Judit Kawaguchi

Others: Mountain climber Ken Noguchi

By age twenty-five, mountain climber Ken Noguchi grabbed the title of the youngest person ever to climb the seven highest peaks on seven continents. With that challenge out of the way, he decided that as long as he was on top of the world, he could do more than just admire the view: he could actually change it for the better. He started to carry things down and today he is known as the earth’s top garbage man. He says he cleans much more than the peaks. The climber talked to Judit Kawaguchi.

JK: What does mountain climbing mean to you?
Ken Noguchi :That’s a tough question. On the mountain, everything becomes very simple, and I feel like I am the real me, very much within my core. I guess the higher I go, the more I feel grounded. In the city I am overwhelmed by way too much information and stimuli but during climbs I don’t use my head anymore, well, at least a lot less that in the city, and I feel with my heart. I become spiritual and open. With every step, I cleanse my system and even my sense of smell heightens, exactly because there are no smells on the mountain. There are no plants, no living things so the body longs for smells but there aren’t any. As I climb, the sound of my steps echo inside of me and I feel very much in control of my own destiny.

JK: Even though, with each step you are more and more at the mercy of nature.
KN: Yes, that’s so beautiful about the whole thing. I guess I give myself up to the power of nature and this sets me free. On the Himalayas, each expedition lasts about two months and after a month or so up there, I notice that I actually have ears, that my hearing is sensitive enough to hear the silence. The mountain is a very dangerous place, rocks fall left and right, any moment an avalanche might swipe us away, and our bodies respond to this constant fear by sharpening our senses: it is simply for self-preservation. Believe me, up there all I think about is survival and how I want to stay alive and be back in Tokyo, as soon as possible. All the important answers come to me there, which I am unable to formulate in the city.

JK:What sort of revelations came to you while on a mountain?
KN:For example on Mount McKinley in Alaska, when I was nineteen, I walked all alone on a glacier. There was not a soul around and suddenly I noticed something small and black in the snow ahead of me. I got closer and realized it was a tiny bird, dead and frozen and I immediately knew that the bird and I were the same: tiny and fragile and that our size difference was so minute in the big scope of things. The two of us were the same size up in the mountain. Then and there I accepted that one day I’d be dead exactly like that little bird and suddenly I was free of all worries and complexes. The weight was lifted off my shoulders and since then I try not to sweat the small stuff. Thanks to that tiny bird, at age 19, the garbage from my mind and soul was gone and only the essential was left.

JK: So after nineteen, you don’t have any more worries?
KN:I do! Sure, I do and that is why I keep going back. In the mountain I am OK but once I come back, I get back into the same bad cycle.

JK:Sounds like you climb for self counseling.
KN:Exactly. In the city I create new problems and worries for myself so I must return to the mountain. In Tokyo I get all confused, I think too much and feel out of breath, it is like I am always running, both my feelings and my body are racing, so consequently I lose focus and get lost, but on the mountain I get my direction back. There I can get rid of my complexes.

JK:You are famous for cleaning mountains but you are also purifying yourself.
KN:Yes, I bring down other people’s garbage while I leave my own up there. Not the real physical stuff, but my emotional baggage.

JK:What complexes did you leave on mountains?
KN:Luckily I said bye to almost all of my demons already. I was a troubled boy, and my problems culminated in a two-month suspension at the Rikkyo School in the United Kingdom when I was sixteen. This was a tough boarding school and I was not a great student so I was the only kid in my middle school who couldn’t get into high school based on academic performance alone. Fortunately, the principle decided that I could advance as the temporary student. Imagine what a big shock and disappointment this was for my parents and me. At that time I thought I’d go to a good university but I was put on probation. I blamed myself a lot. Everyone called me “the temporary kid” and one day when an older boy bullied me again, I just snapped and punched him. I couldn’t help it and since I studied karate at the time, I guess I hit him kind of hard.

JK:Sounds like you were struggling with some other issues.
KN:My mother is Egyptian and she met my father who was a diplomat, when he was stationed in Cairo. She was just 19 at the time and although she spoke Japanese, once they moved to Japan, she had lots of stress because my father was busy and couldn’t be home for dinner every night. That is normal in Japan where people must work so hard and come home late, but for Arabs, dinner with the whole family is a really big deal and the women are very strong and demanding so my mother was always complaining. They divorced while I was away in boarding school.

JK:There was lots of movement in your childhood.
KN:Yes, lots. In kindergarten I spoke only Arabic but I am not very good at it now. I lived in Japan from age five till nine, then the next three years we were in Egypt and after that in the UK. After my suspension I was placed under house arrest and came back to Japan and my father recommended that I’d travel around. I went to Osaka to stay with my uncle and then visited Nara and Kyoto for the first time in my life. It was an eye-opener.

JK:How did you feel when you came back to Japan at age sixteen?
KN:I lived abroad for so long by then that Japan was like a foreign country to me. I had very fond memories and always wanted to be back because looking at Japan from far away I realized what a great country it was and how much I wanted to live here. I had difficulty living in Egypt and the UK, because I found both too hard to adapt to. So I was very excited to finally come back to Japan and very hungry to absorb Japanese culture. That is why I picked Kyoto and Nara and I loved them both but was taken aback by the lack of pride Japanese displayed towards their country. Most Arabs are very proud of their culture so for me that was a given but being in Japan, even now, I don’t feel that Japanese have enough pride, especially the young. I also see a lack of desire on the part of most Japanese to contribute to their nation.

JK:Why do you think Japanese lack pride?
KN:Japanese don’t know how to appeal and are not good at asking questions. For example, at school when the teacher asks questions, Japanese kids do not raise their hands but in Egypt, students are almost falling out of their seats to answer, to show that they know. This is missing here, even though many have the right answers. Also, Japanese travel abroad a lot but most don’t travel enough domestically, especially among the younger generation. Now the Japanese government invited many foreigners through its Yokoso Japan campaign which is great but how about recommending Japanese themselves to see their own nation? Unless we Japanese know more about our country, and feel pride in our heritage and achievements, how can we possibly attract foreigners? The first step in advertising Japan for tourism is not building hotels to accommodate the foreigners we hope to welcome but to educate the Japanese about the beauty of their own culture so they can introduce it to visitors.

JK:What aspects of Japan are you most proud of?
KN:The Japanese are very polite and extremely hardworking. The people are delicate and what they produce is sophisticated and beautifully detailed. The food is amazingly fresh and always beautifully presented. I can depend on people and trust their words. In Egypt everyone says “Inshallah,” which means “if Allah allows it or wills is”, but what that really translates into is that no deal or promise is 100%. There every conversation and business meeting ends with this expression which is kind of nice because it shows that people are relaxed about life but at the same time, I never know if the other person will follow through or not. In Japan, people keep their words. And they are punctual. I love that! I also find that Japan is very open-minded. For example, we celebrate Christmas, then on New Year we pray at Shinto shrines and we arrange funerals at Buddhist temples.

JK:What bothers you here?
KN:Since I came back at sixteen, I have the same trouble: I love looking at Japan from abroad. That is why I need to go back and forth, I leave Japan, then return, go away, come back. I am married with a small child so I am very concerned about education. I don’t like the strong emphasis the Japanese put on study, particularly the type one does while sitting by a desk. I believe in going outdoors and want both children and adults to go out more into the fields.

JK:When did you start climbing?
KN:The trigger was when in Kyoto I stumbled upon adventurer Naomi Uemura’s book. I was amazed by his efforts and also saw similarities between his childhood and mine, especially because he was not so good at communication in his young age, which rang so true for me, too. I saw that there was another way of life and I wanted it to be mine. That winter I climbed Mount Fuji and I was hooked. I knew I wanted to challenge all the top mountains on the seven continents.

JK:What was next?
KN:The following summer and winter vacations I climbed Mt. Mont Blanc and Mt. Kilimanjaro with my father’s backing. However, he told me that if I wanted to keep climbing, I had to find sponsors myself because he was not going to help anymore. He was right: collecting money is the first step of the adventure process. I entered Asia University in Tokyo and I spent all my free time calling companies, as many as 146 in one stretch, but got rejected 146 times because I was nobody, just a young guy after a dream. I kept sending them info and also wrote letters to newspapers begging them to interview me. Once a teeny-tiny mention of me appeared in a newspaper, some companies agreed to meet and I finally got some sponsors.

JK:What were your next targets?
KN:I was in a hurry because in order to get sponsorships, I had to be the youngest person on record to climb all the top peaks on the seven continents. Everything went according to plan till I tried Mount Everest at age twenty-three and failed. The same thing happened the following year but on my third try, at age twenty-five I finally made it. I was on top of the world!

JK:How did you feel on top of Mount Everest?
KN:Scared. Accidents usually occur during descent so standing there was very frightening. All I could think of was what could go wrong from that moment on. Maybe 300 out of 1000 climbers die so I lost my confidence to go back to the last camp. Helicopters can not go higher than 6000 meters so the only way down is walking. I just wanted to be back to the base camp or better yet, walking around in Tokyo. Every time I climb, I swear that I would never go back to the mountain. Then I come back to Tokyo and enjoy the bath, which I missed so much for two months, also the food, and all the comforts and after a few months that warm, thankful, happy feeling disappears and I want to go back to nature again. I keep doing this cycle, endlessly.

JK:You’re stuck in a bad spiral but you don’t really want to escape either.
KN:Yes, exactly. I am 100 percent sick and I wish I could get well. And now I am on a mission because the image of Mt Everest is so gorgeous and clean but the reality is that the mountain is still a heap of garbage so I feel that I must keep cleaning it.

JK:Who are helping your clean-up efforts?
KN:Of course the sherpas, but the hardest part was to convince them to join me because they all said that they were ready to die for adventure but not for garbage. I agreed but still wanted to go ahead with my plans so I promised we would only move in good weather and take lots of precautions. Nepal is a developing nation so their main concern is development and not so much the protection of nature. As I talked about nature conservation, somehow the sherpas got convinced that carrying the garbage down from the mountains was a worthy cause. But we must go up to 8000 meters, to the last camp, pick up our load and walk down, then go up again, and we just keep doing this for about two months. We can only carry down one or two oxygen canisters, because one weighs eight or ten kilos empty.

JK:Going up and down so many times must be very hard on the body.
KN:It is the worst, so once we are done, my face is so brown, the color of dirt, and not from the sun, and my whole body is full of horrible rashes. My doctor said my blood was so dirty because the circulation slowed down. I usually lose over 17 kilos, going from 76 kilos to under 59. The second time I went back to clean Mt Everest, I was told that one sherpa died in some kind of disease a month or so after our first cleaning expedition. The same sad news waited for me after the second year. Then in 2002, after the third cleanup, I was also bleeding heavily through my rear-end and was hospitalized for 2 month. This was when I finally realized that they passed away because of our cleaning effort and not due to another illness. Once I was discharged, I immediately returned to Nepal and told them that we should quit because human life was the most precious. To my surprise they said they wanted to keep cleaning the mountains. They were already cleaning their villages, too and they were recycling. They all think Mt. Everest is Nepal’s symbol and they want it cleaner. So in 2003 we cleaned it again, then took three years off.

JK:What are you doing this year?
KN:From April we clean Mt. Manaslu, which is 8163 meter tall. The reason I picked this mountain was because it was a Japanese group that reached its summit for the first time so the Nepalese call it Japanese Mountain. This happened 50 years ago and we celebrate it by cleaning it up a bit and also by making at attempt to reach its summit.

JK:Do you consider yourself more of a climber or an ecological worker?
KN:I’m a climber who moved into the ecology field but I am still a climber first and last.
I encourage people to go out into the countryside, visit little villages and talk to the local people, taste their fresh local foods and enjoy nature. In 2003 I started a camp, the Ken Noguchi Environmental School, where participants between the ages of six and twenty-two stay at six locations in the countryside and even just four or five days out there make a difference in their understanding of nature.

JK:Who are your greatest teachers?
KN:Elderly people are the keepers of culture and I feel very strongly about learning from them and passing their knowledge onto the younger generation.

JK:You also clean Mt. Fuji with volunteers.
KN:In 2000 we started with just 100 or 200 people but since every summer 300, 000 climb it, the garbage they leave behind is substantial. We clean about ten or twelve times each season, between June and November and last year we had about 3600 volunteers from all over Japan. Most of the garbage is actually gone from the middle of the mountain to the top. Once the mountain is clean, people don’t want to dirty it so they all carry down their own garbage. The good point of Japan is that people jump at an opportunity to be part of a trend so it is easy to gather people. Once one takes action, it is easy to find volunteers.

JK:What are your plans?
KN:To create a society that not only makes less garbage but also protects its nature more. I often travel around Japan and see how the countryside is filled with elderly people while the young move to work in the big cities. I think eco-tours could be a viable business option to keep young people in the countryside so I am working on this system with Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. We also created park rangers who are specialists to protect nature and we hope to extend this to many parts of Japan. Now we have about ten of them in Tokyo city and I am their leader. We also have rangers on Mt Fuji.

JK:What is the greatest threat to humans?
KN:It’s global warming, for sure. In the cities it is hard to notice it but on the mountains it is obvious: in the past five years the number of avalanches increased tenfold. I lost many friends. Imagine a wall of snow 150 meters tall coming at you, increasing in size with every centimeter: that is global warming and unless we take action right now, it will swallow us all up.

A version of this interview appeared in Skyward Magazine in 2006.