September 10, 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.
When I told Ido Gabay (the amazing owner and founder of Hokkaido Nature Tours) that I wanted to climb all of the Hokkaido hyakumeizan in less than two weeks, he was understandably aware of the challenge that presented, but trusted my assessment of my strength and planned an amazing 12-day journey that spanned the length and breadth of Japan’s northernmost major island. The adventure began in Niseko, with an ascent of Mt. Yotei (1,898m), also known as Ezo-Fuji.
From the trailhead, the mountain looked more manageable than it had the night before–still challenging, but I was eager to get started. I’d worried a little whether I’d enjoy climbing with a guide (normally, I prefer to hike alone). Fortunately, my Hokkaido Nature Tours guide, who I’d already nicknamed “the Yamabushi” based on his beard and his knowledge of Hokkaido’s mountains, felt more like an old friend than a mountain guide.
Many of Japan’s larger mountains have a “hiking notification box” at or near the trailhead, like the one in the photo above, where hikers are asked (or required, depending on prefectural laws) to deposit a form announcing their hiking plans, along with identifying details about the hiker or group, in case of accidents on the mountain.
The first part of the hike went quickly, in part because the initial approach to Yotei’s slopes is fairly flat. The sasa (bamboo grass) above is only about thigh-high, but in some places it was almost as tall as I am.
Japanese mountains often have “station markers,” numbered 1 – 10, set at roughly equidistant intervals along the trail from base to summit. The stations help hikers gauge travel distance and hiking speed – which can be difficult on mountains like Yotei, where much of the route is forested and hikers can’t judge the distance to the summit.
Yotei’s trail begins to “go vertical” above Station 4. While still a fairly easy hike, the route becomes much steeper, the trees thin out (though there are still plenty of them at this point) and we began to catch glimpses of the farms and lakes below–as well as occasionally sighting the summit ridge high above.
The overcast sky makes the trail look cold, but the day was actually quite comfortable at the lower elevations. It did get colder as we climbed, but stayed relatively temperate.
When I took the picture above, I had already fallen in love with Hokkaido in a way that guaranteed this would not be my only trip. Hokkaido is so beautiful that even photos like these don’t truly do it justice.
The photo above is the spot where I made the fateful “pit stop” that led to my encounter with an avian peeping tom. (I tell the story in detail in CLIMB, so the only spoiler I’ll give you here is “at least it was not a bear.”)
We passed Station 8 almost exactly five hours after leaving the trailhead. Even allowing for a shorter descent, it was going to be a long day on the trail . . . and the clouds were growing thicker and more ominous.
Mt. Yotei’s summit crater measures 700 meters in diameter and 200 meters deep. In winter, when this is covered in several meters of snow, the Yamabushi climbs the mountain with a snowboard on his back and rides down into the summit crater. When he’s finished, he snowboards the whole way down the mountain, too. (When I pointed out that there are actually mountains where a machine will lift you all the way to the top, so you don’t have to pack your board on foot, he countered, “Yes, but those mountains also have other people on them.” Fair enough.)
The high point of Mt. Yotei is the pyramid-shaped bit toward the left side of the frame, beyond the ridge of “dragon spines.” While it’s possible to approach from the other direction, given the time of day and the way I’d climbed to this point, the Yamabushi opted for the shorter, “up and over” route to the summit–wherein lies another, more frightening, tale . . . but I’ll leave that one for CLIMB as well. For now, I’ll just say that if you decide you’re going to spend a year facing your fears, be prepared to receive precisely what you ask for.
Spoiler: we made it to the summit. In many ways, this is the ascent I am most proud of, to this day. Psychologically, it was one of the hardest to achieve, but it also showed me I can push through fear in ways I didn’t think I was capable of before.
The Yamabushi opted to descend via the longer, but flatter, route around the summit crater–which meant I can also say I’ve circumambulated Yotei’s crater rim. The “cross” in the photo above is one of the route markers on the edge of the caldera.
Pea-soup fog descended on Yotei as we reached the summit, and we descended through a mist that made the descent from Yotei feel like we’d been transported to another mountain altogether.
As the photo above shows, the upper slopes of Mt. Yotei look wildly different than the mountain’s lower regions. It’s important to note that if you do get “caught” up here at night, there’s not a lot of shelter aside from the emergency hut a short distance below the summit.
The fog lifted and the sun broke through the clouds when we’d descended about halfway down the mountain – rewarding us with breathtaking sunset views.
We ended up using headlamps for the last half hour of the descent. Our lights attracted a variety of creatures–fortunately, all benign–including some enormous green moths that blocked my view of the trail completely when they used the beam from my headlamp as a spotlight for their aerial mating dance.
By the time we reached the van, I felt exhausted, but also thoroughly pleased; the day remains one of my favorites–not only from the 100 Summits year, but of my entire life. I couldn’t wait for the next day’s ascent of Tokachidake–though if I’d known what the day would have in store, I might not have been quite so eager for the sun to rise.
To find out why, click through and join me for Chapter 27: Tokachidake.
* 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).