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TALK ASIA

Interview with Japanese Mountaineer Tamae Watanabe, the Oldest Woman to climb Mount Everest

Aired October 12, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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KYUNG LAH, CORRESPONDENT, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): This is Mount Everest, home to some of the world's most breathtaking landscapes and most dangerous terrain. Standing at more than 29,000 feet, it is the world's highest peak. Its summit almost as high as the flight paths of commercial airlines, challenging for even some of the world's most intrepid explorers.

SIR RANULPH FIENNES, EXPLORER: Your throat gets dry and the cough gets worse. You can't breathe properly. And then your cardiac system starts going - I don't record it, but (UNCLEAR) - and then, literally, you come to a halt.

LAH (voiceover): And while thousands have scaled the mountain's icy exterior, hundreds have perished along the way. Making Tamae Watanabe's latest feat all the more remarkable. At 73-years-old, she has become the oldest woman in the world to reach the summit. A title the Guinness Book of Records had given her at 63, and one she smashed again 10 years later.

Her story begins in a small town at the base of Japan's highest mountain, where Watanabe is considered a special citizen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are proud to have such a wonderful person here in Lake Kawaguchi.

LAH (voiceover): This week, "Talk Asia" travels to Mount Fuji, where we join Tamae Watanabe on her day job as a hiking guide. And she invites us into her home, where we hear about her feats in Nepal, Pakistan, and another little-known record she holds after reaching the highest point in the United States.

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LAH: Tamae Watanabe, thank you so much for joining us on "Talk Asia". And congratulations on your record-setting trek up Mount Everest. We're meeting here, near your home town. You grew up right at the base of Mount Fuji. Is that where you gained your first passion for mountaineering?

TAMAE WATANABE, MOUNTAINEER (through translator): Yes. I think that growing up on the mountainside gave me a big advantage towards eventually climbing Mount Everest.

LAH: So, growing up watching Mount Fuji right next to you, that inspired you to want to climb other mountains?

WATANABE (through translator): Yes, it was. I love Mount Fuji and I think it is my love of the mountains in Japan that led me to seek other mountains around the world.

LAH: You've said before that, as a child, you didn't grow up in a culture where climbing mountains was for leisure. What was your viewpoint of mountaineering and nature as a child?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, that was slightly different from mountaineering. We, as children, went up the mountain to find feed for livestock like goats, cows, and horses. And because, in the winter time, we would light a fire in the house. We would climb the mountain to collect firewood as well. Because of that, I suppose I became used to climbing mountains.

LAH: But your relationship to nature was to live off of it. How did you go from that to climbing for leisure?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, although mountains around here are not very high for mountaineers, I climbed mountains every day, which trained me to walk.

LAH: Did you think that one day you'd be setting records and climbing for sport?

WATANABE (through translator): Never, not even a bit. I was just enjoying climbing.

LAH: So, something changed when you were around 28 years old. You really started mountaineering. Tell me about what happened at age 28 that got you to really start this passion in your life.

WATANABE (through translator): Well, there was a senior librarian at a library of Kanagawa Prefecture where I also worked. They would talk about their mountaineering experiences, saying things like, "If you follow this rout up this mountain, you'll see an amazing view". They told me how much they enjoyed mountaineering and I thought I wanted to give it a try if it was so much fun. So I asked the person to introduce me to the mountaineering club they were a part of.

LAH: How do you go from that to wanting to climb more and more to even the tallest one, that being Everest?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, as I came to learn the joy of mountaineering, I began to enjoy climbing mountains that were higher and higher. I really enjoyed it.

LAH: What is it about the height of the mountains that's so important to you?

WATANABE (through translator): The height itself doesn't matter to me, nor do I think higher mountains are necessarily better for climbing. It depends on the route. Some routes are very challenging. In 1977, I climbed a fairly difficult mountain for the first time, which was Mount McKinley, in Alaska.

I climbed the so-called "American Direct Route", which was a route straight up to the top. I really enjoyed it. Through such experiences, I learned that mountaineering wasn't just about height. I found that different routes have different charms. That's what I found.

LAH: When you talk about climbing here, with me, you light up. Do you feel alive when you're hiking?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, depending on the route, I'm excited about the fact that there are also mountains where I just enjoy the view while hiking. Climbing rocks, though, was very thrilling. That was a unique experience. The harder the challenge, the greater the accomplishment I found once I reached the top of the mountain. That's a different way of looking at mountaineering.

LAH: You grew up at a time when women were expected to get married, have children, become a housewife. You did not choose to do that. You chose to climb mountains. What was the reaction of people around you as you were living this life?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, the reason for not getting married was that I just didn't have a partner to get married to. Climbing mountains was more attractive to me than marriage or other fun things like that.

LAH: Do you have any regrets, not becoming a Japanese housewife?

WATANABE (through translator): It was my choice and I don't have any regrets.

(LAUGHTER)

LAH: Good for you.

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LAH (voiceover): Coming up, we're hot on the heels of Watanabe as she takes us hiking.

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LAH: So this is the bag you used to climb up Everest.

WATANABE (through translator): Yes, Everest and Lhotse - this bag.

LAH: What did you carry in your bag?

WATANABE (through translator): When I climbed Everest, survival food such as candy and chocolate and a thing like this, to cover myself when it suddenly gets cold, that protects the body from the wind.

LAH: What is the biggest challenge when you're up there in the heights of Everest?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, only Japanese may understand it, but I'm like a goat or something that likes high places. Someone like me enjoys being in high places.

LAH: So you're saying you're a goat.

(LAUGHTER)

LAH: What is it? I mean, people wonder like, what could possibly drive somebody to want to take their life in their hands and do this climb?

WATANABE (through translator): When I think of it, I think it's because I like being in nature and there aren't many people in high places, right? That's what makes me feel great.

LAH: How long will you be hiking?

WATANABE (through translator): I don't know at what age I'm going to stop, but if I do exercise every day, I think I can hike for another 10 years.

LAH: Maybe one more Everest climb?

WATANABE (through translator): No, I have done both of the routes up Everest. There are more mountains I have not climbed.

LAH: Can I see the lucky charm that's in the shrines? And what's the significance of that?

WATANABE (through translator): It seems to mean something about a historic shrine, but I don't know much about it. This charm protected me in Everest.

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LAH: Let's talk about your first major climbing achievement. What was it and what did that feel like?

WATANABE (through translator): The first major mountain that I climbed was Mount McKinley in the U.S. in 1977. I climbed the South Face of the mountain or the so-called "American Direct Route". I think that that was my first introduction to climbing a major mountain. Also, the people I climbed with were all young guys. One was six years younger than me and some were 12 and 13 years younger. I was the only middle-aged woman, at 38-years-old, climbing with them.

At one point, I was going to be a tent-keeper at base camp, but the guys said, "Come on, let's climb, let's climb. This is a route that no woman has ever climbed before". So I ended up climbing with them. I became the first woman to reach the summit. And I found this kind of mountaineering interesting. It was slightly different from the kind of mountaineering I had done before and, after this trip, I gradually became involved in climbing.

LAH: Can you name all of the famous mountains you've climbed?

WATANABE (through translator): Let me see - one was Dhaulagiri in Nepal, which I climbed with a group of seniors who were over 50 years old. Another is Gasherbrum II in Pakistan. And, let's see, Cho Oyu in the Himalayas, which was also 8,200 meters above sea level, if I remember. As I was climbing mountains higher than 8,000 meters, I learned to enjoy climbing these particular mountains, too. And after climbing them, I was invited to climb Everest. And in the year following my climb on Everest, I climbed Lhotse that was adjacent to Everest.

LAH: Which is the most unforgettable climb?

WATANABE (through translator): Let's see, well, they were all unforgetable, but Mount McKinley, where I had to climb many rocks, was a difficult route. So without that experience, I probably would not have been able to climb the icy rocks on Everest. So, Mount McKinley was where I developed my skills to climb high mountains.

LAH: Let's go back to 2002 - your very first trek up Everest, where you hit the summit at the very young age of 63. What was that climb like? And what was it like to reach the top?

WATANABE (through translator): For me, it's not a great achievement. What I thought was "I arrived at the summit, I did it".

LAH: You didn't realize at that time that you were going to be setting the record?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, I hardly thought about my own record. I was just enjoying mountaineering. Yes.

LAH: While enjoying your trek, it's also a challenge when it comes to weather. Did you ever face any weather during your climbs up Mount Everest that you thought, "This is really going to be very difficult, insurmountable"?

WATANABE (through translator): There was a steep, hard wall of ice called "The Lhotse Face", which was about 100 meters long at a height of somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 meters. I had to stand on my toes, because I couldn't put my heels down, and I almost got cramps in my legs. I prepared myself for the worst, and climbed to the top of the wall with all my might.

Then, I saw a group of 10 women from another country who were on the wall with quite unsteady footwork. It was the only time I tried to stay away from others, moving aside because I thought, if one of them slipped and fell, everyone would fall together. So I moved to the side to avoid them.

LAH: We hear a lot about an area 1,000 meters above that, called a "death zone" it's that area where there isn't enough oxygen to sustain human life. What is it like to hit that level?

WATANABE (through translator): We climbed without an oxygen mask until up to about 7,300 meters. This was the same when we climbed Everest for the first time in 2002. The first night we were higher than 7,300 meters, we started using oxygen. When we continued on to higher ground, we put on our oxygen masks so I stayed alert and was able to stay focused. I didn't feel that I was in danger.

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LAH: Tell me about these photos.

WATANABE (through translator): This is Lhotse. I climbed it back in 2002. You can see Everest behind it.

LAH: Watanabe San, that's you.

WATANABE (through translator): At the summit, yes. I was exhausted when I was climbing it. This is below the summit. The edge of Lhotse is the route to Everest. Around here, the road is frozen and really steep. There is an American who slipped and fell and died. It's such a dangerous hillside, it's called "The Lhotse Face".

LAH: How beautiful is it up there?

WATANABE (through translator): The view was superb.

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LAH (voiceover): Coming up, we join Watanabe as she inspires the next generation to reach new heights.

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WATANABE (through translator): Hello everyone. I wanted to talk a little bit about mountaineering.

Well, I left Japan on the 27th of March and arrived there on the next day. To climb a mountain, you have to get your body used to the environment.

If children have an interest in nature, they will understand. I want them to become people who appreciate the consequences the next generation will suffer if we destroy our natural surroundings. So, without a doubt, they need to learn that nature is vital to us by experiencing it. I want them to like nature and climb mountains and film. I think that's important.

Let's walk slowly, this is not a competition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I heard she's the oldest woman to have climbed Everest, which is great. I've not climbed a lot of mountains, so it's a little bit hard for me, but I enjoy it.

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LAH: In 2002, you had the remarkable achievement, becoming the oldest woman to climb Mount Everest. Then, three years later, you had an accident, in 2005. An injury that threatened to end your trekking - you broke your back. What happened and how did you come back from that?

WATANABE (through translator): My injury - I fell into the river in front of my house, which was almost five meters deep. It was the day after I returned from Mount Eiger and I had been doing chores out in the sun without having a day off. I was affected by the heat and it was like I lost consciousness and fell into the river. While I was falling, I thought "Oh no". I found a trustworthy hospital and had an operation there.

The doctor said after the operation, "You will be able to go back to the mountain for sure". So I thought, I should be all right and waited for my recovery. Once I recovered, I made a plan for what I should do next. That was what happened.

LAH: After your accident, what was that first climb up a big mountain like?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, let me see. Probably two years after the accident, Ms. Junko Tabei invited me to climb Huiten Peak, the highest mountain in Mongolia. And I went there and found that, "I can climb this mountain". Which gave me confidence. So I thought, I can still climb a mountain. So I didn't lose hope and tried to maintain my physical strength.

LAH: After you climbed that mountain in Mongolia, after the accident, at that point did you think, "I want to climb Mount Everest one more time"?

WATANABE (through translator): No, not at all. What I was sure about at the time, was that I could climb a quite high craggy mountain. I didn't think that I would go to Everest.

LAH: Why is Everest so important to climbers?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, Everest has never been important to me, but the reason why I chose Everest this time was that I wanted to climb along the Tibet route out of curiosity, not because of its height or the desire to climb Everest again. I wanted to see how it is different from the one in Nepal.

LAH: Before this last climb that you made on Everest, Aiko (ph) Funabashi (ph), who is a year younger than you are, was attempting to have the record of being the oldest woman to climb Mount Everest. Was her attempt the reason why you were driven to climb Everest one more time?

WATANABE (through translator): No, never. That never motivated me. But actually, I received a phone call from Ms. Funabashi (ph) in the summertime last year. And, although she told me on the phone that she'd attempted it several times, I did not think about climbing Everest again at all. I did not know that Ms. Funabashi (ph) had attempted several times, and I did not think about climbing Everest soon, again. So I told her, as I did not think about going back to Everest again, to find someone else. And that was the end of the conversation.

This year, when I was in Kathmandu, when I went to say hello to a Japanese agent there, who was in charge of general matters of mountaineering, I heard that Ms. Funabashi (ph) would be coming, but I did not meet her in Kathmandu. After that, I heard that Ms. Funabashi (ph) had given up on challenging Everest this year, for health reasons.

LAH: What was it like to climb Everest that second time? I mean, how different is it to climb Everest as a 63-year-old versus being a 73-year- old?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, when I climbed Everest at 63, it may be because that was 10 years ago, but I took off my mask on the way and, at the summit, I breathed without the mask for about 40 minutes and I was fine. Compare that to this time - it wasn't because I climbed in the dark, but I think it was because of my age - I never took off my mask. So there's the difference that 10 years made.

LAH: So you felt a little older climbing, this time?

WATANABE (through translator): When I was climbing, I did not feel the age so much, because I was focusing on climbing. But 10 years probably brought some change to my body. That's what I think.

LAH: Four people died around the time that you were climbing Mount Everest. The weather conditions were extreme. What is it that kept you going?

WATANABE (through translator): Well, I heard the news that four people had died when I was going down the mountain. It had never happened that that many people died within such a short period of time while I was there. So I wondered if the weather had been different this year. Maybe the weather caused their deaths. And I heard about falling rocks, too. That was what I thought when I heard the news.

LAH: Do you think the mountain has gotten too crowded?

WATANABE (through translator): Well yes, I do. This time we climbed up from the China side for the first time. There were a lot of people on the China side, too. While I was climbing, the route wasn't overcrowded, but when I was going down, there was another person who was descending slowly. So, from time to time, I had to stop and wait, which wasn't easy for me.

LAH: You say you're not going to climb Mount Everest again, but are you retired? Or you think you're going to have a change of heart?

WATANABE (through translator): I have climbed Everest from the Nepal route and the China route. The other routes are too hard for me. So I don't think I can climb Everest again.

LAH: Watanabe San, thank you so much for talking with us on "Talk Asia". Really appreciate it. Arigato gozaimasu.

WATANABE: Arigato.

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