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Sacred Quest

After decades of searching for the remains of a group of climbers killed by an avalanche on a sacred Tibetan mountain, a Japanese explorer is reconsidering his understanding of the relationship between people and nature

By Wang Yan , Li Jing Updated Apr.1

This January was the 30th anniversary of a deadly avalanche on Mount Kawakarpo, the highest peak in the Meili Snow Mountain range of northwestern Yunnan. The avalanche wiped out a 17-strong team of Chinese and Japanese mountaineers.  

News of the deadly event reached Japanese student Naoyuki Kobayashi on January 6, 1991. Now 52, Kobayashi remembers how he felt when he received the terrible news that the team, which had been out of touch with the base camp for three days, was likely lost.  

They later discovered the climbers had been killed by an avalanche on January 3. “I really hoped some might have survived,” Kobayashi said. A member of the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto, Kobayashi, who was a junior at Kyoto University at the time, was unable to make the trip. But two of his best friends from the club, Sasakura Shunichi and Kodama Yusuke, never returned. He attended their funerals, but said it felt wrong to bury an empty coffin.  

Kobayashi told NewsChina in early February that according to a report issued by the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto, the accident was caused by a high-speed surface avalanche and communication problems within the joint expedition.  

“But we didn’t know the exact cause because nobody came back and we couldn’t climb up to search the camp because of the heavy snow,” Kobayashi said.  

“It was concluded that the camp site they chose was not the problem because the team included meteorologists and glaciologists, and that the disaster was caused by force majeure. Few would disagree with that conclusion, because all the climbers died,” he said.  

Questions over his friends’ deaths haunted Kobayashi. He wanted to know about the mountain and understand what they went through.  

Then in July 1998, seven years after the disaster, news reached him that residents of Mingyong Village, at the bottom of Kawakarpo Glacier, had discovered human remains. It started his 23-year odyssey to understand what happened to the ill-fated mission.  

In January, the Chinese version of Kobayashi’s book Meili Snow Mountains, Searching for 17 Lost Friends was published. In an interview with NewsChina, Kobayashi said that his search was like a long farewell to his dead friends. In the process, the mountains had penetrated his heart, and offered him with solace and spiritual support.  

Dogged Search 
The Meili Snow Mountains, which are located about 10 kilometers northeast of Deqin County, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in northwestern Yunnan Province, lie between the Nu (Salween) River and the Lancang (Mekong) River. The range has 13 peaks with an average elevation of over 6,000 meters. The highest of all, Mount Kawakarpo, is a sacred mountain in Tibetan culture, its peak measuring 6,740 meters above sea level. In 1991, the highest point the team reached was 6,470 meters above sea level, 270 meters in vertical distance short of the summit.  

By 2019, Kobayashi had been visiting Meili every year at least once or twice for 23 consecutive years to search for remains of the mountaineers that were buried in the mountain glaciers – the pandemic prevented his trip in 2020. His journeys became a way for him to find the answers to the questions that had bewildered him for a long time.  

His first trip was in July 1998, four days after they got the news that villagers had found remains. Along with other members of a Japanese search party, they found the remains of 10 of the lost team, along with some of their belongings. Their bodies, crushed by the action of the glacier and a 1-kilometer ice fall, were twisted and unrecognizable. Five of the team were identified through their clothing or belongings. One climber had a love letter from his girlfriend in his pocket. Another was found still holding his arms up, as if trying to grab something in the last moments of his life. A watch on another climber’s body had stopped at 1:34am.  

The discovery of the remains meant so much to Kobayashi. After the cremation and funeral in Dali, Yunnan, a relative of one of the climbers said: “Seven years after the mountain disaster, today it’s finally over.” Kobayashi said he was touched by these words. “I started to reconsider the significance of the remains of the lost climbers. It was this that supported me through the years to continue the search for their remains,” Kobayashi told the reporter.  

Back in Japan, Kobayashi quit his job and decided to become a nature photographer. The next year, he returned to Mingyong Village to continue the search.  

In Mingyong, a Tibetan ethnic village, he always stays with Tashi, the village head. Every morning, Tashi’s elderly mother fetches buckets of water from the canal in the center of the village, fed by pure meltwater directly from Mingyong Glacier. The water is the pride of the village. Kobayashi did not like to think of the bodies contaminating the village water source, so he became even more determined to find the remaining climbers.  

He stayed there the first time for a year, and with Tashi’s help, he went every week or two to search the mountain. They found the remains of another four climbers, although some were just foot bones in mountaineering boots.  

Whenever he returned to Tokyo, thoughts of the village lingered in his mind.  

“It was as if I was walking in another world, and the one in Meili and the one in Tokyo have become two breakpoints in the chain of my life,” Kobayashi said. He was driven to return year after year. He photographed every season on the mountains, allowing himself to become immersed in the environment.  

In the summer, the glaciers melt, more each year. He continued to find items connected to the expedition on top of the ice, but as time passed, mostly it was just rags and pieces of plastic. Kobayashi said that picking up these things was a bit like collecting garbage, and it was the sacred mountain itself which was ejecting unclean things. By his last visit in 2019, he had confirmed the remains of 16 of the team, leaving only team doctor Shimizu Hisanobu to be found.  

In the process of his search, he also confirmed the horizontal velocity of Mingyong Glacier at 32 meters per month – around 200 to 500 meters per year. According to glaciologists, this means Mingyong Glacier is probably one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world.  

“Among the 17 lost climbers, there were experts in ice and snow and meteorology. They paid with their lives to let us know the existence of such a glacier,” Kobayashi said. 

Holy Mountain 
Each morning, Mingyong Village wakes to chanted prayers and the burning of incense. Through the daily worship of the sacred mountain, Kobayashi started to understand the holiness of Kawakarpo as he witnessed these ceremonies.  

In the 1980s, the Chinese government opened up more areas in the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau to visitors. Yunnan Province invited teams from other countries for mountaineering, rafting and other activities.  

The attempt on Kawakarpo came after years of preparation. Organized by the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto, the Chinese Mountaineering Associations of Beijing and Yunnan were set up for the expedition. The Japanese side provided much of the financial support and techniques, the Chinese side provided logistics on the ground.  

Tibetans who live among the Meili range believe the holy mountains are relatives of the mountain god of Kawakarpo, the tallest and most majestic peak of the 13.  

Climbing Mount Kawakarpo had been forbidden by local communities. Kobayashi later learned that in 1991, local Tibetans had tried to stop the mountaineers by blocking bridges and roads and had refused to provide any assistance. The locals warned the climbers, but no one listened. They held ceremonies to curse the climbers by praying to the sacred mountain god to show his majestic power to the ignorant climbers.  

There had been previous attempts on Kawakarpo – 10 expeditions since 1902, but all had failed. After the 1991 disaster, in 1996, China and Japan set up another joint team, including Kobayashi, to challenge the summit again.  

But bad weather derailed that attempt too. Since then, there have been debates about whether it is proper to climb a sacred mountain. Finally in 2001, local authorities banned climbing on Mount Kawakarpo. In over a century of modern mountaineering, the peak of Kawakarpo is still untouched.  

In 1999, Kobayashi asked Tashi what he thought about climbing Mount Kawakarpo. Kobayashi said Tashi’s expression was firm.  

“Whoever you are, it is absolutely not allowed to climb Kawakarpo! The sacred mountain is like a relative to us. If you stepped on the head of your relative, Japanese would be angry, right? Do you understand why we Tibetans risk our lives to circumambulate our sacred mountains?”  

“I was shocked by Tashi’s words and couldn’t help but feel chastised. The more I know about this land and the people here, the more I feel the deep connection between the people and the mountains, and I keep thinking about the meaning of mountain climbing,” Kobayashi said.  

“Since the bodies were first discovered in 1998, I’ve been searching for the [other] bodies while living with the Tibetans in MingyongVillage. I realized Kawakarpo is a really sacred mountain for every Tibetan, so I declared we should not try to climb these mountains. Since then, many Japanese mountaineers have begun to understand how sacred the Meili Snow Mountains are,” he said.  

To better understand how Tibetans feel about their sacred mountains, Kobayashi joined villagers three times as they circumambulated Mount Kawakarpo, in 1999, 2000 and 2003, a walk of around 20 kilometers. The ritual is an expression of devotion toward the mountain god, and imbues other benefits like the cleansing of the spirit.  

Naoyuki Kobayashi (right) and Tashi

Upturned View 
As Kobayashi’s understanding of the mountain grew, he found more acceptance from the villagers.  

Since 2005, few remains have been found. Although one team member is still missing, Kobayashi believes that his body has already passed into the river that flows from the end of the glacier. After the pandemic, Kobayashi said he will return one last time, but if he finds nothing, it will be time to end his odyssey. Having seen the remains of his friends and learned the belief system of the Tibetans, he believes life still exists in some other form beyond death.  

“I think humans are made alive by nature (or the Earth, and the universe). I understand this idea by witnessing nature and people’s lives surrounding Kawakarpo,” he said.  

“The Tibetan Plateau is a dry and cold land, but the high Mount Kawakarpo can catch the moist monsoons blowing from the Indian Ocean to make snow and rain to allow the growth of thick forests with abundant animals and plants. People around the Meili Snow Mountains can see such a source of life with their own eyes, so they believe in and pray for the sacred mountain and would not try to climb the mountain,” he said.  

Guo Jing, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences who has made documentaries about the Meili Snow Mountains, told NewsChina in an email interview in February that the Meili example should prompt a rethink in the relationship between local people and cultures and those from outside who seek to conquer their landscape.  

“The Meili mountaineering accident has multiple meanings: as Western culture made its global expansion during the past centuries, exploration and adventure in nature have been at the vanguard of Western civilization. However, still to this day, the explorers are put at the center of the narrative of adventure, while the indigenous people living in the places being explored or developed have been ignored by the outside world,” Guo said.  

“The news of the death or an incident involving an explorer may cause a sensation, but the deaths of numerous Sherpas while climbing Mount Qomolangma [Mount Everest] do not gain much attention. Nor is their culture ever noticed,” Guo said.  

Guo said Kobayashi is a rare example among climbers and adventurers.  

“Of course, this is not to condemn climbers, many of whom are against modern civilization. But often they ignore local cultures and are caught between modern city life and local indigenous cultures. Kobayashi is a rare exception in mountaineering history. He has broken through the awkward situation and even the conflicts between adventure culture and nature-based local culture, and recognizes the significance of local culture, which is inspiring in the history of global exploration.”  

“More interestingly, after the disaster, the climbers’ families and local villagers did not form an antagonistic relationship, but set up a mutually supportive relationship,” Guo said.  

For Kobayashi, these realizations about the connection to nature and its impact on people have been a profound change in attitude since he was a gung-ho young climber.  

“For us [modern mountaineers or explorers] living in the cities who don’t have the symbolic ‘source of life’ like Kawakarpo, if we could go up to space and gaze back at our Earth, I believe we would realize what our Kawakarpo is,” Kobayashi said.  

“I recognize the relationship between nature and humans is not one of humans protecting nature or sustaining it, but instead is the great nature or universe allowing human beings to live. While thinking that way, I would like to live with respect toward the ‘source of life’ like the Tibetan people,” he said.