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Yuichiro Miura set the world speed skiing record at Italy's Kilometer Lanchard in 1964, only to see it broken the next day. (Akira Kotani)

The Godfather of Extreme Skiing

Meet Yuichiro Miura, the man who skied down Mt. Everest 40 years ago

smithsonian.com

In February 1970, the Japanese Mount Everest Ski Expedition arrived in Katmandu. As much a scientific mission as an extreme skiing adventure, the squad included mountaineers, scientists, a ski team, a film crew, photographers and members of the press. It took 800 porters to carry 27 tons of equipment to the Everest base camp, a 185-mile, 22-day journey that began on March 6, 1970.

At base camp, the expedition spent several weeks acclimatizing to Everest’s thin air—at 17,600 feet, its oxygen content is about half that of sea-level air—and preparing for further mountain treks. For his part, Miura made Everest into his personal backcountry ski resort, conducting numerous test runs, with and without a parachute, often riding the virgin slopes with childlike glee.

The adventure, however, was not without cost. Two people suffered fatal heart attacks in the thin air, and a cave-in on the Khumbu Icefall claimed the lives of six Sherpas. “For a moment I thought of stopping the expedition,” Miura recalls. “But later, I felt in order to meet their sacrifice, I must not run away. To pay back the respect to them, I felt it was my responsibility to face the challenge and complete it.”

At 9 a.m. on May 6, 1970, Miura made a few wide turns on the South Col’s slopes. He thus became the first person to ski at an altitude higher than 26,000 feet. Miura hiked to the starting point for a long run down the South Col, and after getting the logistics set up for filming and rescue, he was ready to go at 11 a.m. The winds, however, were too strong. If they didn’t abate, Miura would have to return to lower elevations, and it would be at least a week before he could try again.

But the winds died down and at 1:07 p.m. the 37-year old skier started his descent in earnest.

***

Sailing down the col’s bumpy blue ice, Miura quickly deployed his parachute. “When it opened I felt I was lifted,” he says. “However, the strong turbulence, the direction of wind and its strength were constantly changing, so it was very hard to keep the balance.” The parachute became worthless, and Miura couldn’t maintain control.

As his skis chattered across the rough ice, he used every technique he knew to slow down—and failed. Then a ski caught on a rock and he fell. As he slid helplessly down the ice, he could feel the cold on his spine.

“I was 99 percent sure I would not survive,” he says. “Death was not a particular feeling, but rather I was thinking [about] what I would be after 3,000, 30,000 or 3 million years in the future, my reincarnation. ”

Miura’s skis released, but the safety straps kept them attached to his body; they flailed beside him until one broke off and bounced like a toothpick. He tried to grab onto the ice, but there was nothing he could do to stop as he slid toward the world’s largest bergschrund, or crevasse, waiting below. After sailing over a rock, which propelled him 33 feet into the air, he hit a small snow patch and miraculously halted, just 250 feet from the bergschrund.

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