Thursday, June 12, 2008


In three years of editing stories for the American Alpine Journal, no one I'd been working with had died in the mountains. That's remarkable, given the difficult and dangerous routes many of these authors attempt. But last month this happy streak ended. I had been working this spring with Tatsuro Yamada from Japan on a feature article for the AAJ about the three new routes he and two companions completed in the Ruth Gorge last year. We had mostly finished the story when Tatsuro went back to Alaska in April. I expected him to return in about a month, and in early May I emailed some questions about the story to him. When there was no reply, I assumed he was still in the mountains. But before long news stories about two lost climbers on Denali began to appear; when we learned they were from Japan, I feared the worst. And indeed Tatsuro had disappeared with his climbing partner, Yuto Inoue, on or above the upper Cassin Ridge. Their bodies or gear have not been found.

I never met Tatsuro in person, but he was a joy to work with. He was young—27—and you could tell even though his emails that he was passionate about climbing. He was funny, enthusiastic, and yet extremely humble about his accomplishments. He repeatedly expressed how lucky he was to be climbing these huge new routes in Alaska, especially with some of Japan's finest climbers. And he was not ignorant of the dangers. In his AAJ story, he writes of meeting Jed Brown, who had come to the Japanese camp on the Ruth Glacier for help after Lara Kellogg fell to her death on Mt. Wake. All that night, Tatsuro lay awake thinking about the accident. He writes: "To carry on in my climbing life, I need to find a meaning for death in mountains. It’s a part of climbing, also a part of life. After pondering this throughout the night, I felt more confident, inspired by Lara Kellogg’s soul, which had never stopped climbing until the end." Now the same can be said of Tatsuro's soul.

[Tatsuro Yamada's article about the Ruth Gorge is now completed, and it's available to AAC members who log in at the AAC website; others will have to wait until the 2008 AAJ is published in August.]

Tatsuro and Yuto disappeared near the end of a remarkable enchainment of the West and East Kahiltna peaks, straight into the Cassin Ridge on Denali's south face, as seen in this Gerry Roach photo. It's an elegant link-up, and I wonder how history will remember it. It's said that the summit is only halfway, and many people believe an ascent doesn't "count" if the climbers don't make it back. Yet there are many examples to the contrary in climbing history. I just wrote yesterday about the second ascent of the Norwegian Buttress on Great Trango Tower in Pakistan; both climbers who made the summit died during the descent, but they are still remembered for doing the first ascent. In Tatsuro and Yuto's case, however, it's not yet known if they finished the Cassin Ridge and thus completed their planned link-up. Their fate may never be discovered, but if someday evidence is found that they did reach the summit of Denali before dying, I hope they are given full credit for envisioning—and completing—their extraordinary enchainment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember when Tatsuro first showed up at the Alpine Club of Canada some years ago to dirtbag it and learn how to ice climb over the course of a winter. I figured you shouldn't fly halfway around the world to climb at the Junkyards, so I took him into the farthest reaches of the North Ghost for his first day on Canadian Ice.
Four-wheeling out with a couple of celebratory beers, I could see that he was very impressed by the wild and untouched beauty of the Ghost. He raised his bottle and said in his halting and accented english, "I love this place!"
I think he climbed for that reason - an aesthetic and emotional attachment to the mountains.
Rest in Peace, Tatsuro-San.