Japan has had a tumultuous, and at times controversial relationship with Mount Everest. Its history features the first woman summiteer, a heated race to claim the crown of oldest person to the top, a disastrous early expedition — and one of the mountain’s most infamous casualties.
1963: The first Japanese group gets a climbing permit for Everest, but is thwarted when Nepal closes the Himalayas to mountaineers. The ban is lifted in 1969 and preparations begin anew.
1970: The Japan Mount Everest Expedition 1970 sets off. Costing ¥100 million, the 39-strong team, plus 21 Sherpas, 30 Icefall porters and 30 staff at Base Camp, it is one of the largest expeditions ever mounted, but is beset by tragedy.
Six Sherpas die in an avalanche, a porter is killed by a serac icefall, and a young climber, Kiyoshi Narita, dies of a heart attack. The team summits along the Hillary-Tenzing Southeast Ridge route, but fails to establish a new route, as intended, via the Southwest Face. The deputy leader, Hiromi Ohtsuka, describes JMEE ’70 as “far from successful.”
1970: A separate party, the Japanese Everest Skiing Expedition, fares better. Daredevil Yuichiro Miura skis more than 2 km down from the South Col of Everest, and the film of his exploits — “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” — wins the 1975 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
1975: Glory for Junko Tabei, who, on May 16, becomes the first woman to reach the summit of Everest — and that despite being injured in an avalanche 12 days earlier. (See accompanying interview story.)
1980: Climbing duo Takashi Ozaki and Tsuneo Shigehiro make the first full ascent of the North Face. Yasuo Kato achieves the first solo winter ascent.
1982: Kato and climbing partner Toshiaki Kobayashi are lost near the summit in conditions of minus 43 degrees Celsius and wind speeds of up to 200 kph.
1988: A joint Japanese-Chinese-Nepalese expedition makes broadcast history with live coverage of its “crossover” ascent from the North and South sides of the mountain, and then each descending the opposite face.
1995: Nihon University climbers Kiyoshi Furuno and Shigeki Imoto are the first to complete the full Northeast Ridge — the last remaining unclimbed route.
1996: Yasuko Namba becomes the most controversial victim of “Everest’s deadliest season,” in which 15 people die near the summit. Namba, 47, summits on May 10, but then she and others are caught in a blizzard. Stranded climbers from a different expedition are brought down by rescuers, but Namba and teammate Beck Weathers are judged to be beyond help and are left on the mountain. Weathers makes an astonishing recovery, walking into Camp IV, but Namba dies of exposure.
The argument over whether Namba could have been saved and who, if anyone, was at fault in her death, rages to this day — with two very different versions recounted in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” and “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev, the guide who rescued three others during the storm.
2002: Tamae Watanabe reaches the top at the age of 63 years 177 days on May 16, 2002, becoming the oldest woman ever to do so — and sparking a craze in Japan for the crown of “oldest summiteer.”
2003: Skiier Yuichiro Miura returns to Everest, and becomes the oldest person to summit, age 70 years and 222 days.
2006: Miura’s record is broken by fellow Japanese Takao Arayama — by an age margin of three days.
2007: Arayama is topped by Katsusuke Yanagisawa, who summits at the age of 71 years and 61 days.
2008: Miura summits once more, on May 26 May at the age of 75 years and 227 days, and briefly reclaims his title. That is until 2009, when the “Guinness Book of World Records” recognizes a summit made the day before Miura’s by a Nepali named Min Bahadur Sherchan — then aged 76 years and 330 days. Sherchan’s record still stands.
2011: Takashi Ozaki, the 1980 North Face pioneer, dies of altitude sickness while making his third attempt on Everest, at age 59.
2012: Tamae Watanabe smashes her own (unbroken) record as the oldest female summiteer, reaching the top on May 19 at the age of 73 years 180 days.