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Climbing Mount Everest

Aired June 29, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET


KYUNG LAH, CNN ANCHOR: This is Mount Everest, home to some of the world's most breathtaking landscape and most dangerous terrain. Standing more than twenty nine thousand feet, it is the world's highest peak, its summit almost as high as a flight path, challenging for some of the worlds most intrepid explorers.

RANULPH FIENNES, EXPLORER: Your throat gets dry and your cough gets worse and you cant breathe properly and then your cardiac system starts going, I don't know what you call it, but it goes into shock.

LAH: And while thousands have scaled the mountain's exterior, hundreds have perished along the way, making Tamae Watanabe latest feat all the more remarkable. At seventy three years old, she has become the oldest woman in the world to reach the summit. At title the Guinness Book of Records had given her at sixty three and one she smashed again ten years later.

Her story begins in a small town at the base of Japan's highest mountain. Tamae Watanabe is considered a special citizen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (through translator): We are proud to have such a wonderful person here.

LAH: This week, Talk Asia travels to Mount Fuji where we join Tamae Watanabe on her day job as a hiking guide. And she invites us into her home where we hear about her feat in Nepal, Pakistan, and another little know record she holds after reaching the highest point in the United States.

Thank you so much for joining us on Talk Asia and congratulations on your record setting trek up Mount Everest. We are meeting here near your home town, you grew up right at the base of Mount Fuji. Is that where you gained your first passion for mountaineering?

TAMAE WATANABE, MOUNTAINEER: (through translator): Yes, I think growing up on the mountainside gave me a big advantage towards eventually climbing Mount Everest.

LAH: So growing up watching Mount Fuji right next to you, that inspired you to want to climb other mountains?

WATANABE: Yes, it was. I love Mount Fuji and I think it is my love of the mountains in Japan that led me to seek other mountains around the world.

LAH: You said before that as a child, you didn't grow up in a culture where climbing mountains was for leisure. What was your viewpoint of mountaineering and nature as a child?

WATANABE: Well, that was slightly different, the mountaineering. We as children went up the mountain to find feed for livestock, like goats, cows and horses and because in the winter time we would light the fire in the house, we would climb the mountain to collect firewood as well. Because of that, I suppose I became used to climbing mountains.

LAH: So your relationship to nature was to live off of it. How did you go from that to climbing for leisure?

WATANABE: Well, although mountains around here are not very high for mountaineers, I climbed mountains everyday which trained me to walk.

LAH: Did you think that one day you would be setting records and climbing for sport?

WATANABE: Never, not even a bit. I was just enjoying climbing.

LAH: So something changed when you were around twenty eight years old, you really started mountaineering. Tell me about what happened at age twenty eight that got you to really start this passion in your life?

WATANABE: Well, there was a senior librarian at the library of (ph) where I also worked. They would talk about their mountaineering experiences, saying things like, "If you follow this route up this mountain you will see an amazing view." They told me how much they enjoyed mountaineering and I thought I wanted to give it a try if it was so much fun. SO I asked the person to introduce me to the mountaineering club they were a part of.

LAH: How do you go from that to wanting to climb more and more to even the tallest one, that being Everest?

WATANABE: Well, as I came to learn the joy of mountaineering, I began to enjoy climbing mountains that were higher and higher. I really enjoyed it.

LAH: What is it about the height of the mountains that is so important to you?

WATANABE: The height itself doesn't matter to me, nor do I think higher mountains are necessarily better for climbing. It depends on the route. Some routes are very challenging. In 1977 I climbed a fairly difficult mountain for the first time which is Mount Mcinley in Alaska. I climbed the so-called American direct route, which was a route straight up to the top, I really enjoyed it. There is such experiences. I learned that mountaineering wasn't just about height, I found that different routes have different charms. That is what I found.

LAH: When you talk about climbing here wit me, you light up. Do you feel alive when you are hiking?

WATANABE: Well, depending on the route, I am excited about the fact that there are also mountains where I just enjoy the view while hiking. Climbing rocks though was very thrilling, that was a unique experience. The harder the challenge, the greater the accomplishment I found once I reached the top of the mountain. That is a different way of looking at mountaineering.

LAH: You grew up in a time when women were expected to get married, have children, become housewives. You did not choose to do that, you chose to climb mountains. What was the reaction of people around you because you were living this life?

WATANABE: The reason for not getting married was that I just didn't have a partner to get married to. Climbing mountains was more attractive to me than marriage, or other fun things like that.

LAH: Do you have any regrets not becoming a Japanese housewife?

WATANABE: It was my choice, and I don't have any regrets.

LAH: Good for you. Coming up, we are hot on the heels of Watanabe as she takes us hiking.


LAH: So this is the bag you used to climb up Everest?

WATANABE: Yes, Everest and _______, this bag.

LAH: What did you carry in your bag?

WATANABE: When I climbed Everest, survival food such as candy and chocolate and a thing like this to cover myself. When it suddenly gets cold, it protects the body from the wind.

LAH: What is the biggest challenge when you are up there in the heights of Everest?

WATANABE: Only Japanese may understand it, but I am like a ghost or something that likes high places, someone like me enjoys being in high places.

LAH: So you are saying you are a ghost. What is it? People wonder, what could possibly drive somebody to take their life in their hands and do this climb?

WATANABE: When I think of it, I think it I because I like being in nature and there aren't many people in high places, right? That is what makes me feel great.

LAH: How long will you be hiking?

WATANABE: I don't know at what age I am going to stop, but if I do exercise every day, I think I can hike for another ten years.

LAH: Maybe one more Everest climb?

WATANABE: No, I have done both of the routes on Everest, there are more mountains I have not climbed.

LAH: Can I see the lucky charm from the shrine, and what is the significance?

WATANABE: It seems to mean something about a historic shrine, but I don't know much about it. This charm protected me in Everest.

LAH: I want to talk about your first major climbing achievement. What was it and what did that feel like?

WATANABE: The first major mountain that I climbed was Mount Mcinley in the U.S. 1977. I climbed the south face of the mountain, that is so-called the American direct route. I think that was my first introduction to climbing a major mountain. Also, the people I climbed with were all young guys. One was six years younger than me, and some were twelve and thirteen years younger than me. I was the only middle aged woman at thirty eight years old climbing with them. AT one point, I was going to be a tent keeper at base camp, but the guy said come on, let's climb. This is a route that no woman had ever climbed before, so I ended up climbing with them. I became the first woman to reach the summit, and I found this kind of mountaineering interesting. It was slightly different than the kind of mountaineering I had done before, and after this trip, I gradually became involved in climbing.

LAH: Can you name all of the famous mountains you have climbed?

WATANABE: Let me see. One was the (ph) in Nepal which I climbed with a group of seniors who were over fifty years old. Another is Gasha (ph) in Pakistan and let's see, Cho Oyu in the Himalayas, which was also eight thousand, two hundred meters above sea level, if I remember. AS I was climbing mountains higher than eight thousand meters, I learned to enjoy climbing these particular mountains too, and after climbing them, I was invited to climb Everest, and in the year following my climb on Everest, I climbed Lhotse that was adjacent to Everest.

LAH: Which is the most unforgettable climb?

WATANABE: Let's see, well they were all unforgettable, but Mount Mcinley where I had to climb many rocks was a difficult route. So with out that experience I probably would not have been able to climb the icy rocks on Everest. So Mount Mcinley is were I developed my skills to climb high mountains.

LAH: Let's go back to 2002. Your very first trek up Everest when you hit the summit, at the very young age of sixty three, what was that climb like and what was it like to reach the top?

WATANABE: For me, it is not a great achievement. What I thought was, I arrived at the summit, I did it.

LAH: You didn't realize at that time that you were going to be setting the record

WATANABE: Well, I hardly thought about my own record, I was just enjoying mountaineering.

LAH: While enjoying your trek it is also a challenge when it comes to weather. Did you ever face any weather during your climbs up Mount Everest that you thought, this is really going to be very difficult, insurmountable?

WATANABE: There was a steep, hard wall of ice called the (sp) which was about a hundred meters long at a height of somewhere between six and seven thousand meters. I had to stand on my toes, because I couldn't put my heels down and I almost got cramps in my legs. I prepared myself for the worst and climbed to the top of the wall with all my might. Then I saw a group of ten women from another country who were on the wall with quite unsteady footwork. It was the only time I tried to stay away from others, moving aside, because I thought if one of them slipped and fell, everyone would fall together, so I moved to the side to avoid them.

LAH: We hear a lot about an area a thousand meters above that called the Death Zone. It is that area where there isn't enough oxygen to sustain human life. What is it like to hit that level?

WATANABE: We climbed with out an oxygen mask until about seven thousand, three hundred meters. This was the same when we climbed Everest for the first time in 2002. The first night we were higher than seven thousand, three hundred meters, we started using oxygen. When we continued on to higher ground, we put on our oxygen masks, so I stayed alert and was able to stay focused. I didn't feel that I was in danger.

LAH: Tell me about these photos.

WATANABE: This is Lhotse, I climbed it back in 2002. You can see Everest behind it. At the summit, yes, I was exhausted when I was climbing it. This is from below the summit, the edge of Lhotse is the route to Everest around here, the road is frozen and really steep. There is an American who slipped and fell and died. It is such a dangerous hillside, it is called the Lhotse Face.

LAH: How beautiful is it up there?

WATANABE: The view was superb.

LAH: Coming up, we join Watanabe as she inspires the next generation to reach new heights.


WATANABE: Hello everyone. I want to talk a little bit about mountaineering. Well, I left Japan on the 27 of March and arrived there the next day. To climb a mountain you have to get your body used to the environment.

If children have an interest in nature, they will understand. I want them to become people who appreciate the consequences the next generation will suffer if we destroy our natural surroundings. So without a doubt, they need to learn that nature is vital to us by experiencing it. I want them to like nature and to climb mountains and so on. I think that's important.

Lets walk slowly. This is not a competition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE CHILD, (through translator): I heard she is the oldest woman to have climbed Everest, which is great. I have not climbed a lot of m mountains so it is a little bit hard for me, but I enjoy it.

LAH: In 2002 you had the remarkable achievement of becoming the oldest woman to ever climb Mount Everest. Then three years later you had an accident, in 2005, an injury that threatened to end your trekking, you broke your back. What happened and how did you come back from that?

WATANABE: My injury, I owe it to the river in front of my house which was almost five meters deep. It was the day after I returned from Mount (ph), and I had been doing chores out in the sun without having a day off. I was affected by the heat and it was like I lost consciousness and fell into the river. As I was falling I thought oh no. I found a trustworthy hospital and had an operation there. The doctor said after the operation, you will be able to go back to the mountain for sure, so I thought I should be alright, and waited for my recovery. Once I recovered I made a plan for what I should do next, that his what happened.

LAH: After your accident, what was that first climb up a big mountain like?

WATANABE: Well, let me see. Probably two years after the accident, (ph) invited me to climb Clayton Peak. The highest mountain in Mongolia and I went there and found that I can climb this mountain, which gave me confidence. So I thought I can still climb a mountain, so I didn't lose hope and tried to maintain my physical strength.

LAH: After you climbed that mountain in Mongolia after the accident, at that point did you think I want to climb Mount Everest one more time?

WATANABE: No, not at all. What I was sure about at the time was that I could climb a quite high craggy mountain, I didn't think that I would go to Everest.

LAH: Why is Everest so important to climb?

WATANABE: Well, Everest has never been important to me, but the reason why I chose Everest this time was that I wanted to climb along the Tibet route. Out of curiosity, not because of its height or the desire to climb Everest again. I wanted to see how it is different from the one in Nepal.

LAH: Before this last climb that you made on Everest, (ph) who is a year younger than you are, was attempting to have the record of being the oldest woman to climb Mount Everest. Was her attempt the reason why you were driven to climb Everest one more time?

WATANABE: No, never. That never motivated me, but actually I received a phone call from Ms. (ph) last year. And although she told me on the phone that she had attempted it several times, I didn't think about climbing Everest again at all. I did not know that Ms.(ph) had attempted several times and I didn't think about climbing Everest again. So I told her as I did not think about going back to Everest again, to find someone else, and that was the end of the conversation. This year when I was in Katmandu, when I went to say hello to a Japanese agent there who was in charge of general matters of mountaineering, I heard Ms. (ph) would be coming, but I did not meet her in Katmandu. After that, I heard that Ms. (ph) had given up on challenging Everest this year for health reasons.

LAH: What was it like to climb Everest that second time? How different is it to climb Everest at a sixty three year old versus a seventy three year old?

WATANABE: Well, when I climbed Everest at sixty three, it may be because that was ten years ago, but I took off my mask on the way, and at the summit, I breathed without the mask for about forty minutes and I was fine. Compare that to this time, it wasn't because I climbed in the dark, but I think it was because of my age. I never took off my mask, so there is the difference that ten years made.

LAH: So you felt a little older climbing this time?

WATANABE: When I was climbing I did not feel the age so much, because I was focusing on climbing. The ten years probably brought some change to my body. That is what I think.

LAH: Four people died around the time that you were climbing up Everest. The weather conditions were extreme. What is it that kept you going?

WATANABE: Well, I heard the news that four people had died when I was going down the mountain. IT had never happened that that many people died in such a short period of time while I was there. So I wondered if the weather had been different this year. Maybe the weather caused their deaths, and I heard about falling rocks too> That is what I thought when I heard the news.

LAH: Do you think the mountain has gotten too crowded?

WATANABE: Well yes, I do. This time we climbed up from the China side for the first time. There were a lot of people on the China side too. While I was climbing the route wasn't overcrowded, but when I was going down, there was another person who was descending slowly, so from time to time I had to stop and wait, which wasn't easy for me.

LAH: You say you are not going to climb Mount Everest again but, are you retired or are you going to have a change of heart?

WATANABE: I have climbed Everest from the Nepal route and the China route, the other routes are too hard for me, so I don't think I can climb Everest again.

Tamae Watanabe, thank you so much for talking to Talk Asia, we really appreciate it.