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Pandora's Box: The Brief, Brilliant Life of Kei Taniguchi

Posted on: November 26, 2019


[The following is the first half of a story published in Alpinist 68, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. In 2009 Japanese alpinist Kei Taniguchi became the first woman to receive a Piolet d'Or for her first ascent of the Southeast Face of Kamet (7756m), with Kazuya Hiraide. During the final years of her life, Taniguchi continued to explore challenging new routes, while hinting at a mysterious personal quest. Piecing together diary entries and interviewing family and friends, her biographer Akihiro Oishi tries to see inside what Taniguchi called "the Pandora's box."—Ed.]

Kei Taniguchi training on Mt. Hotaka (3190m), Japan, December 2014. [Photo] Junji WadaKei Taniguchi training on Mt. Hotaka (3190m), Japan, December 2014. [Photo] Junji Wada

ON THE DAY OF CHRISTMAS EVE 2015, far from any high peaks, blue sky stretched over Kei Taniguchi's hometown of Abiko in the Chiba Prefecture of Japan. The sun cast a pleasant warmth through the window of her parents' small apartment. It was a calming space, usually. The walls were decorated with photos of Kei and her family in the mountains, dating back to her childhood. Outside, a boulevard lined with cherry trees led to the train station. Kei's father, Hisatake Taniguchi, watched people walk by with relaxed, oblivious expressions. They seemed part of another world. Even on a clear day like this, Hokkaido would be covered in snow and very cold, Hisatake thought. He could picture at least that much of the mountain region, more than 1,200 kilometers away. It was incomprehensible that his daughter had died there in a climbing accident a few days earlier.

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Late in the afternoon of December 21, when the call came, Hisatake had been at home, reading. The fading light filtered through the bare trees and the glass panes, with a trace of heat still present. He'd listened, speechless, as an acquaintance told him that Kei was missing. She had fallen from near the top of Mt. Kurodake, a 1984-meter peak in the Daisetsuzan Range, a region of many gentle mountains. In the winter, Kurodake had a rope tow for skiers that went halfway up the northeast side. On the north face, however, there was a cliff with vertical facets. Even among alpine climbers, this aspect wasn't well known: the lower part was brush covered; the stone was sometimes fragile. Kei and her partners had planned to climb the north ridge and then ski down the other side.

Kei scaled the rock face with ease, and at the summit ridge, she untied from the rope. One of her partners was still belaying the climber below her when Kei disappeared. Her friends continued to the top, looking for her, but she was nowhere to be found. They searched the northern cliff. The only sign that appeared was her dropped Camalot, slightly below the base of the route, glinting in the snow.

Although it was a warm day in Abiko, Hisatake imagined the deep drifts and bitter cold. His prayers for the safe return of his daughter went unanswered. Early on December 22, Kei's body was found in the bottom of a ravine, 700 meters below the summit.

On the evening of December 24, the town glittered with festive lights. While other people went to and from holiday parties, Hisatake held an all-night wake with Kei's mother, Masako, and Kei's brothers and friends. The next day, a close friend said, "Having a wake on Christmas Eve, she sure was Kei to the very end." Although he was overcome with grief, Hisatake thought the same thing: for forty-three years, Kei had illuminated the lives of those around her. Now, that radiance quietly burned out during one of the longest nights of the year.

Taniguchi on Mt. Tsurugi (1955m), Japan, in 2012. [Photo] Akihiro OishiTaniguchi on Mt. Tsurugi (2999m), Japan, in 2012. [Photo] Akihiro Oishi

FOR HISATAKE, the wake was his second farewell to his daughter. The first had occurred during the summer when Kei was eighteen. After a year abroad at an American high school, she was supposed to stay home to prepare for the university entrance exam. Instead, she ran away, leaving no sign of where she went. Three months later, a letter arrived in which Kei offered some explanation:

I have changed recently; I can feel how much I've changed. It's as if something I've felt for as long as I can remember, something that's been hiding in the depth of my heart, has finally emerged enough for me to see it.... I won't be studying for the entrance exam, because being a typical college test taker and studying like mad to get into school is not the way I choose to live. My mother used to tell me when I was in grade school, "Sitting at a desk and studying isn't the only way to learn." I think studying at a desk is important, but I want to learn something more fundamental, to be a human being, or rather, to be a part of Earth.... It's more fun to meander than to flow in a straight line down the river. I may make mistakes. I may fail. But I prefer to live this way.... Now I want to challenge myself to bring forward the best of me to live on my own, because I've met many people who live on their own terms.

Hisatake kept the letter and read it repeatedly. He thought it might be the key to understanding his daughter. Four years passed before he saw her again. He was working away from home in a harbor town in Wakayama, where he was a manager at an iron and steel company. Masako, who designed storefront windows, remained in Chiba. One day, Kei showed up unexpectedly at her father's door. Kei told him that she was studying history and geography at Meiji University and that she'd gotten a job as a bike courier to support herself. She said that she'd found an exciting world of curiosity, discussion and camaraderie—a welcome contrast to her former high school. She'd joined a university cycling club, and she was enjoying the freedom of bicycle travel and gazing longingly at the peaks she rode past. She'd reached some easy summits with her new friends.

Now she wanted to stay with her father for two or three days before starting a bike tour of the region. Her demeanor was as nonchalant as if she'd seen him the previous week. Hisatake invited Kei in. He wasn't bothered by his daughter's lack of apology. From the moment he saw her, he was struck by her sheer radiance—a certain glow he had never seen before.

Taniguchi on her 2011 attempt, with Yasuhiro Hanatani, to climb a line that would connect the Kahiltna Peaks and the Cassin Ridge of Denali (20,310')—the unfinished route where Tatsuro Yamada and Yuto Inoue disappeared in 2008. [Photo] Yasuhiro HanataniTaniguchi on her 2011 attempt, with Yasuhiro Hanatani, to climb a line that would connect the Kahiltna Peaks and the Cassin Ridge of Denali (20,310')—the unfinished route where Tatsuro Yamada and Yuto Inoue disappeared in 2008. According to a National Park Service report, the bodies of Yamada and Inoue were found in 2009, "in a steep rocky area west of the Cassin Ridge at 19,800-feet." For more on Yamada and Inoue's story, see "The Giri-Giri Boys" by Katsutaka Yokoyama in Alpinist 26. [Photo] Yasuhiro Hanatani

MANY YOUNG PEOPLE push aside their dreams when they enter the workforce. After her university graduation in 1998, Kei found a job with a major advertising company, but she still dedicated her weekends to the outdoors. A gear shop owner had introduced her to the Keiyo Alpine Club, and she was learning how to climb difficult routes. In the summers, she joined Team EAST WIND, the strongest adventure race team in Japan. In the winters, she explored the Japanese Alps. "She moved with such passion," her climbing partner Hiroshi Ogawa told me. "On Saturdays, she would spend the entire day on the hardest peaks. Even when thwarted by bad weather, she'd be back out there again the next weekend."

Overtaken by her love of the mountains, Kei quit her job after only three years. Straightaway, she traveled to the Alaska Range. She'd read everything that the famous Japanese solo adventurer Naomi Uemura had written. Since Denali was the mountain where Uemura had died, and where his soul seemed to dwell, it might be the perfect place to start her own life's quest. I imagined her, as she climbed the peak, turning his words over and over in her mind: Adventures are how you return to life.

In 2002 Kei joined a cleanup expedition on Chomolungma (Everest) led by Ken Noguchi. The experience struck Kei with such intensity that she went back to the Himalaya almost every year afterward. Over time, she embraced a fast-and-light climbing style, and she developed an artist's eye for pristine, elegant lines. In 2009 she became the first woman to receive a Piolet d'Or award—for the first ascent, with Kazuya Hiraide, of the icy Southeast Face of Kamet. Kei's father was also a climber, and he was part of a family whose members constantly read mountaineering books. He understood the significance of Kei's objectives. "Attempting unexplored walls in the Himalaya meant entering an extreme borderland full of risks," he said to me. He was realistic about worst-case scenarios. But it was difficult to accept that his daughter would never appear out of the blue again on her bicycle the way she did that day by the sea.

The 2009 Piolet d'Or ceremony. [Photo] Kei Taniguchi collectionThe 2009 Piolet d'Or ceremony. [Photo] Kei Taniguchi collection

HISATAKE AND MASAKO prepared for Kei's funeral on a hill that overlooked Abiko, near Lake Tega. They'd hoped to use a rock from the Himalaya for the grave, but they weren't able to obtain one. After a long search, they chose a stone from Northern Europe, and they asked an artist to carve an image of Mt. Tsukuba, a small sacred peak, known as the "purple mountain" for its twilight hues above the Kanto Plains of Japan. The family had hiked its wooded trails innumerable times. The ceremony to bury Kei's ashes took place on March 26, 2017. Her friends later said that it felt as if you could touch the spring in the air that day. The winds were warm, and the hillsides bloomed. Farmers were starting to cultivate their fields.

In the summer, I visited her grave. Kei and I had been friends for fifteen years. In 2001, while I was still in college, I'd grown curious to glimpse the world above 8000 meters, and I'd climbed Cho Oyu with Kazuya Hiraide, who later became one of Kei's main climbing partners. To celebrate our return, Ken Noguchi hosted a party for us in Tokyo. Across the room, I'd noticed how the lamplight shone on the face of a smiling woman. I wanted to speak with her, but the room was too crowded and noisy, and I couldn't get a real conversation started. Later, when Noguchi introduced me to Kei, she told me she was there for the free food. She laughed. I remember thinking that she was the kind of person who would always be straightforward. I admired that quality.

After graduating, I began a career as a journalist. As I traveled to various mountains to report for magazines and TV shows, I often saw Kei, who worked as a guide. She also pursued other jobs, going to alpine huts to model in beer advertisements and becoming a facilitator for an entrepreneurial training company. On one occasion, she and I helped lead a group of adaptive climbers on a trip to the Swiss Alps. She always seemed like one of my most upbeat friends.

In 2011, as I became more serious about alpinism, I asked Kei if she would share some of her techniques. "Of course," she responded. "Absolutely." That December, she brought me to the west ridge of Mt. Yarigatake. Despite her small stature, Kei appeared at home on the immense, frozen rock face. I was struck by the contrast between the brightness of her gaze and the darkness of the ravine below. After that day, we climbed many mountains together. If I became tired and slacked off, she scolded me, "Akihiro! There's no 'just a minute' in the mountains."

Taniguchi at an adventure race in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, October 2013. [Photo] Aya KubotaTaniguchi at an adventure race in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, October 2013—a sport she pursued in addition to her alpinism. Oishi recalls: "One of Taniguchi's teammates, Yukiko Fushimi, showed me pictures from a particularly difficult race, and there wasn't a single shot of Kei without a smile. 'Every time she could assess the situation and work out the next move,' Fushimi said. "She had a wider range of acceptance.... More so, she enjoyed the whole process, including having to decide what to do next." [Photo] Aya Kubota

AFTER SEEING HER GRAVE, I went to Hisatake's apartment. "Rockslides, avalanches, there are so many things that can happen on a mountain, so I almost expected this," he said. "But I didn't think it would happen on Kurodake. I wonder if she lost her focus a bit."

I was curious if any of Kei's friends felt that way.

"Sometimes I think that...maybe it was fate," Hisatake said. "Sometimes I think that when she was sent out into this world, she was given a particular mission. To become the best alpinist, to help those female students climb in the Himalaya.... Maybe there wasn't a lot of guidance for her, but I think that, in and of itself, was part of the accomplishment. So I think that when she was told to come back, maybe she returned to heaven. While there's still grief, lately I've been able to gain a sense of reverence, too."

If, as Hisatake said, Kei was bestowed with a sort of "mission," I thought, there must have been some kind of "meaning" to it. I wondered what that significance was—if only in other people's minds or in Kei's own. When I expressed this idea to Hisatake, he showed me some of the notes, journals and letters that his daughter had left behind. And so, my journey began to try to piece together a story of Kei's brief, enigmatic existence.

I kept returning to the fact that she died on a mountain fewer than 2000 meters high—a difficult notion to conceive for all who knew her. The letter that Kei wrote to her family about her high school years, which Hisatake shared at the funeral, made me feel even more unsettled. To me, Kei had always radiated an overwhelming, positive energy. I'd never heard before that she'd spent her teenage years feeling trapped. I began to wonder whether Kei felt that if she ever lost her smile, she would return to the person she was when she was locked into the school system. Again and again, in the mountains, she sought a place where she could be free from all restrictions. Maybe she was also fighting against her former self.

Taniguchi on Mt. Tsurugi (1955m), one of the peaks in Kyuya Fukada's 1964 classic One Hundred Mountains of Japan (translated into English in 2014 by Martin Hood). [Photo] Akihiro OishiTaniguchi on Mt. Tsurugi (2999m), one of the peaks in Kyuya Fukada's 1964 classic One Hundred Mountains of Japan (translated into English in 2014 by Martin Hood). [Photo] Akihiro Oishi

WHEN I WENT TO SPEAK with some of Kei's former classmates, they told me that they were surprised by her pursuit of dangerous Himalayan peaks. They remembered her as a quiet student who liked to read and cook—and who was part of an educational system defined by pervasive rules. On a large stone in the yard of her middle school, the kanji characters for "endurance" and "to endure" were carved with an imposing hand. Boys' hair had to be buzz-cut short; girls' bangs were chopped above their eyebrows. Students had to fold their socks over three times. Skirt length was closely regulated. Every morning, a teacher stood at the school gate to inspect these details. Whenever the flags were raised and lowered, students were expected to stop what they were doing and stand at attention.

Kei never rebelled in that environment; instead, she quietly slipped into the world of books. Over time, she grew a resilient mind, but she retreated deeper and deeper within her imagination. One friend recalled that when they were in the school library together, Kei recommended Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, the classic story about a nine-year-old girl whose mother has died and whose father is a wandering sea captain. Living a wild life in a house of her own, Pippi has a superhuman strength and a cheerful disregard for burdensome rules and social conventions. She defies the policemen who try to take her to a children's home, and she refuses to return to school—after a disastrous attempt that ends with her drawing on the classroom floorboards because a piece of paper is too small for everything she envisions.

Around the same time, Kei gave her younger brother Hayato a copy of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. It was a challenging novel for Hayato, who was six at the time, but it became his treasure. He soon lost the book, however, and although he searched long and hard, he couldn't find it again. After Kei's death, the copy remarkably appeared in her room. "Guess it's finally my book," Hayato said in an attempt to joke and relieve some of the sorrow. "My sister always thought of it as hers from the start."

Like Pippi Longstocking, this fantasy novel is also about a child who flees a stifling classroom to wander freely in a magnificent world. On a rainy day, a boy named Bastian runs into a bookshop to escape school bullies, and he discovers a magic book that serves as a gateway to the world of Fantastica. Rereading The Neverending Story, I was surprised by how much the novel had to do with mountaineering. "Human passions have mysterious ways," the narrator reflects, "in children as well as grownups.... Some people risk their lives to conquer a mountain peak. No one, not even they themselves, can really explain why." Inside Fantastica, a giant lion informs Bastian that he's been given a quest: to follow the command "Do what you wish," until he finally understands "what you really and truly want."

With each conscious and unconscious desire that Bastian feels, the landscapes of Fantastica transform. There's an enchanted Night Forest that blooms and crumbles each dusk and dawn, and a Mountain of Destiny that can only be climbed once all recollection of prior ascents has faded. He, too, changes, becoming stronger and more powerful. The effects of his yearnings, however, remain unpredictable: he encounters exhilarating magic and sublime beauty, but he also confronts fierce beasts and warring armies; and he learns that for every wish he makes, he has to give up a memory of his past. He must discover his inmost longing and his true self before he forgets entirely who he was. "It is the most dangerous of all journeys," the lion says. "It requires the greatest honesty and vigilance, because there's no other journey on which it's so easy to lose yourself forever."

As a middle-school student, Kei could only explore her own unrestricted aspirations in fantasy worlds. She listened to a band called ECHOES, playing songs such as "Osorubeki Kodomotachi Eh" over and over again. Words like "barricade" and "closet" represented a metaphor for the school system. The symbol of setting a "marionette" free became a demonstration of liberation. "I think Kei always wanted to become a different, freer version of herself," an old classmate said to me.

In high school, the competition to be accepted into a Japanese university was fierce, and Kei could no longer hide in her imagination. She decided to view her time spent in books as a means to work on her self-reliance. But she was also ready to seek out a world beyond their pages. During an earlier hike with her father, she'd clambered to the top of a small, stony peak in the Fukushima Prefecture. Above the forest, she'd imagined she could reach the clouds. "It was as though I'd walked into one of the illustrations in my books," she later wrote in Alpinist 52. "Afterward, I fantasized about other places I might discover, if I could only keep traveling." She left for her senior year to study in Kansas. There, she began to acquire the physical strength to become a Himalayan climber. In Japan, she hadn't belonged to any school clubs, but in the United States, she participated in after-school programs, including badminton, cross-country running and track and field. In letters home, she composed lively accounts of attending weekend track meets and making friends from different schools. Since her English was still inadequate, sports might have been a means for her to communicate with fellow students. She joined an event called Biking Across Kansas and rode her bicycle from one side of the state to the other in eight days. She wrote to a friend:

I knew that I needed to be free, so I chose to escape through study abroad.... I've become someone who can understand myself a bit better, so there was no downside to doing it. There were times when I keenly thought that living in a different culture all by yourself could be really difficult. I learned so many things.

When her Japanese friends saw her again, she wore flashy American T-shirts. She seemed full of confidence, exuding joy in simply being alive. Her voice sounded stronger, and she was more apt to speak her mind. "I was able to change," she explained.

DURING THE EARLY 2000s, Kazuya Hiraide was also searching for a sense of expanded freedom. Before he and I climbed Cho Oyu, he'd been a top member of Tokai University's track and field club. He'd felt uncomfortable, however, with the idea of events that could be won or lost based on a millisecond of performance. Hiraide had grown up running in the mountains near his rural hometown of Fujimi in the Nagano Prefecture. I think he got into alpine climbing because he wanted to find a world where he could express himself with a feeling of untrammeled movement.

In 2004 Hiraide and another climber, Kazuo Tobita, set their sights on Ghenish Chhish or "Golden Peak," also known as Spantik, a 7029-meter mountain in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. There, seventeen years prior, British climbers Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders had completed a historic ascent of the Golden Pillar. In the American Alpine Journal, Saunders described "cream-yellow rock arcing from glacier to glacier for 15 miles, like a series of rainbows." After the climb, he'd concluded, "What is the point of mountaineering? It seemed to me in that moment that the nature of the goal did not matter. Are we driven to reach goals but can learn no lessons from them? There is no pot of gold, only the rainbow."

Taniguchi at the base of Diran Peak (7257m), which she and Kazuya Hiraide climbed in 2013 to acclimatize for their attempt on Shispare (7611m), Karakoram, Pakistan. [Photo] Kazuya HiraideTaniguchi at the base of Diran Peak (7257m), which she and Kazuya Hiraide climbed in 2013 to acclimatize for their attempt on Shispare (7611m), Karakoram, Pakistan. [Photo] Kazuya Hiraide

At the time, Hiraide worked at a mountaineering store, where he met Kei again. When he spoke of Golden Peak, she said immediately, "I want to go there." In the October 2003 issue of Yama to Keikoku magazine, she'd written:

The more severe the situation, the better I can see myself and what I really need in the moment. Either you'll be defeated by the weak self you encounter, or you'll overcome a decaying self to face a strong one—this is the big crossroads. It's a battle against yourself fought on the high arena of the Earth.

During the Golden Peak expedition, she and her new partners encountered whiteout blizzards on avalanche-prone slopes. When Tobita became unwell, Hiraide and Kei finished the first ascent of the northwest ridge (the route that Fowler and Saunders had descended) on their own. Above unstable drifts deposited by the storms, the upper part of the route slanted into sheer ice, and they struggled to swing their axes in the cold, thin air.

Exhilarated by their success, Hiraide and Kei moved on to the north face of 6096-meter Laila Peak. On the steep, snowy walls, they found few places to rest, so they continued almost without stopping from base to summit. Thick clouds had obscured the top of Golden Peak. From the top of Laila Peak, however, they could look down at other mountains that sparkled out into the distance under a dark blue sky. "The Earth is huge," Kei said. It was as if she could see into infinite, possible worlds.

In the mountains, as in a magic landscape that changes shape according to dreams, you never know what extraordinary thing will happen next. Over and over, Kei would enter high, wild places as one person, and she would come out as someone different, with a transformed point of view....

[To read the rest of the story with additional photos, pick up a copy of Alpinist 68, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. This story was translated from the Japanese by Mac B. Gill and Hiko Ito, with additional editing by Helen Rolfe and research assistance by Masami Onda.—Ed.]

Taniguchi on Kamet (7756m), Garhwal Himalaya, India. [Photo] Kazuya HiraideTaniguchi on Kamet (7756m), Garhwal Himalaya, India. [Photo] Kazuya Hiraide

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