There was much talk about this trip, but it almost didn’t materialise. The eventuality was that this was going to be a 2 men expedition. Borrowed the biggest sleeping bag, back pack, crampons, ice axe and jam packed all the gourmet camping food Taku prepared and it was game on. The 23rd hour and the 59th minute we finished scrambling and set off for the north western tip of Japan just before midnight.
(click on image to enlarge)
Like any true co-pilot, I fell asleep in the passenger seat. Taku drove through the night to deliver us to the thawing, slightly rainy Wakkanai to connect with the early morning ferry to Rishiri island. Rishiri was the Japanese derivative for the Ainu name of ‘High island’. It was an almost perfectly circular island with an almost conical shaped mountain rising from the sea. It had the expected gradient change of a volcano.
One of the main feature Mount Rishiri possessed that was different to a classic conical volcano was that it had a lot of deep gullies and high ridges. This could only mean one thing – ‘namara yabi’ ski terrain!
Everything looked fairly built up as you would expect in Japan. A well serviced port and modern ferry with not many seats but Japanese styled lay down areas on the floor. As we approached the base of the mountain all the modern day amenities vanished and it became pretty wild pretty quickly. One last luxury item we afforded was a skidoo ride to bring us up to 275m above sea level which was around 2km further in land. It was costly, but it saved us a bit of time and who would say no to a skidoo ride?
The skin up was gradual at first and got progressively steeper. Examining the snow condition along the way, I could not help but to be apprehensive about what the trip ahead entailed.
The rain had done some damage to the snow pack.
We climbed pass the treeline and were now in the more exposed area just below the alpine band. The wind picked up drastically. The altimeter seemed right and we were making steady progress. I spotted a hut high up beyond the scrubs, and the oasis-like illusion was playing tricks on my mind. As we approached the hut, it was, but a small toilet hut. My heart sank from anticipation, and my mind laughed. What did the altimeter say? We were way off yet!
Visibility was reasonable, we could look back and see the sea and make out Rebun island in the distance. It has always been a fascination of mine to ski from summit to sea, and I thought I might just be doing this over the next few days in Japan, rather than somewhere like Iceland. The terrain was getting steeper and becoming more slippery on skins. So I put on the crampons for the second time in my life.
Taku was like a metronome with a constant gait up the mountain. I was like a rabbit popping up the slope and resting at spots. It was definitely not the way to reduce sweat, but I have developed this ‘crab walk’ technique on crampons that just seemed to power up the slope. Granted, it was not the most stable technique when the terrain got gnarlier. And it did get steeper and gnarlier as we approached the ridge. Out came the ice axe. As in ‘Final Destination’, my mind was obsessed with images of me losing my footing and sliding uncontrollably down the mountain. I was wary of Taku further up and my every step. Whilst it was a pessimistic thought, it kept reminding me to be careful (Mum and John would be so proud of my cautious and twisted mind).
We reached a marker, it was always good to see a landmark. It translated to a point on the map that was still a long way off the stone hut we were aiming for, around 350m elevation away. We had plenty of time and light, but the wind was relentless. At times I had to stop and get down on all fours, and the skis on the back pack was not exactly aerodynamically correct.
It seemed like an eternity of climbing. Different songs played though in my head. We climbed along the ridge, reaching one crest just to arrive at the bottom of the next. This went on and on enough to dampen the resolve each time. The wind was now joined by a near white out, so no more vista and I was sick of looking at Taku’s ass up ahead. Every time Taku took out the map and studied it, I was mildly worried about what he might say next. But, with his trademark laugh and encouraging speech, we pressed on, past the required elevation according to the watch. We must be close! I have lost interest with photography at this point, but I thought I better take a few clips for that windy soundbite.
We finally arrived at the top of the ridge at 1300m. So the hut was supposed to be further along the flat part of the ridge, somewhere to the left and boom! We saw frozen foot prints.
This had got to be a good sign, and hopefully not a red herring. To change from the hours’ long climbing movement to flat and downhill action was an alien, but welcomed change. It was not until we were less than 20m from the hut that we could make out its shape. The hut was completely frozen, camouflaged in snow and ice. Taku started to chip off the ice to reveal the little trap door near the roof. The lower floor was completely buried. Taku’s navigation was absolutely spot on, though it didn’t mean that there wasn’t an element of doubt, mystery and adventure along the hike. I was overjoyed we made it!
We had to clear out a lot of accumulated snow inside the hut, but it was a great little shelter for the next few nights. We laid out our gear and prepared to hunker down and keep warm. Curry and rice followed by curry flavoured hot chocolate was on the menu. The joy of a one mug meal.
Slept really well the first night until 8am the next day. A solid 13 hours. A little cold spot in the sleeping bag woke me and the hard floor did its best Thai massage impression overnight. It was difficult to get out of the sleeping bag into -10C, but funky curry chocolate flavoured cereal awaited. It was a beautifully clear morning, little did we know it was only going to last for a few hours, and was never going to return again.
*unmarked photos courtesy of Takuro Karasuno