3:30am seemed like a perfect time to start my approach to the towering volcanic edifice of Mt. Iwate. For starters, I was illegally camped in a park. I was also faced with a 20km round-trip monster of a hike: my first true test in my epoch-making Tohoku conquest.
After convincing myself that the trailhead must lie in the forest directly behind the green confines of the park, I meandered through desolate gravel roads for nearly an hour before retreating back to my campsite, re-orienting myself in relation to my highly inaccurate map, and turning due west until finding the true start of the hike. This was already turning into a headache and I’d barely even started.
The first part of the trail was pretty straightforward, as the increasing light of a dawning day made navigation without a torch entirely possible. If only it weren’t for the abnormally large amount of frogs attempting to commit suicide by intentionally hopping directly into my rapidly approaching footfalls. I reached Nana waterfall after an hour or so, only to find a rope strung across the trail. Apparently someone did not want me to climb Mt. Iwate from this side of the peak. I had 2 choices. Either turn back and spend the better part of the morning and afternoon trying to hitch to the other side of the volcano, or continue on a stealth mission into the unknown. I think you all know me well enough by now to know which option I chose.
Slipping underneath the rope, I continued through the dense conifer forest, as monstrous rock formations slowly came into view to my immediate right. Gradually the pine needles gave way to sulfur-stained mud and pumice, as I suddenly found myself ascending directly into an active thermal vent. “So, that’s why this trail is closed!”, I gasped, maneuvering through a gnarly collection of hot spring runoff and hissing hells with the speed and agility of a running back in motion. One false step and I’d be tonight’s headline, if anyone bothered to venture into this literal no-man’s land.
Eventually I reached a junction, slipped under the rope in front of me (I was now officially hiking legally once again) and turned left towards the saddle below the crater rim. The dew of the previous night made its way down the overgrown foliage and into my shirt, pants, socks and shoes. Here I was soaked from head to toe on a trail that had definitely seen better days. Future hikers should note that 99% of climbers approach via the Yakibashiri and Yanagisawa trails to the southwest and northeast.
After meandering through some heavily overgrown marshlands, the path followed a dry river bed to the plateau directly below the enormous crater rim. It was here that I met my first hiker of the day, and my first true break in the relentless ascent. Devouring every carbohydrate in my path, I regained my strength and inched my way up to the crater rim. When I say inched, I truly mean it, as one step forward resulted in 2 steps of lost altitude, thanks in large part to the ankle-deep screee. I was literally on my hands and knees for the better part of an hour, struggling to reach the rim of the active volcanic monster. Once on top it became an easy stroll to the high point, where the most incredible panoramic view awaited. I thought I’d had good views on Mt. Iwaki, but nothing compared to what lie before me. Not only could I see the last 3 peaks I’d climbed, but I could also see my remaining targets for the next 6 days: Mt. Hayachine, nearly a stones throw away, followed by Mt. Chokai to the southwest, with Gassan and Mt. Asahi lined up perfectly to the south of Tohoku’s highest peak. I raised my arms in triumph, as I new I’d beaten a peak notorious for lenticular cloud cover, horizontal rain, and gale force winds.
The only downside to my successful day was that I’d left my backpack and tent back in the park at the campsite, meaning I’d have to retrace my steps 11km all the way back to where I started. I set off with no time to spare, resoaking my clothes on the overgrown foliage, and literally jumping through the active thermal vents that caused so discomfort on the ascent. Back at the trailhead around 2pm, I grabbed my belongings and boarded a bus for Morioka. It was time to plan tomorrow’s climb of Mt. Hayachine, a peak that offered no easy route when relying on public transport.