Japanese Caribou

January 1, 2009

Appalachia, Winter/Spring 2009

In the winter of 2007, Masatoshi Kuriaki climbed 17,400-foot Mount Foraker in the Alaska Range—alone. This was the first winter solo of the mountain and the only success among 21 attempts in that entire year. His climb was the culmination, so far, of his Alaskan mountaineering. Masatoshi, now 36, fell in love with Alaska on his first visit at age 22, and, with the exception of a post-monsoon visit to Nepal in 1996 (where he soloed four 20,000-foot peaks), all of his overseas mountaineering has been in Alaska. He has been there twelve times and concentrates on solo winter climbing in the Alaska Range—arguably the most severe winter mountaineering environment on earth.

Masatoshi operates entirely alone, climbing in a modified siege style, relaying everything himself. He tries to complete each climb in calendar winter. He made the fourth winter solo ascent of Mount McKinley—Masatoshi prefers the Native American name, Denali—in 1998. Twice before 2007, he ascended Foraker alone, but he reached the summit shortly after the end of winter each time. He has spent 483 days alone in the winter Alaska mountains since his first winter climb in 1997.

Following his solo winter ascent of Denali in 1998, wishing to learn more about Alaska and its people, he made an 860-mile solo journey across Alaska from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean—from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay—on foot, pulling his gear in a bicycle trailer along the Glenn, Parks, and Dalton highways. For this trip, Masatoshi named himself the Japanese Caribou, recognizing the trip as similar to the wild caribou’s migration.

Masatoshi’s accomplishments and his modest and friendly demeanor have won him the respect and affection of Denali park rangers and staff, distinguished Alaskan climbers, and ordinary Alaskans alike. When not mountaineering in Alaska, he lives in Fukuoka with his wife and baby. He is a popular mountaineering lecturer in Japan, has written a book (in Japanese) about his experiences, and maintains a Web site, japanesecaribou.com, where he posts accounts of his mountaineering exploits, in both English and Japanese, and an album of beautiful photographs of the Alaska Range in winter.

Here, at the request of Appalachia, Masatoshi Kuriaki describes the technique and philosophy of his unique mountaineering style, which he calls the “sourdough style” in a tribute to his Alaskan pioneer predecessors. He also discusses what motivates him.

—Jeffery Parrette

Developing My Climbing Style

My climbing began because I was profoundly impressed at age fifteen by a movie with a scene of beautiful evening clouds over the Japanese Alps. I joined the high school alpine club, and then the college alpine club. In 1995, at age 22, I began to gather information for my first overseas challenge and, unexpectedly, got more practical information about Alaska than for other countries. For example, I found the book High Alaska by Jonathan Waterman (American Alpine Club, 1989) through reference materials in a Japanese version of a booklet, “Mountaineering in Denali National Park and Preserve,” and I had climber friends who climbed Denali in 1993. If my first experience overseas had been with Himalayan climbing, and the expedition had touched my heart, perhaps I would now repeatedly return to the Himalaya instead of to Alaska.
With a partner on the summit of Denali’s West Buttress in July 1995, I dreamily gazed at the eight- and twelve-mile distant Hunter and Foraker, rising in pyramidal form under the midnight sun. After returning home, I learned from High Alaska that the three greatest peaks in the Central Alaska Range—Denali, Foraker (Sultana), and Hunter (Begguya)—are a “family,” because, in Athabascan, Denali means “high one,” Sultana means “wife” and Begguya means “child.” This enchanted me a great deal, and I felt the tug of destiny.

While planning my return trip to climb Hunter and Foraker in April through June of 1996, I did not want to go alone. I asked other club members at the college to go with me, but the trip meant taking time off from school, and they could not commit. I did not want to force them and, realizing my passion, decided to go solo. From April to June 1996 I attempted solo climbs of Hunter (via the east ridge) and Foraker (via the southeast ridge). I failed on both because of unstable snow conditions. These failures gave me a keen interest in winter climbs. I shifted forward my climbing seasons step by step: I climbed in the summer of 1995, spring of 1996, then winter of 1997. Despite the severe weather conditions of 50 degrees below zero F, 100-mile-per-hour winds, short daylight hours and the possibility of one or two weeks of continual storms, I find joy traveling in the cold Alaskan winter, watching the sun rise and set, the moon against the dark night sky, the twinkling stars and the northern lights over the mountains.

I learned from the practices and experience of other Alaskan climbers to develop my style for long, unsupported winter climbs—for example, the first winter ascent of Denali in 1967 (with 40 days’ supplies) by Dave Johnston, Art Davidson, and Ray Genet. In 1986, Johnston walked alone into Denali, starting  45 miles away at his cabin at 400 feet above sea level, climbing to 13,200 feet with 50 days’ supplies. I also learned from Vernon Tejas, who in 1988 was the first to ascend Denali alone in the winter and survive—and others.
Perhaps my style differs from that of most winter Alaska Range climbers because I have adopted a two-month climbing term. I have done research about the accidents to Naomi Uemura and to Noboru Yamada’s team1 in the winter Alaska Range. I believe that a violent wind was the major factor. So for more safety in the face of the possibility of one or two weeks of continual storms, I must have the ability and enough equipment and supplies to wait for better weather. My style for the long, unsupported winter climb could be called the capsule style or really the sourdough—Alaskan pioneer—style. It falls between the alpine style and the polar expedition method (also called the siege style).

Article by Masatoshi Kuriaki

The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of Appalachia


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