I’d never intended to climb Shiretoko-dake solo. Particularly with a promise of 10.5 hours on the mountain by the guidebook, it was one that I was looking forward to doing with an experienced buddy. However, Quentin had to bow out of the mission despite his keen desire to do the trip, due to a strained foot. He had five day of wandering the Kyoto streets ahead of him, so he didn’t want to aggravate it any further. With a reasonable weather forecast, however, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, since we’d come all this way. I’d miss having a model in my photos of the trip, but I decided to give it a go. The forecast was for deteriorating conditions from noon, so I set my alarm for 2am, in order to be at the trailhead by 3am.
“I’d better get my sunrise over Kunashir Island,” I muttered to myself that morning, swigging back an energy drink for the 30 minute drive from Rausu to the end of the road.
Mercifully, there’d been almost 10cm of fresh snow overnight. Not a huge dump, but welcome nonetheless after a few days of scratching about on icy conditions elsewhere. From the road end, I skinned off into the night, not even needing my head torch switched on – it was an almost-full moon, with plenty of light on the white snow.
There were only a couple of head-scratching moments during that skin along the seashore. One was a missing bridge. In my early morning grogginess I didn’t take a photo, but the main river crossing was now a scramble across rocks, requiring removal of the skis. The second head-scratcher was the 30m scramble up from the seashore to the mostly-flat approach to the main climb. There was a clear snowshoe track ahead of me, where the snowshoers had just climbed straight up the steep spur. I opted to side-step the whole way up, balancing precariously on the 50cm wide spur.
With all that excitement behind me, I began powering on, following the snowshoe tracks. This was quite the bonus, as I was wanting to make as quick time as possible to beat the weather. Apart from checking the route a couple of times, I just followed the tracks on auto-pilot. Easy.
I exited the woods at a clearing just as the sky was starting to get light, at around 4:30am. I could now see most the ridge-line route up to the plateau at 1000m. It didn’t look very far, but I knew there was a steep section ahead of me. I carried on up.
I was just approaching the bottom of the main climb when the sun started to light up the horizon. I could hardly believe how spot on the location of the sunrise was. Right over the top of Kunashir Island, the southern-most island in the Russian Kuril Islands.
The direct sunlight didn’t last for long though. No sooner had the sun risen over the islands, than it disappeared again behind some low cloud.
I pushed on, now at the dreaded haimatsu low pine infested steep ridge. It was icy, snaggy, steep, and overall not fun. I very soon put my ski crampons on, and stuck to the ridge for only a few more minutes before risking it on the softer snow just to the climber’s right of the ridge. This was infintely easier going, as I was able to get more purchase on the edge of my skis. I made good time, making a number of kick-turns up the slope, hugging the ridge. There was some sign of recent small avalanches further to the right.
Every now and then the sun would peek through the clouds, lighting up the land’s curves and ridges. Far in the distance to the southwest, Io-zan’s (硫黄山, 1562m) volcanic gullies were put in stark relief.
The overall isolation that I felt here was somewhat akin to what I’d only felt many years ago cycling across a remote pass in Kyrgyzstan (story here). Except up here was much colder, a lot harsher. I’d not want to be up here in a storm, I thought. At the top of the steep climb, there was a somewhat demoralizing expanse of plateau still between me and the summit of Shiretoko-dake. At this stage, the summit was still clearly visible. The surface left much to be desired, however. Hard, rimed, and crusty. Sastrugi spawned out from still-exposed haimatsu pines, and ice clung like a thousand sharp knives horizontally to the poor tortured souls of trees that dared to stand taller than the snow cover.
By the time I’d got to just below the summit, I realized I’d been moving for about 4.5 hours without much of a break. The wind was picking up, so I took the opportunity to scoff down some dorayaki (sweetened bean paste sandwiched between two hotcakes) and daifuku (sweetened bean paste enveloped in smooth mochi rice). All washed down with some hot green tea from my thermos. I threw on another layer, and continued upwards.
The summit was an anti-climax for a couple of reasons. First, by the time I got there, the cloud had rolled in and I had about 10m of visibility. Second, there is no sign marking the summit. The only alternative to a selfie with a summit sign was a quick screenshot of a marker on my GPS app (I use AlpineQuest).
I resigned to seeing no view whatsoever of the precipitous cliffs directly to the north of the summit, and quickly set up for the rickety, icy descent. I had got about 200m from the summit, however, when the skies cleared for a moment. I quickly removed my skis and boot-packed back to the summit. This was rewarded with partial views down the cliffs towards Shiretoko Cape, some 12km away. Some last slithers of drift ice were visible on the northern side of the peninsula. Everything around me was caked with rime.
A grateful sense of achievement accompanied me as I finally started in earnest back down the mountain, across the wide expanse of the plateau. Another snow shower was clearly rolling in, so it was time for me to get off this hill. The going was tough on the downhill. The self-inflicted inconvenience of a careful, slow descent was the price I’d pay for indulging in this personal quest to put a dot on the map right at the eastern tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula.
The descent only got fun once I’d dropped off the icy plateau and into the wide gully below. I wasn’t game to ski the center of the gully, but even on the sides, there was a gorgeous layer of only slightly wind-affected snow on a thrillingly steep slope. This entire bowl, in fact, looked great for skiing, including the generously spaced trees on the opposite side. It felt important to enjoy this pocket of good skiing, because it was sandwiched between almost 4km of flat wooded approach below, and a 2km world of icy stastrugi above. This mountain definitely felt like a place to put a narcissistic notch in one’s belt rather than a place to revel in pure hedonistic pow turns.
At the bottom of the steep section, I passed an older couple on snowshoes. They were taken aback at my early 3am start, but with the wind increasing, I doubt they would have made it beyond the start of the plateau above. I pushed on down, along more mellow downhill slopes now, until I hit the approach plateau. The woods I’d skinned through by moonlight were really quite beautiful in the daylight. Natural untouched forests of the Shoretoko Peninsula National Park. This plateau spat me out onto the seashore, back where the adventure had started some 6 hours ago.
I spent some time taking gratuitous self-portraits and unnecessary gear-porn shots for if I ever get around to doing a review of these new skis of mine…
Before making the final 1km skin along the deserted sea front. Back at the car I had a euphoric moment of achievement – Shiretoko-dake had been high on my list of places to go in winter. Not for the snow per se, but the pure exploration factor of such a remote peak. Everything about it ticked boxes – starting from the end of the road, skinning along a snow-covered stony beach, mother Russia in the background, and just a (very hard) stone’s throw from the tip of Shiretoko Peninsula.