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Archive for June, 2009

As the ferry rolls into Otaru port, I double-check my hastily scribbled itinerary and make the ultimate decision: do I start with Rishiri and end with Poroshiri, or should I do the circuit in reverse? With rain forecast on the horizon, as well as an offer from a kind gentleman to give me a list halfway up the west coast of the island, the plan was set. Make it to Rishiri island by nightfall, whatever the cost!

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The first driver dropped me off in the small town of Rumoi, where I jumped on a bus bound for Toyotomi. A grueling 3-1/2 hours later, I found myself standing on the main road to Wakkanai, thumb outstretched and praying I wouldn’t miss the last ferry. Soon enough, a kind couple whisked me all the way to the ferry terminal, where I snatched up a ticket. “Phew,” I sighed. “How in the world am I going to make it down to Shiretoko?”. One step at a time, I pondered, one step at a time.

The ferry rolled out of Wakkanai and into the choppy sea. Avoiding a potentially crippling bout of seasickness, I retreat to the back of the boat, chatting with a kind Canadian couple who’d flown over from Korea to do some hiking. We decided to camp together at the trailhead that night. 10 minutes into the ride, the phone rings. It’s Julian, who I’d hoped to meet up with on this trip. “I’m camping near Wakkanai,” he’d explained, as I’d come to the horrid realization that we’d just missed each other. He’d finished his circuit of Hokkaido with Hana the wonder dog, while I was just starting my final assault on the remaining Hyakumeizan of the north. Our long overdue meeting would have to wait.

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We all settled into camp, as I tried to figure out how to put up my brand-new Exped tent before the sun went down. Stakes proved quite difficult to drive into volcanic soil, but luckily the wind was calm. I cook dinner, chatted with my new friends about life in Korea, and set the alarm for 3:30am! I had a long, steep climb awaiting me in the morning, and wanted to beat the crowds.

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The morning came much too quickly for my liking, as I cooked up noodles in the pre-dawn mist. Trying to save time, I left all of my gear in the tent and opted for the lightweight approach, stuffing 2 liters of water and some small provisions in my bum bag. The initial climb was steady, with a comfortable number of switchbacks until reaching the 6th stagepoint. Then, like the liftoff of a supersonic jet, the trail turned steep, with plenty of brushpine to swim through. Even though it’d only taken 45 minutes to climb through 6 stages, I found myself fighting an elusive battle with the volcanic gods for well over an hour just to reach the 8th stagepoint. I could see how Captain Interesting could have such a taxing fight in winter!

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Once reaching the plateau at restpoint #8, my destination came into view. The pyramidal peak of Rishiri towering directly in front of me, capped by a thick layer of white cloud. I trudged along the shoulder before dropping to the emergency hut at the saddle. “Only 500 more vertical meters to go”, realizing I’d celebrated much too early. 500 of the steepest, rockiest, most death-defying I’ve climbed in a while. One wrong step and I’d plunge into the unknown and would probably never be found.

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Angels must surely patrol the mountains of Japan, and Rishiri was no exception. I’m convinced that the heavenly deities secretly descend at night, securing the support ropes in just the right places to afford a safe ascent. Grasp these ropes I did, quietly saying a thank you to those rope laying guardians. The cloud cleared on the final summit approach, revealing a jaw-dropping panorama in all directions.

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Peak #91 was successfully summited, but I still had to get down without breaking an ankle. Slowly I retreated, passing countless others who’d gotten a later start. Before I knew it I was relaxing back at the 8th stagepoint, chatting with a friendly American. It turned out that he was also from Osaka, and we had mutual friends. He told me about the International Outdoor Club, suggesting I check it out upon returning to Kansai. After exchanging contact information, I flew back down to the campsite, packed up the gear, and headed to the hot spring. I had plenty of time to relax and enjoy tasty seafood before heading back to Wakkanai, where the question of the previous day came back to haunt me: “How in the world am I going to make it down to Shiretoko?

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The exhibition is now in its 2nd week and the response has been overwhelming.  Thanks to everyone who attended the opening party on Sunday, where there was standing room only.  If you’re coming from out of town and need a place to stay, then let me know and I might be able to help you out. I hope everyone can stop by before I take the photos down on the 30th.

Here are some photos I took last night (the opening party was too crowded to get any good shots, so I opted for a quiet Monday)

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Looking out across the valley towards Mt. Asama, Fumito and I dig into our lunchboxes. We’d made good time summiting Mt. Azumaya, my 49th peak. It was the 4th of June, and the rainy season was just around the corner. “I wonder if I’ll be able to reach the magic #50 before it comes” I ponder, as we run through a list of peaks still left to conquer. Suddenly, both of us remembered our botched winter attempt on Mt. Kusatsushirane, realizing that it was within earshot from the peak we were standing on. Fumito offered a humble suggestion: “we could always climb it today on our way back to Nagano.” Hmmm…..

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“Yeah, let’s do it,” I enthusiastically responded. Frantically, we packed up our half-eaten lunches and hurriedly descended down to Sugadaira farm, feasting on fresh ice cream as a reward for our rapid descent. Time check: 2:45pm. Fumito set the car navigation, as I checked the hiking maps. The race was on.

On the deserted approach to Manza hot spring, the car weaved back and forth through a thick layer of fog and mist. We were both starting to have second thoughts about our initial idea, and figured mother nature was punishing us for trying to bite off more than we could chew. Miraculously, just like a powerful jet airliner, we broke through the massive layer of cloud and soared above it all in the late afternoon sunshine. Perhaps our idea wasn’t so bad after all.

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Hastily parking the car, we grabbed our gear and started our initial approach by jogging on the paved path. My supply of energy seemed endless: after all, I was about to reach the halfway point on my 100 mountain mission. Fumito, on the other hand, was just along for the ride, so it didn’t surprise me when he shelled out the money for the chair lift! We agreed to meet on the ridgeline in 10 minutes, as I started my quick trot through a remaining snow field.

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I quickly caught up with my companion as we traversed one of the many ancient craters that house the remnants of the mighty volcano. We soon hit a trail junction, realizing that the high point lay directly opposite. The afternoon sun shone majestically, casting deep shadows on the adjacent ridge as we kept up our athletic pace. 5pm as we reached the official high point for Hyakumeizan baggers. The true summit stood a few hundred meters further north, through an area of deep undergrowth and toxic volcanic gases. Despite the ease of access and popularity of the route, we found ourselves completely alone on this spectacular Sunday afternoon. Who says getting a late start is such a bad idea?

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We retraced our steps to the parking lot, rewarding ourselves with a quick stroll to the impressive Yugama crater lake, a definite must-see for anyone with a budding interest in volcanic phenomena. Mt. Kusatsushirane may have eluded us back in February, but revenge was definitely ours as I set my sights on the remaining 50.

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