Naomi Uemura

Naomi Uemura
Naomi Uemura.jpg
Born (1941-02-12)February 12, 1941
Disappeared February 13, 1984 (aged 43)
Alaska
Status Missing for 35 years, 2 months and 12 days
Nationality Japanese

Naomi Uemura (植村 直己, Uemura Naomi, February 12, 1941 – c. February 13, 1984) was a Japanese adventurer. He was particularly well known for doing alone what had previously been achieved only with large teams. For example, he was the first man to reach the North Pole solo, the first man to raft the Amazon solo, and the first man to climb Denali solo. He disappeared while attempting to climb Denali in the winter.

Early adventures

Uemura was born in Hidaka, now part of Toyooka, Hyōgo, Japan. Shy, he began climbing in college in the hope that mountaineering would increase his self-confidence.

Naomi Uemura was a licensed radio amateur operator, signed as JG1QFW. He used amateur radio communication during his expeditions.[1]

Before his 30th birthday, Uemura had solo-climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn, had walked the length of Japan, and summited during the first (1970) Japanese expedition to climb Mount Everest and subsequent disastrous 1971 International Everest Expedition.

North Pole

Uemura wrote that he almost gave up twice during his 1978 North Pole trip. On the fourth day of his trek, a polar bear invaded his camp, ate his supplies, and poked his nose against the sleeping bag where Uemura lay tense and motionless. When the bear returned the next day, Uemura was ready and shot him dead. On the 35th day of the trip, Uemura had hunkered down on an ice floe with his malamutes, when there was the roar of breaking ice and the floe cracked into pieces. He and his dogs were stranded on a tossing island of ice. After a night of terror, Uemura found a 3-foot-wide (0.91 m) ice bridge and raced to safety.

He persevered and became the first ever to reach the Pole solo. Describing his 57-day push, he wrote, "What drove me to continue then was the thought of countless people who had helped and supported me, and the knowledge that I could never face them if I gave up." In this trip he cooperated with the Canadian Air Force and received his supplies from its helicopters. After the trip he questioned such extensive support and decided to carry supplies on his own back.

First Denali ascent

In August 1970, Uemura climbed Denali (then known as Mt McKinley) solo, becoming the first person to reach the top alone. He did this quickly and with a light pack (8 days up, versus an average of 14 days or so; 55-pound (25 kg) pack, versus an average probably twice that). August is after the end of the normal climbing season. While the weather he faced was not terrible, the mountain was almost empty with only four other people on it. Though many people have climbed Denali alone since Uemura, most do it in the middle of the climbing season.

Uemura dreamed of soloing across Antarctica and climbing that continent's highest peak, Vinson Massif. In preparation, in 1976 he did a solo sled-dog run from Greenland to Alaska, in two stages and 363 days.[2] He set a record for the long-distance record for a dog-sled journey at 12,000 kilometres (7,500 mi).[3]

Denali winter ascent

Uemura then prepared to climb Denali again solo in winter; however, for people unfamiliar with Alaskan climbing, the difficulty of a winter ascent can often be misjudged. Nobody had successfully climbed any large Alaskan peak in winter until 1967, when Gregg Blomberg organized an expedition that got to the top of Denali (Blomberg himself did not summit). This team lost one member and nearly lost the remaining members in a storm on the way down. Team member Art Davidson's book, Minus 148, recounts the events of the climb and was named after the storm that jeopardized the team.

There is a high degree of danger with glacier travel, and even short treks across the ice are considered hazardous. For example, glaciers are often broken with cracks, called crevasses, that are often covered with snow and not visible. Due to these occurrences as well as other underlying factors, an ascent is both very difficult and very dangerous to attempt without a team.

Uemura had developed a "self-rescue" device which consisted of bamboo poles tied over his shoulders. The poles would span any crevasse into which he fell and allow him to pull himself out. He planned a very light run, with only a 40-pound (18 kg) pack plus sled. He kept his gear light by planning to sleep in snow caves and therefore freeing himself from needing to carry a tent. He also skimped on fuel and planned to eat cold food.

He began his climb in early February 1984 and reached the summit on February 12. Some time later, climbers would find the Japanese flag that he left at the summit.[4]

Disappearance

On February 13, 1984, one day after his 43rd birthday, Uemura spoke by radio with Japanese photographers who were flying over Denali, saying that he had made the top and descended back to 18,000 feet (5,500 m). He planned to reach base camp in another two days but never made it.

There appeared to be high winds near the top, and the temperature was around −50 °F (−46 °C). Planes flew over the mountain but did not see him that day. He was spotted around 16,600 feet (5,100 m) the next day (presumably on the ridge just above the headwall). However, complications with weather made further searching difficult.

It was likely that Uemura was running out of fuel at this point, but because of his reputation nobody wanted to send a rescue party for fear it would offend him. Doug Geeting, one of the bush pilots who had been "Uemura spotting" over the previous week, said "If it were anybody else, we'd have somebody [a rescuer] on the mountain already". On February 20, the weather had cleared, and Uemura was nowhere to be found. There was no sign of his earlier camp at 16,600 feet (5,100 m) and no evidence that caches left by other climbers nearby had been disturbed.

Two experienced climbers were dropped at 14,000 feet (4,300 m) to begin a search. Though another storm came in, they stayed on the mountain until February 26, finding a cave in which Uemura had stayed at 14,000 feet (4,300 m) on the way up, but no sign of Uemera himself. A diary found in the cave revealed that Uemura had left gear there to lighten his load on the summit push. He had also left his self-rescue poles back at 9,500 feet (2,900 m), knowing he was past the worst crevasse fields. Most people figured he had fallen on his descent of the headwall and been hurt, died, and was buried by snow. Another theory is that he could have made it to 14,200 feet (4,300 m) (which is the base of the headwall) and then fallen into one of the many crevasses there and perished.

A group of Japanese climbers arrived to look for the body. They failed, though they did locate much of his gear at 17,200 feet (5,200 m).

The diary found in the 14,000 feet (4,300 m) cave has been published in Japanese and English. It describes the conditions that Uemura suffered—the crevasse falls, -40° weather, frozen meat, and inadequate shelter. The diary entries showed him to be in good spirits and documented the songs he sang to stay focused on his task.

The last entry read, "I wish I could sleep in a warm sleeping bag. No matter what happens I am going to climb McKinley."

Legacy

Uemura gave frequent public lectures and wrote about his travels. His adventure books for children were popular in Japan. There is a museum dedicated to him in Tokyo[5] and another in Toyooka, Hyōgo.[6]

An award named for him was created in Japan after his death.[7]

One of the best-known compositions of experimental guitarist Michael Hedges, "Because It's There", was a tribute to Uemura written for a film about the explorer's life.[citation needed]

He is remembered not only as a gifted climber and a driven adventurer, but also as a gentle, self-effacing man who cared about others. In the words of Jonathan Waterman, "[Just as remarkable] as his solo achievements was his sincere modesty and unassuming nature. Another part of his greatness lay in his deep interest in everyone he met."

Notable climbs

  • 1968 Mount Sanford, Alaska, US. Solo ascent, fourth ascent of peak, topping out on September 19, 1968.[8]

See also

Sources

  • The Rescue Season, Bob Drury 2001
  • To the Top of Denali, Bill Sherwonit 2000
  • High Alaska: A Historical Guide to Denali Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter, Jonathan Waterman 1989
  • The north pole - Answers

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