‘Well lads, what do you think?’
Dirk, Jeff and I are standing by the marker plaque on the pointed summit of Ashibetsu-dake, looking over the back of the mountain at the narrow north ridge, a roller-coaster of pinnacles and crags stretching enticingly before us. It’s a beautiful day. After an early start from the campsite we’ve had a great morning climbing up the New Route through bright green spring forest and the open upper slopes. The views over the Furano plain and to the Tokachi Range are inspiring. We’ve had lunch and it’s not even noon yet. Although we haven’t committed to descending by the Old Route, the full horseshoe is tempting. OK, so the guidebook says it takes at least five hours and the trail is rough and partly washed out, but what can possibly go wrong? We are about to find out.
Let’s go, says Dirk. After a few meters the path drops over a steep rocky section. Jeff and I downclimb carefully; Dirk simply bounds down like a mountain goat. From here the path skirts around the major gully on the west side of the mountain and we can appreciate the full scale of the summit crags. We pause to watch a couple of teams of climbers on the rock face. The path is narrow and weaves in and out of some small pinnacles, then continues north though juniper bushes along the ridge. There are a number of minor peaks and cols and by the time we get to where the trail drops off the ridge a couple of hours later we are starting to feel the exertion. We have a break, then head down with the massive crag of Fufu-iwa on our right. However, we have now all run out of water.
The trail drops down and down endlessly, in parts washed out and difficult underfoot. It is hot and sticky in the woods and Jeff begins to suffer from dehydration. His pace slows. In places water gushes out from the hillside – it is probably safe but ecchinococus is an unpleasant way to die so we daren’t risk it. Not for the first time I regret I didn’t bring a water filter.
By the time we get to the trail junction near the hut Jeff is in bad shape. We rest again and set off along the riverbed. The map says there is still over an hour to go. Dirk heads off and disappears, I stay with Jeff, who is getting slower and slower. You can almost see his batteries running down. The rough path follows the riverbank through and over boulders and small bluffs. It is hard work and beginning to get dark. I walk for a minute or so, then stop to wait for Jeff. Each time he takes longer and longer to catch up. Finally I decide I have to leave him and go ahead, get water and return. I set off and after a few minutes come across half an apple on a tree root across the trail. My dehydrated brain registers this odd sight but fails to grasp that Dirk has left it for Jeff; I just step over it and carry on. I reach the end of the trail and emerge onto the forest road.
A figure is coming up the road towards me. It is Dirk. In his arms he is carrying ice-cold bottles of Coke. He has rushed on ahead down to the trailhead, found the nearest vending machine and stuffed all his small change into it. I have avoided drinking this stuff for over 20 years, but now it is icy nectar. We turn around and head back up the trail into the increasingly gloomy forest.
A shadow moves in the woods. Jeff is coming slowly down the path; the half apple has kept him going. The first bottle of Coke goes down in about three seconds. The effects are miraculous. Within a minute speech has returned; after another bottle full mobility is restored. Whatever it is they put in that stuff I will never criticize it again. Five minutes later all the drama is behind us and we walk down to the trailhead. After a healing onsen and fortifying ramen we are back in Sapporo a few hours later.