Jumbo Goes Big

On Shi-Shi, Giri-Giri, and I-TO

Jumbo goes big. Again. And what impresses me about Katsutaka “Jumbo” Yokoyama isn’t just his mind-blowing climbing – if you’ve been paying attention, you know him as the de facto ring leader of the Japanese “Giri-Giri Boys,” who’ve been sending incredibly ambitious alpine routes around the world in recent years. No, it’s not just that. It’s his approach, his attitude, his kindness, and humility. I first met him in person last summer, when he, his girlfriend Chihiro, and I cragged and camped together for a couple of days at Wild Iris. I went in wondering “what in the world makes this guy tick?” Like it was some top-secret observation. I came away realizing that the always-smiling, polite nearly to a fault, kind and warm Japanese guy sending the biggest alpine routes in the world and .13+ sport routes alike, well, he loves to climb for the same reasons as most of us, and he tries damn hard. He has the physical tools, sure, but without his psychological willingness to learn, and to grow, and to experience life how he wants to live it, none of it would matter. I’d emailed with him for years, with our first correspondence coming after his and Fumitaka Ichimura’s new route on Mt. Huntington, followed by a rapid ascent of the massive, difficult Denali Diamond. They were college students, eager to learn about alpine climbing, and…and I read his report, including:

“This line might have already been climbed, due to its prominent location, but I couldn’t find any record in the literature. Or it may be a variation of the Phantom Wall route. Anyway, this line was so beautiful, and we enjoyed the climbing. We named the route Shi-Shi (1,800m, Alaska Grade 4, M5 AI5). Shi-Shi means a person who works to realize his worldly ambitions at the risk of his death, like a Samurai. Shi-Shi never regrets, even if his body is thrown in a ditch or a ravine after his cruel death. The person like Shi-Shi always must imagine his body lying in a ditch.”

Uhhhh, come again with that last part?

It’s easy to think that others are so different. Different culture, right? Sure. Or just maniacs? No way. As I worked with Jumbo on his feature article in last year’s AAJ, it became apparent that he has no death wish. He has a life wish. Just like most of us. It’s expressed differently, and he had difficulty explaining. I suspect there’s more to it than I understand, but I think I get the gist. From his article last year:

“We use Giri-Giri mostly in parody of a TV show about sexy Japanese girls. But literally, in Japanese Giri-Giri means “at the very limit of something.” We always seek to be on the edge in the mountains. This was our fourth consecutive season in the Alaska Range. Why Alaska? Simple: It has many attractive faces and offers low-budget expeditions from Japan. We have no money, because we spend everything climbing. Although the members vary from year-to-year, our most frequent trips are to Alaska, but we have also climbed in the Andes and the Himalaya. We have little experience and are immature in our climbing technique, but we are close friends.

Our Alaska trips began in 2005, when Itchy and I flew to the Tokositna Glacier, below Mt. Huntington. The first time we saw its southwest face, we saw a beautiful line. It started from a dangerous serac-lined basin—“Death Valley”—and ascended 1,800 meters to the summit. On that trip we read a novel by Ryotaro Shiba. The hero is Ryoma Sakamoto, a visionary Samurai who worked to free Japan from its feudal trappings and created a modern government in the early 1800s. He was the ultimate Shi-Shi. The first Shi means “ambitions” or “soul,” and the second Shi means “a man.” A Shi-Shi must be willing to accept his death as part of his desire to realize his ambitions. Death is never an acceptable ideal for a Japanese alpine climber, so we can’t literally live like a Shi-Shi. But the Shi-Shi way of life and spirit are always in our dreams. It is difficult to explain. Speaking for myself, life and climbing are not only about success or enjoyment, but about living true to one’s ambitions. I think that the line on Huntington was the first time I fully lived these feelings. Although our route was not so hard, it was important to us that we found the line by ourselves, not in a guidebook. We named it Shi-Shi.”

Chihiro and Jumbo at Wild Iris.

Oh, and the nickname? He’s about 5’9” 180 pounds of solid muscle, from Japan, where most people are about half his size. Over coffee at Wild Iris, they dug into the used van they bought in Anchorage, after their trip, and drove down to the Lower 48, scraping by the whole way in fine dirtbag form. Out came his coffee mug, like a miniature Japanese teacup with “JUMBO” written on the side.

His feature article was about his 2008 trip to Alaska, again, with his fellow Giri-Giri boys. They played “Pachinko” – a Japanese pinball-like game, only the mountain version is what we call an enchainment. Right, kind of like those link-up days we do at the crag…or not. After a huge new route on the Bear Tooth, he, Ichimura, and Yusuke Sato made an ascent of the 7,200-foot Isis Face, a still-coveted route put-up in 1982 by Jack Tackle and Dave Stutzman. The route climbs its own feature, a wall that tops out on a long flat part of the South Buttress a long ways from the summit. Tacking on the additional 4,000+ feet to the top has been a longstanding project. The Giri-Giri Pachinko way? Get this – instead of continuing along the easier and obvious South Buttress, they descended 4,300-feet into the East Fork of the Kahiltna, without a gear cache or refuel, and climbing out to the summit via the 9,000-foot Slovak Route, the hardest on Denali. Say what? I’ve done nine Alaskan climbing trips, friends countless more – literally hundreds of years of Alaska experience between friends and I – and been doing the Alaska section of the AAJ for 10 years, and I can say that nobody else even fucking dreamed of something that out there. So rad. Or, as Jumbo kept saying while sport climbing, “Ahhhh, so nice!”

As with so many things, there’s a lot more to the story, including the tragedy simultaneously playing out with their friends, who disappeared on their own Pachinko nearby.

There have been many like Jumbo over time, at various levels layered throughout climbing, as time progresses and we build on the shoulders of those who came before. We learn, and those with a sense of decency and respect give credit, remain humble, remain human. Especially because, remember, it’s just climbing and even if you climb well but are an asshole, well, you’re still an asshole.

I suppose one way to be an asshole is to disrespect those who came before you. Another is to disrespect those who surpass you. In doing so, when you think about it, you disrespect yourself. Nothing worse than a bitter old climber.

Me, Charlie, and Jack.

But nothing better than people like Jack Tackle. I’m starting to ramble, as usual, but let me say that, as I’ve gotten to know Jack over the years – from the time I got my courage up to talk to him after a slide show he gave in Missoula, when I was a young climber, and I still remember how big he made me feel – I know that there’s more to his story than a great climber who just walks in and sends big. In fact, he had to learn to walk again ten years ago, after being struck down by a bizarre neurological disease and nearly dying. After his grueling recovery, on his first big trip back to the mountains, with the wonderful Alaskan hardman Charlie Sassara, 2,000 feet up Mt. Augusta, rockfall nailed Jack and broke his neck and back. Charlie, a true hero, had to leave Jack, descend alone in terrible conditions, crawl across the glacier because he couldn’t see the crevasses in a zero-visibility whiteout, call for help, and one of the boldest rescues ever ensued. It’s been a long road for Jack. But last year, with Jay Smith, he had probably his best ever Alaska trip. So, how’s the saying go? 55 is the new 30, yes? Jack has a great feature article about the trip – and more – in the upcoming AAJ (which I’d better get back to).

Anyway, so Jumbo was wrapping up his year in the U.S. and Canada with a trip to the massive, unclimbed, south face of Mt. Logan. It’s one of those remaining gems. And damned hard to nail – steep climbing, huge, and horrible weather. Jack had been there twice, making probably the only real attempts to date. Sure, Jack’s done a ton, but it’s not about collecting, it’s about something deeper. He still wanted it, it was his remaining gem. Jack knows the face better than anyone, and Jumbo asked him about it. What to do? We all have projects we guard, and nobody can blame you for keeping your info to yourself. It’s also a fact of life that, as we age, maybe we can’t pull off everything we wanted for ourselves, and so to share becomes maybe not just the next best thing, but the best thing. At least at that time and place, and with the right people. How could you not want to help Jumbo?

Just the other day, Jumbo and Yasushi Okada sent the coveted south face of Mt. Logan. The route was 2,500m tall and went at WI5 M6, in perfect alpine style. Jumbo told me it was the best climbing he’s ever done, and, of course, he graciously thanked Jack for the honor of his help, and the connection they share. Jumbo and Yasushi named the route I-TO, which means “thread, line, relationship.”

Jumbo and Yasushi's new route on the south face of Mt. Logan. photo: Jack Tackle

5 thoughts on “Jumbo Goes Big

  1. I don’t know Tackle well, but one thing I took away from interviewing him was that motivation is the key to success as an alpinist. He just doesn’t see obstacles or challenges in the way mere mortals do.

    It’s also very cool to hear a more personal perspective on the Giri-Giri boys. Most of what I’d heard about them comes from the (awesome) Alpinist 26 article, but what you say about them is even more impressive.

  2. Hey, Kelly – nice perspective on Jumbo. I confess that after reading the Alpinist piece and some of the previous press on the Giri Giri boys that I thought they were partially out of the same mold as an earlier generation of Japanese climbers who climbed in the Alaska Range. I appreciated their vision for the possible, but thought they seemed far too willing to die for a mere climb. In Jon Waterman’s High Alaska he makes the case that the Japanese climbers of the 1970s, 1980s, and perhaps early 1990s were more or less on a do or die mission. And when you see quotes like, “you must always imagine your body as lying in a ditch” it seems to reinforce that. As you said, “Come again”? So, it’s refreshing to hear that you don’t see Jumbo, or his pals, in that mold at all. I’m sure I don’t quite understand the culture. We just had a japanese exchange student leave us after 6 months of living with us, and I could often see issues related to differences in culture, which I just couldn’t get my head around. Anyway, I loved your perspective and the photo of Katsutaka and Chihiro. That was awesome. And cheers to the guys for doing that south face of Logan. Way cool.

  3. I had the chance to meet Jumbo and Chihiro at the last AAC international meet in Indian Creek, and I found them to be some of the nicest, kindest people I have ever encountered.

    One of the reasons I love climbing is how the people at the very top (whatever that really means) are often also the most humble and friendly.

    Here’s my own small tribute to Jumbo: http://www.aperturefirst.org/index.php?showimage=929

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