Yuichiro Miura: on top of the world

Acclaimed 81-year-old alpinist has spent a lifetime challenging himself to the limits of human potential

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Ever wondered what it feels like to stand on top of the world? Eighty-one-year-old alpinist Yuichiro Miura should know: He’s done it three times since turning 70. He became the oldest person to scale the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest, in May last year, a remarkable feat that spurred the government to name a state award in his honor. It’s rather fitting, then, that the Miura Award is handed out to those who “challenge themselves to the limits of human potential.”

Sitting at a table in his Tokyo office late last month, Miura appears to be pondering whether he had indeed exceeded his own limits at breakfast a few hours earlier.

“I had some yogurt, apples, nattō (fermented soybeans) and eggs for breakfast. In fact, I had four eggs . . . maybe I should skip lunch,” he says.

He also confirms a long-standing rumor that the sprightly grandfather of four still wolfs down a kilogram of steak at mealtimes every now and again. “Only the lean meat, maybe 800 grams to 1 kg,” Miura says. “If it were fatty Kobe beef, though, I’d probably be able to eat only 50 grams.”

It’s been eight months since Miura scaled Everest for the third time and the veteran alpinist is enjoying the closest thing to a break he ever takes, with surgery scheduled in early February to fix cardiac arrhythmia — his sixth operation in relation to his condition.

While his daily routine at present doesn’t include inching his way up a precipitous cliff face or clinging on to a makeshift harness 8,000 meters above sea level, Miura’s daughter, Emili, says her father still has a hectic schedule that keeps him busy.

“He’s scheduled to appear in more than 30 events and lectures every month,” Emili says, noting that he had returned from Fukuoka on the last bullet train the previous evening after traveling south for the day to attend a lecture.

He was planning to visit Sapporo for skiing later in the week to enjoy as much of the snow as possible before his scheduled surgery. “It’s just the arrhythmia,” Miura says. “That’s the only thing wrong with me.”

I ask Emili if she wished her father would slow down a bit. “Not at all,” she replies. “He is an inspiration to us all. He makes us understand the importance of having a dream.”

Truth be told, the reason Miura has decided to undergo heart surgery again is not because his doctors believe he is in immediate danger. In fact, his doctors have told him that if he focused on more relaxing hobbies such as bonsai or golf, he wouldn’t need to have a catheter inserted into his heart.

His irregular heartbeat, however, is standing in the way of his latest — and, arguably, highly improbable — quest.

“I want to ski down Mount Cho Oyu in the Himalayas when I am 85, descending from a height of 8,201 meters,” he says. He wants to begin training for that expedition in the mountains of Nepal in 2015, he adds.

Miura says he is far from ready to slow down yet. He refuses to let his grandchildren call him grandpa, asking them to call him “Super G” instead. “I realize I’ll have to slow down for a while after surgery,” Miura says. “I’ll only climb Mount Fuji and a few other places, and that will be it for about a year. I shouldn’t push myself too hard.”

Miura was born in Aomori on Oct. 12, 1932, and first learned how to ski as a second-grade student at elementary school. Lured by the abundance of snow, he studied veterinary medicine at Hokkaido University and remained there as an assistant upon completing his undergraduate degree. It wasn’t long, however, before he was hooked on the adrenaline rush that extreme sports offered — long before the phrase was even coined.

In 1964, he set a new world speed record for skiing — 172.084 kph — during a schuss down the Kilometer Lanchard in Italy. The record stood for less than a day, but Miura was already looking elsewhere and he decided to focus on skiing down the world’s most spectacular summits. He skied down Mount Fuji in April 1966 and, four years later, down the South Col, the sharp-edged pass between Mount Everest and Lhotse, the highest and fourth-highest mountains in the world. The descent, approximately 1,280 vertical meters, took less than 2½ minutes, a feat that was recorded in the 1975 documentary “The Man Who Skied Down Everest,” the first sports film to win an Academy Award.

By the age of 54, Miura had skied down the highest mountain in each of the seven continents. Having successfully completed his personal goals, Miura was a little unsure of his next steps.

In a book titled “Takaku Toi Yume” (“High and Distant Dream”), published last July, Miura admits to going through a midlife crisis around that time. Before too long, he found that he had “become a fat old man” instead of the grizzled adventurer he had once aspired to be.

“I lost all motivation and didn’t know what to do next,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Miura was able to draw inspiration from two people who were closest to him: his own father, Keizo, a nonagenarian who was still skiing down the Europe’s highest mountains; and his son, Gota, who was a successful mogul skier at the Winter Olympic Games at Lillehammer in 1994 and Nagano in 1998.

“I wanted to surprise everyone and undergo a transformation,” he writes in “High and Distant Dream.” He committed himself to climbing Mount Everest at the age of 70.

In order to train for the arduous expedition, Miura would carry 20-kg weights in a backpack and strap 5-kg weights around each leg. He would then walk 7 km from his office in Yoyogi to Tokyo Station, hop on a shinkansen, change clothes in the bathroom, speak at an event he had been asked to attend and then head home on foot after arriving back in Tokyo.

After years of preparation, he finally reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 22, 2003, and five years later, as if to prove it wasn’t a fluke, did it again.

In 2009, however, he broke his pelvis during a ski accident, and doctors at the time warned him that he may find it difficult to walk again. The doctors, however, had underestimated the healing effects that Miura’s training regime had had on his body. His bone density at the time was that of a man in his 20s and, four years after the accident, Miura was able to say — in the words of his New Zealand climbing hero, Edmund Hillary — that he had “knocked the bastard off” for the third time.

“I’ve learned through my own experiences that working toward an objective in your life can change who you are,” Miura says. “When I was younger I could climb three times faster than I can right now, but that’s OK. It’s important to set your own goals and work hard to achieve them.”

Twentieth-century British mountaineer George Mallory famously said that he wanted to climb Mount Everest “because it’s there.” Miura says he climbs it because he “wants to and can’t help it.”

After scaling Mount Everest at the age of 80, Miura says it will likely be the last time. “Three times is enough,” he told reporters on his return to Japan, describing a difficult descent that almost cost him his life. However, the octogenarian may need a new mission in life if he’s to keep going after his attempt to ski down Cho Oyu. Would he consider trying to reach the summit as a 90-year-old? “I really don’t know yet,” he says. “I can’t tell at this point.”

The final few minutes of Miura’s assault on Mount Everest’s peak has been well documented. Instead of asking him about this moment in time, I ask him about the mood among climbing teams during the other, less dramatic hours of navigating steep cliffs while the threat of avalanches, altitude sickness and sudden changes in weather looms large.

“We generally try to keep our spirits up by telling jokes and stupid stories,” Miura says. He recalls the story of how his son, Gota, once talked about a scientific report that said the scent of flatulence can help lower blood pressure. “So we would be scaling a wall in a line, with our buttocks in the face of whoever was following,” he says. “Gas in the stomach tends to form more easily at higher altitudes. In any case, whenever we caught wind of a pungent smell, we’d thank whoever was responsible for it, telling them that we appreciated having our blood pressure lowered.”

The comradery of the team gives Miura an extra incentive to keep going. “I am always the biggest coward in our team, and usually the most cautious,” he says.

At other times, however, there are moments when the reality of death is right there in front of them, quite literally staring them in the face. The frozen corpses of climbers who have died on the mountain, such as those of Francys Arsentiev and Tsewang Paljor, still lie unclaimed along routes to the summit.

“There’s sometimes a corpse of a mountaineer hanging on a rope, and we’d have to walk right by him in order to continue our expedition,” Miura says.

The memory of such images haunted Miura when conditions became tough.

“I really struggled on my descent during the last attempt,” Miura says. “I could hear the Grim Reaper constantly telling me to give up. I was too exhausted and could barely move. The Grim Reaper was trying to convince me that things would be so much better if I simply gave up.

“I started thinking that this was it, and imagined the world without me, maybe 3,000 years from now or 300 million years from now. That’s what went through my mind at that time.”

Miura was caught in an avalanche during an expedition in the Antarctic in 1977, but escaped without serious injury. He doesn’t remember being afraid of death then, only wondering what death would feel like. Like most things in his life, Miura’s views on death were formed in the mountains. “I’ve been doing extremely dangerous activities for a long time, but I’ve been lucky enough to have survived so far,” he says. “However, sooner or later we all die . . . and, if that’s the case, I want to die doing what I love to do the most. That’s how I view death.”

As the interview draws to an end, our conversation comes full circle back to the topic of the government award that had been named after the exalted mountaineer. I ask him who he would like to see receive the inaugural honor. A number of talented people come to mind, Miura says, before adding that astronaut Koichi Wakata had a very strong case.

“I think the award should be given to someone who is expanding the boundaries of the unknown . . . and space is the true frontier today,” Miura says. “I have nothing but respect for him.”

Touted as the “godfather of extreme skiing” by the Smithsonian Magazine in 2010, Miura has always tried to push the boundaries himself — regardless of the activity. In addition to his skiing and climbing achievements, Miura is also the headmaster of the Clark Memorial International High School in Fukagawa, Hokkaido, since 1992, where he passes on his experience and knowledge to a younger generation.

He also ran in the Hokkaido gubernatorial race in 1995, as well as the Upper House election that same year, in an attempt to test himself in the unknown world of politics. “I wanted to help develop Hokkaido and create a region similar to that of the French Alps,” he says.

Almost 20 years have passed since his failed electoral challenge. He has experienced failure before, but always came back stronger. Would Miura consider a return to politics? After all, it must certainly be less physically demanding than skiing down 8,000-meter slopes.

What’s more, I suggest, Miura looks great in his North Face jacket, but he would look even better in a suit and a tie.

“Oh, no. I don’t think it will happen,” Miura says. “I’m too old for that.”


Avalanche threat

More than 20,000 locations nationwide have been designated high-risk avalanche sites, including 2,536 sites in Hokkaido, 1,630 sites in both Akita and Gifu prefectures, and 1,484 sites in Niigata Prefecture.

Avalanches typically occur in February, when daytime temperatures start to climb. Statistics from the Land Ministry show that 154 avalanches have been recorded in the month of February between 1994 and 2013, compared with 95 and 55 in January and March respectively.

Slab avalanches, in which a block of snow slides downhill, can reach speeds of up to 80 kph. Powder snow avalanches, where only the top layer slips downhill, can reach speeds of up to 300 kph.

Slopes of more than 30 degrees are considered to be high-risk avalanche sites, but slopes of 35 to 45 degrees are the most dangerous. Slopes that have few trees on them are also considered to be high risk.

Surviving an avalanche

If you happen to find yourself in the path of an avalanche, try to make your way to the exterior edges of the runout zone, throw away whatever you are carrying (to make yourself as light as possible) and try to swim upwards once the snow topples you. At this point, it’s best to roll onto your back with your feet pointed downhill, do the backstroke and try to make your way uphill. Once the avalanche stops moving, it will begin to set around you like concrete. You need to create an air pocket by putting your arm across your face, which should give you a little room to breathe. As the snow begins to harden, take a big breath. This expands your chest, which can give you extra breathing room. It’s also advisable to carry a transceiver or probe, as well as a shovel, in avalanche-prone areas, which will improve your chances of survival.

Mountain safety tips

To avoid getting into trouble on the mountains, always plan your route before leaving and carry sufficient supplies (including food, water and appropriate mountain clothing/gear). Be sure to share your schedule/route with family members and/or trail administrators, and make sure you are aware of high-risk avalanche areas along your route. Don’t hesitate to call off your expedition if weather conditions deteriorate or if you feel unwell. To avoid getting lost, use maps and carry a phone or compass.