Our new series exploring people’s passion for the mountains and for climbing and mountaineering starts with a man whose achievements and explorations over the past half a century provide a reminder of the Golden Age of Alpinism.
Throughout a life spent exploring the mountains, Tom Nakamura has been propelled by a constant quest to conquer the next challenge, new frontiers and to fill in ‘the blank areas on maps’. It is a single-minded obsession that many mountaineers and climbers can relate to.
“Coming across unknown, unclimbed and untrodden mountains is what I love doing. When I am in the mountains my mind is constantly focused on my next target for explorations.”
Nakamura’s passion for the mountains was fostered when he joined the Alpine Club of the Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo at the age of 18. Sixty-four years later, he is a renowned figure in the world of mountaineering, hugely admired for his pioneering work in eastern Tibet and western China and recognized as an honorary member of several institutions, including the UIAA. It is work which has been rewarding, but complex, requiring huge personal sacrifice and time. Time to build relationships, negotiate paperwork, organize logistics, to climb, photograph, document and retrace maps. “I fund myself, I have no sponsors, investment or support. This gives me a free hand,” admits Nakamura.
Tibet is the part of the world he has become synonymous with. “Some convince themselves that veiled mountains in the greater ranges are an experience of the past,” explains Nakamura.
“But Tibet has an incredibly vast and complex topography that holds countless unclimbed summits, and beckons a lifetime’s search. Many of the peaks tower towards the sky. Some resemble mountains in South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. The peaks there are stunning and magnificent, and many of them like the Nyainqen Tanglha East in eastern Tibet with still some 200 unclimbed 6,000m peaks – will remain enigmas for generations.”
Nakamura’s expeditions to Tibet began in the early 1990s and today he counts over 40 separate trips. Few have been uneventful, many colourful tales of permit issues, accusations of illegal travel and enlightened by the frequent joy of experiencing unique local cultures. He cites some of his most impressive achievements as the circumnavigation of a pilgrimage trail round holy Meili Snow Mountains on the Yunnan-Tibet border in 1996: a reconnaissance of south face of Nenang and an exploration of Botoi Tsangpo in Nyainqen Tanglha East in 2002: the quest for the source of the Irrawaddy River and crossing Deep Gorge Country from forbidden Zayü in Southeast Tibet to Yunnan a year later: and 2009’s explorations of four valleys, two in the upper Yi’ong Tsangpo and one in Botoi Tsangpo and one in Kangri Garpo West.
One of Tom Nakamura’s most noted qualities is his generosity and passion to share his findings. He has set foot in places no human has been to but his mission is not a selfish one. As a writer, photographer and cartographer, his work has been published throughout the world in publications including The American Alpine Journal, The Alpine Journal, The Himalayan Journal, Japanese Alpine News, Altitudes, Vertical and Alpinist. When not in the mountains he is regularly presenting at a lectern sharing his findings, his observations on climate change, of glacier retreats and providing anecdotes to his eye-catching photos of peaks and mountain ranges no lens has focused on before.
“I have a special connection with these mountain ranges because through time I have managed to obtain permits to areas otherwise closed for foreigners. Discovering these places for the first time makes me excited and provides a calm satisfaction.”
Nakamura’s commitment to mapmaking is one he hopes will help fellow mountaineers, and fulfils part of his profile of what makes a good mountaineer – ‘practice through field visits; knowledge through reading and sharing through writing’. “My source information are Russian maps as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army maps are strictly confidential,” explains Nakamura. “I have redrawn maps for easy reading. The Chinese themselves have little interest in the unknown mountains of eastern Tibet. This has added greater value to my experience.”
Throughout his time exploring the Alps of Tibet and notably in western China, Nakamura admits to witnessing profound changes – horses rapidly replaced by motorbikes and cars as a mode of transport; televisions providing communities with access to information from the wider world; new infrastructures and easier access to electricity. However, despite these changes, Nakamura believes that “basic lifestyles and traditions are being retained.”
“I am very fortunate to have discovered mountaineering. It has given me great satisfaction and many uplifting moments,” closes Nakamura. “It is a balance between work and my hobby, and given me many friends around the world.”
Main Image: Mianzimu 6054m E face, Meili Snow Mountains, Yunnan. Photo: Tom Nakamura