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Inspirations, Part II: High Alaska
Masatoshi Kuriaki on High Alaska, by Jonathan Waterman
At age 22, in April 1995, I was preparing for my first challenge overseas: climbing Denali. At that time I found High Alaska by Jonathan Waterman from reference materials in a Japanese version of Mountaineering in Denali National Park and Preserve. The historical guidebook provided me with not only a history of the ascents of Denali, but also scenic route-delineated photographs, taken by Bradford Washburn, which showed completely accurate topographical information.
Kuriaki on the east ridge route of Mt. Hunter in April 1996. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection
With a partner on the summit of Denali's West Buttress in July 1995, I dreamily gazed at the eight- and twelve-mile distant mountains, Hunter and Foraker, rising in pyramidal form under the midnight sun. After returning home I thumbed the leaves of High Alaska again because it provided information on the three greatest peaks in the Central Alaska Range: Denali, Mt. Foraker (Sultana) and Mt. Hunter (Begguya). At that time, I felt the tug of destiny. The three big ones, the "family"—because in Athapaskan, Denali means "high one," Sultana means "woman or wife" and Begguya means "child"—enchanted me a great deal.
During an attempt on Denali via South Buttress Ramp route in 2006, Kuriaki's climbing hardware was lost in a monster avalanche at 11,600 feet. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection
From April to June 1996 I attempted solo climbs of both Hunter (via the east ridge) and Foraker (via the southeast ridge). I failed on both attempts because of unstable snow conditions. These attempts gave me a keen interest in winter climbs, and it was not long before I climbed Denali solo in February 1997 and March 1998. My dream from that day forward became a quest to climb the whole "family" in the same style: alone and in winter.
Kuriaki during a recent expedition to Alaska. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection
After ten winter solo climbs, which collectively have absorbed 483 days of my life, I only count the summit of Denali in 1998 and the summit of Foraker on March 10, 2007, via the southeast ridge as a success. Although I had successfully climbed Foraker on the northeast (Sultana) ridge in 1999 and the southeast ridge in 2001, these earlier summits occurred several days after the spring equinox, which technically disqualifies them as official winter ascents. I entirely agree with the official climbing book definition: "Winter is defined by ascents completed between December 21 and March 21. Although winter conditions are often encountered during April climbs, they are not true winter ascents because of the lack of continuous cold and the lengthened daylight hours."
The Northern Lights with Kuriaki's tent in the foreground. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection
Four times I have attempted to summit Hunter (once in spring and three times in winter), and all four times this 14,573-foot mountain south of Denali has refused to let me do so. In 2003, I quit my ascent at 9,000 feet on the original west ridge route after a ferocious blizzard forced me into a snow cave for twelve days. During that time, fierce winds ripped roofs off houses in Anchorage, which is 140 miles south-southeast of the mountain. Avalanche danger and poor weather in both the 2004 and 2005 climbs turned me back. In 2004, I observed more than fifteen avalanches that were big enough to kill me on the west ridge cut-off route from the Kahiltana glacier in a single month.
I will return to Hunter next winter, my fifth solo trip to the mountain, hoping to complete the trifecta. My journey continues in parallel with the inscription of High Alaska: "To the Spirits of Denali, Sultana and Begguya—The High One, The Woman and The Child."
— Masatoshi Kuriaki, Japan