Just as he has done every year for the past 25 years, Naoyuki Kobayashi is packing hiking equipment, cold weather gear and the maps and notebooks that might yet help him to find the last missing Japanese climber on the flanks of a remote mountain in Yunnan province, China.
A journey that has become an annual pilgrimage begins on November 23 this year, with Kobayashi, 48, leaving his home in Yokohama, Japan, for Kang Karpo, the highest mountain in Yunnan and one that is revered by locals as part of the holy Meili Snow Mountain range.
And, as always, he will start his search for the remains of Hisanobu Shimizu by asking villagers in the communities that dot the base of the mountain if they have recovered any remnants of the 17-strong, joint Sino-Japanese expedition that set out to become the first to scale the 6,740-metre peak in December 1990.
The ascent ended in tragedy in the first four days of January 1991 when an avalanche engulfed the team. Rescue parties were able to reach the group’s Camp II at 5,300 metres, but the dangerous conditions forced them to turn back before they could reach Camp III. Aerial photographs later showed thick avalanche debris around Camp III.
Ten bodies were subsequently recovered and a further six turned up over the following years. But the remains of Shimizu – the group’s doctor – have never been discovered. The tragedy was one of the most deadly mountaineering accidents in history. To this day, no climber has reached the mountain’s summit.
“When I visited last year, I learned that a few more relics had been found,” Kobayashi said.
“And for as long as these items continue to turn up, I will keep going there to search for more signs of the group and of Mr Shimizu. It seems that items that belonged to the group are descending the mountain in the glacier and are emerging in the meltwater that becomes a stream.
“That is another reason why I must keep going there. This is a sacred mountain, a holy place to local people and it is wrong to leave climbers’ belongings and the body of a dead climber there.”
The 1991 expedition was made up of 11 members of the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto (AACK), which Kobayashi joined while studying at Kyoto University, and six Chinese climbers. Kobayashi was unable to join the expedition, although he knew many of its members as they were fellow students. He also knew Shimizu, although not well.
The loss of the entire expedition shocked Japan’s climbing community and Kobayashi later vowed to visit the site to try to recover his friends’ belongings.
Local villagers were initially hostile to his presence – the original expedition had defied residents’ requests not to tackle the peak because of its religious significance – but his commitment over the following years has made them warm to him.
Kobayashi, a freelance photographer, has stayed in the home of the village chief and local residents have assisted in his search.
Their warm welcome has also changed his attitude towards the mountain, he said. When he first arrived, he planned to complete the ascent in honour of his dead friends. “But I have come to understand that this really is a sacred mountain and I have reached the conclusion that I should not try to climb it,” he said. “Now, that is not something that I want to do.”
Last year, Kobayashi’s 30-day effort led to the recovery of about 10kg of equipment that has slowly and naturally made its way down the mountain since the disaster struck.
The items include red and yellow tent poles, a white belt, a part of the frame of a backpack, gas cartridges for portable stoves and a number of lengths of rope.
Some of the items he brought back to Japan and he has held photo exhibitions of the mountain.
But each year, it becomes harder to find the remnants of the expedition, Kobayashi said. Yet he insisted he would continue, both to recover the final missing climber and also because the villages had become his “second hometown”. ■