Both the Bow Valley’s climbing and Japanese communities were saddened to hear of the death of popular climber and guide Jiro Kurihara, whose body was located at the base of Mount Frances in the Alaska Range last week.
Kurihara, 33, was attempting to climb a new route on 3,185-metre Mount Frances with his long-time friend and climbing partner Junya Shiraishi, 28, of Sapporo, Japan.
According to US National Park Service information officer Maureen McLaughlin, the two men flew into the Alaska Range on April 27 with plans to climb North America’s highest peak, 6194-metre Denali, by its challenging Cassin Ridge route.
After summitting Denali by its standard, yet still demanding West Ridge, the two departed Kahiltna Basecamp for nearby Mount Frances on May 21. When they had not returned by May 23 from what should have been a day trip, park rangers skied over to Mount Frances’ base to search for the climbers with a spotting scope.
Unable to locate them, they continued searching by helicopter the following day and one body was identified lying amidst avalanche debris with a partially buried rope attached. On Wednesday, May 25, rangers flew back to the base of the mountain early in the day when cold temperatures created safer avalanche conditions and retrieved both bodies.
Since there were no witnesses, it is unknown whether the climbers triggered the avalanche that killed them, or if it was triggered naturally from above as they were climbing.
Kurihara was excited about climbing in Alaska and also about climbing with Shiraishi, said Canmore’s Brian Merry, whose friendship with Kurihara stemmed through their shared passion for the mountains and also the Japanese community to which Merry is connected through his wife, who is also Japanese.
One of the things that stood out about Kurihara, Merry said, was his enthusiasm for participating in the Bow Valley community as a whole, and not just within the Japanese group.
“He was really active in the whole community,” Merry said. “He was always so friendly, so inclusive. In the campgrounds he’d always invite people over for dinner, he wanted everybody to be together.”
Kurihara had worked with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures since 2007, as a hiking guide in the Rockies and also in the Yukon with Yamnuska Mountain Tours, and as an assistant rock guide.
“He was always responsible and very focussed,” said Hiroshi Namba, Yamnuska Mountain Tours’ director. “He always did the best job he could do. He would study and do a lot of research about a place. I didn’t hesitate about sending him any place that was new to him.”
All the staff members at Yamnuska have been saddened by the news of his death, Namba said.
“We feel a big loss, for sure,” Namba said.
Fellow Yamnuska guide Kris Irwin said Kurihara was a skilled and enthusiastic climbing partner. The two met in 2008 as candidates on the assistant rock guide exam with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, and climbed together at least 50 times since, training to improve their climbing and guiding skills at indoor climbing gyms, outdoors on short rock and ice routes and on full-day mountain ascents.
Kurihara had invited Irwin to join him on the Alaska trip, but Irwin wasn’t able to go.
“Jiro used to laugh at all my cheesey jokes,” Irwin said. “He was a really talented climber; he had a really cool head on rock. He trained hard – he climbed 5.13. Not a lot of people do that.”
While Mount Frances was small by Alaskan standards, its west face consists of several steep gullies of mixed snow, ice and rock which would offer technically challenging climbing. Park officials said Kurihara and Shiraishi were the first climbing fatalities ever recorded on Mount Frances.
While climbers fully accept that accidents in the mountains can sometimes have fatal consequences, Merry recognized how it’s hard for those left behind to face a drastically changed life. His thoughts, he said, were with Kurihara’s wife, Junko.
“We (climbers) know what we’re getting into,” said Merry, who works as a firefighter in Wainwright, Alberta. “Everyone does everything they can to figure out how to be as safe as possible, but unfortunately, there’s always going to be accidents. It will always be random. I’m thinking of his wife a lot.”
Irwin said he too, was thinking about Kurihara’s wife, and about how he’d miss a friend with whom he’d shared many enjoyable, rewarding days in the mountains.
“Jiro was a strong, reliable partner,” Irwin said. “He was really fit and always keen for an adventure. And he smiled a lot.”
A memorial is planned for Friday, June 3, at the Banff Centre. Any friends of Kurihara’s who would like to attend are asked to contact Namba at the Yamnuska office, 403-678-4164.