Day 6 Details
Minami-numa Campsite (南沼キャンプ指定地) to Chubetsu-dake Hut (忠別岳避難小屋)
7.5hrs 293m 626m 10.4km 13th August 2021
Day 6 Trail Report
A weather forecast the previous evening for light rain later in the day today prompted us to get on the trail early again today. It’s always a bit of a chore wrenching myself out of my sleeping bag when it’s still pitch black outside. But I always figure that rare is the man who looks at a sunrise over mountains and wishes he had slept another hour in bed instead.
Getting up an hour before dawn is not, of course, all that big of a deal. The problem in Hokkaido is that with Japan’s time zoning, an hour before dawn means a 3am wake up in summer.
The absurdity of that arbitrary number is what grates.
Even in New Zealand’s deep south where I grew up in the city of Invercargill (432 Herbert St) – a full 3 degrees of latitude closer to the south pole than the Daisetsuzan Range is to the north pole – a more rational daylight savings summertime before-dawn wakeup call would be a much more salubrious 5 am.
As a side note, some enterprising individuals at the Sapporo Chamber of Commerce and Industry did at one point propose a Hokkaido-specific daylight savings (source). They ran a trial of the proposal for three years from 2004 till 2006. It never really took off.
Accordingly, we left the campsite at the brisk hour of 4:30am, already with the sky quite bright above our heads.
The early wake-up call had its benefits though. Hands down one of the best sunrises we experienced on this trip. I mentioned to Saoka it must be because she was now with us.
“Well, people do call me hare-onna,” she joked, using the Japanese term for a woman who always seems to bring the sunny weather with them wherever they go (the equivalent for a man would be hare-otoko).
Frost, clinging to the delicate alpine plants, glistened in the early morning light.
All around us, the world seemed to be waking up.
As soon as the sun crept high enough above the horizon, it really warmed up. We stripped off our woollen hats and pared down the layers.
The first navigational challenge for the trip greeted us as we descended off the northern edge of the small plateau west of Tomuraushi-yama’s peak. Ahead of us was an expansive boulder field. With lack of clear trail markers, we just launched ourselves straight down. The boulders were grippy, and sturdy, but a wrong step could have been quite consequential.
In hindsight, we should have looked at the maps on our GPS apps sooner. Before long, as we descended down the guts of the boulder field, the boulders started getting bigger. The drops between each boulder became deeper.
Looking around, we couldn’t see any trail markers at all. I pulled out my smartphone and took a look at the map. It then became clear that we’d just blindly followed the slope down, when in fact the trail had veered to the right, some 100m above us.
“Well that wasn’t very obvious,” remarked Ben.
Ben scanned the boulder field to our right.
“There’s a marker!” he exclaimed.
Ben and I were a ways ahead of the others. We called out for everyone to abandon the straight-down-the-guts-of-it strategy, and instead traverse across to the proper trail.
Easier said than done.
Haidee brought up the rear of the group, and was not impressed when she caught up.
“That would be diabolical in low visibility,” she seethed. “Would it be too much to ask for some better trail marking?!”
She was right. Considering how popular Tomuraushi-yama is as a hiking destination, it was surprising there wasn’t more trail marking for this rather nondescript field of boulders.
From the bottom of the boulder garden, the trail was easier to spot, with yellow dots painted on rocks and sporadic wooden poles. Perhaps this reflects the general tendency for hikers to hike north to south, rather than south to north as we were doing. That said, as we sat in the sun having a snack at the bottom of the boulder garden, we observed at least one other hiker, starting from the bottom, plough on straight up the guts of it, only to stand perplexed part way up as the boulders suddenly grew in size. We yelled out to head left, and he soon found the trail.
Today was the day we really felt we were getting into the more well-travelled section of the Daisetsuzan Range. We would cross paths with multiple parties that morning, all headed south. We seemed to be the only party headed north – we took frequent breaks, so figured we’d be caught up by people behind us if we were being followed.
As concrete proof we were now entering the realm of day- and overnight-hikers, an incongruous trail-running couple with skimpy figure-hugging packs sped past us, bounding up the boulder garden we’d just laboured down with our heavy packs.
Further on down the trail, it was a great delight and surprise to cross paths with none other than Bob Ashcroft and family.
We ascertained quite quickly that they’d been on the trail for a similar amount of time as we had. Including during the typhoon a few days back.
“We were in our tent in the Uraasahi campsite,” explained Hanae, Bob’s wife. “Towards the end of the storm, the wind completely picked up the tent with us in it!”
To fully understand just how terrifying being in that storm must have been for Bob, Hanae, and their two boys, it’s important to understand just how desolate and exposed that campsite is. Perched at 2070m on the barren volcanic eastern slopes of Asahidake (Hokkaido’s highest peak), the campsite is known for its stone walls hikers have erected to try to give some rudimentary shelter from the winds that howl through there. It would have bourne the brunt of the gale-force easterly gusts that had buffeted the hut we were staying in. The hut was shuddering and vibrating. It doesn’t bear thinking about how intimidating the wind must have been in their tent.
Gladly, they escaped to tell the tale, with only a few broken tent poles as souvenirs. Furthermore, they were able to continue their family hike down the range!
After chatting on the trail for a while, watching a whole procession of hikers wander past, it was time to press on. The boulder garden fiesta continued.
We stopped at Ama-numa to fill our water bottles, and enjoyed the relative quiet and calm of the trail. It appeared that all the south-bound hikers were now past us, and we could continue north in peace.
Beyond Ama-numa, the terrain gradually returned to what we’d come to expect from this Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse. We left the dramatic boulder gardens and were now in more open terrain. New to the scenery, however, were boardwalks. We’d not encountered them thus far. They served as yet another indication we were now in the more highly trafficked northern half of the range.
Ahead of us, we could see our intermediary destination for the day, the flat summit of Kaun-dake 化雲岳 (1954m) with its distinctive summit boulder perched at the peak.
Once we were at the Kaun-dake peak, we decided on a longer break so we could dry out some of our damp camping gear. We promptly commandeered the summit, spreading out tent flys and ground sheets.
The summit boulder was, of course, also conquered in due style.
For the whole group, we were now hiking into more familiar terrain. We’d all walked this northern section of trail from Hisago-numa to Asahidake on separate previous trips. Those trips (such as this one) had all been rained out, with little provision for sitting out bad weather. Hence our determination this time around to prepare and carry rations enough to cover such an eventuality.
Saoka boiled up some water, and we enjoyed a luxuriously long coffee break.
Unfortunately, all idyllic breaks must come to an end, and we had to pack up and smash out the final couple of hours to Chubetsu-dake Hut.
I had to reflect for a moment on this current traverse compared to the last time Haidee and I walked this section of trail. We weren’t very well conditioned to hiking for that trip last year (a trip also documented in the Tokyo Weekender by journalist and fellow hiker Mara Budgen). Accordingly, I’m not sure I really enjoyed the hiking as much as I would have otherwise. On this current traverse, however, Haidee and I had prepared by doing long walks with heavy packs on multiple weekends leading up to the traverse. I think this made a massive difference in our enjoyment of this hike. I was able to take in the scenery better, smell the roses, focus on taking far too many photos rather than on how extraordinarily sore the soles of my feet were. My feet had ached like mad last year. This year, they were feeling fine.
The final last dash to the Chubetsu-dake Hut went smoothly. We were like horses to the stable. Keen to get to the hut early so that we’d have a full, decadent afternoon to relax.
It would be my first time visiting the Chubetsu-dake Hut. The A-frame structure had always held a strange sort of appeal to me though. Tucked away off the main drag, it’s not the obvious place to stay for many Grand Traversers. If travelling from the north, hikers will usually push on to the Hisagonuma Hut. Accordingly, we weren’t surprised to find the hut deserted when we arrived just after noon.
Ben promptly strung up a washing line, and by the end of the afternoon, we’d all had a dip in one of the number of pools in the glacial creek just below the hut. It felt nice to have a decent wash after six days on the trail.
The nearby outhouse was wafting latrine aromas now and then as we sat outside the hut, but if one sat in just the right spot, one could avoid the worst of it.
We were in the process of relaxing completely, thinking we’d have the hut to ourselves that night, when all of a sudden we saw two hikers approaching across the snowfield. This sent us into all stations-go mode, as we quickly moved our ground floor gear-explosion to the upper floor. Underwear and other delicates hanging on the line were gathered up and hung in nooks and crannies in the upper floor. Clearly we weren’t going to have the place to ourselves that night, as these two hikers were soon followed by another few groups of hikers. It was obon summer vacation after all.
Once we were thoroughly ensconced on the upper floor, we napped till dinner time. We spent some time studying the draft HokkaidoWilds.org topomaps for the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, and noted some things that I’d need to adjust. Overall they were looking good though.
It was another early night for us all. We were planning on combining another two days into one tomorrow, for a mammoth 10 hour day. We set alarms for 2:30am and hit the pillows.