FALSE START

JUNE, 2007

#2 – YOTEI-ZAN

Furenai Rider House

The old, droopy eyed, flannelet shirted driver swung my pack into the boot of his cab.  As far as he was concerned, Hokkaido was a no go.  June was too early in the season for climbing in Japan’s northern frontier, especially where his local mountain and my target, Poroshiri-dake, were concerned.  He was more adamant than he had been the day before when I’d knocked on his door inquiring about a ride into the mountains.  The rivers were too high, awash with snowmelt, the bears were too aggressive, having recently awoken from their winter slumber and I was obviously either too inexperienced or insane to be allowed to head into the hills alone at that time of year.  He drove me down the street to the bus stop free of charge, foregoing the hundred buck fare he would’ve pocketed had he driven me to the trailhead instead.  I guess I should have been thankful he didn’t drop me off at the nearest loony bin.  My mood was as heavy as the skies that hung low over the tiny, nondescript town of Furenai, deep in the Hidaka region of Hokkaido.  Sent packing at mountain number two – I was shattered.

Heavy overnight rains had done me in once and for all.  The course that led to the foot of the climb up the mountain literally ran up the guts of a river.  A river that, thanks to the overnight deluge, would in all probability be swollen to impassable proportions.  The thunderstorms had started rolling through the region around midnight and I lay and listened to the rumbling heavens on the floor of a leaky train carriage that had been gutted and converted into a shelter.  When a shallow, restless sleep finally came it was accompanied by visions of bears and raging torrents.  By morning the storms, instead of fizzling out and leaving clear blue skies in their wake, had bogged down over southern Hokkaido, soaking the land with a persistent drizzle.  My heart wasn’t in it anymore.  I didn’t require much convincing to get out of town.

The sensible option was to abandon Hokkaido and head for Tohoku, the Northern region of Honshu where there’d be less snow and smaller, less aggressive bears.  Once there I could work my way down over its clutch of fifteen or so Hyakumeizan and then ferry back up to Hokkaido in July.  The downside of this plan was that somewhere along the lines I was going to hit the brunt of ‘Tsuyu’, the Rainy Season, on its annual progression northward up the Japanese archipelago.  The advantage of spending June in Hokkaido is that the Tsuyu has minimal effect up there in comparison with the lower latitudes.  But then again, a bit of rain never hurt anyone.  Look at Noah, he got on alright.

So into Tohoku it was then.  But, I mused as I leafed through my trusty Lonely Planet hiking guide if I caught the ferry across to Tohoku from Hakodate the imposing volcanic cone of Yotei-zan would be on my way and a June climb of that peak was reportedly doable.

“The trip up to Hokkaido might not have to be a complete waste after all.”

Two days later, on a brilliant blue skied Saturday, as a towering white thunderhead grumbled threateningly halfway between me and the horizon, I hauled myself skyward over rotten snow and crumbly rock and poked my head up over the crater rim of Yotei-zan.  Eighteen hundred vertical metres of pure, unadulterated torture lay behind me.  I stared down into the gaping ice walled crater, a perfect bowl of white, rimmed with brown volcanic crags, at its centre a small round pool of aquamarine water stared back at me like an opaque pupil in a giant inverted eye.  I wanted Ibuki back.  That day in April suddenly resembled a walk in a slightly inclined park.  Where were the crowds of happy daytrippers and tea houses selling refreshments?  Where was the bus off the thing?  Yotei-zan was virtually deserted.  I could’ve counted the people I met that day on the palms of my hands.  Apart from the trails up it and a solitary mountain hut on its western side, Yotei-zan is a mountain left to its own devices.

Halfway around the top of the rim, on my way to the summit proper, a vicious cramp rippled through my right thigh sending me hobbling and gasping for a pile of rocks.  Sprawled on the small, roughly piled cairn of stones I slid out of my pack and fumbled around inside for sustenance, scoffing down a handful of chocolate almonds and a few gulps of water. That was all my gut could handle.  The cramp and exertion set me on the verge of throwing up.

To my left the best part of two thousand metres below me a patchwork quilt of farmland stretched away to the feet of distant mountains.  Niseko in summer; lush, verdant, smothered in greenery, a stark contrast to its famed wintery white scenery.   Another rumble of thunder broke the trance and I slapped my thigh into action and dragged myself over the last stretch of rocky ground, past a couple picnicking amongst the boulders, to the summit marker and a well-deserved sit-down.

At last, the adventure was underway.

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