Japanese climbers are first to complete a complicated Denali route, thanks to help from Alaskans

Toranosuke Nagayama and his two climbing partners spent more than two years planning a major expedition on Denali.

“Alaskan climbing is very special,” Nagayama said. “We are really interested in that, like, a very white world. So we came here.”

Nagayama flew to Anchorage from Canada last month to finally make the long-awaited trek on Denali. His two partners — Subaru Takeda and Genya Takenaka — traveled all the way from Japan.

After they arrived, they left their bags unattended in the lobby of the Anchorage apartment they had rented.

But when they came back a few hours later, their bags were gone. They were devastated. Nagayama estimated that between $10,000 and $20,000 worth of climbing gear was stolen.

“I gave up at the time, like I gave up the expedition,” he said. “I was really ready for climbing, and I was so excited to see the glacier. I was really disappointed at the time.”

The next day, on a whim, Takeda posted a handwritten sign at REI, asking if anyone had information about their stolen gear. Someone took a photo of the sign and uploaded it to the Alaska Rock Climbing Facebook page.


Within hours, Alaskans started reaching out, offering to lend equipment. Dana Drummond, owner of The Hoarding Marmot, even organized a spreadsheet of everything they needed — jackets, crampons, harnesses, ice axes and more.

“The Alaskan people were really kind,” Nagayama said. “I didn’t expect it. So it was so quick. And then we thought, ‘Oh, we might be able to continue this trip.’ It was a really good day.”

Their plan was to link two complicated climbs together: the West and East Kahiltna peaks with the Cassin Ridge of Denali. No one had successfully linked these peaks in one self-supported endeavor.

In 2008, Japanese climbers Tatsuro Yamada and Yuto Inoue tried, but they disappeared near the top of Denali. In 2011, it was attempted again by Yasuhiro Hanatani and Kei Taniguchi, but they did not complete it.

After gathering gear from climbers all over Anchorage, Nagayama, Takeda and Takenaka set out to make their attempt.

They spent two weeks acclimating to the elevation, and then they started traversing.

For 10 days, they climbed through difficult weather, and on snow and ice they described as fragile. They had hoped to also summit Denali, but a bout of hypothermia turned them around just before the summit. Still, they said, they were happy to complete their main goal — linking the Kahiltna peaks with the Cassin Ridge.

“The glacier was really beautiful, like huge and flat glacier,” Nagayama said. “We are so excited.”

Takeda took iPhone videos of their expedition, especially in rare moments of good weather. One shows the clouds below them as the endless snow glistens in the sunshine. There they are, dancing for the camera and jingling other people’s quickdraws, and dusting off other people’s crampons. Takeda said he thought about this a lot during the climb.

“From the top of me and from the base of me, I wear the other people gears,” he said. “I thought that it is meaningful thing.”

Clint Helander lent ski skins and helmets to the climbers. He wasn’t surprised that so many were quick to help.

“I think Alaskans are pretty resilient and you really kind of have to rely on people up here,” he said. “Sometimes you think you’re all separate from everybody and you have little disagreements here and there, but it’s really cool just to see how — in the climbing world or just in Alaska in general — how people really come together to help people out.”

Takeda said he’s so grateful.

“I could never do this without Alaskan people’s help,” he said.

Before flying home last week, they unpacked their borrowed gear and returned it all to the local climbers who — together — helped make their expedition successful.

This story originally appeared on Alaska Public Media and is republished here with permission.