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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.