Day 1 Details
Day 1 Trail Report
This Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse trip almost didn’t happen at all. Four days prior to the trip, there was a typhoon headed straight for Hokkaido. Winds of up to 100km/h were forecast for the very day we were supposed to hike 1300m up to the alpine plateau. We had even gone so far as to propose a completely different Plan B trip, consisting of a four-day lowlands long-trail walk (the Kiraway) and three days of canoeing on the Kushiro River (see that itinerary here). All indications were pointing to the trip being over before it even started.
But then, just 36 hours before the trip, the rather changeable Windy.com forecast for the southern end of the Daisetsuzan Range showed the typhoon veering south, away from Hokkaido. The long-range 10-day forecast still had us facing some very changeable weather for our scheduled time in the exposed alpine of the Daisetsuzan Range, but as team member Ben succinctly put it, “that just seems to be par for the course up there.”
Of most concern was forecasted winds of up to 90km/h on Tuesday, the third day of our trip. Windy.com, our go-to weather app for the Hokkaido outdoors, gives estimates of both constant wind speeds and gust wind speeds. Generally, I’ve found that in exposed alpine areas, the gust wind speed is the one you really need to pay attention to. This wind speed is almost always the constant speed when in exposed alpine areas in Hokkaido.
According to our itinerary, however, we were likely to be staying in huts on Monday and Tuesday nights, so in the worst-case scenario, we could sit out the worst of the weather in relative comfort. As I explained in our Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse preparation and gear list post, we planned on two days worth of bad weather, so it was no problem at all if we had to sit out the high winds; we’d have the necessary spare food to do so.
So it was that by the skin of our teeth, we stood at the start of the longest version of the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, at the Genshigahara Trailhead near Furano City. Team members were myself (Rob), Haidee, Gerry, and Ben. Haidee and I camped the night before in front of the Ningle Forest Management Hut (it’s possible to stay in the hut, but it’s a bit of a hassle to get the key), whereas Gerry and Ben car-camped in the gravel parking area.
I’d had my second Moderna vaccine shot just the previous day, so Haidee and I planned to start hiking just before dawn, trying to give me as much time as possible to grind my way through the first day, under the very likely odds of experiencing vaccine-induced fatigue and fever. By most existing guidebook and paper map estimates, the first day would take us at least 9 hours, from Genshigahara to Kamihoro Hut. After waking up in the night with chills, I was assuming it would take us much longer.
Gerry and Ben were just rising from their slumber as we were heading off at 4 am.
“We’ll catch you up,” Gerry mumbled sleepily.
“I’m sure you will,” I replied.
Despite having a fever of 38°C as we set off, I was feeling surprisingly well. Perhaps it was the 300mg of Acetominophen (paracetamol) I’d been taking every 6 hours since my jab yesterday that was giving me a boost.
Our packs felt heavy though. A shade over 20kg for me, and about 16kg for Haidee. We were feeling the weight of 10 days food and a few liters of water each.
The first destination for the day was the Tenshi-no-izumi spring 天使の泉. Just over 1 hour from the trailhead, it would be one of two scant places to fill up water bottles on our way to Kamihoro Hut. The other source was a river not too far on from the spring. In all, we’d need to carry enough water for about 7 hours of hiking – with a climb of 1,100m to boot.
In a moment of sheer terror, we came to the spot where I thought the spring should be. All we could see was a dry creek bed. Where was the spring?!
With calm poise, Haidee carried on along the trail to see if she could find it.
“Here it is!” she hollered down the trail. I lumbered up the trail after her, and found her scooping water from a gushing spring inside a small sock cavity.
Crisis averted, we stocked up thoroughly on water for the rest of the day, increasing the weight of our packs further still.
I took my temperature (two times to make sure) and was happy to see I was at 36.9°C. No worries!
For a while, the trail followed alongside a steep cascading river. Small bearded falls were contrasted against the gorgeous green of the forest.
Eventually, we had to cross the creek, requiring either getting wet feet or balancing precariously on a couple of narrow log jams. With no other river crossings on the schedule for the day, we took the latter option, entrusting our well-being to the sturdiness of the logs.
We’d later hear from Gerry and Ben that they had a bracing dip in the creek on their way up. “It was unbelievably cold,” said Gerry. No wonder, as most of this water is still snow-melt, straight off the 2000m peaks above.
Before long we were at the Genshigahara junction (marked as Furanodake-bunki on maps). Dayhikers who are keen to explore the vast Genshigahara marshlands and waterfalls will generally do so from here. Alas, our day was already gearing up to be a long one, so we tucked that option into our to-do list for the future.
Haidee had already slowed her pace considerably to allow me to keep up. I felt like I could push on faster, but didn’t want to overdo things so early in the day.
It was a moody sort of a day. Overhead, clouds sagged low over the mountainside, robbing us of any views of the marshlands as we continued the steady climb up the lower flanks of Furano-dake. As we climbed, even the low pines were shrouded in mist. We were surrounded by a very atmospheric, melancholic beauty.
Despite the low body temperature reading a few hours earlier, I was definitely feeling sluggish. We took frequent breaks. The Cliff bars we had packed for on-the-go snacks cum lunches tasted bland. I ate because I knew I should eat, not because I felt hungry. I was just diligently keeping my fluids and calories in check.
On one of these frequent breaks, Gerry and Ben finally caught up with us. They looked like they were carrying heavy packs!
“Nothing quite like 10 days of food to keep the pace down,” mused Ben.
Other than the heavy-looking packs, however, they were looking fresh. That said, as we set off again as a group of four, they seemed to be perfectly content with my slow pace.
As we climbed, the gradient grew steeper. Classic volcano topography. An exponential-like increase of steepness, all of a sudden. As the marshlands gave way to volcanic hillside, we also became more aware that this trail was one travelled less often. In contrast to what we’d experience in the latter half of the day, down here we were pushing past brush and foliage, following only a faint trail at times. Furano-dake is one of the most popular peaks in the Daisetsuzan Range, but clearly not from this longer, more arduous southwestern side.
I stopped to retake my temperature.
“That’s getting up there,” remarked Gerry.
I was still feeling relatively fine, though.
The trail soon deteriorated into a scramble up a volcanic, scree-like chute. Great challenging stuff! In places, there were old faint zig-zagging foot trails that came and went. Here and there were large boulders. The cloud thickened as we ascended. Trail finding kept things engaging and interesting in place of the lack of view.
At some point, the cloud became dense and wetting. We donned rain jackets and deployed the pack covers. I packed away my large camera and switched over to the more waterproof GoPro.
The mood in the team was upbeat.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the beginning of the trip, it felt like a grand success just to have made it past the starting line. We were on our way.
The upper section of the trail to the southwest of the Furano-dake summit is marked on maps as unclear. We can confirm this is the case. While we didn’t have too much trouble finding it, it does take some degree of confidence to leave the relatively clear scree-path and stride forth along the very faint trail heading straight into the low haimatsu creeping pine. Add to this wind and mist, and it was quite the slog for a good 30 minutes till we got into the lee of the wind.
Just for the fun of it, I took my temperature again once we got out of the wind.
A cool (or, not so cool) 38.2°C.
On the upside, the 6-hourly 300mg paracetamol tablets seemed to be keeping any aches and pains away.
With some more haimatsu creeping pine bush-bashing, we eventually made it to the summit of Furano-dake. There, we saw fresh-looking day hikers with their small, light-looking packs, dry clothes, light running shoes, and hardly-even-sweated countenances. They’d only been hiking for about 3 hours to get to the summit via the well-trodden northern trail (replete with stairs, no less – see that route here).
We on the other hand were soaked due to bush-bashing through wet foliage. Our jackets were matted with pine needles. Our boots were covered in the sandy remnants of the slippery, loose scree slope we’d hauled ourselves up. We felt suitably exhausted after the five-hour ordeal.
We (or perhaps it was just me) also felt no small amount of elitist pride that comes from emerging from an otherwise impenetrable-looking access point to the summit.
The others at the summit hardly seemed to care though.
Summiting Furano-dake was somewhat of an early milestone for the trip. The summit itself was nothing overly special to us all, as we’d all summited it on previous occasions. But for the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, this summit was symbolic as it now meant that we were on the traverse. We were up in the alpine of the Daisetsuzan Range. Furano-dake is at 1912m, and for the next seven days or so, we’d flitter about the 2000m altitude mark for the whole way. This grand alpine environment would be our muse, and at times nemesis, for the remainder of the journey north to Aizankei Onsen.
Any celebrations were premature, however. While we’d knocked off the bulk of the climbing for the day, we still had almost three hours of traversing the ridgeline to get to the Kamihoro Hut.
At least we knew we’d have very little bush-bashing to do for the remainder of the day. The stairs to the east of Furano-dake summit almost felt like cheating. We were now on a more well-travelled section of the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse.
For the most part, the weather came and went for the remainder of the day. At times, we got fleeting glimpses of the Tokachi-dake Onsen area below.
The wind that had plagued us for the final 300m or so below the summit of Furano-dake earlier in the day, however, seemed to have abated. Now, we were able to relax into the walking. We could notice and appreciate the micro-views of delicate alpine flowers. At times it was even quite warm.
Just as we had remembered from the last time we had walked this section of ridgeline, this part of the backbone of the Daisetsuzan Range was handsomely rugged.
I was feeling strong as we clambered over boulders and weaved our way along this prominent southern end of kamui mintara – the playground of the gods.
And then I ran out of gas.
A headache had been brewing for a while now, and all of a sudden, I hit the wall.
I’d anticipated that this might happen. In anticipation of this eventuality, I had filled my pack’s hipbelt pocket with all sorts of remedies. A couple of sachets of rehydration salts (I carried these by Kracie). A handful of my preferred painkillers – Roxonin tablets (loxoprofen, similar to ibuprofen). A large sachet of powdered, sugary sports drink, Pocari Sweat.
I mixed up a litre of the sports drink and sculled the lot along with one of the 60mg loxoprofen tablets. I then availed myself of the rocky hiking trail for a nap. Apparently, I was out for about 20 minutes. When I woke, I felt like a million bucks, raring to go.
Unfortunately the rest of the 1.5hrs or so to the hut was completely socked in. Only the orange volcanic sand and rock gave us indications that we were now entering the dramatic volcanic lands surrounding Tokachi-dake. Here and there were outposts of green.
Since leaving the trailhead at 4 am, Haidee and I had been on the trail for 10 hours. Each successive short climb to another summit on our way to the hut felt increasingly laboured. In all, we bagged no less than four peaks on this first day of the trip. All the peaks were minor blips along the way when taken in the context of the entire traverse, but still enough of a climb each in their own right for us to bemoan yet another peak between us and the hut, after already walking almost 8 hours.
We celebrated each peak with a photo and fist-bumps but kept the ceremonies and formalities brief.
With no small amount of relief, we finally made it through the hazy murk to the hut.
It was as spartan and rustic as I had remembered it from about 8 years ago on a trip guided by the Hokkaido outdoors legend, Leon Roode, a.k.a The Hokkaido Bush Pig. It had since received a roofing replacement but otherwise was still the original hut.
Haidee and I had left the Genshigahara Trailhead at 4am, and it was now 3:30pm. A solid 11hrs and 30mins on the trail.
It was a flurry of activity as we arrived at the hut, assessing the situation. There was one other occupant, a smiley Japanese chap. I asked if he’d been hiking today.
“No, I’ve been staying at the hut the past five days,” he said. “I’m going to head back down tomorrow.”
Despite our arrival clearly disrupting his quiet solitude, he was helpful, pointing us in the direction of the hut’s water source, and kindly vacating the upper floor of the hut so we could spread out.
Haidee and I kept our waterproofs on and headed out into the murk to find the water source and fill our bottles for the night. Just as well the chap in the hut filled us in on the location – the large snow patch from which we were to get snowmelt from was completely invisible from the hut due to the mist.
He’d also given us a warning. “The other day, I saw a bear at the creek, so be careful!”
Haidee needed no other invitation to make as much noise as possible as we wandered into the mist away from the hut. It was eerily calm down here away from the ridgeline. Sounds seemed muffled. If we were stalked and mauled by a malevolent beast, no one up in the hut would know. Nature suddenly seemed omnipresent, watching us, following us.
“Hey bear!” yelled Haidee, jolting me out of my ponderance of our fragile mortality.
We arrived at a trickle of snowmelt and quickly filtered a few litres of the stuff. Apparently, there was an easier-to-access spot further down the shallow gully, but we made do with the trail-side trickle.
Once we got settled in at the hut, we rehydrated our dinners (chilli rice for us) and savoured the savoury flavours. We were already regretting bringing only Cliff bars and sweet protein bars for daytime snacks. These dinners were the only savoury things we were carrying. With a single-serve sachet of mayonnaise, the homemade dehydrated dinner was pure delight.
With light fading at around 6pm, we all turned in for the night, lined up along the wall of the upper floor of the two-floor hut. It wasn’t cold, but chilly enough to warrant burrowing into sleeping bags for a comfy, warm night’s sleep.
Before everyone got too comfy, we agreed on an early 2:30am wake-up, so that we could get going just before dawn at 4am. It wasn’t that tomorrow was slated to be a long day – indeed, we only had about five hours of hiking to get to the next hut. The main driver for this early start was the weather forecast. With 60km/h winds forecast for later in the day, we wanted to be well and truly ensconced in another hut by then.
I had my reservations regarding even venturing out given the forecast, but we wanted to make distance along the range while we could.
I set an alarm on my wristwatch, put my earplugs in, and promptly fell into a deep soothing slumber.