10 hours. If anyone ever asks you how long it takes from Wakkanai to Shiretoko by public transport, you now have an answer.
Arriving at Kinoshita hut just as dusk was settling in, I cook up some food in the early evening glow and plot out my course for the following morning. The caretaker was quite a trip, jovially supplying answers to my non-stop search for information. “The trail down from Iozan is closed to hikers, so you can’t do the traverse.” “Bear spray? You won’t need it. Just clap your hands and sing songs.” Quite a surprising piece of advice considering she just lost any potential revenue from rental of the aforementioned spray. The best part about the hut is the outdoor bath out back, as I made generous use in complete solitude while the rest of the early risers were off to sleep.
Despite rising over a hour after the majority of the sloggers, I managed to overtake everyone only 30 minutes into the long ascent. I found myself all alone: the first one up on this beautiful August morning. My late start was intentional – I wanted others in front of me to scare all the bears away! Upon reaching Gokuraku-daira, my heart froze. “If there was ever a place for bears to call home, it would have to be here,” I muttered. My bear bell was utterly useless, so I took the caretakers advice and broke into the first song that came into my head: “Audiowhore, sucking on sound, sucking my voice, dragging me down.” Eric Bachmann’s lyrics never sounded so powerful.
Once passing the ‘danger zone’, I shifted gears on the zig-zag ascent, popping out at Rausu-daira just in time to surprise a group of expats camping in the saddle. I pulled up a rock and spent the next 20 minutes or so swapping stories. It turned out they’d met Julian and his dog Hana on Mt. Poroshiri a few days prior. Tiny world we live in.
I dropped my pack at their lovely campsite and raced to the rocky summit. At one point I closed my eyes and slowly opened them, imagining myself climbing in the Japan Alps. Yellow paint marks, alpine flora, brush pine. Yep, the scenery was exactly the same, but 1500 meters lower in altitude. After a tough rock scramble, I pop up on the summit of #92 and sit, engulfed in stillness. Clouds drift endlessly over the Pacific Ocean, enveloping the Kuril islands and the mainland of Russia. Mt. Shari rises to the south, my target the following day. Meanwhile, the Sea of Okhotsk awakens from her slumber, revealing an endless line of fishing vessels and sightseeing boats.
Retracing my steps to the saddle, I grab my pack, say farewell to my English-speaking companions, and retreat back to Iwaobetsu hot spring. On the return trip, I pass by groups of foreigners: Germans, Indians, and even an elderly couple out for an excursion. They all seem surprised at my early descent. A quick glance at the watch reveals a quarter past 10 in the morning. “Not bad for my 5:30 departure time”, I proclaim.
Back at the trailhead, I scramble down to the lovely free outdoor baths near the parking lot, rewarding myself for making such great time. Shortly thereafter, I hitch a ride all the way to Kiyosato-cho, where Mt. Shari awaits. Would the dry weather streak hold out just one more day?