#19 – TOKACHI-DAKE
Put up tent.
Attempt to stay warm.
Ahh, life on the trail.
I piled rocks around my tent pegs as I had at Hakuun, still somewhat unconvinced of the whole thing’s stability, concluded my handiwork with a “Bugger it, that’ll fuckin’ do,” and crawled inside. As exhaustion hit my black mood fermented exponentially. Gusts of wind started whipping down off the cloud obscured crags of Tomuraushi. I opened the leeward side of the tent and got to boiling water. Halfway through the evening ritual, my second last gas canister sputtered itself empty. With one canister remaining it was lucky I’d made good ground and knocked a day off my traverse of the Daisetsu-san Mountains, otherwise, I probably would have been taking my chances with the worm infested Hokkaido water.
Still, an ominous feeling was welling in my gut. The following day’s hike was renowned for its difficulty. I hoped I was up for it. A good night’s sleep would work wonders. Darkness came early that evening due to the cloud that cloaked the mountaintop. The winds subsided to light gusts and I snuggled up in my sleeping bag and faded off to the Land of Nod, serenaded to sleep by a bunch of noisy neighbours, shoehorned into a large yellow dome all juiced up on a stash of sake they’d lugged up the hill.
Just after ten a marauding pack of foxes raided the campsite. Descending from their lairs and to torment the latest mob of out of towners to venture into their local haunt. How many? I couldn’t tell but they nattered and growled and yelped as they scampered around in the night causing a general disturbance. They raided the neighbours’ garbage that the bloody idiots had foolishly discarded outside their tent. I listened, lying in the dark, as the plastic bags were torn to shreds by the scavenging critters. At some point, their scavenging and skylarking over, they retreated into the night and I drifted back off to sleep.
Around midnight the tent was hit by a broadside gust of wind that seemingly just fell off the side of the mountain. The almighty crack of wind hitting fabric startled me awake. The tent shell rattled against the poles as it took the brunt of the gale. The next gust tore the thing from its dodgy foundations in one fell swoop and the walls flexed and flapped in a turbulent cacophony of noise. Yep, I’d done something wrong in the anchoring process. Third time being a charm I slammed my pack into one windward corner of my rippling shelter and wedged myself into the other before the next rollicking burst hit, ready at any minute to be sent barreling into the neighbours downwind. Where the edge of the mountain lay I had no idea, the camp having been mired in a suffocating mist upon my arrival, but the thought of toppling off into the abyss conveniently wrapped up in my own waterproof body bag crossed my mind a few times as rode out the early morning gale.
Shutting my eyes, I held on tight and proceeded to get no more sleep before sunrise…
Bedraggled, goggle eyed and operating on a tremendously short fuse I sat on top of my stuffed pack at the Minami-numa campsite, brushing my teeth, a trickle of toothpaste dribbling down my bearded chin dripped onto the ground between my feet. My bleary eyed neighbours were out picking up what remained of their trash. “Stupid bloody fools,” I thought.
The wind had blown away my composure along with the cloud. It was time to move out. I spat the glob of toothpaste onto the dirt there in front of me and swilled a mouthful of water around my pearly whites. High above, in the brilliant blue, wisps of cloud danced across the sky. I pursed my lips and shot the water out of my mouth in front of me like a fountain, put a hand on my knee, hung my head and resolved to have a good day despite the promise of it being long and hard with no reward at the end of it. Between Tomuraushi and Tokachi-dake the trail winds its way through the most remote and most difficult part of the Daisetsu-san National Park. Tokachi, the next of the Hyakumeizan was a day and a half away. Impossible to reach before that, from Minami-numa.
From the trail off Tomuraushi I could see my way ahead over Oputakeshike-yama, Biei Fuji and Biei-dake. Tokachi-dake sat beyond this alpine roller coaster, at the end of the line. Oh, if only had only known how close to the end of the line I would be by the time I got there, I might well have headed out with the remainder of hikers on the final day of that July long weekend.
Within a couple of hours of leaving Minami-numa I found myself back below the tree line in a neck deep sea of bamboo grass. There were no arrows or marks on trees, the only clue as to the way ahead was the slight depression in the level of the bamboo in places. The struggle had just begun. Morning dew drenched me from head to toe as I floundered around like a drunkard on a muddy, ditch of track. Unseen rocks and tree roots below the claustrophobic undergrowth sending me headfirst into the scenery for most of the morning.
“This surely is serious bear country,” the realisation of being all alone on the trail suddenly descended upon me, deep in those woods, amidst the sea of choking bamboo, my hairs began to prickle on the back of my neck. I picked up the pace. Resisting the urge to stop for a breather for fear of hearing something I didn’t want to hear. But the faster I pushed on through, the faster I ended up arse over tit in the scrub and growling obscenities at the scenery. At least the racket I was making would relay my presence to any wandering beast.
The cocktail of frustration and fear made my head spin. By the time I made it out of the trees to a tiny, bare clearing dotted with cloven hoof prints I was spitting fire and brimstone. Any frigging bear that dared show up right then was at serious risk of getting its neck snapped. Adrenalin eventually slowed to a trickle and I collapsed in a heap onto the dirt. I flung off my boots and squeezed black water out of my socks, a simmering haze of fury rising off my dripping frame. There was an incessant buzzing in my ears. Steam wafted off my trouser legs and shoulders. I gnashed my teeth and spat on the damned land Hokkaido lying beneath me. Teetering on the edge, just one little thing would send me overboard. One iota of inconvenience was all that was needed to transform me into a fire-breathing, blood boiling, basket case.
Upon moving again, it took mere minutes for things to get to that point. The trail above the little clearing rose to a near vertical incline and devolved into nothing more than a scar of loose rock and powdery dry dirt, obscured by gnarly tangles of brush pine. I went completely bananas. The wilder I became the more frenetic my pace. All sense of sanity was lost on the side of that hill. I frantically hauled my dripping frame up frayed ropes some dickheads had put in spots just before or after the really difficult parts. I dragged myself up over exposed roots and rocks that fell away beneath my weight, my wet boots filling with dry dirt. I spewed an incessant stream of obscenity at the mountain, cursing its reason for being and that of the gods who created it. And when that didn’t help anymore and my strength started to falter, I turned inward upon myself. Spitting and growling, caked in phlegm and dirt, I barked like a demonic junkyard dog chained to an electric fence as I clawed at the earth for any sign of purchase. Some sort of autopilot had kicked in and everything but my next hand and foothold was framed in a fuzzy, static filled blur. The noise was ferocious, I spared nothing and no-one until I came to a pair of boot shod feet rising into legs from the ground before my eyes. I snapped out of the psychotic delirium gripping me and looked up, sweat trickling down my dust caked face. A Japanese man in a baseball cap stood above me, on level ground at the top of that miserable scar, backlit by brilliant blue sky he quietly asked if I was okay.
Wiping a thick glob of spit from my chin I squeezed out a smile and assured him I was completely fine and crawled past his knees to hide in the brush pine lining the track. He was gone over the edge, down into the scar before I could summon up the strength to look back.
“You bloody dickhead,” I said to myself and rolled out of my pack and onto my back. Eyes closed to block out the dazzling light, I let myself breathe again and began to chuckle at the sky, a spent madman spreadeagled in the scrub in the Hokkaido wilderness.
There were no more rants that day, just a resigned, unrelenting march up and down along a scrubby ridgeline. The squelch of slowly drying boots, the constant ring of the bear bell on my pack, the whisper of the breeze. The cruel beauty of the mountains that day left me dumbstruck. I didn’t admire them and I didn’t despise them. I just looked at them and resigned myself to the fact that they were going to hurt me every step of the way and, with thumbs in shoulder straps and head hanging low I struggled on.
I made it to the Biei-fuji Hinan Goya, a hut tied to the earth by thick cables, situated in a broad saddle choked with creeping pine, as the sun touched the horizon. My water gone, I dumped my gear and walked on further, to an ice field. There I fell to my knees and carved out chunks of grit filled snow with my pocket knife, enough to fill two supermarket bags.
Just over half a litre into the ice melting process my little black Jetboil cooker sputtered and died, having burned up the last of the gas. The ice melt had barely boiled. I had had a smidgin over half a litre to get me through the night and up over Tokachi-dake the following day. I made myself a peppermint and grit tea and hoped Mr Fucker the Fox hadn’t contributed to the brew as I drunk it down. A few other people arrived before darkness swallowed the world and we chatted a little in the candlelight before I hunkered down on the hard floor, sleep almost immediately overcoming me as the cold of the night seeped through the cracks underneath. Unbelievable but true, there was no place I’d have rather been at that moment in time.
The 6 o’clock slog up to the crater rim of Biei-dake, had me rethinking those notions. I was back at wit’s end pretty quickly on my fourth and final day in Daisetsu-san. Silently suffering in the face of a strengthening wind I hauled myself up out of the saddle, regaining a few hundred metres of elevation lost, gained and then lost again since departing Tomuraushi. I’d eye off a boulder adorned with a yellow dollop of paint a matter of metres above me and promise myself a sit down when I reached it. From that point, swilling a rationed mouthful of brown, grit laced water, I’d pick out the next target and repeat. Relentless, slow and painful, it was a hell of a way to start the final day’s ordeal.
I was braced for another day of utter, unadulterated misery as the trail levelled out just below the rust coloured crater rim of Biei-dake, certain it would be leading me back down the other side into another green tangle of mud and bamboo laced bear country. Instead, the scene that opened up before my eyes as I poked my head over the rim took me a good few seconds to come to grips with. The panorama literally knocked what little wind I had left from my lungs and I sunk to my haunches, awestruck. The lush greens and muddy depressions I’d suffered through the day before were no more, in their place sweeping, desertlike vistas of browns, oranges and blacks were dissected by soaring saw toothed crater walls rising out of an endless, drifting cloud sea, Tokachi-dake presiding over all before her with an air of languid beauty. If Tomuraushi passes as the massive, brooding King of Daisetsu-san his rocky crown soaring heavenward, then surely Tokachi, with her elegant sweeping curves and classically sculpted snowdrifts, is his queen and undoubted equal.
All pain was swept away. All trauma evaporated. Time vanished. My spirit reawakened as I walked virtually alone, mesmerised, into another world. Down from Biei-dake and up onto Tokachi I passed a mere two souls. On the final summit approach, the winds whipped up a ferocious tempest, blasting me sideways as it barreled across a flat expanse of hard, baked ground. Volcanic grit stung my eyes. A rough pyramid of enormous pale, grey blocks rose before me and I pushed on through the gale and crept inside the gaps, temporarily escaping the onslaught. On top, I could have stayed there for a lifetime. If I find a mountain of more alluring in its beauty, more unique in its character I’ll eat my hat. It was a classic case of love at first sight. Just don’t tell anyone the beauty in question happened to be a mountain.