“I’ve seen 7000m high peaks in the Himalayas, and this is on par with their beauty,” whispered Quentin when we emerged out onto the broad plateau. Rishiri-zan was standing there, spires and spurs and rugged peaks and all, framed crisp against a deep blue sky. I’d heard that this route up the southeast side of Rishiri was one of the best for views of the mountain. But this was something else. Perhaps it was due to the effort in getting to this particular place, at least 8 hours travel from Sapporo City, but I felt like this was the most beautiful mountain I’d ever seen.
Rick, Hiro, Quentin and I had arrived in Rishiri two nights ago, and had made an attempt on the summit via the Rishiri Classic Northern Ridge Route the previous day. Ferocious winds and a worsening forecast had turned us back at the Rishiri-zan Hut, while we still had at least 500m vertical to climb. Today, with a better forecast, we’d certainly be guaranteed a summit if we tried the same route again. However, we forewent standing on the summit for a vague promise of good views from one of the more dramatic ski tour routes on the island.
As the owner of the Green Hill Inn Hostel was driving us around the island, the weather on the eastern side of the island was perfect blue skies, with hardly a breath of wind. When we left the hostel, it was grey, dark and overcast. “This is pretty typical of Rishiri weather,” he explained. “On the windward side, we’ll get cloud, and on the lee side, it will be brilliant clear skies.” As we drove further and further around the coast, clouds started to appear in view. The very ridge we were planning to ski up was shrouded, whereas other ridges just a few hundred meters closer to us were basking in sunlight.
“The wind direction is supposed to change in your favour as the day goes on,” the hostel owner said. “But there’s no guarantee. You might end up just on the border with the clouds, with no view all day. Do you want me to drop you off here, where the skies are clear?”
It was an agonizing decision. We’d all heard that the Hosenzawa-gawa Gorge and views from high on its southern ridge were some of the best in Rishiri. But if our driver dropped us off here, we’d still get OK views – guaranteed. Should we take the risk of cloud, but the possible reward of the better views, or cut our luck?
In the end, I suggested we stick to the original plan. We didn’t have a planned route for any of the other gorges or spurs, so safety and planning dictated that we’d better stick to what we’d scouted out on the topomap in advance. The hostel owner was confident we’d eventually see clear skies, so we gingerly set off from the original planned location under cloudy skies. Clearly the local guides or snowmobilers weren’t using this route today.
By the time we got to the bottom of the ski area, however, the skies were clearing up.
It was somewhat of a bush-bash getting through some thick conifers on the climber’s left of the ski field. We’d all stripped off to our cooler under layers by the time we got through them – there was a lot of heat in the sun. The blue skies continued as we rounded the back of Oniwakipon-yama, and this gave us our first glimpse of Rishiri in all her glory. We’d had no idea what to expect, so this was a phenomenally pleasant surprise. We all took a moment with mouths gaping and the view.
No sooner had we whooped and cheered our way towards this great bulk of a mountain, than the clouds rolled in and we found ourselves navigating by map and compass. This cloud remained for a disconcertingly long time. Long enough to have us thinking we’d seen all we’d see of the mountain.
We needn’t have worried. After about 30 minutes wandering into the misty abyss, we emerged above the clouds to blue skies. The relative lack of snow this year – record setting low snowfall across Hokkaido – was painfully clear. Much of the low haimatsu pines were already showing, so we had to carefully pick our way though them. Once we were on a more southerly gully, however, we made good progress, zig-zagging up the slope. It had been about a week since the last big powder dump, and the spring sun had already reduced much of this southeastern-facing slope to old, bumpy, but relatively soft pre-rotten-ish snow. Not corn, not crust…the in-between.
We were soon on the final short bit of ridge that would lead us up to the 1225m peak. Leading up to the false summit before the 1225m peak, it looked like we’d have no problem in getting to the actual 1225m peak. However, upon standing on that false summit, some 100m away, none of us were going to attempt that last few hundred meters.
It would be a boot-pack for starters, certainly with an ice-axe for self-arrest security. A slip would have meant a very long, steep fall, with potential bluffs on the way down, which we couldn’t see from the convex curvature away from the knife-edge saddle connecting the two peaks. My stomach turned just standing on the cramped, one-person-only false summit.
From the false summit, we geared up to ski down. The snow wasn’t great, so Rick and Hiro opted to walk down a few meters to a better platform to remove skins and get set up. Quentin and I siddled down gingerly until we were able to cut a long descending traverse to better snow.
Once on the better snow in the wide, shallow gullies, we were able to open things up a bit. The snow was variable, with some soft patches, some icy.
At every turn, there was Rishiri-zan, the ever-present backdrop.
On the way back around Oniwakipon-yama, we remembered the ski area, and stayed as high as possible so that we could ski down from the very top. The snow on the slope of the ski field was mostly rotten, but it made for a nice sea-facing end to the day. Back at the trailhead we messaged the hostel host, and he was there to pick us up in about 30 minutes.