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Canmore climber and friends make history on North America’s tallest peak

Toranosuke Nagayama and two friends made a historic world first ascent of the legendary alpine climbing route, the Cassin Ridge, on Alaska’s Mt. Denali.

MT. DENALI – Local climber and Kumpfy Shoes & Repair cobbler, Toranosuke “Tora” Nagayama, 25, together with two of his Japanese friends and fellow climbers put up a bold and historic world first ascent of the legendary alpine climbing route, the Cassin Ridge, on Alaska’s Mt. Denali, the highest peak in North America, earlier this month thanks in large part to the kindness of strangers and friends.

Instead of climbing the towering 8,000-foot tall (2,439m) Cassin Ridge from its usual starting point at the Kahiltna Notch between the northeast and east forks of the Kahiltna Glacier, they started much further away and climbed the entire south ridge of Denali from its point of origin at 7,700 feet (2,350m) between the two glaciers.

To do it, Nagayama and his teammates, Subaru Takeda, 25, and Genya Takenaka, 26, both of whom currently live in Japan, first had to climb the west and east summits of the Kahiltna Peaks, 12,835 ft (3,913m) and 13,440 ft (4,098m), respectively, before descending 1,500 ft (460m) down a wildly exposed knife-edge ridge to the Kahiltna Notch, the conventional starting point of the Cassin.

This not only increased the length of the climb by a staggering 7.5kms but also its height by at least 5,600 vertical feet (1,700m), a body and mind-numbing total accumulated ascent of at least 13,600 vertical feet (4,146m), most of it at high altitude, while carrying heavy packs through deep snow on punishingly steep terrain with zero room for error. In completing the ascent, they successfully created an elegant and long-coveted connection between the Cassin Ridge and the remainder of the entire south ridge of Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley (20,310 ft/6,192m).

Nagayama said that the chilling 1,500-foot (460m) descent from the east summit of the Kahiltna Peaks to the Kahiltna Notch at the base of the Cassin was the most difficult and dangerous part of the whole climb.

 “We had to be very, very careful,” he said as his face telegraphed the stress of those many anxious hours. “Everything had to be done slowly. At points, we downclimbed, at others we rappelled (lowered themselves on anchored ropes). We simply could not be in a rush. We had to be patient and precise.”

 The closest another Japanese team had come to approaching and climbing the Cassin via the south ridge of Denali was in 2008 when two other climbers tried it. They disappeared high on the mountain and it was not until a year later that Denali National Park Service rangers were able to spot their frozen bodies west of the Cassin at 19,800 feet (6,036m), from a helicopter. According to a 2009 article by Dougald MacDonald on, this suggested that the two climbers had likely finished the Cassin Ridge and were either descending via the West Buttress route and had fallen or been blown off while still roped together. Due to the high risks to a recovery team, their bodies were never retrieved.

After acclimatizing for two weeks by climbing Denali’s West Buttress route all the way to the summit, Tora and his teammates’ gruelling ascent of the entire south ridge and up the Cassin was done in one continuous and backbreaking 10-day push. Along the way they battled gale force winds, searing ultraviolet rays, extreme cold and hypothermia. Steep snow, ice and rock climbing make the Cassin one of the most sought-after big mountain alpine climbs in the world. It is considered a test-piece for alpinists and has a long and storied history of trial, triumph and tragedy spanning more than six decades. Access to the route requires an extensive preventative search and rescue registration process through Denali National Park because once on the ridge, retreat or rescue can be extremely costly, dangerous and often impossible.

According to Tucker Chenoweth, South District Ranger for Denali National Park: “It [this new first ascent] is certainly a significant and creative link-up that hasn’t been done before. Given its difficulty and the significant time needed to attempt it, it is unlikely to be replicated for some time.”

Because the massive mountain massif that is Denali (meaning “the high one” in the native language of Koyukon Athabascan) is less than 320kms (200 miles) south of the Arctic Circle, it is considered to be a polar peak. A weather station at 19,000 feet (5,800m) has recorded temperatures as low as -83 Celisus with wind chill. From the climbing base to the summit, it is the tallest mountain on land in the world with an elevation change of 13,100 feet (4,000m), about 1,600 feet (488m) more than from the base to the summit of Mt. Everest. And, Denali’s location can deliver an astonishing quantity of snow. When comparatively warm, moist winds sweep off the nearby Gulf of Alaska and rise, cool and condense, the mountain can receive up to eight feet (2.4m) of accumulation in one day. Add a malicious 65-degree incline on the Cassin, a rock climbing rating of 5.8 (intermediate at lower altitudes), concrete-hard ice, rarefied air, winds that can shred tents and blast climbers off the ridge and the Cassin writes its own recipe for challenge, discomfort and danger.

What made the trio’s achievement even more remarkable was that their expedition was almost over before it had even begun. Shortly after their arrival in Anchorage before the climb, on April 22 Takeda and Takenaka had their fully loaded packs of priceless equipment, rice and other essential supplies stolen from outside their visitor accommodation.

 “It was horrible,” Nagayama recalls as his eyes glass over with emotion. “At that point, I thought the expedition was over. We had been planning and training for the climb for two years.”

Nagayama estimated that about $10,000 to $20,000 USD worth of climbing gear (about $13,500 to $27,000 CAD), rice and supplies were taken. Worse than that, their dream had been stolen too. But after hearing of the trio’s plight on social media and via texts, and in a heartwarming display of kindness and camaraderie, within days the Anchorage, Canmore and Japanese climbing communities rallied to provide all the gear and supplies the three climbers needed to attempt the route.

 “I was overcome with how everyone helped us,” Nagayama said. “Many lent us gear, another also added accommodation. We spent a week pulling everything back together. That experience gave us the positive power that we were supported by everyone, even God.”

 Nagayama’s friend and fellow climber, Takeshi Tani, a mountain guide with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in Canmore, was just one of several local friends and climbers who answered the team’s call for help.

 “Tora is like a younger brother to me,” said Tani, who originally met Nagayama while climbing in Japan before befriending him in Canmore. “He and they (Takeda and Takenaka) are part of my family. If someone’s a climber or a mountaineer and they need help, you welcome the opportunity. It’s a special mindset, very sympathetic.”

 Together with Tani, Canmore’s Yuji Yodogawa, Nobo Kikuchi and Nagayama’s friend and fellow cobbler at Kumpfy Shoes & Repair, Eijiro Matsumoto, quickly pulled together everything from a high-end pair of used double-walled mountaineering boots and other expensive and specialized climbing equipment to an ultra-warm sleeping bag, jackets, pants, socks, long underwear and a down parka. Then they passed it all to another Canmore climber, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures guide, Jacob Dans, who by happy coincidence just happened to be leaving for Alaska with a Calgary friend to climb one of Denali’s sister peaks, Mt. Hunter. Messages of support poured in from Japan, even money with which to buy specialized food that would ultimately cost about $1,000 USD ($1,350 CAD).

 One of the Alaskans who also came to the rescue was Dana Drummond, the owner of The Hoarding Marmot, a gear and outdoor equipment consignment store in Anchorage. He put together a detailed spreadsheet of what the climbers needed and got the word out. About two dozen people donated items. Drummond personally added free lodging at his home before and after the trip. The result was something of a mountain miracle – and a frozen phoenix began to rise from the abyss of despair.

 “Those trips require a lot of planning and preparation, not only physically but logistically,” Drummond said. “For Denali, it’s almost specialty gear. If the trip’s an international one, on top of that there’s the language barrier, cultural differences, costs and everything else … Personally, I didn’t find it surprising that there were lots of people who were more than happy to help. Ultimately, Tora, Subaru and Genya had everything they needed. And, everyone was so happy that they not only achieved their goal but that they all came back safely.”  

It almost didn’t happen. On their last day of the ascent, high on the windswept Cassin and within sight of the top, the three men were forced to put in an emergency camp for five hours to warm up Takenaka, who developed hypothermia.

 “We remembered what had happened to the Japanese party in 2008,” Nagayama recalled. “That was the most frightening moment of the climb for us. We didn’t want history to repeat itself. We all wanted to come back alive. I didn’t think Genya (Takenaka) would die. He couldn’t move but once we got him into the tent, he could have hot water and food. He could speak and he understood what we were saying to him. I wasn’t sure if we would make it to the top of the ridge. I was still afraid about how long it would take to get him to safety. Frostbite was possible. It was the unknown. Fortunately, after many hours in the tent he said he would be able to try to continue.”

 Despite this avalanche of adversity and setbacks, after having started at 1 a.m. that morning, the three mountaineers successfully reached the top of the Cassin at noon Alaska time on June 3. Exhausted and dehydrated, but with the ridge completed, they decided to forego climbing the last 90 vertical meters to Denali’s actual summit a second time, electing instead to continue to try to save Takenaka.

 “We couldn’t make a mistake,” Nagayama said. “We had to choose the right answer for the situation.”

 The team put in a final high camp near the top of the West Buttress of the mountain shortly before 3:30 p.m. It was an epic 14.5-hour day and the culmination of an historic world first.

 All this from three men who had only been climbing for seven years, an astonishing achievement on a peak that was first climbed well over a century ago on June 7, 1913 by four American mountaineers who reached the massif by dog team. Denali has since seen thousands of ascents, most of them by the conventional and less challenging West Buttress route. The first ascent of the Cassin Ridge was made in 1961 by a six-member Italian party led by Ricardo Cassin. Since electronic records began being kept in 1979, the ridge has seen an average of only about 10 climbers scale it each year. This compares with an average of about 500 a year on the West Buttress route.

 Canmore’s Barry Blanchard, widely considered to be Canada’s leading alpinist, has climbed the Cassin and knows first-hand the sheer malignance it can deliver.

 “We would never work that hard or suffer that much again,” he said of his experience climbing the ridge in 1982 with fellow climber, Kevin Doyle, of Calgary. “It was a very trying ascent. It took us six days and we had a storm almost every day. At one point, I thought I had frostbitten my feet. At another, Kevin tumbled off down the mountain but stopped himself. One night, I went outside the tent for 45 seconds and frost-nipped my fingers…What those guys did [Tora and his teammates] is a really great illustration of what the French have dubbed an “enchainment” (a sequence), another step in the evolution of alpinism. A lot of the really phenomenal lines are now being linked. This is one of the next steps, where one form of alpinism is going. It’s pretty impressive and definitely pushing that pursuit.”

 Kumpfy Shoes & Repair co-owner/co-founder Karel Kumpfmuller also had high praise for Tora and his team. 

“It’s just amazing,” he said. “Full on. The people in Anchorage, did they ever come together. Wow. Before Tora went, I thought he was a pretty cool guy and a hard and skilled worker. Now he’s even cooler. Good things happen to those with a good aura about them and Wendy [Walker, Karel’s wife, company co-owner/co-founder] and I sensed that about him the first time we met him. Now, he’s part of Canmore history and, I guess, world history as well.”

 “‘Brave,’ that’s how I’d describe him and what he and his friends did,” Walker echoed. “Absolutely brave. I didn’t truly know the magnitude of the feat they’d accomplished until he got home. While he was gone, I crossed my fingers for him, his parents and our business because he is a vitally important part of it. We’re thrilled that he and his friends came back in one piece and he is happy.”

 In recognition of the kindness of strangers and friends and the invaluable contribution of the climbing communities in three countries without whose swift support the ascent would not have been possible, Nagayama said that he and his two friends plan to call the new route “The Linked Cassin.”

 “We want to link it to everyone who helped us,” he said graciously. “That includes Karel and Wendy because they gave me six weeks off without really even knowing what I was hoping to do. All of us in the world are linked in some way.”

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