Copyright The Financial Times
Published: August 5 2005 11:07 | Last updated: August 5 2005 11:07
Yuichiro Miura, the oldest man to reach the top of the world – at the age of 70 years and 222 days, back in 2003 – has legs so thick and muscled that he swings them when he walks, the legacy of a lifetime on skis. He looks a lot younger than his present 72 and is dressed in heavy boots, sports trousers and a light climbing T-shirt. He has a mass of silver hair that frames a tanned face lined with fissures that fan out around his eyes and crevasses that run down his cheeks. He looks weathered and permanent: a cross between Sitting Bull and an Easter Island statue.
This is one of the most respected faces in Japan. Miura was world speed skiing champion in 1964 and the first man to ski down the country’s sacred Mount Fuji. His father, 101, is still skiing, and his son is a former member of Japan’s Olympic ski squad. In a nation that has seen its economic miracle come and go, and languished in stagnation for a decade and a half, Miura is regarded by the public as a reminder of the traits that made postwar Japan great: endurance, perseverance and triumph over suffering. Yet there is something extremely un-Japanese about him – his individuality and matter-of-fact selfishness, a rarity in a country that encourages the subjugation of the individual. “I don’t yield to the masses,” he says. “I do whatever I want to do, and after that society can treat me as a hero.”
I meet him in his compound, Miura Base Camp, next to a railway line in western Tokyo. He greets me, then sits down abruptly with each hand planted on an enormous leg. With a half smile, he turns to face me. “You do not conquer a mountain,” he says. “It invites you to climb it. The mountains were calling me. It is very important to have this feeling of humility.”
In 1970, Miura organised an expedition to reach a point on Everest 26,000ft high, the South Col, and ski down the 45 to 50-degree ice slope, slowed only by a parachute. The expedition was marred by tragedy when six local porters were crushed by an icefall. Remembering, Miura – in a low voice, looking at the floor – says: “Because I wanted to ski down the mountain those people had to die. In any new adventure there is sacrifice. It happens inevitably if you want to do something new.”
At the South Col he pointed his skis downhill. His speed after six seconds was over 100mph, the parachute opened and he fought to stay in control as he hurtled downwards. But he lost balance as a ski caught a rock and he tumbled towards an enormous crevasse and certain death. “The situation was as bad as it could have been,” he says. “I felt like my heart was coming out of my body. I asked myself what I would be as a reincarnation? I might be part of a star, or a cow in Tibet.”
He careened head-first over an enormous rock ledge, but grabbed his remaining ski and used it to stop, a few feet from death. “For a while I was not sure if I was alive or dead. Then I discovered I was still alive and started thinking what is it that I am alive for? I was reborn as a human being. The mountain was telling me to live again as a human being.”
He had descended 6,600ft – over a vertical mile – in two minutes, and fallen a further 1,320ft. The attempt was filmed: the footage is gripping and intense, described by some as the most exciting skiing film ever shot. Hailed in Japan as a hero, Miura was simultaneously aware that men had died and he nearly lost his own life. “I did not succeed and I did not fail,” he says.
The events of 1970 help to explain why, today, he meanders between the hardness of the professional mountaineer and the poetic ruminations of a man who has had a close brush with death. Shaking his head as if still in disbelief, he agrees: “When you climb Everest, you are experiencing death and this world together. You are treading on the edge of both and you could go either way. It is a luxurious experience.”
Three decades after Everest almost dealt Miura a fatal blow, he successfully reached the summit, laying to rest the ghosts he says had been “calling him” since his Oscar-winning performance. He had conquered a peak that almost killed him. Now, he is planning to do it again in 2008, at the age of 75. “The record has nothing to do with it,” he says. “It is unimportant that I will be 75, I just want to climb it again and test myself.” That said, a 74-year-old Polish climber is hoping to reach the summit later this year.
The subject of death has stalked our meeting in the way it looms over any attempt on Everest. For many climbers, Miura included, it is this closeness to death that gives mountaineering its purity and allure. “If you train hard you bring yourself closer to death,” he says. “When you are in a physically hard position, mentally you enter an inner state of rapture and when you are in that kind of mentality, everything is less scary.”
Asked to analyse his motivation, he is at a loss. So I quote him a passage from one of the earliest books about climbing Everest, written by Francis Younghusband in 1926, in which he said: “Everest is the embodiment of the physical forces of the world against which we pit the spirit of man.” Miura, 72, looks up with the face of an adolescent. “That’s it,” he says. “That’s it