form called Hegemony. As I stood reading the Wallace Stevens quotation on the same plaque–“a disparate monstrosity… that dwarfs, terrifies, crushes”–Yamanoi walked past me to take a closer look.
Hegemony, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group.” Yamanoi is in many ways a non-conformist, finding his own path outside of the dominant modes of modern Himalayan mountaineering, away from the long strings of fixed ropes on commercial climbs, from the endless flashes of media images across millions of blue screens, and from any mode of alpinism that focused on dominion of nature. I wondered if the title resonated with him. To me, he represented the fiercely independent mountaineer, the minimalist, the gatherer of experiences strolling past the sponsor-branded athletes as they labored up high peaks; the spiritualist, who waltzed across what they thought were their battlefields, singing to the mountains where they had waged war.
Just then, Yamanoi, unaware of all the thoughts in my head, reached his hand toward a fissure in the sculpture, turned to me and said, “nice crack.”
The Eyes of the Bear
STILL, EVEN WITHOUT AN EXPLANATION from Yamanoi, I thought I could figure out for myself what he must know: the source of such passion. And as I went over everything we’d talked about, I realized that the answer might lie somewhere between the rock that fell off Mt. Thor and the bear that he’d encountered in Japan. Nine years ago, Yamanoi was running in the forested hills near his house. He had to watch where he put his feet on the narrow, rocky path, and he almost bumped into the bear before he saw her. And then he noticed the cub that she was hiding behind her. He put his arm up instinctively, and the bear’s teeth bore down into his flesh. With a jerk of her massive head, she sent him flying through the air. He landed in some brambles, and before he knew it, the bear was upon him again. This time she bit into his face. Blood streamed. It took him about forty minutes to crawl down the mountain to his house, and then his neighbor called for an ambulance.
At the hospital, heavily anesthetized, he was roused by the doctor holding up a mirror. “Does that look like you?” the doctor asked.
“Maybe the nose is a bit off, umm…a little to the left I think…. Yes, that looks about OK,” replied Yamanoi. And then there were hours and hours of reconstructive surgery. “You were lucky!” I said, for he’d had an extremely narrow escape.
He seemed to miss the point. “Yes, very lucky! To see a wild bear up close like that. Her face was here,” he said. He held his hands inches from his face, an excited smile on his lips, “her eyes so close to mine. A little bit angry, yes, but that’s to be expected.”
Yamanoi had savored and almost revered that moment. As a mountaineer, he seemed to have perfected the art of going just so far and not a step farther, retreating when the hazards appeared too great and struggling to come home safe. Yet what he seeks, I suspect, is beyond his control. And knowing that, he has honed his body and mind to handle the proximity of death like a high note held with consummate skill. To be able to relish such closeness to the bear who attacked him, to realize that to look into its eyes is to perceive nature’s own grace. To me, that is Yamanoi’s greatest achievement, and the essence of existence.