We never made it to the summit of Rishiri-zan. We’d been hopeful, and even started at 4am in order to try to beat the wind, but by the time we’d made it to the hut at just over 1200m, the wind was strong enough to reduce us to a crawl in places. With a forecast for double that wind speed by early afternoon, we gave up hope of scaling the final 500m in altitude gain to the summit. We made our hasty retreat, enjoying some nice pockets of dry powder in the gully on the way down.
But let me back up a little. Quentin was itching for an excuse for a holiday away from Ulaanbaatar’s snowless winter, and had emailed me if I had any plans in Hokkaido for skiing in late March (we’d skied a couple of times in Hokkaido last year together). As it happened, I was vaguely hoping to get out to far eastern Hokkaido to document Shiretoko Peninsula’s options, so I invited him to come along.
Fast forward a couple of months, and we’d planned a full eastern Hokkaido ski trip, with a wildcard plan to drive up to Wakkanai in the north at a moment’s notice if the weather forecast indicated a window of a few days of clear weather on Rishiri Island. As it happened, a few days out from starting the trip Windy.com indicated clear skies for at least two days that week, so we hastily changed plans. We booked some beds at the only backpackers’ hostel accommodation on the island open at that time of year (mid-March), and committed to the 5-hour drive up the coast to Wakkanai to catch the ferry.
We were visiting Rishiri during a season that had seen the lowest snowfall in history across Hokkaido, so while this made us slightly concerned about skiing on Rishiri, it did made the drive up the coast relatively easy. We made it with plenty of time to catch the early afternoon ferry on a lazy Sunday.
This wasn’t my first time to Rishiri Island. Haidee and I had cycled there on a north Hokkaido cycle-camping trip a few years back. During that trip, Haidee and I had only seen Rishiri-zan without a shroud of clouds for about 30 minutes before it closed in again. I was hopeful for something better this time. The ferry staff took our skis to stow them below deck, and we walked onto the ferry carrying our various skiing paraphernalia.
Once away from the dock, I took a nap – it felt like a very long way to drive just for a ski trip. An hour later I roused myself and wandered outside. Convivial views of the relative bustle of Wakkanai City had been replaced with an intimidating, towering bulk of a mountain. “It is much bigger than I had anticipated,” said Quentin. “It’s just all mountain. The whole island. Nothing but mountain.”
It is quite difficult to capture the bulk of Rishiri-zan, both in words and in pictures. It is a volcano, but infinitely more beautiful, imposing, rugged, and present than other free-standing volcanoes such as Yotei-zan or even Mt. Fuji. There is no inviting symmetry. Its rocky spires and razor-sharp spurs demand an immediate respect. The mountain oozes indifference. A climber does not conquer Rishiri. Any benevolence this majestic massif shows is only a momentary lapse, after which she will unpolitely tell you to f*@ck off.
With a mix of excitement and apprehension, we disembarked and were greeted outside by the lovely owners of the backpacker’s hostel. There would be no skiing today, as we arrived at just before 4pm. We settled into the lodge-like hostel and enjoyed a relaxing night in. We were very happy to discover that the hostel was only a few minutes walk from the nearest convenience store. The curious Nicot store sold fresh fish, veges, and other goods alongside timber framing for your building project. For dinner I made use of the wood stove at the hostel for some stove-top pan-fried bacon-wrapped chicken.
We were even more happy with the hostel owner’s offer to drop us off at the campground the following morning. He hardly batted an eyelid when I asked for a 4am start. Usually they do a run at around 5:30am, but the hostel wasn’t busy when we were there – they were able to accommodate our request. The weather forecast was for strong winds later in the day, so we wanted to maximize our chances of getting to the summit. As it happened, the lack of snow this year meant that rather than just taking us to the onsen as planned, our intrepid hostel owner was able to drive us all the way to the upper Hokuroku Campground, saving us at least 1 hour of skiing up the road. It was a hairy ride, with the 660cc 4wd van screaming its lungs out, chattering across the icy ruts.
From the campground trailhead, we more or less followed the summer trail, packed hard with snowmobile tracks. The main guiding operations on the island use snowmobiles to transport paying guests over the flatlands to access the better skiing. While snowmobiles are not allowed on the mountain itself, this service, while coming at a price, would maximize time on the mountain. We made good time across the flats from the campground though, and were soon approaching the main climb up to the hut. This would prove to be a 500m slog up varied snow surfaces.
A young solo Japanese skier who was staying at the hostel was also dropped off with us, and had sprinted ahead of us, but we caught up with him at around the 700m point. He’s opted to stick to the ridge, and had already switched from skis to crampons. The exposed ridges were all very icy, but he was sinking through the ice up to his knees in the undergrowth underneath. We chose to stick to the gullies as much as possible, where the snow was still soft enough for good purchase on skis. This required multiple kick-turn zig-zags up an ever-narrowing gully. At the head of the gully, Quentin and I attached our ski crampons, whereas Hiro powered on just with skis, and Rick opted to remove his skis and carry on with boot crampons.
After much effort, we finally made it to the summer trail ridge which would lead us up to the Chokan-zan peak (長官山, 1218m) and on to the Rishiri-zan Emergency Hut. This ridge was steep and icy at times. Hiro and Rick chose to stick to the ridge, whereas I followed Quentin on a heart-racing hard-snow climbing traverse to another pocket of relatively soft-ish snow.
Beyond Chozan-zan, we were already being buffeted by very strong gusts, some requiring some effort to stay standing. There was some discussion as to whether we should even continue up to the hut. We pushed on, however, and tried to enjoy the views despite the strengthening gusts. The summit of Rishiri-zan was in clear view, and was just magnificent. In better weather it would have been infinitely attainable.
At the hut, however, it became clear that this was as far as we would go today. Pieces of ice were being plucked off the ridge and hurled across our faces with gale-force intensity. Inside the frigid hut we scoffed down some food and warm tea, and started to make our descent. We were taken aback at the young solo skier who left his skis at the hut and carried on on foot, despite the deteriorating conditions. We’d later hear from the hostel owner that he’s made it back down the mountain (on foot, without his skis) much later than planned, after spending a cold few hours sitting in the hut for shelter.
Rick had opted to leave his skis further down the route, where he’d changed to crampons. So we gingerly chattered down hard crusty snow on the ridges and over exposed haimatsu low pines to better skiing in the gully we’d skinned up. We didn’t even consider the broad western gully marked on our GPS track, as this was a mine-field of exposed low pines. That would have to wait for a year with more snow.
Once out of the wind and into the gully, the skiing was steep and fun. Plenty of mostly-soft snow, about four days old, and only slightly wind affected. As timing would have it, about a week after out trip, Rishiri had a huge dump of cold dry powder. You really do take your chances up here when self-guided.
Multiple sources had told us that the prevailing wind on Rishiri Island was from the northwest, so this classic approach to the summit was always going to have sub-optimal snow, when compared with other aspects. But we were glad to have given it our best shot, and as a summit-dedicated route, for experienced climbers it was certainly straight forward.
Once back at the campground, we rocketed down the campground access road, skied along the cycleway, and cut across some fields to arrive directly accross the road from our hostel. Unfortunately we’d done this trip on a Monday, so no onsen on the way home for us! Monday is their day off, it seems.