‘You can’t call yourself a real Hokkaido climber until you’ve done Nipesotsu.’ It was early summer 2016, and the speaker was a grizzled but tough veteran of the Hokkaido hills in his seventies. Jeff and I were chatting to him on the summit of Ishikari-dake, looking over at the impressive peak of Nipesotsu across the expansive sea of forest to the south. It was already on our list, but now we knew we had to do it.
Then came the typhoons. It was an unprecedented few weeks in which the island took a real battering. The central area east of Daisetsusan was particularly hard hit. Countless forest roads were destroyed, so completely that they will never be reopened. One of them, unfortunately, led to the trailhead for Nipesotsu. Over the next couple of years we heard that people still braved the devastation and fought their way through to the old trailhead, but it meant at least a predawn start or an overnight expedition and somehow we never seemed to find the time. Then in summer 2018 we heard that the old route from Horoka Onsen, which had become overgrown and disused for many years, had now been cleared and reopened. Game on!
This route, though, is long and involves a lot of climbing. Jeff and I camped at Nukabira Onsen the previous night to ensure an early start. Up at 4.00 am, we fortified ourselves with coffee, bacon and eggs for the day ahead and were bright and early at the trailhead. It was a beautiful early autumn day. The first few hours were up through old mature forest with no real views, but eventually we reached a narrow ridge out of the trees to get our first glimpse of the mountain, looming massively before us. Still a long way to go, we realized.
The ridge went up and down, and finally steeply up to the main ridge where the old route came in from the right. Up here it was glorious alpine scenery, creeping pine (ハイマツ) bushes and open areas with patches of low shrubs with bright red foliage. Only a handful of other hikers were around. Beyond the small plateau of Tengudaira we could look across to the imposing main peak with its jagged summit ridge.
Before that, though, we had to descend into a substantial col before climbing back out and up the main peak. Our tiring legs resented losing the height but it was a still a glorious day so we plodded on and up, eventually reaching the top after noon. Nobody else was there. It was bright and clear, and we took in the panorama and sense of space all around us; not only could we see the Daisetsu and Tokachi mountains, but eastwards lay Akan, and far in the distance, Shiretoko.
After soaking in the view and having a bite to eat we reluctantly packed up and headed down. We knew it would be a long slog back so we wanted to be on our way down by 2.00 pm at the very latest. And, indeed, by the time we finally got back to the trailhead the shadows had lengthened and the forest was descending into gloom.
Horoka Onsen was only a few minutes away at the end of the road. And that’s just how it felt, a very end-of-the-road and slightly unreal vibe. We rolled up outside the ramshackle building in the dusk. Two foxes were curled up in front of the entrance; slightly above on the left a three-legged deer and her fawn were calmly grazing. Cue the banjo from Deliverance. We walked past them into the building. Nobody seemed to be around but after we hollered loudly a few times a wizened old lady appeared. We soon realized that the communication difficulties we were facing were not the result of our bad Japanese but because she was deaf as a post. All was soon resolved with the kind help of another patron, clearly a regular, and we headed into the baths. The facilities were extremely basic but we didn’t care a bit; as always it was great to relax in the steaming water while gazing out over the river gorge, and look back on another great day in the Hokkaido hills. At last we could call ourselves real Hokkaido climbers.