Unabetsu-dake is not the first mountain people tend to think of as far as Shiretoko Peninsula peaks go. Rausu-dake, with its prominent southeastern chute, or the conical Shari-dake (which isn’t actually on the Shiretoko Peninsula) tend to get all the attention. Nonetheless, it is a prominent mountain on the eastern Hokkaido skyline, if not rather understated. Any hardcore Hokkaido local backcountry skier will have a notch in their belt that has Unabetsu-dake’s name on it though, so I had to go and check it out.
Along for the trip was Hiro and Quentin. The weather was marginal for our attempt on the peak, with worsening winds and some snow forecast for the early afternoon. We were expecting about 4 hours from trailhead to summit, so we left our accommodation in Abashiri early, to get on the trail by around 7am. I’d seen recent GPS tracks on Yamareco.com that suggested the minor road accessing the guideboook start to the route might not be cleared of snow any more, but to our delight, we were able to drive all the way to the start of the route, at the t-intersection here.
From here, it was a straight shot east across a field to the deer fence, which we were able to step over. Later in the season, the snow might have melted so much that you’ll need to walk north along the fence to a nearby gate. From here, we cut diagonally across the wide river valley to an old forestry road which took us all the way to a large dam across the Junisen-gawa river, at around 365m in altitude.
Already the cloud was lower than had been forecasted, but visibility remained relatively good. From the dam, we carried along above the river for another 750m or so, until we found a suitable slope to skin up onto the broad Shuen Ridge. Overall, the surface so far was a mix between breakable crust and very hard icy crust. Hiro’s acquaintance in Abashiri had warned us that the last few weeks had seen warm days followed by cold nights, so the snow might be quite hard. And it was.
The forest along the Shuen Ridge was beautiful though. Quiet with large mature trees.
As we neared the treeline, the cloud was quite thick. As expected, despite a strong wind forecasted from the west, we were sheltered in this eastern approach. There was not much wind at all. We were hopeful that even if we didn’t get a view, we might get a summit.
Our hope was short lived. as we approach the more exposed upper summit ridgelines, we came more and more into the brunt of the westerly wind. There was a large cornice on the western side of the summit ridge, and on the non-corniced side the slope was covered with exposed haimatsu low pines. Visibility was down to less than 30m. As we climbed, the wind just got stronger.
We were about 300m as the crow flies from the summit. We’d done most of the vertical gain, and the summit was in clear reach.
But we turned back.
It was already a physical struggle to remove skins and set up for the downhill. The summit would have been worse. On the way down the summit ridge, Hiro almost inadvertently skied off the cornice. We had no idea what was below, so it was a lucky reminder to take it easy. Lower down, we finally made it onto some haimatsu-free slopes, but now it was the breakable crust that was making the going tough. Back in the relative shelter of the lower valley, things were better going between the trees, but it was certainly not care-free skiing.
We resigned to accepting our fate, and enjoyed the curiosities of the forest on our way back down. The holes in the tree below looked almost too perfect to have been created by a bird, but indeed that’s what they are. A tree with a rotten center is a smorgasbord for the local woodpeckers around here.