CHAPTER 27: Tokachidake

September 11, 2018

This photo supplement tracks the events in CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.

En route to Daisetsuzan

On the morning of September 11, my Hokkaido Nature Tours guide (who I’d christened the Yamabushi) and I drove approximately 200 kilometers from Sapporo to Daisetsuzan National Park in Central Hokkaido–home to some of the tallest mountains in Hokkaido, including our target for the day: 2,077-meter Tokachidake (Mt. Tokachi).

My first glimpse of (smoking) Tokachidake

What look like “normal” cumulus clouds in the photo above are actually clouds of smoke and steam rising from the fumaroles of Tokachidake. The summit lies behind the largest concentration of cloud, near the center of the frame. This wasn’t even close to the first “what have I gotten myself into” moment of the 100 Summits year, but I was glad I had the Yamabushi with me.

View from the Tokachidake Trailhead

Before we began the climb, we checked in at the visitor center near the trailhead to confirm the current status of the mountain. Japan monitors its active volcanoes closely, and posts warnings when noxious gases or volcanic activity make it imminently hazardous to climb. That said, climbing live volcanoes is never entirely safe, and conditions can change faster than a climber can retreat. Fortunately, the visitor center reported that Tokachidake was no crankier than usual, and we were clear to begin the ascent.

The rocky approach

The “climb” of Tokachidake begins with a long, rocky hike across a gradual incline that’s almost flat in many places. The true ascent begins just past the emergency hut at the base of the mountain–and while the weather was lovely in September, there isn’t a single tree or shrubbery large enough to offer shade anywhere between the trailhead and the summit.

The view from the emergency hut

Although the hike to the emergency hut seemed relatively flat, the view back toward the visitor center and parking lot (the picture above) reveals that even that early hike involves a fairly significant incline. The visitor center (and parking lot) are just visible about halfway between the right side of the hut and the right side of the frame. You can also see the start of the trail, which looks like a thin, tan ribbon curling to the right, toward the visitor center.

Above the emergency hut, looking downward

Above the emergency hut, the trail climbs up a hardened lava flow. Although the trail itself is well enough packed to be somewhat slippery, the rocks on either side are often loose, and since they’re hardened lava, they’re sharp enough to cut you if you fall. On the ascent, I found this part of the trail frightening–but it was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Tokachidake had in store.

The trail to the fumaroles

Above the emergency hut, Tokachidake reveals itself clearly as a live volcano. The air smells of sulfur (though not as strongly as it did even higher up) and nothing grows on the slopes. The picture above doesn’t do justice to the steepness of the trail, but it’s the only image I had the courage to stop and capture while climbing toward the saddle and ridge that runs between the fumaroles.

Those aren’t clouds. They’re mountain farts…

I took the picture above sitting on a rock where the Yamabushi and I stopped for a quick break and a snack. The sky had not become overcast (see the picture below, taken five minutes later); Tokachidake’s fumaroles spit out so much smoke that clouds from the mountain literally block the sun.

Five minutes later…the trail appears

The trail to the summit traces a winding course along a ridge between Tokachidake’s deep craters. Large fumaroles at the bottom of the craters are responsible for the clouds in the air. The trail looks even more unearthly at this point–more like a moonscape than a mountain. The summit is to the right, and out of frame, in the photo above.

The summit of Tokachidake

The summit of Tokachidake sits atop a narrow trail of compressed volcanic tuff. The trail follows the ridge in the center of the picture above until it reaches the lower shoulder just to the right of center, and then proceeds to the left along the upper ridge to the high point on the summit mound. The trail in the picture above was the single most frightening climb of the entire 100 Summits year–and also the one of which I am most proud.

There’s a trail in there somewhere. Maybe.

If you can’t see the trail in the shot above, you’re not alone. This trail was so steep that in places I could reach out and touch the ground in front of me without bending over. I felt so off-balance that I ended up cacheing my backpack behind a rock about halfway up the slope and finishing the climb without it. (We were the only climbers on the mountain, so I didn’t worry about it being there on the return–although another time, I would have removed my wallet, passport, and jacket before I left the pack behind…)

The final summit ridge

When we reached the top of the Slope Of Terror, the Yamabushi let me lead the hike along the final summit ridge. He also gave me a second jacket he had in his backpack, since the wind was cold and I’d inadvertently left my windbreaker in my pack on the slope below.

The last few meters to the summit

The final scramble to the summit wound through a cluster of oddly-shaped boulders (once again, cooled lava from previous flows). By this point, I had recovered from the terror of the lower slope, and was deliberately not thinking about the fact that I would need to descend it later.

Summit view from Tokachidake

The moment I reached the summit, and saw the breathtaking, 360-degree views of Daisetsuzan National Park, I burst into tears–and not the delicate “moved by the moment” sniffles you might expect from the heroine of an adventure tale. We’re talking about enormous, nose-reddening, ugly sobs that I could do absolutely nothing to stop. The Yamabushi was totally freaked out by this, because it seemed to have no apparent cause (after all, I’d gotten past my earlier fear and climbed the mountain).

Summit marker, Tokachidake

What the Yamabushi didn’t realize is that the hope of reaching this moment–standing atop one of the highest mountains in Hokkaido, in one of the most beautiful places in Japan–had given me the strength I needed to survive chemotherapy. This was the fulfillment of that sustaining dream–and I was entirely unprepared for how emotional it would make me. I tried to explain it, but it’s not easy to explain anything in the middle of an ugly cry.

The Yamabushi on the descent

To my surprise, the Slope of Terror wasn’t nearly as frightening on the way back down. The Yamabushi told me to focus on the trail itself, and the sights around me, and not my thoughts–and this technique erased my fear entirely. In fact, I enjoyed the descent, and the view, immensely.

This lava slope wasn’t nearly as scary the second time, either.

Despite the lack of foliage, Tokachidake’ slopes are beautiful; before this climb, I hadn’t realized how many colors volcanic rock contains. The mountain also feels very much alive, despite its barren landscape.

Sunset on the trail

I moved so slowly on the ascent that sunset caught us on the mountain. If you look, you can see the emergency hut, to the left of center just about halfway up the frame. This picture does a poor job of showing the fiery alpenglow that lit the slopes–a perfect almost-ending to what turned out to be one of my favorite climbs of the entire year.

Moonrise from the lower slopes of Tokachidake

The sun went down, the moon came up, and we kept hiking–fortunately, we reached the emergency hut before dark, and were able to use our headlamps to illuminate the rocky but relatively flat lower portion of the trail. Before we reached the car, my knee began to complain–and then to scream–leading me to make one of the most difficult, and non-reversible, decisions of my 100 Summits year. But for that tale, you’ll have to read the book…

And for the next mountain adventure in Hokkaido, click through to Chapter 28: TAKUTO AND TOMURAUSHI

* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).