Returning to Everest, Alone and Against the Odds

Only three people have ever climbed Everest in the fall. After April’s devastating earthquake essentially closed the mountain this spring, Nobukazu Kuriki is boldly attempting to be the fourth.

by Anna Callaghan
Sep 18 2015, 12:55pm

All images courtesy Nobukazu Kuriki

Most climbers avoid Mount Everest in the fall season for a reason: the days are shorter and colder and the weather less predictable, all of which makes the climbing more difficult and more dangerous.

That's precisely why Nobukazu Kuriki, a 33-year-old climber from Japan, chose to make his fifth attempt on the mountain now.

"There are too many people on Everest in spring," Kuriki said. "I want to feel the nature, and that's possible in fall without many people around."

Drawn by the promise of small crowds, not to mention the half-price climbing permit, Kuriki is currently headed toward Everest's Camp 2. Conditions permitting, he will try for the summit sometime during the next week.

READ MORE: How Everest Climbers Made The Nepal Earthquake Even Worse

Over the past 15 years only a handful of people have summited Everest in the autumn months. Most major commercial expeditions, like New Zealand's Himalayan Experience and Seattle's Alpine Ascents International, try for the summit in April and May because of the higher success rate. By August and September, most expeditions switch to other 8,000-meter peaks like Cho Oyu, Manaslu, and Ama Dablam.

"The perception, and I think it's the correct one, is that there's less chance of getting to the summit in the fall and more danger from snow avalanches" said Dave Hahn, a guide for RMI Expeditions who has summited Everest 15 times. "Basically, you're climbing in the tail end of the monsoon and so still dealing with some pretty big snow events, and that creates more of a chance of getting caught in a snow avalanche."

Kuriki's summit bid will be the first on Everest since the devastating earthquake that rocked Nepal this past April and triggered the deadliest avalanche in the mountain's history. He plans to climb with his partner and photographer, Masaru Kadotani, as far as Camp 2. From there, he'll proceed alone and without supplemental oxygen along the normal route up the South Col.

"It's hugely more difficult from a frostbite standpoint to stay warm without using bottled oxygen and I think that's underappreciated," Hahn said. "I think what most people have in mind when they hear that discussion is wow you'd be out of breath, and it would be tiring. But in reality, it becomes near impossible to stay warm. He'll have to be extremely strong and extremely smart to move fast enough to stay warm."

Though not everyone sees the prudence in Kuriki's attempted climb, the Nepalese government is on board with it. The Nepal Ministry of Aviation and Tourism issued Kuriki's permit, held a press conference to announce it, and sent the Icefall Doctors (a group of Sherpa who fix the route of ladders and rope through the notorious Khumbu Icefall) to aid his attempt.

"Holding a press conference to hand out a single climbing permit is unprecedented," said Alan Arnette, a longtime Everest blogger who summited Everest in 2011. "It indicates that the country is motivated to see him climb and be successful in order to promote tourism in Nepal."

Kuriki on Everest earlier this month

Kuriki, who has multiple 8,000-meter summits under his belt, has a history with Everest. The last time he tried to climb the mountain was in 2012, when he made a solo attempt up the West Ridge without supplemental oxygen. The trip nearly cost him his life: he required a rescue after suffering severe frostbite, and ended up losing the majority of nine fingers as a result.

"It seems like what Nepal is doing is incongruent—they're trying to promote tourism by promoting a very dangerous and risky act," Arnette said, "and Kuriki seems to be the perfect guy to do it because of his history."

Kuriki agrees at least in part with Arnette. While he says that he planned his climb prior to the last spring's earthquake, it has become part of the effort to rejuvenate a country still very much in recovery.

"Nepal needs the tourist business back for their economy," Kuriki said. "I want to help improve the country's image by climbing and showing people the beauty and greatness of Nepal and the Himalayas. I hope many people visit Nepal again."

April's earthquake and resulting avalanche were just the latest in a series of disasters on Everest—the avalanche in 2012, the brawl in 2013, the avalanche in 2014—that many feared might threaten the mountain's industry. Climbers have remained undeterred.

"There is a statistic for Everest that every year following a major disaster a record number of people show up," Arnette said. "I think most people will see the earthquake as an anomaly, that earthquakes happen, and they're not going to stop them from pursuing their dreams."

Kuriki's summit window will likely be September 23 to 25. He will be posting live coverage of his progress on his Facebook page.