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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?