Person climbing Mount Everest
And he is not finished with it. Despite coming close to death, firmly stating that ‘three times is enough’ after his last record-breaking climb and undergoing yet more heart surgery for his cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), Miura tells me he is in training to ski down Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain, when he is 85 and plans to launch a fourth Everest bid when he is 90. ‘I’m thinking of the next Everest expedition – if I’m still alive by then, ’ he adds with a smile.
Born in 1932, Miura grew up during the tumult of the Second World War and the fall of the Japanese empire. Raised amid the snowy peaks of Japan’s northern Hokkaido prefecture, he was the son of Keizo Miura, a famed skiing teacher and adventurer who had become the oldest person to climb Kilimanjaro when he was 77. Following in his father’s footsteps, Miura became a professional skier and was later the headmaster of a high school.
While his debut climb up Everest at 70, in 2003, was at the time the record for the oldest person to reach the summit, it was far from his first major achievement. Miura is a household name in Japan, known as ‘the godfather of extreme skiing’. His passion for snow sports predates his mountaineering, and in 1964 he set a new world ski speed record: 172km per hour (107mph) – granted, his record lasted only one day. He skied down Japan’s Mount Fuji in 1966 and Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, in 1967. He was then invited by New Zealand’s tourism board to ski the Tasman Glacier, where he met his ‘superhero’, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest, who inspired Miura to ‘be Everest’ and ‘make history’ for himself.
"I think if one regards the age of 80 as a start, his or her life will become more interesting. You need a goal. It is not necessary to climb a mountain"
When he was 37, Miura became the first person to ski on Everest, descending 1, 280 vertical metres (4, 119ft) from the South Col, on a gradient of 40 to 45 degrees, in less than two and a half minutes, with a drag parachute and fighter pilot’s helmet for protection. The parachute was meant to act as a brake, but as he careered out of control, sliding down a sheet of sheer ice towards almost certain death on Khumbu Icefall, the chute failed to stop him. Just before the icefall, Miura flew off a rock and was propelled about 30ft into the air before landing on a small gathering of snow that – miraculously – broke his fall. He was only 250ft from a deep fracture on the glacier.
His story was turned into the film The Man Who Skied Down Everest, which in 1976 won the Oscar for best documentary. But his achievement was marred by tragedy. ‘Six of the Sherpas around me died. It was tragic and terrifying.’L-R: Miura in training; on set during the filming of The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975) Credit: Miura Dolphins/Rex
In April last year an even more devastating tragedy struck Everest. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, triggering a huge avalanche from Pumori and down into Base Camp. It was the deadliest disaster in Everest’s history, leaving 22 people dead, closing the mountain for the season and adding to the sense that death and Everest go hand-in-hand.
Having witnessed the mortal danger of Everest close up, Miura says that the death of the Sherpas in 1970 was hard to bear but that his determination to conquer the mountain was renewed. ‘From that time I made the decision that one day I would come back and try to climb it.’
It was 33 years before Miura finally did return. Teaching and a skiing career kept him occupied before a failed bid to enter politics in the mid-1990s. He ran unsuccessfully for both the governorship of Hokkaido and as an MP. He then, as described in his book High and Distant Dream, became ‘a fat old man’ and entered into something of a midlife crisis. ‘I lost all motivation and didn’t know what to do next, ’ he explains. ‘In my 60s I got metabolic syndrome. I drank and ate too much and didn’t do enough exercise. I had a diabetic problem, and had heart and kidney disease.’Miura with his son, Goto, who accompanied him on his record-breaking ascent of Everest in 2013 Credit: Miura Doplhins
But he drew inspiration from his father, who was still skiing down Mont Blanc at 99. ‘I wanted to surprise everyone, ’ he says. The road back to Everest was lined with obstacles. In 2003 Miura had to overcome diabetes and weight problems, and by the 2008 expedition – aged 75 – his cardiac arrhythmia had begun to slow him down.
On his return to Japan from Nepal, he had two heart operations and took a year to rest. ‘During the winter I stay in Sapporo, in northern Japan, and ski – and that helps me train, ’ he says. ‘However, I fell during a jump and smashed the right side of my pelvis, breaking five bones in total. It was a big accident and I had lots of surgery afterwards. Usually when a man aged 76 breaks that many bones, they will use a wheelchair for the rest of their life.’
Doctors warned him he might never walk properly again. But only one year after the accident Miura began building fitness in his unique way.
The balanced Japanese diet is credited with helping the nation to have the world’s highest life expectancy: 85 years for men and more than 87 for women. Miura is a proponent of healthy eating and organic food. He starts every day with a breakfast consisting of cooked rice, fermented soya bean, miso soup, eggs and fish. Once a week he will treat himself to a 500g (18oz) steak.
"‘I have had many illnesses and injuries, but I think it was good that I had to overcome hurdles before achieving my goal"
The first stage of the physical training involved strapping 1kg (2lb) weights to each leg and 10kg to his back and walking the 9km (five and a half miles) between Tokyo Station and his office – and back again – every day. He soon stepped this up to 5kg on each leg and 30kg on his back as he gradually regained the stamina required to survive nearly 9km into the sky.
The air at the mountain’s so-called ‘death zone’ above 8, 000m (26, 247ft) is dangerously thin, with only a third as much oxygen to breathe as at sea level. The extreme cold that can cause frostbite if any part of the body is exposed, and dangerously high winds, mean peak fitness levels – not to mention mental fortitude – are required to summit.
Scientists have estimated that the ‘physical body age’ of a person under the stresses of being at 8, 848m (29, 029ft) is 70 years on top of their actual age. By this reckoning, Miura would feel like a 150-year-old on the summit. ‘In my office I have an altitude training room, where I can train up to the condition of 6, 000m [19, 685ft] of elevation, ’ he says. ‘Up to six months before the Everest mission, I would train three times a week in the low-oxygen room.’ Miura suffered a major setback when he and his team went to the Himalayas six months before the expedition.
‘In October 2012 I climbed Lobuche East [a 6, 000m/19, 685ft mountain] but I got altitude disease, which triggered my cardiac arrhythmia. I had been planning to stay there for two months but gave up after two weeks and returned to Japan for another heart operation, ’ he explains. ‘The operation was a success but, because of the imminent Everest expedition, I only gave myself a two-week period of rehabilitation.’ Then illness struck. ‘Influenza was going around at that time and I got it bad, with a fever higher than 40C. My heart stopped and I was carried to hospital to have an electric shock to get it going again.’
Yet another heart operation followed as Miura, his team and his doctors tried to patch up his ailing body. ‘This was all so close to when we were due to make the expedition, ’ he says. ‘All the people around me thought that I would give up. But I never had any intention of giving up. On January 15 I had one final operation on my heart and I left Japan on March 20. I had no more time for rehabilitation.’ Miura achieved his goal by adopting new tactics.At the summit of Everest in his 2008 ascent, aged 75 Credit: Miura Dolphins