Everest the hard way: Interview with Nobukazu Kuriki, “There is joy in adversity”

To stand alone against all adversity is the most sacred moment of existence, said Frank Herbert. Kuriki searches for it on Everest.

We first heard of Nobukazu Kuriki in 2012: Japanese climbers alerted us to the mountaineer, already high up on Everest, trying a lonely ascent for the top.

Soon after Kuriki was rescued with bad frostbite to his hands, feet, and nose. He lost parts of 9 fingers but returned to mountaineering in 2014, adding Broad Peak (8,047m) to his three summited 8000ers.

In 2015, his 5th attempt on Mount Everest was cut short at 8,150m by fierce weather.

For his 6th attempt this fall Kuriki switched to the north side, in Tibet. He shared the high slopes with Spanish climber Kilian Jornet who postponed his Everest speed attempt citing dangerous snow. Kuriki stuck it out a bit longer but aborted at around 7000 meters.

Returning to high altitudes with frostbite is added burden, more so without the aid of supplementary oxygen which would improve circulation.

Tissue around frostbite becomes less resilient to cold and continued exposure means risking more surgery, cutting limbs and digits even shorter, which persistent old-time mountaineers sometimes endured.

Critical are climbs above 7000 meters, also called the “deathzone” for the extreme atmospheric pressure conditions affecting the human body (and weather patterns).

Climbers slow, find it harder to breath and reason, become more prone to altitude sickness and affected by cold. The human body is unable to further acclimate and within days shuts down.

Bound to be back, Kuriki says he wants to solo Everest without oxygen, but also to challenge cynical people, defeatist attitudes and dismissive perspectives.

Born 1982 in Hokkaido, the northern part of Japan, Kuriki took up climbing while at University. These days he lives in Tokyo, reads a lot, listens to British Underworld and Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, eats shrimp and pudding, goes on speaking tours and plots his next Everest.

We checked in with Nobukazu Kuriki for his take on the mountain off-season, and why it is worth coming back to, even at the cost of his hands.

Pythom/Explorersweb: Hello Kuriki, how are your fingers doing? Are you in pain?

Nobukazu Kuriki: No, I’m not in pain. But when I climb high, they chill easily.

Pythom/Explorersweb: Do you use protheses when you climb, and how do you work the climbing equipment?

Nobukazu Kuriki: I didn’t lose my whole fingers at the knuckles, I still have digits to the P.I.P joints, so I have been training to handle any kind of equipment with my stumps. It’s hard to hold an ice axe sometimes, but I have worked out to get a strong grip.

Pythom/Explorersweb: There was a lot of snow on Everest this fall. Killian Jornet aborted his attempt early, how did the weather affect you?

Nobukazu Kuriki: There was a lot of snow right from the start. Comparing to photos from 2009 I noticed the amount of snow this year was enormous.

Above 7000 meters, the snow came up over my waist. I didn’t want to give up right away, but challenged myself to keep searching for any possibilities.

Pythom/Explorersweb: What made you choose the north side this year?

Nobukazu Kuriki: I tried Everest from the north already in 2009 but the climbing season was cut short for political reasons. I returned from Nepal, but there we are dependent on people (SPCC) fixing the icefall and can’t get permission to climb the mountain without them.

So this fall I went north again to try the Hornbein Couloir from there. There is no icefall and the distance from Base Camp is shorter. It’s suitable for climbing without supplemental oxygen.

Pythom/Explorersweb: You made it pretty high up, what were the main difficulties?

Nobukazu Kuriki: The enormous amount of snow troubled me. It snowed on and off all the time. I wanted to advance when the weather was good, but had to wait for the snow to became stable to reduce the risk of avalanches. Climbing whilst taking into account the conditions of snow and weather was difficult.

Pythom/Explorersweb: Did you have sherpas helping you?

Nobukazu Kuriki: Sherpas came with me until 5800m, to support the photographers camping there. The Hornbein Couloir is a wall, they don’t help me climb it, nor can they rescue me.

Pythom/Explorersweb: Why always alone and off season?

Nobukazu Kuriki: I need to “feel the mountain” when I climb.

Everything is so streamlined these days, organized groups on oxygen climb Everest in spring when the weather is stable. Personally, I can’t get close to the mountain in that style.

I don’t want to climb Everest no matter what, I do it for the feeling of the ascent. That’s why I climb in the autumn season.

Pythom/Explorersweb: You do lectures – what would you say are your top 3 lessons from your climbs so far?

Nobukazu Kuriki:

1. Don’t be obsessed. Just looking to summit, you may not make it back. You can have an objective, but don’t be controlled by it. Top priority is coming back safe and sound.

2. Climb down if it stops to be fun. Challenging yourself is great when you enjoy it. Taking pleasure in something allows you to be focused. When you don’t enjoy it you lose focus which could bring panic and poor decisions. When I don’t enjoy the mountain, I descend for a time.

3. When I climb, strong challenges and setbacks become my joys. In adversity, we can find joy. That’s what my father taught me when I got the frostbite.

Pythom/Explorersweb: Only Messner has done a solo ascent of Everest, and he went mostly the normal route. What do you think are your differences for success?

Nobukazu Kuriki: Everest is a very high and broad mountain, forcing us to stay longer above 8000m without supplemental oxygen.

The ideal route is one which can be climbed and descended quickly.

On the Chinese side normal route, the distance of the mountain ridge is long, and it’s physically tough.

The Hornbein Couloir can be climbed and descended in a shorter time. It’s a very suitable route for climbing without supplemental oxygen.

Pythom/Explorersweb: This was your 6th solo attempt on Everest. Do ever think the challenge is too big?

Nobukazu Kuriki: In my opinion, it’s boring to try something that I know right from the start that I can accomplish.

However, I don’t think that my undertaking is reckless. In the past, many parties climbed in the autumn season.

Pythom/Explorersweb: What is your next plan?

Nobukazu Kuriki: In later years Everest has had a lot of snowfall in autumn so I’m thinking to climb another season next time. I would still choose an environment that allows me to “feel the mountain”, which is my top priority.

There are many parties in spring so if I climb then, I would try the Hornbein Couloir on the north face.

Kuriki’s website


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