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Being with the Mountain

[Kai Taniguchi died on December 21, 2015, while climbing in Japan’s Ishikari Mountains, shortly after this story was published in Alpinist Magazine Issue 52–Winter 2015–Ed.]

[Photo] Kei Taniguchi collection

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, reading adventure stories in a house by the sea, I often dreamed about worlds above the clouds. One day, my father took me on a hike up a nearby mountain. It was just a little one–a rocky summit poking through a thick carpet of trees–in the Fukushima prefecture of Japan. But for the first time, I thought I could touch the clouds. It was as though I’d walked into one of the illustrations in my books. Afterward, I fantasized about other places I might discover, if I could only keep traveling: small islands in the Pacific, deserts of sand or ice, huge summits of stone and snow.

But why did I first become attracted to the mountains? And why have I kept going to them for thirty years? I guess there are two big reasons. First of all, I suspect that I long for the heights because I’m short–so I can enjoy fresh air and a commanding view above anyone else. (For comparison, picture me riding one of the crowded subways in Tokyo, crammed into a train with so many taller people that I can’t even breathe or see.) A second reason is my desire to experience the works of nature without any artificial stimulation, merely with my body alone. In severe, high places, I’m forced to see how small and powerless all humans are, compared to the vastness of the wild. At the same time, I realize our unlimited potential: I decide whether to encounter the hardships of the mountain or not. To go up or down, right or left. No one forces me. No one leads me by the hand.

So many times on freezing walls, I’ve asked myself, Why have I chosen something so hard, so backbreaking? But I’ve never quit. To me, exploring unknown mountains resembles life itself. Like many people, I exist, today, entangled in immense infrastructures of data. But I’d like my future to remain mysterious. I want to visit regions with the least available information–to encounter raw nature as it truly is. When I begin to see and touch the land, I’ll start discovering what I can do, how I can climb beyond the imaginable.

[Photo] Kei Taniguchi collection


HIGH ELEVATIONS and hard grades aren’t always necessary for me. I love to draw beautiful lines as simply and silently as possible–like the first ascent of the southeast face of Kamet, a 7756-meter peak in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. In 2008 my climbing partner Kazuya Hiraide and I discussed again and again how to minimize the weight of our gear for that climb. We knew that alpine style should be based on the concept of light and fast. And because we weren’t too strong, we couldn’t carry much anyway. Thus, automatically, we became a minimalist team.

Fortunately, there were no other climbers on Kamet, and no noise from the outside world, not even reliable weather forecasts. Alone, we could face nature intimately. I don’t like rushing to a destination, reaching the base of a peak in the shortest possible time and starting to climb right away. To me, that approach would be like walking into someone’s house with dirty shoes. Instead, I’d prefer to knock on the door of the mountain and say hello, to speak with it until we understand each other better, and only then to enter more deeply into its heart.

Whenever I go to the Himalaya, where people live near the mountains, I want to learn about their relationship to the place so that I can feel some of that connection, myself, before I step onto a peak. Day after day, as I gaze at the sky, I’ll begin to comprehend the cycle of weather by the movement of clouds and wind. My initial doubts will turn into certainty if I can spend enough time simply being with the peak and contemplating it. At last, I’ll know that the mountain will accept me. I’ll sense it saying gently, Come here.

In the end, our ascent of Kamet couldn’t be called very “fast.” We’d planned for four days; it took us seven. The difficulties proved greater than we expected: crumbling ice, loose rock, frigid air. Each time the sun hit the slopes, its rays set off a deluge of snow. But the slower pace allowed me to immerse myself in truly seeing the landscape. The higher we climbed, the more peaks we glimpsed in the distance–until it seemed that Kamet was surrounded by an infinite expanse of ridges and glaciers. It was like looking through a fish-eye lens: bright summits continued all the way to a curved horizon. From the southeast face, Nanda Devi and Kalanka rose as sharp facets of black and white. To the northeast, the Tibetan plateau extended in brown desert plains. But then, just at the vanishing point in the east, gleamed the holy mountain, Mt. Kailash.

Once we got above 7000 meters, we could watch the sun rise from behind Mt. Kailash, its yellow fire bursting across the sky. Full of life energy, the fresh morning light seemed to ignite us after the cold, sleepless nights.

Three years later, we attempted the Tibetan mountain Naimona’nyi (Gurla Mandhata), next to Kailash, and when we reached about the same height–around 7000 meters–we could see the southeast face of Kamet again. Kamet and Naimona’nyi were in completely different places, far from each other. Yet in that moment they appeared linked together, as though we’d found ourselves back on the same line of an elegant, old story.

While fast can be important in alpinism, it’s not so bad to be able to spend a little more time with a mountain you love.


AFTER DECADES OF VISITING the great ranges of the world, I’ve learned that I care most about the mountains of Japan. Each season, they reveal different faces. In winter, they wear only snow and ice and rock. They become luminous and quiet–although it’s not easy to reach their heart in the deep drifts and the storms. A meter of snow can fall over- night. A swift blizzard can trap you. You inevitably have to face your weakness. How will you overcome it? The answer lies somewhere between the austerity of nature and your own ability. It’s as if the entire scheme of existence plays out in a brief period of time. This harsh grace helps me grow the most.

From spring to autumn, there’s an abundance of life. It’s then that I like to be in the mountains by myself, catching fish, drinking stream water and picking mushrooms, nuts and wild grapes. I long to cross range after range, to venture ever deeper into the cradle of the wild.

The mountains have taken some of my friends’ lives. But they have also shown me new life: the births of animals; the budding of flowers; the spreading of the vast, open air. The new dreams of lines and art that some- one might create–those are also essential elements of this vitality. For a climber, if there is no artistry, no beauty in alpinism, then there is no life.

In Japan, people have worshipped mountains since ancient times. These days, I enter the hills wishing to be accepted by the yama no kami, the mountain gods. I ask to return safely, to be given some experience of beauty and to be taught some good way to shape my own life.

Translated from the Japanese by Hiko Ito