Day 4 Details
Day 4 Trail Report
With a forecast of a clear, sunny sky today, we wanted to make hay while the sun shone and get some miles under our belts. That meant an hour-before-dawn wake-up, getting us away from the hut just before dawn. In Hokkaido in summer, that means a 2:30am wake-up. We hit the trail at 3:30am. We spent the first 30 minutes of the hike walking by headlight.
Despite the promise of clear skies during the day, it was a cold and wet start. A light rain fell, and there was a stiff breeze on the ridge-line. The temperature was hovering just above freezing at around 2°C (36°F). We started hiking at a quick pace to keep warm.
The team was subdued, caught in their own thoughts.
A Fight Against the Cold
It was really quite cold.
I started out with my Mountain Hardwear Quasar Lite II rain shell over just one base layer – an Icebreaker 200-weight half-zip long sleeve shirt. With a heavy pack and rain jacket on, I was expecting to heat up as we walked. After getting colder and colder despite the stiff climb up to the Tokachi-dake peak, I called for a quick stop so I could put on another layer.
I was shocked to find my base layer completely wet. I checked all the pit-zips and zippered pockets on my rain jacket. They were all shut tight. I’d been wearing my hood, all cinched tightly closed around my face.
My supposedly rainproof jacket – only bought new last year – appeared not to be rain-proof.
It was windy. Temperatures were close to freezing. It was still raining. The short stop was having a chilling effect on everyone.
I quickly threw on a light technical fleece with hood (Arcteryx Delta MX Hoody – amazing bit of kit), plus my windbreaker, along with the seemingly only rain-resistant rain shell on top. I started to feel warmer already but knew I needed to keep moving to keep warm.
“I can’t move my hands,” whimpered Gerry. “I’m also feeing a bit dizzy.”
In hopes of her hands warming up as she walked, she had not put on gloves. Rain was drenching the lower parts of her rain jacket sleeves, keeping her hands wet and cold.
“Get your gloves on quick!” I yelled.
Ben assisted Gerry to get the woollen gloves on her hands, while simultaneously shovelling spoonfuls of peanut butter into her mouth. Gerry had not eaten breakfast before we left, due to a miscommunication. The previous night, we’d all talked about just hitting the trail early and walking for a few hours before stopping for breakfast. On a whim, Haidee and I decided to scoff down some oats before leaving, and Ben had also eaten some snacks in the hut.
But Gerry was walking on empty.
As Gerry struggled with her gloves, I was getting distinct Tomuraushi Disaster vibes. It was still dark, cold, and wet. My rain jacket appeared to not be waterproof. We were still not too far from the hut we’d just left.
“Maybe we should head back to the hut and wait till the rain has eased,” I proffered weakly.
“No, I’m fine,” replied Gerry. “I just need to get my hands warmed up.”
With my extra layers on, and Gerry’s hands covered, we set off again up towards the Tokachi-dake summit.
It was a grim sort of a summit experience. The stiff breeze was still intent on robbing us all of warmth. The rain was easing slightly, but it was still wet.
“I still can’t feel my hands, dammit,” cursed Gerry. The spoonfuls of peanut butter had given her a boost in energy, but her hands weren’t following suit.
I’d pulled out some latex gloves from my first aid kit that morning and had them in my pocket, just in case I needed some extra vapour-barrier sort of insulation under my fleece gloves, so I handed these to Gerry to put over her wool gloves.
“Oh wow, these are like magic,” Gerry exclaimed, as the wind-blocking effect took hold.
The rain stops
The summit of Tokachi-dake was a welcome turning point for the day. As forecast, the rain started to ease up, as did the stiff breeze. The team’s spirits started to rise again. We were finally able to take in some of the eerie desolate beauty of the inspiring volcanic landscape.
I’d been hoping for clear skies for this walk across the Tokachi-dake area, but I was plenty happy with the grey skies too. Moody. Dragon’s mane ridgelines, appearing out of the murk. A phenomenal place. Had we not been intent on keeping moving to keep warm, we would have taken things a bit slower here. But we kept the pressure on and charged down the easy-walking trail.
Slowly but surely, the terrain started changing again. Hardy plants started clinging to the volcanic soil. We were now approaching Biei-dake. The iconic red signs adorned the trail.
A SIDE-NOTE: Regarding trail signs and trail maintenance in the Daisetsuzan National Park. While the park as a whole is under the purview of the national government (the Ministry of the Environment), the land itself is owned and managed by a number of different bodies. These might be the Ministry of Forestry, local municipalities, or even private landowners. Each landowner usually takes responsibility for their bit of national park. That’s why there is often jarring variation in the quality of facilities throughout the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse. This also applies to signage. In places, there are only scrappy remains of signage, hardly legible. In other places there’s hand-laminated laser-printed signs stapled to old wooden boards. Sometimes, there’s professionally sign-printed high quality signs (a relative rarity). All of the signs are different in design.
And then there’s the Biei Town jurisdiction signs. Retro white on red. Pure style. May they never change.
It was 8am when we arrived at Biei-fuji Hut.
“Time for lunch!” declared Gerry, who promptly got to work cooking up a feast of couscous and spicy sausage.
We all stripped off our wet outer layers and hung them up to dry. Mercifully, it was about now the sun arrived. Great buckets of sunshine and warmth. Cloud would come and go, so we piled out wet gear onto the warm roof of the hut, and our gear dried very quickly.
We revelled in the glorious contrast between what we’d experienced to this point, and the pure luxury of a dry hut in warming sunshine.
On the original plan, we’d kept open to the idea of bagging the summits of Biei-dake 美瑛岳 (2052m) and Biei-fuji 美瑛富士 (1888m) along the way to the hut. Being detours off the main route, however, we forwent these summits in favour of getting miles under our belts. We spent almost 2 hours at the hut, lounging about, eating, and drying out clothes.
While we were there, two day hikers from Tokyo dropped in on their way towards Oputateshike-yama.
“Did you hear about the guy who died around here yesterday?” one asked us. “He hiked up under his own steam, but ended up being taken down in a body bag,” he morbidly reported.
We’d later get the full, tragic story, which I recount in yesterday’s blog post. A hiker from near Tokyo got caught out in the typhoon we’d been sheltering from in a hut for the past two days. Apparently he gave up on trying to pitch his tent in the wind, called police for a rescue, but ended up dying from hypothermia. Sobering stuff.
Once we got going from the hut, however, the storm of the past few days was but a distant memory. We were stripping off to shorts and t-shirts, and finally after four days we had views!
This section of trail over Oputateshike-yama オプタテシケ山 (2012m) was in fact one of my most anticipated parts of the entire Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse. Haidee, Gerry and I (as well as Saoka, who would join us on the traverse the next day) had pulled off a mammoth 10 hour spring ski touring mission up to the peak of Oputateshike-yama in April this year. So naturally, we was very interested in seeing it in summer.
Below is our troupe approaching Oputateshike-yama from the east in spring, and on the right is the current team at the summit on this Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the amazing knife-edge-esque ridge we’d traverse across to get to the Oputateshike-yama summit on this summer traverse. In winter, most skiers approach from the broad eastern face.
On the Grand Traverse route, we’d clamber up and over rocky ridges and shimmy around tight traverses with scary-looking drops away to our left or right.
The contrast between the daytime now and the chilly morning earlier couldn’t be any stronger. Large plumes of cloud soared up from the valley to our left, but to our right, it was clear blue skies.
“I think this may be my favourite mountain in Hokkaido,” I said to Haidee.
I was drunk on a few substances at the time; the warmth of the sun, the joy of knowing we were actually doing this after so much uncertainty before the trip, and the camaraderie of a great team.
The high I was feeling may also have been due to us now being at the summit of Oputateshike-yama, the high point of the day.
“From here it’ll be pretty easy,” I said naively. “The campsite is just down the other side of the mountain.”
As we were basking in the views at the peak, we were all startled by a stocky, elderly Japanese man with no pack on, stumbling up the path from the campsite side of the peak. He took us by surprise, as we were at the peak of one of the most inaccessible mountains in the range, and he just looked so incongruous. A tattered cotton t-shirt, ragged cotton shorts. Scratched up bare legs. He was unsteady on his feet. We said hello, and he just stared at us blankly.
After a few moments, he gestured southeast down the desolate and inaccessible eastern face of the mountain. “Is Biei-fuji hut that way?” he asked.
“No, you have to follow the ridge southwest,” I replied.
It was now 2pm, and by the looks of how slow and unsteady he was on his feet, surely he still had many hours of walking ahead of him to get to the hut.
“It’s a long way still,” offered Ben.
Again, just a blank response.
Some clarity came when the old man gestured to his ears. “I can’t hear very well,” he explained. Pointing to his eyes, “I’m blind in this eye, and can’t see very well out of this one,” he continued.
We were a little dumbfounded. On the one hand, we were all concerned about his safety and whether he was indeed going to make it to the hut that day. On the other hand, we had to give him credit. He’d made it this far already. No mean feat for a partially blind, unsteady-on-his-feet, seemingly quite frail old guy.
Now that we’d ascertained we needed to speak loudly and clearly to him, I asked him where he was during the storm we’d sat out for two days prior. Remember, our hut was straining at the seams, shuddering and vibrating with every gust. It was a serious storm.
“I was in my tent for two days,” he replied.
“Have you got enough food?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he replied.
“Where’s your pack?” I enquired.
“Just down the trail,” he pointed.
“Water?” I asked, offering him some of mine.
“I would love some,” he replied.
I poured some of my stash of water into his small, dirty, 200ml canned soup can he was carrying – the aluminium type with the twist-top lid.
“Much obliged,” he said.
He wandered back down the trail and returned a few minutes later with a huge pack. Loose plastic bags filled with various items swayed from various precarious fixtures on the side and back of the pack.
He nodded to us as he carried on down the trail towards the direction we’d come from. He was moving very slow.
He looks like a lost homeless Tokyoite, was the only way I could describe him in my head.
But we kept such thoughts to ourselves. He’d made it this far across some of the most challenging terrain and track conditions the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse has to offer. We had to give the chap the benefit of the doubt.
I hope I’m still wandering the hills when I’m deaf and half-blind.
With so much attention on our fellow hiker, we’d not really paid much attention to what we had awaiting us for the descent down to the campsite below.
It would prove to be one of the longest, most gruelling descents of the trip.
It felt like it would never end.
It started well though. More grand vistas. Fun, sketchy scrambles. The distinctive summit of Tomuraushi-yama トムラウシ山 (2141m), our destination for tomorrow, peeked out of the clouds.
But then the descent started in earnest. Infuriatingly, we could see the Futago-ike campsite down in the saddle below, and it looked so close. In all though, that 500m rocky, steep descent took us close to an agonizing 2 hours to complete, having left the hut in the morning some 10 hours ago.
Mercifully, in true Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse style, the flora and fauna continued to shine. There was never a dull moment on this walk, even on this never-ending descent.
On this descent we saw our first nakiusagi pika rodent for the trip. These hopelessly adorable creatures are extremely vocal. We’d enjoyed the sound of their distinctive chirps ever since entering the alpine four days ago. But most of them are notoriously shy. This fellow wasn’t. Standing proudly on a rock, it seemed to be playing sentinel. It’s whole body would heave with every high-pitched chirp.
For the only time on this whole 8-day traverse, I regretted not having my large zoom lens.
The alpine flowers also did their best to keep us entertained. Patches of delicate buttercup-like blooms adorned the trail.
We also passed a couple of solo hikers coming from the opposite direction. We got the impression we were certainly doing the traverse in an unconventional manner. It seems most people start in the north, and head south. This makes sense if one wishes to use ropeways to get into the alpine, avoiding that first day slog.
All of the hikers we passed were smashing out huge distances.
“I’ve come from Hisago-numa Hut,” said one. “And I’m trying to get to Biei-fuji Hut today. Do you think I’ll make it before nightfall?”
Hisagonuma Hut was 20km from where we were standing. An impressive effort in one day. If it was me, I would be doubtful I’d be able to make it to Biei-fuji hut this late in the day.
“It’s still a long way,” I said. “But there’s plenty of flat ground in between if you get caught out.”
NOTE: Camping outside of designated areas in the Daisetsuzan National Park is strictly forbidden except in emergencies. This is to protect the delicate vegetation throughout the alpine area. Under normal circumstances, the designated campsites and huts are more than adequately spaced to ensure no one should have to break the rules.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally rolled into the rather desolate Futago-ike campsite. In Japanese, the name conveys better the spartan nature of the campsite – 双子池キャンプ指定地, or, ‘designated’ place to camp (the Futago-ike part simply means ‘two ponds’). Certainly no promises of grand facilities in the Japanese!
There’s no toilets nor any facilities of any kind. Just a number of dirt areas large enough to pitch a tent.
Haidee and I have a rather large-footprint Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 4 tent (2.8m x 2.8m), and I’d say this is about the largest area tent you’d want to be carrying on the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse. Some of the campsites are pretty pokey.
Reports from a number of years ago suggested a lot of human excrement around the campsite, but recent years of intensive public education at trailheads and visitor centres in the national park seems to be paying off. We didn’t notice any sign of discarded toilet paper or poop around the campsite. All hikers are requested to carry their own portable toilet bags, and carry out all of their poop and toilet paper when toilets are not available. We’ll write up exactly what this entails in a later post, but this winter post from a couple of years ago may be instructive. Adventure Hokkaido also has a good instructive post about mobile toilet bags here. Suffice it to say that the campsites we stayed at on the traverse were clean and comfortable – no looking out for ‘landmines’ required!
We were surprised to see another foreigner at the campsite. Noel, a chap from the US who had smashed out 20km from Hisagonuma Hut that day and was planning to keep going. He still seemed as fresh as a daisy. After we got chatting, he decided to call it a day. It was fun sharing reports from the trail.
“You’ll find the next section to Tomuraushi-yama quite the bush-bash,” he warned.
“You’ll find the next section up and over Oputateshike-yama quite the scramble,” we warned.
After a quick game of frisbee (of course he was carrying a frisbee), we retired to our tents and hit the sack. It had been a long but rewarding day.