There’s no doubt about it. Mt. Yotei was going to take a lot of planning if I wanted to pull it off. I had a 22-hour window between arriving in Otaru and departing in Muroran, and I needed every minute to count.
The ferry rolled into port around 8pm, and I was one of the first ones off. Hailing down a taxi, I rushed to Otaru station in time to catch a southbound local train headed for Niseko. I made it to Kutchan station shortly before 9pm, where another taxi whisked me along route 5 to the turnoff at Hangetsu lake. I thanked the driver, dropping my heavy pack at the base of the toilets while studying the maps. A handful of tents were tucked away in the shaded corners of the tennis-court sized campground, but I wasn’t planning on loitering. A night challenge was in the works – If I could only find the trailhead.
An unmarked gravel forest road led towards the direction of my target peak. Donning the headlamp, I eagerly followed, cautiously keeping my wits about me in case any brown bears came out to size me up. After half an hour of steady climbing, the road spit me out into a vast meadow of wild grass and weeds. In the dim light of the moon I could just make out the outline of Yotei’s conical crown. Expecting to find a signpost or signs of human encroachment, I was left with nothing but a forgotten forestry cul-de-sac. Dejected, I retreated back towards the parking lot. A few steps into my descent my headlamp flickered twice before extinguishing myself. It was dead, and I didn’t have a spare set of batteries. I picked my way back, tripping over tree roots and loose rocks before collapsing in a heap of sweat and fatigue at the base of the toilet block. Stowing my gear, I glimpsed a shiny piece of metal out of the corner of my eye. Retreating to the rear of the small shack, I found a giant signpost marking the entrance to the trail. In all my haste to race up Yotei I hadn’t bothered to search for the start of the trail in the campsite itself. Well, at least my headlamp malfunctioned here and not halfway up.
I abandoned my nocturnal pursuit, ducking into my tent just after 1 in the morning. I didn’t bother with the rain fly, as I’d be up at first light in a couple of hours anyway. I set the alarm for the un-buddha-ly hour of 4 and drifted off into a deep slumber. The morning call came, and I woke myself up with a rapid bowl of oatmeal and dried fruit before strapping on the gear and hitting the trail. The path was incredibly easy to follow, and in hindsight I probably could’ve done it without a headlamp. The switchbacks, as in most stratovolcanoes, shorten the higher you go. At first you only switch directions every 10 minutes or so, but towards the crater rims those turns come faster than a downhill slalom course. Across the valley, Mt. Niseko Annupuri shined brilliantly in the early morning light, with a isthmus of puffy cloud rising rapidly from the ski-resort town of the same name. The clouds rose in direct proportion to my gains in altitude. It was as if they were racing me to the top, and since I didn’t want to be deprived of a view, I quickened the pace. I made it as far as the 9th stage point before I lost the footrace with the cumulus. Fog enveloped me in much the same way the smoke machines eats people at a Megadeth concert. I hunched over, catching my breath while trying to regain composure for the final push to the high point.
When reaching the rim, I headed counterclockwise, arriving at the high point just as the sun peeked out of the cloud for an instant. I raised my camera to capture the scenery. The click of the shutter was followed by the click of plastic, which was further followed by the door of my camera swinging completely open, exposing all of my film to the direct light. Somehow the latch had broken and I had no way of closing my camera. It was still fully functional, so a quick fix was in order. I pulled out my first-aid kit, affixing band-aids all down the side of the camera until somewhat secure. Still, I knew all of my film would be damaged. This was in the days before affordable digital technology, and being stuck at almost 1900 meters above the nearest camera store meant I had no alternative way of documenting my climb. With my head hung low, I continued the rest of my circumnavigation in a childish sulk. Just to make matters worse, the clouds lifted at times, revealing the verdant greenery of the crater itself.
In order to offer better access I dropped off the northeastern flank of the dome, crossing a vast field of wildflowers stretching out in front of the modest mountain hut. From here I entered the Makkari route, a knee-knocking, ankle-twisting descent that dropped straight off the peak into the dense forests of beech and birch. The route spit me out in a extensive campground bathed in a sea of soft grass. I stopped here to rehydrate and refuel before following the slope out to route 66. Turning left, I strolled along the busy byway, looking for a shoulder along the road where I could safely try to hitch. As I was walking, minding my own business, a car pulled to a halt and ushered me in. After showing me the sights of Lake Toya, the elderly gentleman dropped me off at Nagawa station, where I caught the train to Muroran with plenty of time to spare before my evening ferry ride to Aomori. My time management had rewarded me with another successful tick off the list.