I checked-out of the decrepit hotel in the dingy town of Tokachi-shimizu early on a cool and calm Saturday morning. The dreary drizzle of the previous night gave way to stunningly blue skies, the perfect climbing conditions for knocking off my final peak in Hokkaido.
I walked out to route 274, stuck out my thumb, and moments later stood at the turnoff of route 237, hoping for the best. About an hour later I found what I was looking for – a ride to the trailhead from a kind gentleman out for a weekend cruise. He wouldn’t accept my repeated offers of petrol money even though he’d drove at least 100km out of his way to help me. The generosity of people in this country continues to floor me.
The first 4km of the trek was along a gravel forest road following a clear, swift flowing river of emerald hues, while the remaining 4km to the mountain hut zig-zagged in, on, and around that very same water source. This is what makes Mt. Poroshiri one of the toughest of the Hyakumeizan. Most people are concerned about the bears in Hokkiado, but the biggest cause for worry here, however, is drowning. One person lost his life the previous month in a swift flowing current after a heavy rain storm,while another climbing party had to be helicoptered to safety a few years ago after being trapped in the mountain hut for over a week. This is definitely not a mountain to be taken lightly.
As I reached the first of several dozen river crossings, I couldn’t help notice the wide variety of footwear that other hikers were sporting. Wetsuit booties and ‘shower climbing’ shoes seemed to be the equipment of choice. One hiker went for the hybrid approach,
while I opted for the comfort of my sandals. There’s no use buying an expensive pair of protective footwear if you’re only going to use them once. I started to regret my choice on the 3rd or 4th crossing, as my feet would go numb with each ford, and I’d have to stop to let them thaw out at regular intervals.
Luckily, the water level was normal, but I can see how treacherous it would be after a significant downpour. Weaving in and out of the crystalline waters like a freshly woven carpet, I arrived at the mountain hut along the river’s edge shortly after 2pm. I dropped my gear and found a snug area near the top of the stairs on the 2nd floor of the rustic structure.
Slowly but steadily streams of climbers filed into base camp, with a few pitching tents wherever space allowed. Here it was on a weekend during peak summer hiking season, and I knew that the hut would be filled to the rafters with noisy pensioners. I wasn’t disappointed.
The next morning I was forced awake by the throngs of inconsiderate beasts who were intent on making as much noise as possible in the pre-dawn glow. “Don’t Japanese people know how to whisper?” , I wondered. I’ve been witness to this insane cacophony countless times before and I knew exactly what to do: head for the hills!
800 vertical meters of altitude was knocked off in near record time, as the last week of scaling massive peaks finally paid off. I broke above the tree line just as the morning sun was casting deep shadows in the col below. I’d caught up with the first big climbing group of the day, as I crawled at the back of a queue at least 50 people deep. I let out a loud “konnichiwa” and they miraculously let me through.
I didn’t expect alpine territory at 1800 meters above sea level, but it’s exactly what I got, with incredible views thrown in for good measure. Visibility was close to 200km in all directions, but the most striking feature of the Hidaka mountain range is the lack of human encroachment. In fact, the view was completely devoid of electrical towers, roads, villages, or tree plantations as far as the eye can see. It could very well be Japan’s final frontier, and it’s a place that will live in my heart forever.
On the final summit push, I ran into a trio of young university students with over-sized packs. “We’re the kitchen for the large tour group,” answered the leader when interrogated about their early morning intentions. “We’ve got to cook breakfast for our clients and have it ready by the time they summit.” We hiked the final 200 meters of so together, being the first party to reach the summit on that stellar Sunday morning. The culmination of years of hard work, the major peaks of Hokkaido were truly conquered in only the most perfect of weather conditions. Tears welled up in the corner of my eye, as I could now count the remaining Hyakumeizan on one hand.
I had another reason for joy as well. The tour group kitchen staff offered to give me a ride back to Sapporo if I chose to leave the mountain today. I could either head down today and be guaranteed a ride back to civilization or risk staying another night in the hut and pressing my luck for a Monday afternoon return. I decided to mull it over while completing the circuit over Mt. Tottabetsu.
The path left the summit and descended steeply towards Nanatsu-numa col. The lakes that give the area its namesake were bone-dry, evidence of either an unusually warm summer or perhaps a lack of winter snowfall. This area is a haven for Japanese grizzlies, so I sang to myself lest i should surprise any of the nocturnal creatures. The majority of hikers don’t bother with the loop, opting for the comfort of heading back the way they came, thereby contributing to trail erosion. I didn’t meet a single soul during my 3-hour detour, but that was perfectly fine by me.
The branch trail back down to the valley was the most overgrown excuse for a path I’ve seen yet. Swimming through head-high bamboo grass and losing the track countless times, I somehow stumbled down to the source of the river that takes so many lives every year. I took off my boots, opting for the barefoot approach back to the hut.
Once I was reunited with my belongings, I ate a quick lunch before deciding to take up the offer of a free ride back to Sapporo. I had a ferry to catch the next day and didn’t want to risk being stranded should an unexpected rain squall cut off the escape path. I loaded up the gear and braced myself for the 8km slog.
By the time I arrived back at the forest road, my left foot had developed a sizable blister, but I pushed on as if in a drunken stupor. This was turning into quite an epic day, but at least I had no more peaks to worry about for the next few weeks. Eventually the cooks came back to the parking lot and off we rode into the sunset.