CHAPTER 31: Rausu Rainbow

(September 18-19, 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.

After leaving Mount Shari, my friend and guide Ido Gabay and I drove to Utoro, on the coast of Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula, to see the salmon run and climb the next hyakumeizan on our list: 1,660-meter Mt. Rausu.

Rausudake, rising behind the rainbow, the day before our climb

We spent the rest day before the climb watching the salmon run in Utoro, and hiking at Shiretoko Goko (Shiretoko Five Lakes). It was sunny that morning, but a storm had rolled in by the time our hike began.

One of the lakes at Shiretoko Goko from the nature trail

Ido carried a compact can of bear repellant spray, since bears are sometimes seen in the Five Lakes region. When one of the rangers commented that the can seemed rather small, Ido reminded him that it’s not very nice to make fun of another man’s … bear spray.

A few minutes later, the need for repellant became obvious when Ido pointed out some old bear scratch marks on a tree. For scale, the trunk below is about twice as wide as a large adult hand.

Bear sign at Shiretoko Goko

The rain stopped as we walked, and the lakes grew smooth as glass.

Mt. Rausu, rising behind the lakes at Shiretoko Goko

Eventually, the nature trail returned us to the wooden boardwalk that runs along one side of the Five Lakes nature park. The boardwalk ends at the Sea of Okhotsk, and the clouds had cleared just enough for a beautiful sunset.

Sunset on the Sea of Okhotsk

The next morning, we woke up to more rain; I worried we’d have to abandon the climb, but Ido felt confident the storm would blow over in an hour or two. As usual, he was correct, and we headed off for my last climb (of 2018) with Ido and Hokkaido Nature Tours. A massive lenticular cloud still hovered over the summit of Mt. Rausu, but we hoped that too would dissipate as the day went on.

Lenticular cloud on Mt. Rausu

“The lower portions of the trail cut switchbacks through the forest, gaining altitude with every turn.” [CLIMB, Chapter 31]

The lower portion of the Rausu trail

A little way from the trailhead, Ido pointed out a cluster of puffball fungi growing by the trail. I’d learned about puffballs in a college course on Plants & Humanity (despite the goofy name, it was one of the best and most useful classes I ever took) but I’d never seen any real ones.

Puffball fungus spreads by blowing clouds of dust-like spores into the air when something steps on or pushes against their squishy, round bodies. Ido used a hiking pole to demonstrate, as you can see:

Puffball fungus releasing a cloud of spores

Here and there, the forested trail opened up, giving beautiful views of the Sea of Okhotsk below.

The Sea of Okhotsk from the slopes of Rausudake

As we climbed higher, we entered the giant cloud–which hadn’t dissipated as we hoped. However, the cool, wet weather brought out the little frogs that live on the mountain. It was neat to see some of them near the trail.

This little guy lives high on Mt. Rausu

We kept climbing…

Ido leading the way up Mt. Rausu

At times, the clouds lifted, and we could see blue sky and sea beneath us.

Looking back down the trail

Eventually, we reached a saddle, where the trail grew flat for a little while. When we reached the far side of the saddle, we could see the sea on the far side of the peninsula, as well as the Kuril Islands–technically, Russian territory, although ownership of the island chain has been disputed heavily for many years.

The Kuril Islands (Russia) from Mt. Rausu (Japan)

From there, the trail turned sharply upward, and grew so steep that in places we were rock climbing rather than hiking. The rocks were cold and slippery with mist, and then it began to rain.

At one point, not far above the place where I took the photo below, I locked up on the rocks. I couldn’t advance, and I couldn’t retreat. I was so scared of falling, and so angry with myself for being scared (especially since I’d come to Japan to overcome my fears) that I started to cry.

I locked up on the rocky ascent above the ridge, which is partly obscured by the mist in this photo

Ido told me the rest of the climb wasn’t technically dangerous, but that it was also true he could not ensure my safety. The decision whether or not to continue–and the responsibility for the climb–was up to me alone. His support gave me the strength to own that responsibility and make the call: we were going to the top.

And we did, climbing upward until there was nowhere else to go:

The view from the summit of Mt. Rausu

The wind howled past the summit, which wasn’t nearly as calm and peaceful as it looks in the picture above. Even so, I felt overwhelmed by the achievement. As cliche as it might sound, I really did have to reach inside and find a strength I hadn’t known I possessed to reach that summit. And, having reached it, I knew I’d accomplished something no one could ever take away.

But the test wasn’t quite finished. The very uppermost part of the mountain, where the summit marker stood, required one last climb up and over a very large rock, in gale force winds, and I did NOT want to take that final risk.

Ido wasn’t having it.

“Throw your leg over it and get up there.”

So I did.

Physically on the summit of Mt. Rausu. Emotionally on top of the world.

Although we spent only a short time together that trip, Ido and I became good friends–and remain good friends today. He’s more than just a mountain guide, and the company he founded, Hokkaido Nature Tours, is more than “just” a specialist in bespoke tours of everything Hokkaido has to offer (though he, and HNT, are those things also). He’s the kind of person who cares about other people, and loves to teach as much as he loves to learn–with an infectious enthusiasm that inspires and encourages in equal measure.

I was sad when the hike was finished, and my time with Ido came to an end…but then it was time to take the lessons I’d learned with Ido, Takuto, and the Yamabushi and put them to use all by myself, on Hokkaido’s highest peak.

I hope you’ll join me for that adventure, by clicking through to Chapter 32: FROM SNOW TO SNOW.

* 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).