Climbers determined to conquer the highest peaks in the Himalayas call it the death zone.
At elevations of 8,000 meters or more there is only one-third as much oxygen as at sea level.
Mind-numbing headaches and hallucinations are the norm. And then there are other hazards to contend with: blizzards, avalanches, treacherous ice, frostbite and extreme temperatures that few people on the planet will ever experience.
This is the gateway of the dead.
And yet, one Japanese mountaineer is on the cusp of achieving what none of his countrymen has done so far.
The mighty Himalayan mountain range has 14 peaks above 8,000 meters.
Hirotaka Takeuchi has conquered 13 of them, and in May he plans to scale the one he left for last: 8,167-meter Dhaulagiri I.
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Takeuchi is something of a legend in climbing circles. No Japanese has climbed all 14 peaks. In fact, apart from him, none had scaled even 10 of them. In every instance, the climbers were jinxed.
Noboru Yamada was known as the "strongest Himalayist" for scaling nine of the towering mountains. But he met with disaster in 1989, during his attempt on 6,194-meter Mount McKinley in Alaska, prior to setting out to conquer his tenth "eight-thousander." He died at the age of 39.
In 2004, Hideji Nazuka, determined to carry on Yamada's legacy, fell victim to an avalanche on 8,091-meter Annapurna I, his tenth eight-thousander. He, too, met his end there. He was 49.
In 2007, Takeuchi also got caught in an avalanche, on his tenth eight-thousander, 8,035-meter Gasherbrum II, aka "G2."
He survived, but with five broken bones and a hairline fracture in his spine.
Takeuchi says he looked into the abyss of death. Of his three companions, one perished and another was never found.
Then in fall 2010, Osamu Tanabe, a world-renowned Himalayan climber, was swept away by an avalanche on his tenth eight-thousander, Dhaulagiri I. He was 49.
"Giants" is how mountaineers reverently refer to the 14 eight-thousanders.
The instinct to survive, preferably in one piece, is the overriding emotion that drives this hardy breed of people.
"My life no longer becomes my own. It feels like I've placed my soul in a perilous place," Takeuchi said.
Takeuchi became the first Japanese to conquer 10 of the mountains when he scaled G2 the year after his prior attempt. In 2011, he scaled 8,201-meter Cho Oyu, his 13th, and now he has his sights set on conquering all 14.
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That last mountain is Dhaulagiri I. Takeuchi says "the man who taught me about mountains" lies there.
In 1995, when he was still in university, Takeuchi attempted to climb 8,463-meter Makalu, his first eight-thousander, and reached the summit.
Tanabe, a former member of the Shinshu University Alpine Club who had plenty of experience in the Himalayas, was part of the expedition. Tanabe "taught (the younger members) about climbing the Himalayas."
Tanabe's body now rests inside a glacier.
"I want to find his body or his belongings if I can," Takeuchi said, adding that he intends to conquer the 14 peaks by taking the same route as Tanabe did before his mentor perished on his tenth eight-thousander.
In March, Takeuchi visited the city of Numata in Gunma Prefecture to tell Yamada's 75-year-old brother, Yutaka, about his impending attempt to conquer Dhaulagiri I. He also visited Yamada's grave. Yamada was the mountaineer who aspired to become the first Japanese to scale all 14 peaks and who met his fate on the slopes of Mount McKinley.
A portrait of Yamada was placed at the farewell party hosted by Yutaka. At the dining table, Yutaka offered some encouragement: "Noboru tried to climb Dhaulagiri I twice. I'm sure he'll be nearby to protect you."
Following are excerpts of an interview with Takeuchi:
Question: You have only one more mountain to climb before you become the first Japanese person to scale all 14 eight-thousanders.
Takeuchi: Twenty-something people have already conquered the 14 mountains. The world may think we're a bit "late" to set this record. It's unfortunate no Japanese person has done it. Some people in mountain-climbing call it the "curse of Japanese mountaineering."
Q: Why did you decide to climb all 14?
A: I joined an open international expedition to Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters) organized by German alpinist Ralf Dujmovits (age 50) in 2001. It was completely different from my experience in treks organized by Japanese groups. We called each other by our first names and everyone had a chance of reaching the summit. Fortunately I reached the top and Ralf recognized my ability. We've organized parties many times since and we both shared the goal of conquering the 14. He did it in '09.
Q: What sort of training are you doing before your expedition to Dhaulagiri I, the last of the 14 mountains?
A: I'm not doing any training in particular. You can't climb as high as 8,000-plus meters unless you're in perfect condition. Performance drops even with a minor injury. You can't build up any extra muscle because you'll consume more oxygen. I'm 180 centimeters tall, but I weigh around 60 kilograms, which is the best. I work on maintaining my physical condition when I'm in Japan. Just like marathon, swimming and the like, there's a training method that suits the sport of high-altitude mountaineering.
Q: Who will you climb Dhaulagiri I with?
A: It'll be me and cameraman Kenro Nakajima (age 27), a former Kwansei Gakuin University Alpine Club member. He became a member of our team after our Cho Oyu expedition the year before last. At the time, he'd never climbed an 8,000-meter mountain before, but I heard his determination when Nakajima said he "lives for this." I asked him to take pictures. I want to see his pro spirit, so he can keep working on his technique with me.
Q: What do you eat on an expedition?
A: Our staples at base camp are pasta and pizza. I can eat it every day and not tire of it. During a climb we eat things like jellified nutritional supplements in packs. We drink at least three liters of tea and such a day to stay hydrated and prevent altitude sickness.
Q: You state your occupation as "professional alpinist."
A: I thought about it, and I think I'm finally ready to say I'm a pro. I don't climb as a hobby or for leisure. My wife wrote "company employee" on our oldest son's kindergarten application form, but I changed it to "alpinist." Of course I'm an employee at ICI, a mountaineering equipment store, but the company let me "declare" my professionalism. Alpinists are not an established profession in Japan. Calling ourselves professionals is the first step to making mountaineering take root in sport and culture.
Q: It's an extreme challenge to climb an 8,000-meter peak without using an oxygen tank or a porter to carry your equipment.
A: Of the 13 eight-thousanders I've climbed, I used a tank on Makalu and Everest (8,848 meters), which I climbed in 1995 and 1996, as well as on K2 (8,611 meters). These were all Japanese expeditions that I joined, so climbing extremely high peaks without oxygen tanks was not an option. But I changed my mind about it when I started climbing with Ralf. To breathe that oxygen you need the tank. The way we climb mountains, we don't hire Sherpas to carry our gear and put them in danger.
Mountaineering doesn't have rules like competitive sports. That's why you have to set limits yourself. When you climb the 14 eight-thousanders as a pro, people ask how you did it: Did you use an oxygen tank or not? If you don't conquer the 14 peaks without a tank, Europeans won't respect you. Besides, you can't get through the tough routes with a heavy oxygen tank on your back.
Q: Have you been good at sports since you were a kid?
A: No, I was bad. When I was in elementary I couldn't do a back hip circle and I was the last runner at the sports festival. But I loved climbing trees and high places. In the university alpine club, I carried 50 kilograms of gear on my back and didn't get worn out, and I wasn't scared of rock climbing, either.
Q: Many of your mountaineering colleagues have died in accidents in the Himalayas.
A: My friend Osamu Tanabe died in an avalanche on Dhaulagiri I. He had more experience in the Himalayas than me, but still the blizzard showed him no mercy. He must have thought it frustrating. But I don't think he regretted making the climb. That's why I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me if I have an accident.
Q: What do you want to tell people by climbing all 14 eight-thousanders?
A: For example, everybody knows that Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan. What's number two? You probably don't know. I want Japanese people to know the third-tallest mountain, too. With the 14, too, most people only know Everest and K2. I think that children start to think about mountains differently when they find out what the world's fourteenth-tallest mountain is. I want the number 14 to become a mountaineering symbol. That would lead to a reassessment of Noboru Yamada, Hideji Nazuka and Tanabe, who lost their lives without fulfilling their life's ambition. That's what I hope for.
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