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Naomi Uemura (植村 直己 Uemura Naomi?, February 12, 1941 – c. February 13, 1984) was a Japanese adventurer. He was particularly well known for doing alone what had previously been achieved only with large teams. For example, he was the first man ever to reach the North Pole solo, the first man ever to raft the Amazon solo, and the first man ever to climb Mount McKinley solo.
While still in his 20s, Uemura had climbed solo Mount Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, had walked the length of Japan and summited during the first (1970) Japanese expedition to climb Mount Everest and subsequent disastrous 1971 International Everest Expedition.
Uemura wrote that he almost gave up twice during his 1978 North Pole trip. On the fourth day of his trek, a polar bear invaded his camp, ate his supplies, and poked his nose against the sleeping bag where Uemura lay tense and motionless. When the bear returned the next day, Uemura was ready and shot him dead. On the 35th day of the trip, Uemura had hunkered down on an ice floe with his malamutes, when there was the roar of breaking ice and the floe cracked into pieces. He and his dogs were stranded on a tossing island of ice. After a night of terror, Uemura found a 3-foot-wide (0.91 m) ice bridge and raced to safety.
He persevered, and became the first ever to reach the Pole solo. Describing his 57-day push, he wrote, "What drove me to continue then was the thought of countless people who had helped and supported me, and the knowledge that I could never face them if I gave up."
In this trip he cooperated with the Canadian Air Force and received his supplies from its helicopters. After the trip he questioned such extensive support and decided to carry supplies on his own back.
In August 1970, Uemura climbed Mount McKinley solo, becoming the first person ever to reach the top alone. He did this quickly and with a light pack (8 days up, versus an average of 14 days or so; 55-pound (25 kg) pack, versus an average probably twice that). August is after the end of the normal climbing season. While the weather he faced was not terrible, the mountain was almost empty with only four other people on it. Though many people have climbed McKinley alone since Uemura, most do it in the middle of the climbing season.
Uemura dreamed of soloing across Antarctica and climbing that continent's highest peak, Vinson Massif. In preparation, he did a three-year solo dog run from Greenland to Alaska, then prepared to climb McKinley again solo in winter.
The difficulty of a winter ascent will be difficult to understand for people unfamiliar with Alaskan climbing, and nobody had successfully climbed any large Alaskan peak in winter until 1967, when Gregg Blomberg organized an expedition that got to the top of McKinley (Blomberg himself did not summit). This team lost one member and the rest of them almost died in a storm on the way down. Team member Art Davidson's book about the climb was named after that storm — Minus 148°.
There is a very large danger with glacier travel, with even short treks across the ice. As an example, glaciers are often broken with cracks, called crevasses, that are often covered with snow and not visible. Because of this, an ascent is very difficult to manage without a team.
Uemura had developed a "self-rescue" device, bamboo poles tied over his shoulders that would span any crevasse into which he fell and allow him to pull himself out. He planned a very light run, with only a 40-pound (18 kg) pack plus sled. He kept his gear light by planning to sleep in snow caves, so he would not need a tent. He also skimped on fuel and planned to eat cold food.
He began his climb in early February, 1984, and reached the summit on February 12. Much later, climbers found the Japanese flag that he left at the summit.
On February 13, 1984, he spoke by radio with Japanese photographers who were flying over the mountain, saying that he had made the top and descended back to 18,000 feet (5,500 m). He planned to reach base camp in another two days, but never made it.
There appeared to be high winds near the top, and the temperature was around −50 °F (−46 °C). Planes flew over the mountain but did not see him that day. He was spotted around 16,600 feet (5,100 m) the next day (presumably on the ridge just above the headwall). However, complications with weather made further searching difficult.
It was likely that Uemura was running out of fuel at this point but because of his reputation, nobody wanted to send a rescue party for fear it would offend him. Doug Geeting, one of the bush pilots who had been "Uemura spotting" over the previous week, said "If it were anybody else, we'd have somebody [a rescuer] on the mountain already".
On February 20, the weather had cleared and Uemura was nowhere to be found. There was no sign of his earlier camp at 16,600 feet (5,100 m), and no evidence that caches left by other climbers nearby had been disturbed.
Two experienced climbers were dropped at 14,000 feet (4,300 m) to begin a search. Though another storm came in, they stayed on the mountain until February 26, finding a cave in which Uemura had stayed at 14,000 feet (4,300 m) on the way up, but no sign of the climber himself. A diary found in the cave revealed that Uemura had left gear there in order to lighten his load on the summit push. He had also left his self-rescue poles back at 9,500 feet (2,900 m), knowing he was past the worst crevasse fields. Most people figured he had fallen on his descent of the headwall and been hurt, died, and was buried by snow. Another theory is that he could have made it to 14,200 feet (4,300 m) (which is the base of the headwall) and then fallen into one of the many crevasses there and perished.
A group of Japanese climbers arrived to look for the body. They failed, though they did locate much of the man's gear at 17,200 feet (5,200 m).
The diary found in the 14,000 feet (4,300 m) cave has been published in Japanese and English. It describes the brutal conditions that Uemura suffered – the crevasse falls, -40° weather, frozen meat, and inadequate shelter. The diary entries showed him to be in good spirits, and documented the songs he sang to stay focused on his task.
The last entry read,
- "I wish I could sleep in a warm sleeping bag. No matter what happens I am going to climb McKinley."
Uemura gave frequent public lectures and wrote about his travels. His adventure books for children were popular in Japan.
He is remembered as not only a gifted climber and a driven adventurer, but also as a gentle, self-effacing man who cared about others. In the words of Jonathan Waterman,
[Just as remarkable] as his solo achievements was his sincere modesty and unassuming nature. Another part of his greatness lay in his deep interest in everyone he met.
- 1968 Mount Sanford, Alaska, USA. Solo ascent, fourth ascent of peak, topping out on Sept 19, 1968.
- The Rescue Season, Bob Drury 2001
- To The Top of Denali, Bill Sherwonit 2000
- High Alaska : A Historical Guide to Denali Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter, Jonathan Waterman 1989
- http://maui.ksbe.edu/faculty/keduell/extracredit/Women%20in%20Sports%20Complete%20file/Naomi%20Uemura.doc[dead link]
- Hoeman, J Vincent; H. Adams Carter (editor) (1969). "Climbs and Expeditions". American Alpine Journal (Philadelphia, PA, USA: American Alpine Club) 16 (43): 379.
- QST Magazine, Sep., 1978, p.41
- QST Magazine, May, 1984, p.52
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