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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

On the afternoon of May 6, 1970, Yuichiro Miura stood on Mount Everest’s South Col, at an altitude of more than 26,000 feet. On his lips he wore white sun block, and on his head a fighter pilot’s helmet, complete with a transceiver. He also had oxygen tanks, and a parachute was strapped to his back, though no one knew if the parachute would work at that altitude. On his feet he wore skis.

Breathing quickly and deeply, Miura reached a state of Mu, a Zen-like feeling of nothingness.

Then he took off.

***

Miura had a reputation in skiing circles before he ever set foot on Everest. The son of the legendary Keizo Miura, who pioneered skiing in Japan’s Hakkōda Mountains, he set a world speed skiing record of 172.084 kilometers per hour (nearly 107 miles per hour) in 1964. “It was a wonderful feeling that I was able to set the record,” Miura says, “but I knew the record was meant to be broken.”

Broken it was, the very next day. Miura never reclaimed it, but instead made a name for himself by skiing the world’s most spectacular summits, starting with Japan’s Mount Fuji in April 1966. He wanted to schuss down Fuji as fast as possible, but he also wanted to live. So Miura decided to deploy a parachute when he reached his maximum velocity, on the theory that it would allow him to slow down to safety. His innovation worked … at about 93 miles per hour. He became the first person to ski that mountain.

Miura also skied Mount Kosciusko, the highest peak in Australia, later that year, and Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, in 1967. The next year, he became the first person to ski Mexico’s Mount Popocatépetl, and in 1969, he added Chile’s Towers of Paine to his list of firsts. “It seems to me that greater than the satisfaction of winning in competition,” Miura later wrote of his decision to pursue big mountain riding, “is the joy of forgetting yourself and becoming one with the mountains.”

After Miura’s feat on Fuji, New Zealand’s Tourism Bureau invited him to ski the Tasman Glacier. While in New Zealand, he met Sir Edmund Hillary, the climber who teamed with Tenzing Norgay to conquer Mount Everest’s summit in 1953. “Sir Edmund Hillary was my superhero,” Miura says. “When I listened to his Everest summit, I determined my target to be Everest, too.” After the shock of someone contemplating skiing Everest wore off, Hillary actually encouraged him. “He inspired me to be an extreme skier who can make history,” Miura says.

The Nepalese government turned out to be receptive to the idea, too. But there was a catch—Miura would be allowed to ski not Everest’s summit, but the South Col. The col is the slightly lower pass connecting Everest and Lhotse, the world’s fourth-tallest mountain, but still, it slopes at 40 to 45 degrees. “My objective was clear, that was to ski down Everest,” he says. “I did not really care about the summit at that time.”

As he scouted and made test runs on Everest during the fall of 1969, Miura was forced to come to terms with a highly probable outcome. “When I planned to ski Everest, the first thing I faced was ‘How can I return alive?’ ” he recalls. “All the preparation and training was based on this question. But the more I prepared, I knew the chance of survival was very slim. Nobody in the world had done this before, so I told myself that I must face death. Otherwise, I am not eligible.”

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