Chapter 7: Fear Is a Liar

June 2, 2018 – Mt. Hakkōda 

The images in this photo supplement follow the events in Chapter 7 of Climb, the longer captions are “extra features”: information that didn’t make it into the book.

Bonus Photo: Aomori Prefecture loves its apples

Japanese people (and most of us who live here, even if not Japanese by birth) love seasonal and regional foods. Aomori Prefecture, on the northern end of Honshu (Japan’s largest island) is famous for its apples. Hirosaki City, in particular, is so proud of its “ringo” that it puts them on city mailboxes.

Hakkoda, as seen from the train

The Hakkōda volcanic range encompasses more than a dozen peaks, the highest of which is Mt. Ōdake (1,585m) – the right-hand peak in this massif.

The view from the Hakkoda Ropeway

The Hakkoda Ropeway carries visitors to the start of a hiking trail through a highland marsh; at the end of the marsh, another trail (with a warning sign declaring “experienced, prepared hikers only beyond this point”) leads up and over three peaks to the high point of the Hakkōda volcanic range.

Bonus Photo: Hakkoda Hiking Map

This weathered trail map stands near the end of the wetlands walkway at the entrance to the mountain trail. I snapped a photograph in case of need.

“An elevated boardwalk made of wooden planks runs through the wetlands…”

This section isn’t as “elevated” as many others, but these boardwalks run through wetlands across Japan, allowing hikers to see and experience these delicate ecosystems without harming native plants and trees. The small black smudge top-center is another of the ubiquitous flying insects that photobomb a huge percentage of my mountain photos in Japan.

“a blanket of snow the size of a football field and two feet deep”

The edge of a boardwalk is just visible at the border of this snow field. I had not expected to see–let alone hike in–snow in June. Yet another surprise my inexperienced-hiker-self encountered during the early days of the journey.

Left to Right: Mt. Akakura, Mt. Ido., Mt. Odake

How many mountains you climb in a day sometimes depends on how you count them. Mt. Akakura, Mt. Ido, and Mt. Ōdake all have separate summit markers, but all belong to the same volcanic complex (known as Hakkōda). For purposes of my original 100 Summits quest, these three were only one. (And yes, it was a lot of work to add a single summit to the count.)

“pine trees mixed with sasa”

Sasa, called “broad-leafed bamboo” in English, is a species of bamboo that grows profusely in the mountains of Japan. Instead of growing tall, thick stems, like their giant cousins, sasa ranges from knee to shoulder high, and grows in clumps, like shrubs and grasses. Also like shrubs and grasses, it can activate allergies, causing runny eyes and noses. Ask me how I know…

“more snowcapped mountains rose in saw-toothed lines, like the spines of sleeping dragons”

The views from the trail on Hakkōda were some of the most spectacular I had ever seen. My knowledge of Japanese history had not prepared me for anything like this, and my love for this country grew deeper every day.

Bonus Photo: final push to the summit of Mt. Akakura

High winds howl across the uppermost slopes of Mt. Akakura; only low-lying alpine plants and flowers thrive in these harsh conditions.

Summit Photo: Mt. Akakura (1,548 meters)

I climbed Hakkōda less than two months after finishing chemotherapy. My eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair were just starting to re-grow. I took my cap off for this photo to prevent the high winds from blowing it away.

Bonus Photo: Shintō Shrine, Mt. Akakura

Mountains are sacred to the Shintō faith, and many have summit shrines where worshippers stop to make prayers and offerings. This small shrine sits on the summit of Mt. Akakura, overlooking the Hakkōda range.

“on top of [Mt.] Ido, I added a stone to the summit cairn”

Cairns are a common sight on Japanese mountains (and on mountains throughout Asia). Many represent prayers for friends and family, while others are left by hikers as a sign of passing through. I added a stone to this cairn in the hope that other people would gain the courage to break their shackles and pursue their dreams, as I had finally found the strength to do.

Bonus Photo: Summit crater, Mt. Ido

The trail to Mt. Ōdake curls around the summit crater of Mt. Ido. Many of the hyakumeizan (100 famous mountains of Japan), including Hakkōda, are active volcanoes. Although this crater is currently peaceful, it was still a humbling experience to stand on the rim. The mountain rising up beyond the far side of the Ido crater is Mt. Ōdake, my goal for the day.

“I hadn’t expected [the Japanese alps] to look so alpine”

This was the moment I learned that I still remembered most of the words to The Sound of Music. I was alone on the trail, so I sang. Loudly. No regrets.

“A mountain hut nestled in the saddle between Mt. Ido and Mt. Ōdake”

Mountain huts offer a place for hikers to shelter in bad weather, spend the night on long hikes (many of the trails in Japan’s high mountains allow for either single ascents or through-hikes over multiple peaks) or simply rest and use the bathroom after spending several hours on the trail.

“I sat outside on a wooden bench to eat my lunch”

Japan is famous for its elaborate toilets, and the country has an amazing number of safe, clean public toilets–a shocking number of mountain huts and hiking trails not only have toilets, but have toilets with heated seats. Regrettably, this hut stood out in the opposite direction – it had the only nasty toilet I’d seen anywhere in Japan. (I used it anyway.)

“A second set of hikers lurched and skidded down the slippery slope.”

This snow field leads to the final portion of the trail up Mt. Ōdake. Seconds after I snapped this photo, the woman at the front of the group slipped on a patch of snow, fell down, and tumbled several meters down the mountain. Watching her almost persuaded me to abandon my own climb.

Looking upward from the base of the snow field on Mt. Ōdake

This was the setting for one of the most important lessons of my life.

Summit Photo: Mt. Ōdake (Hakkōda)

Overcoming fear is neither a one-day challenge nor an easy feat. It took the better part of a year, and 100 mountain climbs – but from the start, I was determined to fight as hard, and as long, as necessary to break free.

Bonus Photo: Visitor Center from the Summit of Mt. Ōdake

The return trail to the Hakkoda Ropeway cuts a relatively straight line from the point where I stood to take this picture to the visitor center, which is barely visible on top of the mountain on the right side of the frame. At the time, I didn’t stop to consider all the snow between here and there…

Melting snow turned the trail into a river

I hiked Hakkōda as a loop, returning to the visitor center by a different (and shorter) trail than the one I used on the ascent. Melting snow had turned this trail into a river, and bugs swarmed out of the sasa as I passed.

Bonus photo: more Hakkōda snow fields

Remember all that snow I didn’t think about? Yeah…

Bonus Photo: Hakkōda Visitor Center

A short stretch of dirt path connects the wetlands boardwalks with the visitor center and the upper terminus of the Hakkōda Ropeway. I hiked so slowly at this point that I worried about missing the final gondola of the day. I made it with over half an hour to spare, but I was sunburned, soaked in sweat (and melted snow) and covered in mud from head to toe.

Bonus Photo: Breakfast on the shinkansen en route to Morioka

The morning after my climb of Hakkōda, I took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Morioka, capital of Iwate Prefecture, where I hoped to find something interesting to do on my free day between two climbs.

Little did I know what Morioka had in store…


I hope you’re enjoying this “behind the scenes” photo-companion to CLIMB! Please click through and join me for Chapter 8: Horses’ Bells and Dragons’ Eyes