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Miura oldest to climb Everest but some facts overlooked

by Philip Brasor

The government has just established a new public award named after alpinist-skier Yuichiro Miura for “adventurers who challenge themselves to the limit of human potential.” Originally the recipients of the prize, whom Miura will select himself, were going to be seniors, but at its namesake’s insistence all ages are now eligible. Nevertheless, the deed that inspired the honor, Miura’s conquering of Mount Everest last month at the age of 80, thus making him the oldest person ever to scale the world’s highest peak, has been heralded as a valuable inspiration for Japan’s boomers. If Miura can reach the summit of Everest at such an advanced age and with a faulty ticker to boot (four operations for arrhythmia since 2008, not to mention a history of diabetes and hypertension), then think of what mere mortals can accomplish.

The mass media tend to ignore those aspects of a human-interest story that might detract from its positive effects. Nobody wants to be a wet blanket — except maybe the weekly magazines.

One, Bunshun, published an article in its June 13 issue that attempted to temper the excitement of Miura’s accomplishment with a balanced accounting of how he went about it. The reporter mentions that no one can deny that the feat was impressive, but it’s not as if any healthy 80-year-old, even one who trained as hard as Miura did, can do the same thing. You need money, and lots of it, and for all intents and purposes the Miura family, which is in the mountain-climbing business, is run like a corporation. This was the octogenarian’s third successful climb of Everest, and though it was characterized as one man versus nature, it was actually a huge financial undertaking. A dozen sponsors jockeyed for the right to have their names printed on the flag that Miura waved when he reached the summit because there was a cameraman there to film it, ostensibly for record-keeping purposes but also because those sponsors expected it. According to Miura’s daughter, Emiri, the climb cost ¥150 million, of which ¥100 million came from sponsors, ¥18 million from individual “supporters,” and the rest from fees the alpinist received for speaking engagements and media appearances.

The ascent itself cost ¥30 million. On top of that the Everest authority charges ¥7 million for permission to scale the mountain. Oxygen tanks were ¥5-6 million, and the rest was split among 18 Sherpa guides, including five cooks; two professional Japanese climbers, each of whom have climbed Everest at least a dozen times before and who “accompanied” Miura and his son, Gota, to the top; and seven other Japanese “attack” crew members, including a full-time physician. In addition, several hundred porters kept the base camp supplied during the climb.

In order to put this outlay of money and manpower into proper perspective, Bunshun looks at a much less successful climb that took place the same week. Chizuko Kono, along with two other climbers, froze to death while attempting to reach the top of the Himalayas’ Mount Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest peak the world.

In a press statement, Kono’s husband said that his 66-year-old wife was a lifelong alpinist who put her love of mountains on hold while she raised the couple’s children, and resumed climbing after she turned 50 and quit her job as a nurse. She had no sponsors and did not solicit funding. She used her savings to pay for everything and had scaled mountains all over the world. Dhaulagiri was going to be her last because, according to her husband, “we ran out of money.” The cost of her fatal climb? Two million yen. According to the former representative of a mountain-climbing league that Kono belonged to, the members pay their own way and do not employ elaborate support staff “in the Miura style,” which isn’t to say the members resent that style. Kono herself followed the Miura training regimen whenever she prepared for an ascent.

Though Kono’s death was widely reported in the press, few made the unavoidable comparison, which may be more instructive than Miura’s victory. Mountain climbing has gained in popularity among older people over the past two decades, as evidenced by the increasing number of middle-aged and elderly who die on mountains every year. The cautionary aspects of Kono’s failure may be more to the point than the promotional aspects of Miura’s success, but journalists, except for those at Bunshun, have avoided it.

Last week, NHK’s in-depth news show “Closeup Gendai” elaborated on Miura’s health situation with the aim of showing how a disciplined approach to staying fit could make one’s twilight years more productive and enjoyable. It’s certainly a worthwhile topic, but Miura is such an exceptional case — staying fit is essentially his job — that applying it with the same degree is out of the question for the average person.

But another aspect of the climb that the media played down is the issue of whether Miura deserves to hold the record he so earnestly coveted. During the descent he was airlifted the rest of the way from the 6,500 meter line because of dodgy ice and exhaustion. Bunshun quotes several anonymous alpinists, as well as one famous one, Ken Noguchi, who, while not mentioning Miura by name, say that you can’t call a climb “complete” unless you walk all the way down the mountain, too. During the many appearances that Miura made on news shows after his return, no interviewer asked him about the helicopter, which cost ¥2 million to charter; in other words, the equivalent of the entire cost of Kono’s fatal climb.

This might sound like splitting hairs if Miura and his son hadn’t made such a big deal at the postclimb press conference about proof. When reporters asked about a proposed bid by an 81-year-old Nepalese climber to best Miura’s record, he welcomed the gambit as long as there was incontrovertible evidence that the climber made it to the top and is as old as he says he is. When you’re running a successful business you have to play by the rules.

  • Masa Chekov

    “Bunshun quotes several anonymous alpinists, as well as one famous one, Ken Noguchi, who, while not mentioning Miura by name, say that you can’t call a climb “complete” unless you walk all the way down the mountain, too. ”

    No, this is very much splitting hairs. He summitted, did he not?

    • Spudator

      No, this is very much splitting hairs.

      Then they’re hairs as thick as tree trunks, because, as far as I’m aware, hitching a ride on a helicopter to make a mountaineering expedition less gruelling is hardly old-school mountain climbing. I don’t recall Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay using a chopper when they conquered Everest. Had they done so people would undoubtedly have accused them of cheating. And surely if you need to be rescued before completing any kind of expedition—and, let’s face it, Yuichiro Miura’s airlift much of the way back down because he was suffering from exhaustion was indeed a rescue—then how can that expedition be considered an unqualified success?

      But what do I know?

      The thing is, the article refers to a number of people who do know—real mountaineers, not hair splitters. And they make no bones about it being one of the unwritten rules of mountaineering that a climb is a round trip done entirely under your own steam.

      • Masa Chekov

        Absolutely none of the mountaineers who have summitted Everest in recent year have done so under entirely their own power. The do take planes/choppers to the base camp, right? They do use ropes that others set, right?

        It’s splitting hairs.

        He climbed the mountain same as anyone else this season, he just took a helicopter part of the way down. I suspect of Hilary and Norgay had this option available to them they would have done so as well.

        “unwritten rules of mountaineering”

        What a meaningless phrase. People who can’t afford to take a helicopter down and are jealous of Miura’s publicity say this is some important rule, though nobody’s ever heard of it before. It’s their opinion, not a rule.

      • Spudator

        Absolutely none of the mountaineers who have summitted Everest in recent year have done so under entirely their own power. The do take planes/choppers to the base camp, right? They do use ropes that others set, right?

        A helicopter ride to base camp, which, after all, is where the climb proper starts, is one thing. A helicopter ride to cut out part of the ascent or descent is another thing altogether. As for ropes, the fixed ones you’re talking about effectively provide climbers with a continuous handhold to assist them as they ascend, but that ascent is still achieved using good old-fashioned muscle power. In other words, you do the climb entirely under your own steam.

        It’s splitting hairs.

        I heard you the first time, and those hairs still look like tree trunks.

        He climbed the mountain same as anyone else this season, he just took a helicopter part of the way down.

        Just? Oh, I like that. What next? Mountaineers who “just” take a helicopter part of the way up, too? Unlike other climbers who, lacking his resources, have to make the ascent and descent using only their natural powers of locomotion, Miura had mechanized help. Actually, it was a bit more than help: if, for some reason, that helicopter had been unable to pick him up, Miura’s support team would have been forced to stretcher him back down the mountain. The man was exhausted and had to be rescued; there’s no just about it.

        Now taking into account Miura’s age, reaching the top was indeed a tour de force, and I can’t pretend I’m not impressed by it. But what he did wasn’t in the same class as climbs by mountaineers who get to the summit and all the way back using only muscle power and willpower. Everest kicked Miura’s butt and he didn’t have the strength or fortitude to finish the job he set out to do. You may be able to turn a blind eye to that airlift, but I bet Miura can’t. He probably regrets it intensely.

        I suspect of Hilary and Norgay had this option available to them they would have done so as well.

        I’m sorry to hear you have such a low opinion of these exemplary human beings. I’d be incredulous if it could be proved that either of these greats would have chosen such an unmanly cop-out. People climb mountains for the challenge—to prove to themselves that they have the strength and courage to take on the daunting or even the apparently impossible and triumph over it. A climb is an act of proving yourself: you want it to be hard. To use excessively artificial means to make the challenge easy defeats the whole purpose of the climb. Only cowards, cheats and fakes look for easy ways out. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were certainly not such men.

        “unwritten rules of mountaineering”

        What a meaningless phrase. People who can’t afford to take a helicopter down and are jealous of Miura’s publicity say this is some important rule, though nobody’s ever heard of it before. It’s their opinion, not a rule.

        No, it’s a rule—at least it is if you want to be able, after the event, to contemplate what you’ve achieved and know in your heart that you succeeded entirely because of your own strength and determination, your fortitude and courage, and not because you got a helping hand or a free ride. Of course, if you’re just a vain seeker of glory or celebrity, there are indeed no rules and anything goes: success is all that matters and how it’s achieved is irrelevant. However, for those men and women for whom courage and honour still matter and for whom it’s not so much the winning that’s important but the way they win, unwritten rules of behaviour most definitely do exist. They go under such names as sportsmanship and fair play.

        I must say I find your references to jealousy and publicity (I presume you mean fame) almost comical. Do you honestly believe that true mountaineers, for whom a successful climb is proof that the human spirit can triumph over overwhelming difficulties, would envy someone who uses money and the resources it buys to lessen those difficulties? I think they’d be more likely to hold such a person in contempt—which, reading between the lines of the article, seems to be the attitude of those climbers commenting on Miura’s climb. And do you really think that people who put themselves to the severe test of a climb to prove to themselves that this indomitable human spirit is alive and well within them would be so shallow as to care about fame and how they’re evaluated by others? Such notions are absurd.

        I really don’t think you understand mountaineers or mountaineering at all.

  • Yumi Yamamoto

    I see no political incorrectness in Mr. Miura’s success in climbing the top of the earth.
    What’s wrong with having sponsors to financially back him up? Most professional athletes are financially sponsored.
    The only one who could point out the wrongness of his success is the one who climbed to the top and returned all alone and naked without any food or Sherpa. Every single climber more or less spends money for equipment and Sherpas, which may include cooks and supporters. It’s only the matter of how much, and is there any officially recognised definition on the correct amount to spend for a climbing?
    Mr. Miura used no tax of ours, that I have no no reasons to object his accomplishment. He only did his job in his own way.
    What really counts is his health condition and endurance which he has built on his own at his age, it is perfectly subject to be applauded.

  • Vigarano

    “He summitted, did he not?”

    “Summitting” is generally considered to require a successful descent. Many climbers have exhausted themselves on ascents and died on the descent. The reward for those unable to whistle up a ¥2 million helivac from the upper slopes of Everest is to be immortalized – with dozens of others – as a frozen statue along the side of the climbing route.

    • Masa Chekov

      Nonsense. A successful descent is required only by those who want to harrumph their way through other’s accomplishments. I suspect those who are criticizing Miura are merely jealous of his skills at gaining sponsors and receiving attention.

      Criticizing someone because they can afford a 2m helivac (and thereby avoiding possible death) is ludicrous, honestly.

  • Rod Barker

    this may seem amazing, but in reality it is meaningless. the mountains don’t care if we climb them or not. what’s more important is that humans are ruining these beautiful places to prove something to themselves and others. there are piles of rubbish and shit building up in the places we call amazing and wild. we need to start caring more for this planet and be less focused on ego based human achievement

  • http://www.mjfimages.com/ MJF Images

    He’s 80, give him the benefit of the doubt! If I did that though, don’t give me credit. You have to descend to have done the mountain. And that’s whether you fly into a point close to the base or not. The climb is essentially from the base of the mountain and back, right? I’m just being simple here. If Hillary could’ve taken a plane to Lukla he would have. That village is a long ways from the base of Everest!