To get an early start, Jeff and I had camped near Sounkyo the previous night, and we crossed Mikuni Pass early in the morning above a sea of clouds. The forest was quiet as we made our way up from the trailhead, gradually thinning out into ever smaller trees as we neared Jukoku Pass. Jeff was suffering from the aftereffects of a brush with poison ivy while out gathering wild mountain plants the week before; with tattered gauze bandages fluttering off various parts of his hands and arms he looked just like a mummy out of a second-rate zombie movie. In other words, pretty much like usual.
Leaving our packs at the pass we nipped up Yuni-ishikari-dake and back to bag the first peak of the trip. Retrieving our bags, we then headed along the gently undulating ridge to the Buyo-numa camping spot, nestled in a wooded col next to a pond. It was empty; in fact we had seen only one other person all day. We dropped down to the stream below to refill water bottles amid a sea of yellow ezo-ryuginka (エゾリュウギンカ) flowers. Back up at the campsite the insects were out in force in the still air so after being bitten a few times we decided to head a couple of hundred meters back up the ridge. Other parties had clearly had the same idea as there were a few tent sites carefully cleared of stones. We chose one and pitched camp, careful not to disturb any vegetation. There was plenty of time to relax and enjoy the views before a hot meal and an early night.
We woke up early to a glorious sunrise. All around us peaks stood out sharply defined in the clear dawn light; to our south the valley and Tokachi Plain beyond was a sea of clouds. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast then packed up. The dew soaked our trousers as we climbed up through low haimatsu ハイマツ pines and shrub birch into the high alpine zone. The final ridge and summit of Otofuke-yama were, for me, the most beautiful part of the walk, rocky underfoot, open and airy, and dotted with wildflowers including the tiny pink horse-heads of komakusa コマクサ. After a few minutes on top to take it all in we followed the ridge down to the trail junction below Ishikari-dake. It was getting hotter by now.
We took a break for a brew at the junction, then left our packs and headed up. Unhampered by any load we floated up in about half an hour. Here and there freshly disturbed patches of earth among the flowers showed us a bear had recently been foraging. We passed the official summit marker and continued along the narrow ridge to the true summit, enjoying the spectacular views over to Nipesotsu on one side and Daisetsusan and the Tokachi range on the other. On returning to the marker post we chatted to the two other people there, one of them a sprightly chap in his seventies. Both had come up the Schneider Course. It’s really tough, they said. Umm, we thought.
The descent lived up to its reputation. At one point Jeff inexplicably launched into a nosedive over a precipice only to be saved from disaster by the tangled branches of a haimatsu ハイマツ pine. He was lucky to get away with just a strained shoulder. As for me, when we finally reached the bottom my left knee was throbbing ominously. By this time the poor Herr Schneider’s ears must have been buzzing from our rather unkind remarks – a bit unfair in retrospect, apparently he was a military advisor who taught skiing to local conscripts back in the early days. Fortunately, a kind lady who had come down just before us offered us a lift back along the forest road to our car, saving us at least another couple of kilometers of walking. Deciding to head back to Sapporo via Obihiro meant that Nukabira Onsen was the next destination in order to wash off the grime and soak our respective sore limbs. Lost salts and fluids were later replenished with a fine dinner at the ramen place in Shimizu at the foot of Nissho Pass.