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Denali Descent

Daisuke Sasaki has made a name for himself in the world of big-mountain skiing. The Hokkaido-based guide, climber and skier has been caught on film coming down huge, vertical faces in Alaska, the Himalayas, Greenland and the Japan Alps. Big lines, big turns, big air. 

His latest expedition, to a mountain who’s name literally means “big,” can be seen on a one- hour show produced by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster (plus a 100-minute follow-up). Denali is the tallest mountain in North America at 6,190 meters. In the native Athabaskan language it means “tall.” Forget that an orange-haired politician recently vowed to change the name back to McKinley, a name it carried for a mere 98 years as result of a gold prospector naming it after a presidential candidate, William McKinley. Even the Russians called the peak Bolshaya Gora when they owned Alaska—meaning “the big mountain.” 

There’s a strong Japanese connection to the peak. In 1970, Tsuyoshi Ueki became the first person to descend from the summit on skis. His first descent, while a historic achievement, is less known than then those of his more flamboyant contemporary, Yuichiro Miura. Since then, others have skied from the top, and many more have climbed the peak—and upward of 100 have died trying, yet it’s still something of an elite group that ascended to the top of Denali and then skied all the way down. 

For Sasaki, the journey turned into a three- year project, bringing together a team of sixteen as well as cameramen, helicopters and the support of sponsors. The adventures included a near disaster on a high icy slope and 38 days out on the big hill. 

“For me, it really goes back to when I was a kid,” he says. “I read adventurer Naomi Uemura’s book when I was in primary school. He talked not only about climbing mountains and skiing, but also adventure. In junior high school I climbed, and in high school I really worked hard on climb- ing because I wanted to be a guide. During the winters, I was in Yuichiro Miura’s ski school too, so I was kind of on an elite course for both climbing and skiing.” 

“The first mountain the older guys took me to was Denali,” he continues, pulling up a photo on his computer of a group of happy, naked guys out in the snow at base level below the peak. 

“After that, I went to many mountains around the world and gained a lot of experience. But for me, it was never just about skiing, it was also about climbing. The three of us who skied Denali on this trip wanted to climb too—we’d been talk- ing about it for ten years. The mountain had a lot of meaning for me.” 

Even for a well-known skier, attracting the substantial resources of NHK and gathering all the people needed for a serious expedition in the wilds of Alaska is no easy task.“It was a bit of us wanting them, and them wanting to work with us,” Sasaki says. “They said, OK, we want to bring in all these cameras and I had a group of guides that I knew and trusted, so we brought them in to support the whole thing. That meant team building, which was my responsibility. It was a big production!” 

During his presentations he gives across Japan after returning from Denali, Sasaki plays a tape of the conversations between the three people who actually skied the mountain—Sasaki, Kyoichi Karino and Takao Araiba—and the cam- era-carrying helicopter above. Sasaki’s English is perfectly understandable while the American pilot’s voice is completely garbled. “The shoot- ing worked out OK, but it was hard,” he explains. “At low altitudes, a helicopter can hover with no problem, but at high altitude it has to move back and forth. The tough thing for us was that we couldn’t just ski when we were ready to go— we had to wait for the helicopter to move into position before we started. Then we couldn’t understand anything he was saying, so we just had to wait until we could see that the helicop- ter was in a good position for shooting, hope the camera was ready, and then go!” 

Perhaps what makes Sasaki’s show particularly interesting (especially in a day when YouTube is full of first-person head-cam ski videos) is the closeness the viewer begins to feel with the three climber/skiers and their supporters. Six cameramen were positioned along the ski route, four with supporting climbers. Combined with the first-person shots and ongoing commentary, it made for a gripping moment when the skiers encounter sheer blue ice. Sasaki’s skis chatter and slide, but he moves to the side to safety. Araiba, however, took a serious, injury- producing crash and slid directly above a cli . 

“To try and keep our weight down—because we were carrying a lot of gear—we had two radios for three people,” Sasaki says. “I had a radio, and Karino-san, the third in line, had one. Araiba-san didn’t have one. He could hear it, but I think he was so exhausted that it just didn’t register. I was just thinking, ‘Stop! Stop!’ as he slid.” Luckily, the slide ended, and Araiba, with an injured knee, was helped to safety. 

“When he was hurt, we pulled o to the side of the slope, retreated a bit and rested for a night. The TV people just stopped at that point, saying it was too dangerous and they weren’t going to lm any more. The helicopter was still available though, so we shot the lower section with my helmet camera from the helicopter. The NHK cameramen went down instead—but they did use the footage from my camera and the helicopter.” 

Araiba was able to descend on foot, while Sasaki and Karino continued skiing down on what was actually the best part of the descent, Sasaki says. “Below the point where he got hurt, the air got a lot thicker and you could breathe better, and the snow was softer and much more fun to ski on. Way up high it was tough—the air was thin and the snow was hard, it basically turned into a snow ridge. For both climbing and skiing, the lower half was much more fun. We were doing ice and rock climbing that was more technical and challenging; the middle and lower sections were the best part of the climb.” 

After this successful trip, does he want to give the summit of Denali one more try? “Never!” he immediately says in English. “Skiing a bit of the Normal Route would be a lot of fun, and climbing parts of the mountain without skis would also be fun to do. But when you’re shooting for TV, you’re limited in when you can actually do the skiing. There are so many things involved in getting the show done.” 

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other big mountains in mind—just not quite so icy. “East Tibet,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s been closed to travelers for ten years. In the far eastern part of Tibet, the snow has more moisture; winds come up from the Bay of Bengal, so it’s very snowy. Nepal is dry and icy, but in this part of Tibet it’s much wetter and the slopes are steep. It’s a lot like the coastal ranges of Alaska, where it’s steep but the snow really sticks to the mountains. The peaks are about 6,000 meters high. If you get too high, it just gets tough and it’s hard to ski. Six thousand meters is good; at 7,000 meters, it’s hard to breathe and it’s tough work.” Maybe, if the area opens up, we’ll once again get to see this big mountain skier on those high, snowy slopes— although probably not with quite so many others in tow. 

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