Naomi Uemura

Last updated
Naomi Uemura
Naomi Uemura.jpg
Born(1941-02-12)February 12, 1941
DisappearedFebruary 13, 1984 (aged 43)
Status Missing for 35 years, 1 month and 24 days
Nationality Japanese

Naomi Uemura(植村 直己,Uemura Naomi, February 12, 1941 – c. February 13, 1984) was a Japanese adventurer. He was particularly well known for doing alone what had previously been achieved only with large teams. For example, he was the first man to reach the North Pole solo, the first man to raft the Amazon solo, and the first man to climb Denali solo. He disappeared while attempting to climb Denali in the winter.

Japanese people ethnic group native to Japan

Japanese people are a nation and an ethnic group that is native to Japan and makes up 98.5% of the total population of the country. Worldwide, approximately 129 million people are of Japanese descent; of these, approximately 125 million are residents of Japan. People of Japanese ancestry who live outside Japan are referred to as nikkeijin(日系人), the Japanese diaspora. The term ethnic Japanese is often used to refer to Japanese people, specifically Yamato people. Japanese are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world.

North Pole Northern point where the Earths axis of rotation intersects its surface

The North Pole, also known as the Geographic North Pole or Terrestrial North Pole, is defined as the point in the Northern Hemisphere where the Earth's axis of rotation meets its surface.

Denali North Americas highest mountain

Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190 m) above sea level. With a topographic prominence of 20,156 feet (6,144 m) and a topographic isolation of 4,629 miles (7,450 km), Denali is the third most prominent and third most isolated peak on Earth, after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. Located in the Alaska Range in the interior of the U.S. state of Alaska, Denali is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve.


Early adventures

Uemura was born in Hidaka, now part of Toyooka, Hyōgo, Japan. Shy, he began climbing in college in the hope that mountaineering would increase his self-confidence.

Hidaka was a town located in Kinosaki District, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.

Toyooka, Hyōgo City in Kansai, Japan

Toyooka is a city in the northern part of Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. The city was founded on April 1, 1950.

Mountaineering sport of mountain climbing

Mountaineering is the set of activities that involves ascending mountains. Mountaineering-related activities include traditional outdoor climbing, hiking, skiing, and traversing via ferratas. Indoor climbing, sport climbing and bouldering are usually considered mountaineering as well.

Naomi Uemura was a licensed radio amateur operator, signed as JG1QFW. He used amateur radio communication during his expeditions. [1]

Before his 30th birthday, Uemura had solo-climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn, had walked the length of Japan, and summited during the first (1970) Japanese expedition to climb Mount Everest and subsequent disastrous 1971 International Everest Expedition.

Mount Kilimanjaro mountain massif in Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania

Mount Kilimanjaro or just Kilimanjaro, with its three volcanic cones, "Kibo", "Mawenzi", and "Shira", is a dormant volcano in Tanzania. It is the highest mountain in Africa, with its summit about 4,900 metres (16,100 ft) from its base, and 5,895 metres (19,341 ft) above sea level. The first people known to have reached the summit of the mountain were Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller, in 1889. The mountain is part of Kilimanjaro National Park and is a major climbing destination. The mountain has been the subject of many scientific studies because of its shrinking glaciers and disappearing ice fields.

Aconcagua highest mountain in South America(6962 m)

Aconcagua, with a summit elevation of 6,960.8 metres (22,837 ft), is the highest mountain in both the Southern and Western Hemispheres. It is located in the Andes mountain range, in the Mendoza Province, Argentina, and lies 112 km (70 mi) northwest of its capital, the city of Mendoza, about five km (3.1 mi) from San Juan Province and 15 km (9.3 mi) from the international border with Chile. The mountain itself lies entirely within Argentina, immediately east of Argentina's border with Chile. Its nearest higher neighbor is Tirich Mir in the Hindu Kush, 16,520 kilometres (10,270 mi) away. It is one of the Seven Summits.

Mont Blanc highest mountain in the Alps (15,780.9 feet)

Mont Blanc, meaning "White Mountain", is the highest mountain in the Alps and the highest in Europe west of Russia's Caucasus peaks. It rises 4,808.7 m (15,777 ft) above sea level and is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. The mountain stands in a range called the Graian Alps, between the regions of Aosta Valley, Italy, and Savoie and Haute-Savoie, France. The location of the summit is on the watershed line between the valleys of Ferret and Veny in Italy and the valleys of Montjoie, and Arve in France, in the middle of what is generally considered to be the border between the two countries.

North Pole

Uemura wrote that he almost gave up twice during his 1978 North Pole trip. On the fourth day of his trek, a polar bear invaded his camp, ate his supplies, and poked his nose against the sleeping bag where Uemura lay tense and motionless. When the bear returned the next day, Uemura was ready and shot him dead. On the 35th day of the trip, Uemura had hunkered down on an ice floe with his malamutes, when there was the roar of breaking ice and the floe cracked into pieces. He and his dogs were stranded on a tossing island of ice. After a night of terror, Uemura found a 3-foot-wide (0.91 m) ice bridge and raced to safety.

Polar bear Species of bear native largely within the Arctic Circle

The polar bear is a hypercarnivorous bear whose native range lies largely within the Arctic Circle, encompassing the Arctic Ocean, its surrounding seas and surrounding land masses. It is a large bear, approximately the same size as the omnivorous Kodiak bear. A boar weighs around 350–700 kg (772–1,543 lb), while a sow is about half that size. Although it is the sister species of the brown bear, it has evolved to occupy a narrower ecological niche, with many body characteristics adapted for cold temperatures, for moving across snow, ice and open water, and for hunting seals, which make up most of its diet. Although most polar bears are born on land, they spend most of their time on the sea ice. Their scientific name means "maritime bear" and derives from this fact. Polar bears hunt their preferred food of seals from the edge of sea ice, often living off fat reserves when no sea ice is present. Because of their dependence on the sea ice, polar bears are classified as marine mammals.

Alaskan Malamute Dog breed

The Alaskan Malamute is a large breed of domestic dog originally bred for their strength and endurance to haul heavy freight, and later as a sled dog. They are similar to other arctic breeds and spitz breeds, such as the Greenland Dog, Canadian Eskimo Dog, the Siberian Husky, and the Samoyed.

He persevered and became the first ever to reach the Pole solo. Describing his 57-day push, he wrote, "What drove me to continue then was the thought of countless people who had helped and supported me, and the knowledge that I could never face them if I gave up." In this trip he cooperated with the Canadian Air Force and received his supplies from its helicopters. After the trip he questioned such extensive support and decided to carry supplies on his own back.

Helicopter Type of rotor craft in which lift and thrust are supplied by rotors

A helicopter is a type of rotorcraft in which lift and thrust are supplied by rotors. This allows the helicopter to take off and land vertically, to hover, and to fly forward, backward, and laterally. These attributes allow helicopters to be used in congested or isolated areas where fixed-wing aircraft and many forms of VTOL aircraft cannot perform.

First Denali ascent

In August 1970, Uemura climbed Denali (then known as Mt McKinley) solo, becoming the first person to reach the top alone. He did this quickly and with a light pack (8 days up, versus an average of 14 days or so; 55-pound (25 kg) pack, versus an average probably twice that). August is after the end of the normal climbing season. While the weather he faced was not terrible, the mountain was almost empty with only four other people on it. Though many people have climbed Denali alone since Uemura, most do it in the middle of the climbing season.

Uemura dreamed of soloing across Antarctica and climbing that continent's highest peak, Vinson Massif. In preparation, in 1976 he did a solo sled-dog run from Greenland to Alaska, in two stages and 363 days. [2] He set a record for the long-distance record for a dog-sled journey at 12,000 kilometres (7,500 mi). [3]

Denali winter ascent

Uemura then prepared to climb Denali again solo in winter; however, for people unfamiliar with Alaskan climbing, the difficulty of a winter ascent can often be misjudged. Nobody had successfully climbed any large Alaskan peak in winter until 1967, when Gregg Blomberg organized an expedition that got to the top of Denali (Blomberg himself did not summit). This team lost one member and nearly lost the remaining members in a storm on the way down. Team member Art Davidson's book, Minus 148, recounts the events of the climb and was named after the storm that jeopardized the team.

There is a high degree of danger with glacier travel, and even short treks across the ice are considered hazardous. For example, glaciers are often broken with cracks, called crevasses, that are often covered with snow and not visible. Due to these occurrences as well as other underlying factors, an ascent is both very difficult and very dangerous to attempt without a team.

Uemura had developed a "self-rescue" device which consisted of bamboo poles tied over his shoulders. The poles would span any crevasse into which he fell and allow him to pull himself out. He planned a very light run, with only a 40-pound (18 kg) pack plus sled. He kept his gear light by planning to sleep in snow caves and therefore freeing himself from needing to carry a tent. He also skimped on fuel and planned to eat cold food.

He began his climb in early February 1984 and reached the summit on February 12. Some time later, climbers would find the Japanese flag that he left at the summit. [4]


On February 13, 1984, one day after his 43rd birthday, Uemura spoke by radio with Japanese photographers who were flying over Denali, saying that he had made the top and descended back to 18,000 feet (5,500 m). He planned to reach base camp in another two days but never made it.

There appeared to be high winds near the top, and the temperature was around −50 °F (−46 °C). Planes flew over the mountain but did not see him that day. He was spotted around 16,600 feet (5,100 m) the next day (presumably on the ridge just above the headwall). However, complications with weather made further searching difficult.

It was likely that Uemura was running out of fuel at this point, but because of his reputation nobody wanted to send a rescue party for fear it would offend him. Doug Geeting, one of the bush pilots who had been "Uemura spotting" over the previous week, said "If it were anybody else, we'd have somebody [a rescuer] on the mountain already". On February 20, the weather had cleared, and Uemura was nowhere to be found. There was no sign of his earlier camp at 16,600 feet (5,100 m) and no evidence that caches left by other climbers nearby had been disturbed.

Two experienced climbers were dropped at 14,000 feet (4,300 m) to begin a search. Though another storm came in, they stayed on the mountain until February 26, finding a cave in which Uemura had stayed at 14,000 feet (4,300 m) on the way up, but no sign of Uemera himself. A diary found in the cave revealed that Uemura had left gear there to lighten his load on the summit push. He had also left his self-rescue poles back at 9,500 feet (2,900 m), knowing he was past the worst crevasse fields. Most people figured he had fallen on his descent of the headwall and been hurt, died, and was buried by snow. Another theory is that he could have made it to 14,200 feet (4,300 m) (which is the base of the headwall) and then fallen into one of the many crevasses there and perished.

A group of Japanese climbers arrived to look for the body. They failed, though they did locate much of his gear at 17,200 feet (5,200 m).

The diary found in the 14,000 feet (4,300 m) cave has been published in Japanese and English. It describes the conditions that Uemura suffered—the crevasse falls, -40° weather, frozen meat, and inadequate shelter. The diary entries showed him to be in good spirits and documented the songs he sang to stay focused on his task.

The last entry read, "I wish I could sleep in a warm sleeping bag. No matter what happens I am going to climb McKinley."


Uemura gave frequent public lectures and wrote about his travels. His adventure books for children were popular in Japan. There is a museum dedicated to him in Tokyo [5] and another in Toyooka, Hyōgo. [6]

An award named for him was created in Japan after his death. [7]

One of the best-known compositions of experimental guitarist Michael Hedges, "Because It's There", was a tribute to Uemura written for a film about the explorer's life.[ citation needed ]

He is remembered not only as a gifted climber and a driven adventurer, but also as a gentle, self-effacing man who cared about others. In the words of Jonathan Waterman, "[Just as remarkable] as his solo achievements was his sincere modesty and unassuming nature. Another part of his greatness lay in his deep interest in everyone he met."

Notable climbs

See also



    • QST Magazine, Septempber 1978, p. 41
    • QST Magazine, May 1984, p. 52
  1. Naomi Uemura Almost Always Walks Alone—this Time Across the Arctic to the North Pole May 1, 1978 People (magazine) Retrieved September 7, 2015
  2. Epic journey across ice set to break world record September 12, 2001 Japan Times Retrieved September 7, 2015
  3. February 10, 1997 Japan Times Retrieved September 7, 2015
  4. 植村冒険館 Retrieved September 7, 2015 (in Japanese)
  5. 植村直己冒険館 Retrieved September 7, 2015
  6. Hoeman, J Vincent (1969). H. Adams Carter, ed. "Climbs and Expeditions". American Alpine Journal. Philadelphia, PA, US: American Alpine Club. 16 (43): 379.

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