Hut-bound on Day Two. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Had everything gone to plan, we would have been up at 2:30am, and on the trail at 3:30am on Day Two.
But for better or for worse, not all things go to plan.
“Hey, what’s the time?” Haidee asked me as she shook me awake. Light was pouring through the hut’s opaque perspex windows.
It was 4:30am.
Rookie mistake. I’d set my digital watch alarm, but I hadn’t set the alarm on my phone. I had earplugs in my ears to help me sleep. I hadn’t heard a thing.
“I did hear an alarm from your corner of the hut,” murmured Gerry sleepily from under a mound of down sleeping bag. “But I figured you guys knew what you were doing, so I ignored it.”
We’d overslept by two hours. Had the weather forecast been better, this would have been no issue at all. But now, we were unlikely to get away until 5:30am at the earliest, more likely 6am.
The issue was that 60km/h winds and light rain with low visibility were forecast to roll in between 9am and noon. To get to the next hut, we had at least a five-hour hike ahead of us. If we left the hut at 6am, it was likely we’d get caught in the worsening weather part way to the next hut.
Moreover, the next day, full typhoon conditions were certain. 90km/h+ winds with heavy rain. Forecast overnight temperatures were around 4°C before factoring in wind-chill. Forecast daytime temperatures were hardly pushing much over 10°C.
Our margin of error was now uncomfortably slim. With a forecast like that in the alpine in the Daisetsuzan Range, it takes very little for grave consequences to become realities. Should one of our party twist an ankle, we’d have no safety net.
During the wee hours of the morning, I had pondered whether we shouldn’t actually stay put at the hut for two days till the typhoon had passed. It was an agonizing proposition, however, as the likelihood was we’d be able to get to the Biei-fuji Hut only with a little discomfort.
Since we overslept, I floated the idea with the team of staying put. Slim margin for error and all that. In the back of my mind, I also wanted to increase my odds of seeing the Mars-like terrain around Tokachi-dake in something other than dense mist, which might be possible if we sat out the storm.
“Seems like the safer option to stay put,” proffered Haidee.
“We do have plenty of food,” said Gerry.
Ben was more apprehensive about the prospect of staying put for two days.
“It puts a bit of pressure on my schedule, to be honest,” he said.
Ben was hoping to keep some days of work leave up his sleeve for another trip later in the year. If we kept to our plan of an 8-day hiking schedule for this Grand Traverse, he’d have to ring in and take two extra days off.
So we all took a good hard look at the initial itinerary for the trip. This was actually a re-worked version of an earlier plan, which saw us walking Day 2 and 3 as one long 10.5hr day. With the current plan, we’d only walk 5 hours on Day 2 and 5.5hrs on Day 3.
“We could probably smash out those two shorter days in one big day,” I suggested. “We just walked 11 hours yesterday, and it seems we’re all feeling OK. We might be able to make it work.”
This suggestion was not only for Ben’s benefit. The reality of hiking in the alpine in the Daisetsuzan Range is that if you’ve got good weather, then you’re on borrowed time. Make hay while the sun shines. Seize the day. Capitalize on the advantage.
Luckily there was mobile reception on the ridge above the hut, and a forecast I managed to get was showing some calm weather for Wednesday, the day after the typhoon.
Most of us were on the fence about staying put in a hut this early on in the trip. However, weighing the risks, benefits, and promise of a good weather window after the storm, we all came to a comfortable decision to rest up for two days in the hut, and see if we could grind out a big day after the storm.
48 hours Storm-bound: Day One
Once the decision was made to stay put, we all promptly went back to our sleeping bags and snoozed till lunchtime.
Around noon of the first hut-bound day, Haidee and I went for a wander up to the ridge above the hut. On the way out of the hut, the other Japanese chap in the hut was just getting ready to leave, to hike the 3 hours back down to the trailhead. While the 30 minutes or so he’d spend on the ridge was certain to be quite windy, he’d be sheltered from the wind once he was on the western side of the range. I mentioned that we planned to stay two days in the hut.
“Good decision,” he said, nodding. “Biei-fuji Hut is much more basic than this one, with no toilets. The water source is much further from the hut too. You’ll be much more comfortable here!”
This gave us more confidence that we were making the right decision to stay put here in Kamihoro Hut.
Haidee and I headed outside. The wind at the ridge wasn’t what I’d describe as untenable had we needed to hike, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t raining, but the dense cloud was wetting. The wind only increased in velocity over the course of the day.
When we returned to the hut, we discovered Gerry had used some of her free time to do some tent-pitching practice inside the hut.
“It’s brand new, and this is the first time it’s been pitched,” she explained. “I’d rather figure it out here than on a windy mountain top!”
After lunch, we all had another nap.
“It’s amazing how much I can sleep!” exclaimed Gerry. “At home, I could never sleep this much during the day.”
She was right. I was happily snoozing the day away too. With no reliable mobile reception at the hut, no pressing tasks, and a whole year and a half of stressful uncertainty over the pandemic, online teaching, offline teaching, and everything in between, we were all welcoming the complete break from real life.
Later in the afternoon, Gerry fixed her ripped silk sleeping bag liner. Haidee followed suit.
Ben prepared what appeared to be his seventeenth meal for the day, although it was hard to tell. The man seemed to have the hollowest legs on the planet.
“I clearly brought way too much food,” he said, holding up a gargantuan bag of oats. “I need to lighten the load a bit.”
Amazingly, despite sleeping most of the day, we all slept deeply during the night too.
48 hours Storm-Bound: Day Two
…just a few days later, we would learn of one unfortunate hiker killed in this very storm we were sheltering from, only a few kilometers from where we lay warm in our sleeping bags…
Day Two in the hut was where things really got exciting for us. We woke to the hut shuddering under the pressure of violent wind gusts. The typhoon was upon us, and we were glad to be in the hut.
The rain had started in earnest too. So had the leaks in the hut’s roof. Miraculously, we’d all mostly managed to choose spots to sleep that were out of the way of the drips. Haidee woke in the middle of the night to find her sleeping bag hood being dripped on though, and had to shuffle away from the wall a bit.
“I thought it was those resident spiders jumping on me,” she explained. “But when I touched my sleeping bag hood I discovered it was all wet! The rain had clearly got me!”
The resident spiders, by the way, seem to be a bit of a fixture in Kamihoro Hut. Curious little critters, the daddy-longlegs/cellar/harvestman spiders seem to only come out at night. We’d encountered them in the hut over 8 years ago when we first stayed.
“I know what you mean about the spiders” said Gerry in a consoling tone. “I woke up to one of them crawling over my face the first night. That’s why I’m wearing my eye mask now, to try to keep them off my skin.”
We tried to position pots and pans in the worst spots to slow down the creep of puddles across the floor.
Around mid-day, we all ventured outside to take a look at how the storm was progressing. Now things were getting serious. Sheets of horizontal rain pounded us as we braced ourselves against the wind. It wasn’t yet impossible to stand, but getting close to it. The Beaufort Scale descriptions would suggest we were at around an 8 or 9 on the Beaufort Scale. It was a bit difficult to tell, owing to there only being rock, gravel, and a fortified steel-beam-reinforced wooden box of a hut around us.
Going to the outdoor loo was an arduous task at the height of the storm. It generally required donning full wet weather gear, just to take a pee.
Being up in the alpine in a typhoon in the Daisetsuzan Range was an experience that filled all of us with awe. Tourist posters of Asahi-dake and the cute nakiusaki pika rodents depict the range as a benevolent, mild-mannered place. Delicate alpine flowers swaying in the gentle alpine breezes.
But there’s no escaping the fact that the entire alpine area here – the stage for the entire Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse – is perilously exposed to the ravages of nature. Frequent storms can rip across the tops here with unabated disregard for anything that might stand in their way.
We revelled in and lapped up the enjoyment of a few moments being buffeted by the gale, always with the knowledge that we were just a few steps away from shelter back in the hut.
It would be a truly terrifying place to be in a storm with no shelter. Our minds wandered frequently to the unfortunate souls lost in the Tomuraushi-yama incident in 2009. The thought doesn’t bear thinking about.
Indeed, just a few days later, we would learn of one unfortunate hiker killed in this very storm we were sheltering from, only a few kilometers from where we lay warm in our sleeping bags. According to an HTB report, the 48-year-old civil servant from Ibaraki Prefecture (just north of Tokyo) called police on his mobile phone at 11am on Tuesday the 10th of August. This was the day of the harshest winds of the typhoon, when our hut was shaking and jolting with each new gust. The distressed hiker apparently reported being about 500m from the summit of Bebetsu-dake ベベツ岳 (1868m), some 8km northeast of our location in Kamihoro Hut.
He was reported as telling police, “the rain and wind are so strong I can’t pitch my tent. I think I might get hypothermia.”
The report chillingly states that “police were able to keep in contact with the victim for three hours after the initial contact, but his voice was frequently cut off by the wind, and gradually they lost contact.”
He was discovered dead at 7pm by rescue teams, having succumbed to hypothermia.
In the middle of summer.
The report states weather at the summit of Bebetsu-dake was rain and 3°C (37.4°F).
In the middle of summer.
Upon hearing of incidents like this, one might wonder why a hiker would have chosen to head out with such a dire weather forecast. Indeed, during that first day we were holed up at the hut, we were shocked to welcome into the hut two hikers from Tokyo who were planning “a quick overnight hike to the hut and back.”
“Have you seen the forecast?” I asked incredulously. “It’s going to be wild tomorrow.”
“We’ll see how we get on,” one of them replied.
Upon waking to a hut straining at the seams in the morning, they wisely changed their plans to stay an extra night in the hut. Their thin summer sleeping bags were only sufficient to keep them warm thanks to the ample supply of extra blankets in the hut. At times our thermometers were showing 6°C upstairs and 4°C downstairs (around 40°F). We offered them extra food, but they assured us they had enough to tide themselves over.
N.b. from what we know about the Daisetsuzan Range, we rarely venture into the alpine for overnight or multi-day trips here without at least a three-season sleeping bag in summer.
I will be quick to defend those hikers though, by virtue of simply which weather forecast one bases one’s decisions on. I’ve come to put a great deal of wary trust in Windy.com’s forecast for the alpine areas of Hokkaido. I’ll defer to HokkaidoWilds.org author Chris when it comes to the why and how of weather forecasting models, but suffice it to say Windy.com’s one- to two-day forecasts are uncannily accurate.
On Sunday, Windy.com said we’d be getting 90km/h winds and heavy rain on Tuesday. That’s what we got.
Compare this to the disastrously optimistic DarkSky forecast provided on my Garmin inReach Mini satellite messenger. As I sat in a shuddering, vibrating hut with horizontal rain lashing the windows on Tuesday afternoon, my little inReach Mini satellite messenger was telling me my location was experiencing heavy rain (accurate on that point), but wind gusts of only 25km/h. Later I’d discover others had gripes about the DarkSky forecast for mountain areas.
Perhaps those other hikers had put their faith in similarly optimistic forecasts?
Suffice it to say that our team was happy with the tough decision we’d made to stay put in the hut for two days. We prepared for such an eventuality right from the get-go, by budgeting two extra days worth of food. That said, we were lucky in that we didn’t meet the storm five days into the trip where we might have been camping. Such an eventuality would have been largely unforeseeable given the changeable nature of even Windy.com’s long-range forecasts for the Daisetsuzan Range.
And then as if like clockwork and on cue, the wind stopped.
It was about 4pm on Tuesday. Quietness descended upon the hut. We’d grown so accustomed to the regular jolts of vibrations of the hut, and the noise of wind howling past the eastern side of the hut which was bearing the brunt of the storm.
Now there was just silence.
It was almost time for bed, so we cooked up another meal, and started getting settled in for the night.
“Wake-up at 2:30am?” I suggested. All were in agreement, keen to get going and see if we might be able to knock out the next planned two days in just one. This time I made sure to set the alarm on my phone as well as my watch. The others did the same.
I did one last quick weather forecast check for the next day.
“Good news!” I reported. “Nothing but sunshine for the whole day tomorrow!”