Montbell’s Meteoric Rise

Text Claude Hervé-Bazin / Photo Montbell
Date of publication Winter 2019-2020

Kinobi is a stand-alone Japanese art that can be applied to all things. Its philosophy embodies the union of beauty and function. That philosophy is what drove Isamu Tatsuno as he climbed the north face routes of the highest Alpine summits, before founding what has become the biggest Asian outdoor equipment brand, found today in both Zermatt and Grindelwald.

It all began with a moment of childhood disappointment. When he was 12 years old, Isamu Tatsuno was told he could not participate in his school’s annual hiking trip up Mount Kongō (1,125 m) because of  his “poor health.” And yet the hike was not like climbing Everest: it was just a small tree-covered mountain, home to two Shinto sanctuaries where Osaka residents could experience the natural art known as juhyo (frost-covered trees). Immensely disappointed yet determined, the young man decided to make the trip up that mountain a personal goal.

What Heroes are Made of
Soon Isamu was exploring every hidden corner of Mount Kongō, taking the time to walk every path often. Once he had exhausted the mountain’s dozen trails, he began exploring further, equipped with an old backpack given to him by a family member, his father’s old army cookware, a tent he bought with his pocket money, and a sleeping bag he made out of an old blanket. At the age of 16, Isamu read an excerpt from Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, which recounts the alpinist’s record-setting, first ascent of the Eiger north face route in 1938. The Austrian alpinist’s ability to triumph in the face of difficulty became a mantra for young Isamu. He decided he would do everything he could to become the first Japanese alpinist to summit Eiger via the north face route. Although he didn’t know it at the time, this decision would shape Isamu’s life around his passion for the mountains.

He began training on Osaka’s regional cliff sides. His list of accomplished ascents grew, as did his connections with other climbers. Together, they set out to tackle the Japanese Alps. His team paved the way, time and time again, in summer as in winter, and Isamu’s reputation as a seasoned adventurer grew in parallel to his list of accomplishments.

Zweite Heimat
In 1969, at the age of 21, Isamu Tatsuno and his friend, Sanji Nakatani, decided they were ready to affront Eiger. The two friends set off from Japan by ship, travelling first to Vladivostok (Russia), then taking a train across Siberia to reach Switzerland. By then, it was already too late to make history on Eiger: the north face had been tackled in 1965 by another Japanese duo, Mitsumasa Takada and Tsuneaki Watabe (who sadly fell and perished before making it to the summit). But that didn’t stop Isamu and Sanji from doing the climb themselves. At the summit, the clouds cleared and the duo found themselves transfixed by a different Alpine icon: the Matterhorn. That would be their next climb. Naturally, they planned to tackle the north face, the most difficult way to reach their new goal. The morning of their departure, Ms. Biner, their host at the Bahnhof Hotel, tempered their feverish zeal with a somber reminder: “Success is not making it to the summit,” she said, “it is surviving the journey.” Isamu Tatsuno has never forgotten those words. They have been his guide for every ascent thereafter, and helped ensure his regular, safe return to Zermatt each time, a place he has come to cherish.

 The Rising Sun
When Isamu Tatsuno returned to Japan, he worked in a mountain supply store and founded the first Japanese climbing school in 1970, with his partner Sanji Nakatani and the first Japanese climber to have summited the north face of Eiger, Mitsumasa Takada. Isamu’s skill set was growing: he began working at a fabric retailer, where he learned how to manage a business and how to develop new products and materials. By 28 years old, Isamu had an abundance of complementary skill sets. The next step seemed obvious: Isamu Tatsuno founded Montbell (“beautiful mountain”), an outdoor gear and clothing manufacturer. The timing was perfect. Hiking and climbing were growing in popularity across Europe and North America, just as they had in Japan, and alpinists were starting to tackle those same great peaks in the winter months. All those activities required special equipment, and Montbell was perfectly placed to supply the growing market’s needs.

 The Japanese Touch
In Japan’s humid climate, feather down gets wet and loses its thermal properties. The solution was an ultra lightweight synthetic alternative, which in turn led Isamu Tatsuno to Munich. There he knocked on the door of Sport Schuster, ready with the only two sentences he knew how to say in German: “Ich komme aus Japan. Ich möchte den Schlafsack verkaufen.” His products were an immediate success. Montbell’s merchandise brought innovative textile research from Osaka to life, helping reinforce the high-tech image associated with many Japanese products. The company released creations made of lightweight waterproof nylon, unlike anything the world had ever seen, and thus solidified their position as the leader in ultra-light supplies. More than 40 years have gone by and today Montbell’s motto Light and Fast is still winning people over. As for Isamu Tatsuno, he has taken to canoeing and white-water kayaking (he’s already won a national competition), and has been focusing on educational and social projects, along with sustainable tourism. One of his more recent projects includes developing “Japan Eco Track” itineraries for walking/hiking, biking, or kayaking across Japan, similar to Swiss Mobility initiatives in Switzerland. Under his leadership, Montbell also contributed to financing the Charles Kuonen Bridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world (494 m), located in Randa (between Grächen and Zermatt). The Montbell Fund used annual loyalty funds from 9,400,000 Montbell members to support the bridge construction, which makes it easier (and safer!) to hike the trail, while also boosting local tourism. What better way to pay tribute to the country where it all began?