Ken Noguchi: Climb (and clean) every mountain

When Ken Noguchi reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1999, at the age of 25 he became the youngest person to have scaled the highest peaks on all seven continents. Born to a Japanese father and Egyptian mother, he grew up moving around the globe. His love affair with the dizzy heights of high-altitude climbing started at 16, when he dropped out of school and then climbed both Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro in the space of the next four months. Recently, he has focused his efforts on cleaning up the tons of garbage left behind by expedition groups on Mount Everest, and educating both children and adults on environmental issues. Following the publication of his latest book, “Hiyakuman-kai no konchikusho (A Million Curses),” on Feb. 27, Noguchi, now 28, spoke with The Japan Times about the high — and low — points of his career so far, his future plans and his penchant for sandy beaches.

Your first major climbs were ascents of Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro at age 16. What got you started so young?

I had a tough time at high school — I got into fights, and was even suspended for beating up a senior. So I dropped out. It was at this time that I came across the writings of Naomi Uemura [who in the mid-1970s became the first person to climb the highest peaks on five continents].

What impressed me was how Uemura’s adventures were a search for his true self. His experience showed me how narrow society’s values were. But he had managed to overcome such narrow-mindedness — and I decided I could, too.

When you are in the mountains, so much is brought into perspective. Humans are just mere specks, mere mortals among those great walls of rocks. My troubles seemed ludicrous among all that.

What has been your hardest mountaineering challenge so far?

Mount Everest, without a doubt. At such altitudes your physical condition is pushed to the limits — you cannot follow your regular lifestyle, can’t eat the same things, can’t execute even the simplest bodily functions effectively.

My first two attempts on Everest in 1997 and ’98 were failures. The second time I made it to 8,600 meters [240 meters from the summit] when the weather turned. It was an agonizing experience. But, while I didn’t really think of it as a failure — I can’t control the weather, after all — that is how a non-summit climb is often perceived. . . . For some nationalities, Korean and Chinese for example, failure is a terrible thing. The pressure to succeed is immense; if you fail, you are criticized when you arrive home. That’s one of the reasons why there are deaths every year on Everest. Death by societal pressure, if you like.

Were you ever in a situation where you thought you wouldn’t make it out alive?

I was once carried 160 meters down a mountain by an avalanche — that wasn’t a lot of fun, believe me. On another occasion, I attempted to climb straight up and down Mount Elbrus, a 5,600-meter peak in eastern Europe, in one day, thinking it would be a piece of cake. At about 4,900 meters, I got altitude sickness and passed out. I had to be rescued. I was just 22 at the time, and I soon learned you can’t fool with a mountain. It was a good lesson to learn at such an early age.

It seems that in the world of mountaineering there is little else left to achieve. Do you have any more personal goals?

Personally, I have yet to summit Everest from the Tibet side, and I still intend to tackle that again. But I have no real desire to go back to the days when I was hurrying around trying to break records. It was good at the time, but that was then.

Now, what with cleanup expeditions, lecturing on the environment and an upcoming plan to set up a fund to support Nepal’s Sherpas, I’ve probably got enough on my plate.

You are set to embark next month on another expedition to the Himalayas.

In 2000 and 2001, I led two cleanup expeditions on Mount Everest from the Tibet side. This year and next year, we will tackle the mountain from the Nepal side. We’ll be up there for more than two months.

That must be quite hard at such an altitude.

We intend to clean up at the last camp, which is located at around 7,960 meters. There’s all kinds of rubbish up there — oxygen tanks, tents, discarded food, loads of it. In order to get to that last camp, you need a good three to four weeks on the mountain acclimatizing — you can’t just waltz up to 8,000 meters, or you’ll succumb to altitude sickness.

Even then, there is a limit to how long you can stick around up there and how much you can haul down, because at 8,000 meters the air is extremely rarefied. On cleanup operations, bringing down 15 kg of garbage in one go is about the limit [for one person]. We each do one return trip and then rest for a day at base camp . . . and repeat this over and over. The Sherpas who take part can do one trip in just two or three days.

Rest and recuperation is essential. Over the duration of the operation, each member will lose between 10 kg and 15 kg [in body weight].

What sort of volume of garbage are we talking about when you say 15 kg?

Oxygen tanks, for example, can weigh as much as 8 kg for the old types, or 3 kg or 4 kg for the newer types. Realistically, we can each bring down maybe three or four of those at a time. In the two previous cleanup operations, we have hauled a total of more than 3 tons of trash off the mountain.

Is this more taxing than climbing for a summit attempt?

There’s no comparison really. For a start, on a summit attempt you don’t have to keep going up and down. Also, on the Nepal side there are a number of icefalls between base camp and the final camp. During cleanup expeditions, we have to pass over these many times. Suffice it to say, it’s rather dangerous.

Also, in previous years we have had 36 Sherpas helping us — in addition to a few alpinists from Korea, China and Japan. It’s not easy to keep track of such a large group, and there’s always the fear of losing someone along the way. This time we will scale back and take 20 Sherpas.

How well are your efforts received ?

Until our expedition in 2000, there had been very little effort to clean up Everest — particularly on the Tibet side. When I first approached the Chinese authorities for some kind of cooperation, they were completely incredulous. Many didn’t even know there was any trash on the mountain. Even when I explained the situation, they couldn’t understand why someone would want to spend time and money cleaning a mountain. They thought I was doing it so that I could make money selling what I collected back in Japan!

But, having worked together . . . awareness has gradually changed, even among the Sherpas. They now realize the need for regulations to control the garbage problem. On the Nepal side, expedition groups have to pay a deposit of $4,000 . . . which is not returned if they don’t come back down the mountain with the same inventory of gear. On the Tibet side, no such rules exist.

Even where rules exist, they are obviously ignored. Who are the culprits?

One thing that struck me when I first attempted Everest in 1997 was the sheer disdain various European climbers had toward the trash on the mountain and those who left it. I was dismayed to find that, among those blamed were alpinists from Japan.

I was asked by several European climbers why Japan, a supposedly advanced nation, was so backward in its attitude toward the environment. I had no answer at the time, but it has become increasingly obvious that the nations of those people climbing Everest who methodically clean up their garbage and carry it out are invariably clean, and their people’s awareness of environment issues is high. Expedition groups from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark and New Zealand, for example, are meticulously clean. If you go to any of those countries, the awareness toward the environment is reflected in the pristine nature of their national parks and so on.

On the other hand, those nations that leave trash on Everest, including the likes of China, South Korea, Russia and Japan, their own countries are usually dirty. What they leave behind provides a microcosm of their own countries and of their people’s attitudes toward the environment.

Of course, another major difference between the two is education. In schools in some European countries, environment issues . . . are a part of the school curriculum. In Japan, there is virtually none, which is why I have tried to go around schools here to explain the situation on Mount Everest and so on.

How is the garbage issue tackled in other countries?

In the United States, when you enter the [Denali] national park that surrounds Mount McKinley, you have to pay a fee and you have to attend a lecture that lasts a couple of hours. There are videos and other literature in French, Japanese, Korean. The situation is explained to you. For example, you should carry out your excrement because the glacier there has no bacteria to break down excrement. If it’s left behind, within 20 or 30 years the place would be one large toilet, which would be flushed down into the rivers that many people depend on for water.

You have to pay a permit fee to enter, and if you don’t abide by the park rules, you pay a fine. It’s strict, but it works. People carry their waste out.

When I went there, I was interested why everyone takes this so well. Most seem to be happy to pay, knowing that with their money they are contributing to the upkeep of the park, which is managed by park rangers.

No such system seems to exist in Japan.

Our national symbol, Mount Fuji, is a disgrace. The first thing you notice when you get to the summit is a row of vending machines. Around half a million people climb it every year, and the garbage they leave behind is terrible. Most of the toilets are flushed out onto the slopes, and since Fuji-san is the result of a volcano, there are few bacteria to break down waste.

Excrement from toilets ends up down at the bottom of the mountain and, if left for long enough, will pollute waters around the mountain. I have been to the Environment Ministry to explain this. There are now one or two biotoilets on Mount Fuji that were purchased by local volunteers’ fundraising efforts. What I proposed is a permit fee of maybe 1,000 yen or 2,000 yen, which would pay for maybe five or six biotoilets a year and any cash left over could go toward employing some park rangers, of which there are virtually none in Japan — park officials are mostly sat behind desks to push paper.

The Environment Ministry tried to set up such a charge system at Oze (a part of a national park in northern Japan) about 20 years ago. But the media criticized the idea, saying “Why should we have to pay to enjoy nature?” — that kind of stuff. The ministry shelved that plan, so the response to the Fuji-san idea wasn’t promising. They said if I had any statistical data showing the waters around Mount Fuji were polluted, then they could act. I was shocked; if such data existed now, it would mean it’s already too late!

But they know how many people climb Mount Fuji each year, so it can’t be that difficult to do the math. But in Japan, nothing really happens until it’s too late.

Do you ever just want to completely get away from the cold and dizzy heights of high-altitude mountaineering?

Frequently! Whenever I finish a Himalaya expedition, I go straight off to the seaside, go scuba diving and lounge on a beach in Thailand or the Philippines. I love diving. Below the water, there is so much life, such a variety of life. In the Himalayas, there is virtually none. After being among zero vegetation for weeks or sometimes months, it starts to affect you mentally. So, going to the sea is good therapy for me. It helps me to maintain an equilibrium.

Interview by ROB GILHOOLY, Staff writer.