In Conversation: Yusuke Sato - Giri Giri Boy

Giri Giri boy Yusuke Sato and Jack Geldard getting wet, 112 kb
Giri Giri boy Yusuke Sato and Jack Geldard getting wet
© Jack Geldard, Mar 2009

Yusuke Sato is a member of the elite Japanese mountaineering group The Giri Giri Boys. He is a double Piolet d'Or nominee this year for two of his climbs in 2008, on Denali, Alaska and Kalanka, India.

He lives in Yamanashi, Japan with his wife and daughter, where he works full time as an engineer. At 28 years old, he has been climbing seriously for the last ten years, devoting his adult life to pursuing the sport that he loves.

My main goal in life is to feel happy, contented. To do this I have to mix home life with climbing. Not soloing, my way to feel happy is to climb with my friends. With the Giri Giri Boys.”

The Giri Giri boys aren't an official group or club, they are a band of friends, who share a similar passion and philosophy for the mountains. A passion for exploration and pushing their limits.

I'd describe the Giri Giri boys as a team of the craziest Japanese climbers. Giri Giri means 'at the edge'. That's our philosophy really, to climb at the edge. At the edge of our ability, at the edge of what has been done before. We also live at the edge financially. We all work full time and plough all our money back in to climbing, we're not rich men. So our life is literally at the edge.”

The group can be joined by invitation only, there is no 'application form'.

We invite our friends or other Japanese climbers to go with us on expeditions. Then they just become a Giri Giri boy. It just sort of happens.”

The stunning summit view over the Kurobe Mountains, 162 kb
The stunning summit view over the Kurobe Mountains
Yusuke has been extremely active in the mountains over the last few years with several expeditions every year since 2005. He has visited Alaska each year for the last five years and has supplemented that with trips to Bolivia and the Himalaya.

My first big expedition was to Pakistan aged 19. I started climbing in high school, mainly sport climbing and trekking. Then I joined the university climbing club and went from there. My main focus now is big mountains, up to 7000m. Big walls, big mountains and technical routes. I'm not very good at altitude!”

Although I went to Pakistan at quite a young age, I was fairly well prepared. Japan is a small island with mountains just over 3000m, but the mountain ranges are very wide. Much of the climbing is remote, difficult to escape or retreat from. I've been through a lot of tough situations and learnt a lot. Japanese climbing is very good training for the bigger ranges.”

Although the Giri Giri boys are well known for their recent Alaskan adventures and a stunning hard new route on Kalanka, Yusuke is full of respect for Japanese climbing. The lower altitude is off-set by huge amounts of snow, multiple day walk-ins and the serious nature of the terrain.

A lot of the climbing in Japan is loose, really vegetated. We have a real mixture of rock types and qualities, as well as really changeable weather. It's very much like Scotland, but worse!”

Crossing the freezing river of Kurobe, day 2 of 16, Japan., 184 kb
Crossing the freezing river of Kurobe, day 2 of 16, Japan.
I'd say the hardest climb I have ever done was in Japan. We called it 'Crossing Kurobe'. The route took 16 days to climb and is named after the river Kurobe. Actually the whole mountain range is called Kurobe too.”

We climbed it over the New Year holiday. There was a monstrous amount of snow, really deep. It snowed every day on the route. Even though the peak we climbed was only 3000 meres, the approach and descent were huge. The climbing was very serious, two of our team were avalanched 1000m! Luckily they all survived. We had to cross the river Kurobe on the approach. It's really serious actually, it's really cold water and the river is really strong. Many people have died in that river.”

The route took 16 days from start to finish. I lost 5 kilos on that route. We did it before our Denali link-up as training for Denali. What we climbed on Denali was technically harder, but this was mentally harder. It was a big mountain range, remote. Really deep snow and no helicopter rescue, no escape.”

Denali will always be an open door for Yusuke, he can't quite close that chapter of his life.

We lost two good friends in Alaska last year. It was a very difficult time, the journey home especially. Their bodies have not been found, I still can't believe they are gone. It's like an unanswered question, always a question.”

The line of 'Bushido' - the new route on Kalanka, 150 kb
The line of 'Bushido' - the new route on Kalanka
I mention his new route on Kalanka, keen to steer the conversation away from lost friends. He looks up, his face once again full of passion.

Yes, Kalanka. We climbed a new route, the first ascent of the north face of Kalanka. People had tried it before, but failed.”

Our approach was quite simple, we just didn't retreat. The problem with Kalanka is the weather. It stops you, makes you wait on the wall. We just waited and waited, five days without food. The route took a total of nine days up and down. We called it 'Bushido'. It means 'way of the Samurai spirit'.”

At the same time as Yusuke and team climbed Kalanka, Kai Taniguchi, who is helping interpret my conversation with Yusuke, was climbing in the nearby valley making the first ascent of the southeast face of Kamet. She has also been nominated for a Piolet d'Or.

She chipped in:

We were waiting for good weather in our valley and it snowed and snowed – around 2 metres. We had no idea that they would actually be climbing in that weather! We were waiting in base camp. We climbed our route just after they had finished and we called it 'Samurai Direct'. It was really weird, we both called our routes after the Samurai, both at the same time.”

Yusuke has big plans for 2009 and is keen to talk about his next expedition. It seems that Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders' ascent of Spantik has really hit a chord with his own style and ethos.

Next for me is the Golden Pillar of Spantik. I'd love to do a new route, to the left of the British route. If it's not possible our plan is to try and repeat the British route.”

I don't follow World climbing that closely, but in this case Mick Fowler's ascent of that route was very inspirational.”

I was quite interested in how the Japanese climbing media operated and how well known British climbers were over in Japan. I told Yusuke that Japanese climbing wasn't really on the radar of a lot of Brits.

We don't hear too much about British climbing either, but the climbing media in Japan is fairly broad though, we get website news from all over the world. Around half the stories are Japanese based and around half about World climbing. There aren't a lot of Alpine climbers in Japan, so we do take notice of what everyone else has been up to, but I don't follow the news too closely.”

Yusuke Sato was talking to Jack Geldard. Thanks go to Kai Taniguchi for her help as interpreter.

Kalanka Photo Gallery:

Climbing on the mid slopes of Bushido, Kalanka, 215 kb
Climbing on the mid slopes of Bushido, Kalanka
Bad weather on day four of Bushido, Kalanka, 91 kb
Bad weather on day four of Bushido, Kalanka
The uncomfortable bivvy site at 6000m on Kalanka, 87 kb
The uncomfortable bivvy site at 6000m on Kalanka
Tired but happy, a fellow Giri Giri boy on the long descent of Bushido, Kalanka, 216 kb
Tired but happy, a fellow Giri Giri boy on the long descent of Bushido, Kalanka

Crossing Kurobe Photo Gallery:

The long approach to 'Crossing Kurobe', Japan, 153 kb
The long approach to 'Crossing Kurobe', Japan
The 1000m avalanche (debris on the right), Crossing Kurobe, Japan, 111 kb
The 1000m avalanche (debris on the right), Crossing Kurobe, Japan
Giri Giri boy happy to be alive after being swept 1000m in an avalanche, Japan, 139 kb
Giri Giri boy happy to be alive after being swept 1000m in an avalanche, Japan
Yusuke Sato and team summit Crossing Kurobe, Japan , 180 kb
Yusuke Sato and team summit Crossing Kurobe, Japan

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