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Posts Tagged ‘Daisetsuzan’

At dawn, I crawled out of the tent to clear skies and a sea of cloud resting on the valley below. I thought about climbing back up to the summit to take in the views but I had another really long day awaiting, so after breaking down camp and stuffing a cereal bar down my throat, I bade farewell to Hiro and Maki and continued along the ridge.

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The route passed through a sea of bamboo grass, the maintenance decreasing in direct proportion to the distance from Minami Numa. I had finally reached the least traveled part of the traverse: most folks escape down to Tomuraushi hot spring before rejoining the mountain range further south at Tokachi. I fought my way through the overgrown mess, sweat darting from my tangled mound of hair like a malfunctioning sprinkler. Rays of sunlight pierced the openings in the foliage, transforming the landscape into a heat-shimmering sauna. Looks like summer had finally arrived on the roof of Hokkaido.

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After several hours of stamina-zapping movement, the path opened up to a series of broad hills, whose contours guided me to a deep col sitting on the doorstep of the 2000-meter summit of Mt. Oputateshike. The humidity and heat had attracted the clouds, blotting out the peaks like an ashtray full of spent ash. At the low point in the valley stood a flat area with room for no more than two or three tents. A group of university students occupied the largest of the sites, tent pitched among a latte of thick mud. An ideal place to spend the night this was not, so after chewing on some beef jerky, I loaded up the gear for the agonizing march up the final climb of the day, losing the path countless times in the dense fog and escalating winds. The crawl to the top easily took two hours: the last three days of full-on trekking were taking its toll.

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Once topped out, the pitch mitigated before dropping abruptly to yet another col at the front door of Biei-Fuji. A spur led to a small wooden hut situated on a flat shoulder of the volcanic cone. I dropped my gear and peeked inside the lodge. There was capacity for around 20 people, but I was shocked to find a group of nearly 40 occupying every square inch of the facility. There were even people who had laid their sleeping bags in the boot-covered entrance. I felt like telling them to bugger off and camp outside so I could have a warm place to sleep. After all, they were people who had just entered the mountain earlier that day, while I had been going nonstop for the better part of a week. In the end I asked about water sources and retreated to the lonely mist of  the deserted campground.

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After setting up camp, I searched in vain for the only source of water: a small snowfield situated somewhere in the valley below. For the life of me I could not find it, and with darkness quickly setting in, I gave up, opting to filter and boil a puddle of rain water sitting next to my tent. I had reached a low point in my trek, but luckily there was only one more final push to the hissing steam vents of Mt. Tokachi, the final peak in the traverse.

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The torrent continued the entire night. Upon waking at daybreak, I lay in the tent in a rain-enduced trance. Not wanting to soak my kit or myself, I simply decided to wait out the storm, no matter how long it took. I rolled back over and drifted into unconsciousness again.

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Around 9am I awoke to the sound of birds singing. Unzipping my rain fly, I poked my head out in disbelief: the day before there were over 20 tents pitched in a labyrinth but now there was only one other, situated directly across from me. My gear shuffling had snapped my neighbors out of their slumber and they too looked google-eyed at the deserted state of our village. We both laughed, congratulating ourselves on the decision to make a late start. “My name’s Hiro,” offering his hand in a jovial western fashion, “and this is my girlfriend Maki.”

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We shared breakfast under the dissipating cloud cover while discussing our trekking itinerary. The were headed for Hisago-numa campground a half-day’s walk from here, while I wanted to push on to Minami Numa on the other side of Tomuraushi. We reached an agreement: Hiro and Maki would join me if I would be kind enough to keep a tent space for them.

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I left camp ahead of my companions, inching along the well-marked route through untouched swamplands before climbing the crest of a long slope. Here the terrain morphed into rolling hills sprinkled with boulders of every imaginable size. Depressions in the landscape framed ponds partially encased in ice, a reminder of the brevity of summer. Just past these frigid swimming holes a trail branched off towards the tranquil lagoon of Hisago, where a rustic mountain hut sat plopped on the far shore. It was straight out of a Snodonian daydream.

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From here the bedrock intensified, and it became a hopping game from rock to rock before the path vanished into thick cloud. The temperatures plummeted, forcing me to reach for an extra thermal layer in addition to my gloves. A few hikers worked their way silently from the hidden reaches of Tomuaushi above. I pushed on for several more hours before finally topping out myself. The views were obstructed but the climb was over. I dropped 10 minutes down the southern flank to Minami Numa campsite.

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I set up my gear on a quiet part of the sprawling campground, saving a bare patch of dirt for my new friends. Dinner was prepared and hastily devoured as the fog grew dimmer in the fading light. I relaxed in the tent, wondering if Hiro and Maki has given up back at Hisago. Just as I had resigned my fate to another night of camping alone, I saw two headlamps making their way through the maze of crags dotting the summit. My friends had finally arrived.

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After pitching their tent, they invited me in for rose hip tea and homemade cookies. These two knew how to travel in style. It was great to find a pair of kindred spirits with an immense love of nature and life. After dessert, the three of us split some fresh Hokkaido herb that had us flying higher than the clouds covering our camp.

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Leaving the gear at camp, I strolled leisurely to the summit of Kuro-dake to usher in the new day. A dense layer of cirrostratus prevented the sun from hitting the peaks, but at least the lower cloud bank had stayed in the valley for the time being. After breakfast I broke down camp, strapped on the pack, and headed through a vast valley of snow towards the summit of Mt. Hokkai.

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Despite it being early August, the snow pack resembled late spring conditions. Hokkaido doesn’t have an official rainy season to wash away the massive drifts, so in parts of Daisetsuzan the snow remains year round. A few people milled about the summit, including a group I had passed the previous day on the ascent of Mt. Asahi. Instead of the extended leg to Mt. Kuro, they’d taken the direct line from Asahi to this peak, where they’d loop back to the thermal comforts of a nearby hot spring.

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I continued along the ridge another hour to Hakuun hut, a rustic structure resembling a giant lunch pail. Since it was still early in the day, the decision was made to traverse a few more hours along the route to the next shelter at Chubetsu. The path extended through a broad marsh-dotted plateau, flanked on the east by a cascade of rolling bluffs that dropped to a sheltered valley framed by a series of rolling hills of tongue-twisty Ainu epithets.

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Beware-of-bear signs reminded me to keep my eyes and ears alert through the Takane marshlands, but the mammals kept a low profile in the mid-day heat. The weight of my pack, filled to the brim with a week’s worth of provisions and gear, helped keep my pace moderate. Eventually the A-frame configuration of Chuubetsu hut came into view, marking the end of another calorie-burning day of trekking. I pitched the tent along side two dozen other domes scattered throughout the front yard of the unmanned structure. It was 3pm when I finally pounded the final stake into the dirt. The beams of ultraviolet bounced off the neighboring snowfields, with a distant roll of thunder providing an atmospheric soundtrack. Snow was gathered for melting in the vestibule of my nylon abode while I double-checked the velcro attachment securing the rainy fly to tent frame. Just as the snowmelt came to a boil the heavens opened up, deluging our wilderness playground and sending the mountaineers scurrying for protection.

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I cooked dinner and drifted off, serenaded by the shower-curtain chorus of a northern country thunderstorm. Could the change in the weather force me into a zero day?

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