High number of Japanese climbers perish on Alaska's Mount McKinley

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — One hundred people have lost their lives climbing North America’s tallest peak, and a high number of them have been Japanese.

The most recent to perish were Tatsuro Yamada, 27, and Yuto Inoue, 24, who were scheduled to return from Mount McKinley’s Cassin Ridge on May 22. Officials at Denali National Park and Preserve called off the search for them May 29, estimating they’d been without food and water for as long as 14 days.

Of the 100 climbers who have died on the mountain since 1932, 17 have been from Japan.

Japanese climbers perish at an even higher rate when you include fatalities on other Alaska Range peaks, such as Foraker and Hunter. Nine of the 39 climbers who’ve died on peaks other than McKinley have been from Japan.

That means 19 percent of Alaska Range climbers who’ve gone up but never come down are Japanese.

Darryl Miller, a mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park, said many Japanese climbers attempt riskier, more difficult routes than the typical climber, most of whom use the traditional West Buttress route to reach the 20,320-foot summit.

Yamada and Inoue were climbing the Cassin Ridge, which only a handful of climbers have indicated they will attempt this year, according to the Park Service.

“I do believe that the Japanese are very focused on climbing hard,” Miller said. “A lot of skilled Japanese climbers and mountaineers come here.”

Most of the Japanese fatalities on McKinley — 14 of the 17 — happened before 1991. Since then, climbers from foreign countries generally have come to the mountain better prepared because park rangers began translating informational material into eight languages, including Japanese.

Beginning in 1995, climbers were required to register with the Park Service 60 days before their climbs, which gave officials time to provide climbers with information.

“Before that, climbers more or less just showed up,” Miller said. “We didn’t have a way to deal with some of their questions until they got here, and they may or may not have prepared.”

Since 1996, there have been 15 deaths on McKinley.

Yamada and Inoue were members of a group of Japanese climbers called the Giri-Giri Boys, who are pursuing mountaineering firsts around the globe.

A year ago in April, Yamada joined two other Giri-Giri members — Fumitake Ichimura and Yusuke Sato — to pioneer three difficult McKinley routes on Ruth Gorge.

Yamada and Inoue spent about a month on McKinley before their disappearance. They climbed Mount Wake in the Ruth Gorge before joining Ichimura, Sato and Katsutaka Yokoyama on the West Buttress route.

From there, Yamada and Inoue went on to pursue the summit via the Cassin Ridge.

The other three men went on an Alaska Range climbing spree that left Miller, a veteran climber, shaking his head in amazement. Their accomplishments:

— A new route on Buckskin Glacier to the Bear Tooth;

— The Moonflower route on Mount Hunter;

— The Isis Face on McKinley’s south side;

— After descending the South Buttress — something rarely done — they climbed the Czech Direct route, also called the Slovak Direct, to about 16,000 feet before traversing to the Cassin Ridge route on their way to the summit.

“What they did this season is so impressive, it’s just hard to imagine. It’s one of the all-time Alaska adventures,” Miller said. “To do it in the style they did — very fast, efficient, matter-of-fact — is very ambitious.”

Roger Robinson, a ranger who spent time with all five men at the 7,200-foot Kahiltna base camp, said the two teams planned to rendezvous near the summit.

Yokoyama’s team made it to the top, descended safely and returned to Talkeetna.

Yamada and Inoue didn’t.

Like the Yokoyama team, Yamada and Inoue intended to travel light and fast.

The last entry in a journal they left at their camp near the mouth of Kahiltna Glacier’s Northeast Fork was dated May 9. Park Service rangers think they probably began their climb May 10, taking only a few days’ worth of food and fuel for a trip they intended to make swiftly.

“We’re guessing they took about five days of food and an extra day of fuel,” Robinson said. “By the 17th, they would have really been hurting.”

The search began the day after the pair’s May 22 due date. It continued daily, using both airplanes and a high-altitude helicopter that scanned the men’s climbing route when weather permitted flying.

Park Service officials believe Yamada and Inoue reached the upper elevations of the Cassin Ridge route. They saw several sets of footprints and a campsite at 17,000 feet. Tracks followed by a subsequent climbing party reportedly reached upward of 19,000 feet.

At park headquarters in Talkeetna, rangers examined enlarged photos taken by the aerial searchers.

This is only the second time searchers have used high-resolution photographs to scan for missing climbers, said Maureen McLaughlin, spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve.

Two years ago, a pair of women disappeared on Mount Foraker, and images were able to capture some tracks they left behind, she said. Stormy weather hampered the search, though, and the women weren’t found.

In this case, McLaughlin said, airborne crews extensively photographed the mountain from 50-150 feet away using Nikon D80 digital cameras and zoom lenses in a more concerted, meticulous effort. The digital images were downloaded back at headquarters, then studied by adjusting the images’ color and contrast to try drawing out tracks, ropes, or other visible gear, she said.

With their bodies still on the mountain, Yamada and Inoue share their icy tomb with one of Japan’s most beloved adventurers, Naomi Uemura, whose 1984 death at age 44 is perhaps the most famous fatality in McKinley history.

A national hero in Japan, Uemera was the first person to mush alone with a dog team to the North Pole. He was one of the first Japanese to step on the top of Mount Everest. He walked across Greenland.

And in 1984, he was the first person to reach the top of McKinley in the winter — though he didn’t get credit for a successful summit because he vanished on the way down.

It’s believed the wind may have knocked him off the mountain. No one knows for sure, because his body has never been found.

To this day, he remains an inspiration to Japanese adventurers.

“This mountain means a lot to the Japanese because Naomi — his spirit — is here,” Miller said. “Many climbers have expressed that it’s a special place because of Naomi. He is very revered. He will always be a hero to most of the Japanese.”