Ain't No Mountain High Enough for Marin Miyamiya
Japan's Youngest Mountaineer to Conquer Mount Everest and the World's Seven Summits
While most Japanese university students spend their time wondering what part-time job to get or preparing for exams, Marin Minamiya, a political economy student at Tokyo's elite Waseda University, is testing her physical, mental and emotional boundaries while also breaking world records. On October 1, 2015, the 18-year-old became the world's youngest female to successfully ascend the world's eighth highest peak, Mount Manaslu in Nepal. She also became the youngest Japanese person to successfully climb a peak above 8,000 meters. By March 2016, she had already skied to the South Pole, climbed the highest peaks in Antarctica (Vinson Massif ), the Australian continent (Carstensz Pyramid) and Russia (Mount Elbrus). In May 2016, she became Japan's youngest to conquer Mount Everest and since then climbed North America's highest peak, Mt. Denali, becoming Japan's youngest to complete the Seven Summits ー the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. Just prior to her Mount Everest expedition, Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie talked with Marin Minamiya about the ups and downs of mountaineering and what lies ahead for the young adventurer.
TJ: How did you first get into mountain climbing?
MINAMIYA: I first got into mountain climbing when I was in Hong Kong. I was going to high school there and I joined this program called the Hong Kong Youth Award program. Through that, I started mountaineering. I was attracted to it because Hong Kong is like a concrete jungle and I loved getting out of the city. It was fascinating seeing all these tall buildings behind me when I was climbing up small mountains in Hong Kong. I continued to do it because my parents' relationship wasn't very good and it was a way for me to get out of the city life and all this turmoil that was going on. It was extremely refreshing for me whenever I saw the beautiful scenery. My friends and I planned to go to Nepal to Annapurna Base Camp. That's when I first saw Everest. I swore to my friends and myself that I would come back and climb that mountain someday. I had read a newspaper article about a young Nepalese girl named Nimdoma Sherpa climbing Mount Everest and it really inspired me. After that, my friends and I climbed some mountains in Tibet and I climbed Aconcagua [in Argentina] after completing my university application. I got some sponsors and I am nancially independent from my father in carrying out most of my mountain activities.
TJ: How did you learn English?
MINAMIYA: Ever since I was one year old I have been living overseas. My dad had traveled a lot and his work required him to work overseas, so I moved to Malaysia, Dalian in China, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and I also studied a little bit in New York.
TJ: Can you tell us about your October climb?
MINAMIYA: Manaslu was such a great but scary experience. I really enjoyed my climb there, and I loved all the members. It was great... but we also lost one member after we summited. He lost his life to high-altitude sickness. Everybody was shocked by his sudden death. Nobody saw this was coming because he was one of the strongest members on the mountain at that time. It made me think that there are people who love me waiting at home, and I questioned if what I’m doing is really necessary at this age. I have never had such a close member suddenly die. Another member was also rescued by helicopter and sent to a hospital nearby because we were almost going to lose him. What I experienced on that mountain was completely new to me.
TJ: What a terrible experience that must have been. What happened when he passed away? Did they still come and get him with a helicopter?
MINAMIYA: His body was sent back to Kathmandu and then given to the embassy and then his family. The other man who got extremely sick on the mountain was rescued at around 7,000 meters, which is the limit that helicopters can reach. It was an extremely dangerous rescue – everybody was on edge. We went from summiting the mountain and seeing everyone experience their peak of happiness to having to watch these poor families getting so upset and losing their minds.
TJ: Do your mountaineering activities make your father nervous?
MINAMIYA: I am sure it makes him nervous because in March 2015 I got in an accident. I was climbing a mountain in Japan on a very thin snow ridge and the snow ridge broke, so I actually fell 250 meters off the cliff. Miraculously, I survived. But my dad was very nervous and scared. We had a very long conversation about whether I should continue.
TJ: Why did you decide to continue?
MINAMIYA: I am not a mountain freak; I just really like adventures. After I finish climbing the mountains that I really want to climb, I dream of sailing around the world solo or traveling across the Sahara Desert.
TJ: How do you prepare?
MINAMIYA: Once I get some rest after coming back from a mountain, I go to the gym almost every day. I also go to a studio with very little oxygen and I stay there for a while. There are some steps and ladders that I exercise on.
TJ: What do you like the most about mountain climbing?
MINAMIYA: I think everybody is climbing, whether it is a visible or invisible mountain in their life. For me, a mountain is completely physical and you can see the goal. You can see the summit. Every time you acclimatize, you can see that your body is getting more and more used to it. You see the results immediately. It’s also what I see around me. It’s not only the scenery, but also the people who I meet and talk to. They are very different, especially when the mountain gets higher and higher and the people that are attracted to these mountains are different. Some people that I’ve met quit their jobs and came to the mountains. They are in their 50s and say they are looking for the challenge of their lifetime. They want to get away from the mundane lifestyle they have created. It’s very interesting to hear their stories and it would be hard for me to meet these people in the city.
TJ: Do you do a lot of talking and communicating during the trip?
MINAMIYA: All the time. At the end of the trip we become like family and I still keep in touch with all the people that I climbed with in the past. If I am climbing overseas, I get on a plane, meet them there for the first time and I’ve never spoken to them before. We usually try to be social because we are going to be stuck with each other for 20, 40, or maybe even 60 days. We have to pretend like we are a family and try to survive together because it’s such an extreme place to be in with a random person who you don’t know. You have to try and understand each other.
TJ: It must be scary. Do you ever get nervous when you just start off with a new group?
MINAMIYA: I was extremely nervous getting into the Manaslu trip because it takes 40 days, and for 40 days I was going to be stuck with some old guy that I didn’t know. When I got to the hotel in Kathmandu, I wasn’t nervous — I was scared! One of the members had no toes because he climbed Everest with no oxygen and he lost them to frostbite. He was 55 and a very experienced man, and I was wondering, “Wow, can I really climb with this guy?” I felt so inexperienced. I was surrounded by all these men. Being the only girl and 18, I felt like an ant. I felt powerless.
TJ: How do you deal with those emotions?
MINAMIYA: Well, I would talk to them. We all have something in common, which is we like mountains and mountain climbing. Despite our age, where we come from, and the different languages that we speak, we would talk about how beautiful that mountain was or what experience we have had with mountains, and we usually end up talking about our personal and work lives.
TJ: What is your ultimate goal?
MINAMIYA: I plan to climb the Seven Summits. There are seven continents in the world and each has its highest peak. I plan to conquer each of the highest peaks in the seven continents.
TJ: When is the best time of the year to climb?
TJ: Is the summer too hot?
MINAMIYA: No one really summits after May 30th because, during the summer, the conditions are really bad. There would be really strong winds and it is just extremely difficult. Of course, in autumn and winter it is going to be freezing. It is still freezing in the spring. Maybe it’s -35° or -40°, but even 1° makes a big difference.
TJ: What do you eat?
MINAMIYA: It’s like astronaut food [laughs]. It is so bad! Well, actually, at the base camp it’s cooked food. We have fresh potatoes, eggs, spinach, and we could either cook for ourselves or the people at the basecamp would make it for us. But when we are climbing, we have what they call “rescue foods.” Me being Japanese, I bring dehydrated rice and water, or noodles. We bring bread, cheese, beef jerky and lots of protein energy bars. For me, after I reach maybe 6,000 or 7,000 meters, I don’t have an appetite. Your body changes because you are in such an extreme condition that you can’t really taste the flavors anymore. I haven’t tried it, but many mountaineers have told me Coca-Cola is the only thing that doesn’t change flavor. Some mountaineers that I know, in order to get energy and caffeine because they cannot eat anything else, would drink tons and tons of Coca-Cola in high altitude. If you can’t eat anything else, that’s the only thing that you can do. I have never done that because it’s too heavy. I would force myself to eat something but most people would vomit it out and have to constantly keep feeding themselves energy bars or put some powder in their drinks to get calories.
TJ: Can you tell us about when you got to the top of Manaslu?
MINAMIYA: It was so cold. It was so terrible. I was so hungry and sleepy because I had only had three hours of sleep. The day before, I slept at 11p.m. and I woke up at like 2 or 3 a.m. We summited at 10:30 in the morning and then we decided to get down as fast as we could with nothing to eat — only water.
TJ: Why did you go back down on the same day?
MINAMIYA: Because I wanted to get down as soon as possible. It’s actually better because the longer you stay in higher altitudes, the higher risk you have to face. That’s how we lost a member — he stayed right below the summit in Camp 4, which is 7,500 meters, and he didn’t have any more bottles of oxygen. As long as you can move your legs, it’s always better to keep going and get back down. When I got to base camp, I had been walking that day for 20 hours since 3 a.m. So I got to base camp around 10:30 p.m. It was a long, long, long day.
TJ: How long did you stay at the summit?
MINAMIYA: 15 minutes or less.
TJ: Only 15 minutes?
MINAMIYA: Yeah! I am not going to spend one hour on an 8,100-meter snow cone at the top, which is extremely dangerous. It’s 15 minutes of euphoria.
TJ: A snow cone? How wide is the top?
MINAMIYA: The top would only be enough for you to stand on. The width would be less than one meter.
TJ: Did you take photographs at the top?
MINAMIYA: Some people do that — but I had my moment before reaching the summit when I was coming towards it and saw the sunlight hitting the summit. It was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen in my entire short life. I had my oxygen mask on but I was bawling my eyes out. I was crying so much and I kept repeating, “It’s so beautiful, it’s so beautiful.” When you are walking in such a terrible condition and everyone is feeling horrible because you’re not eating or drinking so much, and then you see something that beautiful, it looks like a goddess or something mystical. I am sure this is why many climbers want to challenge Everest: it’s the tallest mountain in the world and they know when they try to conquer this mountain that what they are going to experience is even more intense than whatever they did before, which was extremely beautiful too. It is this pure beauty that makes you just cry so much and it won’t stop coming out.
TJ: When you climb, who chooses the Himalayan guide or Sherpa that goes with you?
MINAMIYA: Sometimes the leader does. Sometimes you get to choose. Sometimes, if you become a really famous climber, you have your own personal, designated Sherpa, and some people choose to climb with one Sherpa for a very long time.
TJ: So are Sherpas the best climbers in the world?
MINAMIYA: Yes. They are hands down the best climbers in the world. It’s their full-time job. They know the mountain. They live with the mountain. They are the keepers, I would say.
TJ: If the Sherpa is the best climber in the world, why doesn’t he just have a world-renowned climber be his Sherpa since he is the best [laughs]?
MINAMIYA: [Laughs]. Yes, some Sherpas do that. I know a Sherpa that I met on Manaslu. There are fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, and he is the youngest to climb them all. When he was climbing them, I guess he had his own Sherpa.
TJ: Do Sherpas retire and become world-renowned climbers?
MINAMIYA: I think some Sherpas do and certain Sherpas make a lot of money through sponsorships. However, most of them just climb the same mountain over and over again. I know one Sherpa that climbed Everest 14 times. That’s the only thing he does, and it’s not like he’s climbing the most technical route. He’s not climbing in the most dangerous season, so Sherpas like him wouldn’t get a major sponsor. It depends on how the Sherpas do their work and it depends on how and what they climb. Then they can find a person to stick to who is a world-renowned climber and eventually become a world-renowned Sherpa.
TJ: What do you think about movies on mountain climbing?
MINAMIYA: The new Everest film came out and I feel that these films are very accurate and yet exaggerated in some ways because they are clearly intended for someone who is not very used to mountaineering. They’re trying to cross the crevasse and walk across the ladder to get to the other side. Sure, it’s a little bit dramatic, but it’s for the audience — not so much for people who have actually experienced that. I feel that what happens in the mountains is your responsibility and it’s not anyone else’s. In the end, it’s down to your survival. Everyone takes care of their own. [In the documentary Touching the Void, the man] had to cut the rope because that was the only choice he really had. It’s necessary. I saw an interview with the actual guy [that the movie is about]. He says that he doesn’t hold anything against the guy who cut the rope because he would’ve done the same.
TJ: What’s the best mountain in Japan to climb?
MINAMIYA: For tourists, Mount Fuji.
TJ: And what about for non-tourists?
MINAMIYA: There is a mountain called Tsurugi, which is like the Matterhorn of Japan. It’s quite technical, but it’s beautiful and very rewarding.
TJ: What clothes do you wear?
MINAMIYA: I wear multiple layers — maybe three to five layers. I have an inner layer, something on top of that, and then a soft shell and middle shell. If I have my summit suit, that would be my fifth layer. If I don’t have the summit suit, I wear my Gore-Tex jacket.
TJ: Is English important when you are climbing?
MINAMIYA: Definitely, because I don’t climb with Japanese members and most of the climbers that go on international expeditions can speak English and that’s the only method of communicating with each other.
TJ: Is there a big difference between male and female climbers?
MINAMIYA: Yes. there are very few female climbers, especially on higher mountains. But on mountains like Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount Fuji where it’s not quite so technical and not physically demanding, the ratio is about the same.
TJ: What are the big differences?
MINAMIYA: When it becomes technical, you need to use something called an ice axe, and it requires a lot of upper body muscle. It’s something that most women don’t have. I also think that many women are not interested in these kinds of activities whereas I would say men are more outdoorsy. Also... my dad always tells me not to talk about this but... there is the “monthly gift.” It’s a big obstacle when you’re climbing mountains, especially when the mountain is over 7,000 meters. It’s extremely cold to go outside and keep on checking yourself when you are climbing in a condition where your stomach is hurting and you feel terrible, emotionally and physically. I also spoke to some other female climbers on Manaslu. They told me they would take hormonal pills to stop from menstruating, but it could cause other side effects and so that stops many women from continuing to climb. No one pays attention to it and women don’t like to talk about it because it’s sort of a taboo topic, especially in Japan. But it’s really important and I struggle with that too on the mountain.
TJ: Are you able to do anything to combat it besides taking hormonal pills?
MINAMIYA: Just take a lot of Tylenol and some magnesium supplements to relieve stress. That may be the only thing you can do.
TJ: Are there any other differences between male and female climbers besides physical strength? What about mental?
MINAMIYA: I think mentally, women are stronger. I have read several books where unisex parties have been in dangerous situations and women usually survived to the end. They do have mental breakdowns. They seem to relieve stress that way and somehow get through the difficult situation whereas men tend to keep their feelings inside and kind of explode at the end. Women stress out and get hysterical thinking about what’s going to happen, while guys would just take off all their clothes in the freezing cold and jump off the cliff. Something just snaps for men. But for women, it doesn’t seem like that happens.
TJ: Do you get stressed out when you can’t breathe?
MINAMIYA: When you can’t breathe, you’re basically panting the whole time. There is not much to do when you’re in a tent or when you’re just walking and your walkie-talkie or your MP3 doesn’t work. It gets quite stressful. When someone talks to you, it’s like an annoying little or older brother talking to you and you just don’t want to answer. Really. It’s like, “Don’t talk to me, please! I’m panting!” and with every word you speak, you pant even more.
TJ: It seems like there have been a lot of Japanese climbers over the years.
MINAMIYA: Yes. Actually, Manaslu was first climbed by a Japanese climber. Because of these strict army-like mountaineering clubs in Japan, we are very accurate with whatever we are doing and cannot make mistakes. For example, I had a mountaineering coach who was like a teacher. I was his disciple and he would have me practice putting on my crampons with my eyes closed more than a thousand times so that when it’s dark and cold and some crazy situation is happening I can do it immediately without having to look. All Japanese mountaineering mentors are like that, so I am sure that is how Japanese mountaineers got good at mountaineering. I also have several mountaineering friends and they are very supportive. They would lend me all their equipment. They would give me all these mountaineering books.
TJ: Is there anything else that you want to tell us about your future plans?
MINAMIYA: After Everest, I will be climbing the Denali. I’m planning to do the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which is the Seven Summits plus the North and South Pole expedition. I’ve done the South Pole expedition, so I have the North Pole left to do, which I will do in April 2017. Maybe by next September, the Seven Summits will be finished and I will be the youngest Seven Summiteer from Japan and the youngest Everest climber from Japan. tj
Just after this article was written, Marin conquered Mount Everest and she will be back in the next issue to ll us in on her adventure.
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.