A winter foray into the Teshio-dake area had long been on my list of things to get around to. To make a good go of it, however, I really wanted to spend a few days based at the Teshio-dake hut. The opportunity presented itself in the form of rain at Moriyoshi-zan in Akita Prefecture. You see, Chris, Katie, and Andy and I had a bullet-proof perfect plan all drafted up for an 8-day mission, sampling some of Tohoku’s established ski touring routes. We got through the first four fantastic days in Aomori, only to be greeted with a southerly weather system for the last four days, driving up the temperatures. When we limped into the Moriyoshi-zan ski resort, it was raining.
“How high is the freezing level?” I asked the front desk guy. “Well above the top station,” he replied. We slunked off, dejected and beaten. This was not what we’d come down to Tohoku for. “Let’s discuss options over lunch,” offered Katie, after cheering everyone up with her insistence that she take another photo in one of those put-your-head-in-it photo wall things.
My memory of how things evolved over lunch is hazy. I’m pretty sure at one point Chris suggested we just pack it all in and head back north to Hokkaido. It made sense. Today was a whitewash anyway, so why not drive the 3 hours to Hachinohe, jump on the overnight ferry, and be in Hokkaido by 6am the next morning?
We all felt terrible for cancelling our accommodation for that night in Moriyoshi-zan. It was a small, remote mountain inn. “You want to cancel?!” the incredulous elderly woman spat into the phone. “I’ve already bought ingredients for your dinners,” she said, sounding dejected. I asked how we could make it right, and she requested that we pay in full for the first night of the two nights we were booked in to stay. Her’s was a cash-only establishment, so after lunch we made the 45 minute drive up a dead-end road to pay in person.
Generous to the core, as all Tohoku locals had been hitherto, she allowed us to have a soak in the inn’s onsen before we left. In the mixed-gender onsen, we all took turns sitting next to the onsen inlet pipe – it was only just warm enough to be comfortable. This made it perfect for discussing our options though. How about the northern reaches of the Daisetsu range? What about Ashibetsu-dake near Furano?
And then I suggested, as a long-shot, a four-day hut trip to Teshio-dake hut. “It involves a 9km skin to the hut,” I warned everyone. “And reports I’ve had suggest the hut doesn’t get very warm, even with the stove cranking.”
“We’re totally up for a hut trip,” gushed Katie.
“The terrain seems more suited to snowmobiling in,” mused Chris. “But I’m keen if you guys are keen.”
And so it was decided. Teshio-dake hut or bust.
The drive from Moriyoshi-zan to Hachinohe was unevenftul. We were on the expressway most of the way. Speeding through a wet, warm wasteland. Where had those previous four days of gloriously cold, dry snow gone? This year was, indeed, a strange year.
The southerly monster that was dampening our Tohoku powder tour was, of course, also threatening to make our hasty escape back to Hokkaido on the ferry a very rough and wild ride. Chris took some screenshots from various weather app screens. All were indicating it was going to be an interesting night. We stocked up on sea-sickness pills in Hachinohe.
Despite it being a very rough 8hr overnight ferry ride, we all slept well – the meds did their job. We had gone to sleep in Hachinohe on the eastern coast of Aomori Prefecture, and were now driving towards central Hokkaido at 7am the next morning.
We stopped in at my place to raid my gear shelf – sleeping bags, sleeping mats, cookers, pots…everything we’d need for three nights in a hut with little more than a stove and fuel. And then we hightailed it to my nearby Homac hardware store to get the bits necessary for building an improvised pulk. It would end up being a massively wide sled, but gloriously effective in reducing the load on our backs – no one had anticipated doing a hut trip on this trip, so our normal daypacks would have been a stretch to get all the food and gear in.
We also stopped in at the local Max Value supermarket. This was not going to be a freeze-dry suffer-fest. Hokkaido Wilds doesn’t do freeze-dry suffer-fest hut trips.
Amazingly, all the gear fit into Chris’s adventure-wagon, including the huge sled, which fit very nicely into the roof-box. The two hour drive up to Aibetsu Town and then on to the end of the snowclearing at the end of Ponteshio Lake was straight forward.
We’d left rainy Moriyoshi-zan – 500km south – less than 24 hours earlier, and were now back in a northern winter wonderland. We hastily got everything in order, and set off towards the hut. It was already 3pm, so we were expecting to arrive at the hut after sundown.
We took turns pulling the sled. After an hour or so, we figured out it was easier pulling the sled if the three people not pulling the sled made a two-person wide skin track. This sped things up a little. As expected, by the time we got to the hut, we’d been hauling for almost four hours, and it was well after dark.
Once at the hut, we hurried to get the wood stove running and dinner on the go – a simple affair consisting of boil-in-the-tray rice, ready-made curry sachets, and sausages. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the wood stove was much more effective at heating the hut than others had reported it being. Perhaps some work had been done to seal up some of the gaps in the hut walls and windows.
After dinner we didn’t spend too much time hanging around before settling into our sleeping bags for an early night.
The next morning, first on the agenda was removing some of the window boards, in order to make the hut feel less like a dark, dank hovel.
We’d expected the next day to be more or less a write-off as far as getting into the alpine was concerned. Winds of up to 90km/h were forecast, along with some snow. We contented ourselves with skiing some lines we’d been told about, getting well and truly hammered by the wind in the process. We’ll post a few of those routes soonish. Suffice it to say that the relative lack of snow this year across Hokkaido was making slope selection difficult – lots of shrubbery still exposed on some otherwise good looking slopes.
After lunch back at the hut, Andy, Katie and I headed back out into a strengthening storm. “You have some crazy friends,” I told Chris in jest afterwards. But despite not getting very high, or scoring any great lines, it was nice to be out and getting a better feel for the environs around the hut.
Dinner that night was yaki-niku – a Japanese take on barbecue, but not at all like barbecue. Cuts of pork and beef, fried on the frypan we’d hauled up to the hut on the sled. Along with veges and lots of mushrooms, plus yaki-niku dipping sauce.
Sleep soon followed.
It was now our second full day at the hut. Summit day. Or so we hoped. Peering outside, we could see the surrounding ridges were cloaked in cloud. It was a moody start to the day, but we started it well with good drip coffee, bacon and eggs, and sausages. And yes, Katie is wearing sloth slippers.
We finally dragged ourselves out of the warm confines of the hut, and into an overcast morning. “Let’s just see how far we get, and keep expectations in check,” I proffered. We were hoping to find at least one good slope to get some decent skiing in on this trip, and that probably didn’t require us to get to the summit.
Just beyond the trailhead, Andy gave another shot at skinning across the steel-beam bridge across the creek. He’d made a glorious fall yesterday, but was determined to make it across. The problem was that there was only a long mushroom-like slither of soft snow along the 20cm wide girders on either side. Not quite enough to catch enough snow to fully support two skis side by side. To his credit, he made it further along today, before losing a pole end into thin air on the other side. He conceded defeat and slithered off the side of the bridge to the snow-covered creek below.
We made good time along the summer trail Old Route (旧道) to the connecting Connecting Route (連絡道). At the junction, we quickly gained the ridge, and started the climb in earnest. As we climbed, the weather cleared. A mystical mist at first, and then glorious sunshine. We were ecstatic. We might get to the summit today after all.
We made good time again to the main western ridge that would take us to the summit. Chris put up his drone to get some beta shots. It was a beautiful, clear blue sky day above us, with next to no wind. The drone shots revealed some high cloud above the summit, but more concerning, some pretty dense-looking low cloud hugging the summit ridge.
We pushed on, still agnostic to our chances of actually seeing the summit.
Our blue skies wouldn’t last. Before long we had climbed into the soupy void. Visibility was OK, but the wind had picked up considerably. Despite this, it was smiles all around as Chris snapped some portraits of the team.
I was in somewhat of a hungry it-must-be-lunchtime-soon daze, when I finally bothered to look around me. We’d spent at least 15 minutes walking into the haze, and I’d lost track of my surroundings. There in the distance, unexpectedly, was the Teshiodake Emergency Hut. I was ecstatic. Hokkaido mountain huts are akin to pokemon for me. Gotta catch ’em all. And I’d completely forgotten that we’d be passing by this hut on our way to the summit.
It was caked in rime, but more importantly, there stood Teshio-dake in the distance behind it, standing clear against a blue sky. The snow conditions were rimy, hard-packed wind-destroyed concrete, but we all couldn’t have cared less. Chris sent the drone up for a second time to get some bigger-pictute shots.
The final push to the summit was fairly easy. Weaving through low-lying snow monsters, the only crux of the route was a bullet-proof snow final climb up to the summit. “Ski crampons wouldn’t have gone amiss on that ascent,” mentioned Chris at the summit.
All around us was a sea of clouds. Huge views across to Kuro-dake and the northern reaches of the Daisetsuzan Range to the south. We felt on top of the world.
I was distracted by my boots though. The ski mode lever had iced up, and wouldn’t budge to allow me to close my boots. I tried heating it with a lighter, but a stiff breeze at the summit was thwarting those attempts. “You have hot water in your thermos, right?” asked Chris. That did the trick, at least allowing me to close the boots snugly around my feet.
The descent off the summit was a scratchy, bumpy, scrapey sort of affair, with pockets of thin wind-blown powder on top of bullet-proof rime. It was survival skiing for the most part for me at least. It didn’t take us long to get back to the hut on the ridge, and from there, we checked out a promising looking line east of the Maru-yama hump, at around the 1330m point on the map. The slope was steep though, and with massive winds we’d seen the previous days, we didn’t dare venture onto it.
We put skins back on, and made the climb back up to the summer trail, skirting around the western side of the 1433m knob. From there, we could finally start making our descent in earnest. We wrapped around the northern side of the knob, and immediately struck gold.
“I knew it would be good,” said Andy, “because all of a sudden, I couldn’t hear you up ahead!”
He was right. The sudden change from ear-piercing ski-chatter on hard ice to the smooth, quiet, creamy sensation of skiing on powder was euphoric.
We skied that western side of the long south to north ridge all the way to back to the summer trail junction – such a great punctuation to an already fantastic day out.
We arrived back at the hut in the late afternoon, all grinning from ear-to-ear. A roaring success. We celebrated with cheese and crackers, some more of the sake we’d hauled in, nabe hot pot for dinner, and many rounds of card games.
This was followed by another early night. The next day would be our last day at the hut, and we had an extra-interesting looking line close to the hut to check out. I’ll leave that for another post.