July 3, 2016
The number of days I have left to climb Hokkaido’s mountains is rapidly dwindling. So despite a very unfriendly weather forecast, I tucked my chin and decided to charge headfirst up Nagayama-dake (永山岳, 1978 m) with Sam the other weekend. The trail is known for being particularly quiet–and indeed, we didn’t see a single other soul on the mountain. We did, however, get very cold and very wet. Which might have explained the scarcity of other climbers.
On the way to the trailhead at Aizankei Onsen, the sky was overcast and iron-gray. I was expecting the usual dirt road up to the onsen but was surprised to find that it was paved the whole way up, which led to a little restrained hooning. There were a few cars at the end of the road, mostly rentals and kei trucks loaded up with fishing gear.
There were two buildings at the trailhead. The first was a white two-storey building operated by the ‘Aizankei Club’ and which housed the modest hot springs. Off to the side we could see a large wooden building with an adjoining outdoor foot bath and accommodation for hikers. I didn’t check inside but I get the sense that it, like most mountain lodges, is a pretty bare and bring-your-own-bag kind of affair.
We found the trailhead at the end of the parking lot, flanked by a very inaccurately-drawn map. Maybe 100 meters up the trail we came to a junction with one of those trail registers, finding the name of a 67-year old making the 5-day, 90-km traverse to Tokachi-dake. Godspeed, old man. The trail to the left headed up into the Daisetsuzan; the right-hand trail looks on the maps like a traverse to a mountain road near the Antaroma River. We headed up the left trail.
The previous day’s rain had left the trail real muddy but the forestry service had laid those, like, wooden rails down to walk along, so we were able to dodge most of the small swamps we came across. We followed the bank of the river for a while, then crossed the river by a very rickety bridge, and came to the 33-Magari Junction. The trail split off up the hill towards Numa-no-daira (沼ノ平), a huge alpine meadow above us, but we followed the river further up towards its headwaters.
Along the way, we passed a small waterfall called ‘Shouten-no-taki’ (昇天ノ滝, literally ‘waterfall of going to heaven’) and then a larger waterfall called ‘Murasame-no-taki (村雨ノ滝). Just above Murasame, we crossed the river again. This time there was no bridge, and the river was pretty swollen, so we threw some big stones across a likely spot (sending big ol’ splashes everywhere) and hobbled across. Not, however, without first dunking my right leg in the stream and soaking my foot. At about this time, the rain started to fall anyway, and my left sock soaked through a little bit afterward.
Past the river crossing we came to the aptly-named Taki-no-ue Junction (literally, ‘above the waterfall junction’), where our trail got steep for the first time. Here started the long slog up to the Nagayama-dake peak itself. The trail turned to clay and the big foresty birch trees fell back, replaced by pine brush and sasa bamboo, happy to unload their dewy leaves all over us. The clouds crowded in and obscured the climb further than 50 meters in any direction; if we had been able to see it, the five ponds of Numa-no-daira would have risen behind us. Alas, no luck.
Around this time as well, the rain started to get a little heavy and I didn’t feel great whipping my phone out every ten minutes to take pictures (due to the iPhone’s serial inability to withstand a thorough soaking (thanks a lot Jony Ive)), so I tucked it in a plastic bag to hide away until such time as a summit selfie was viable.
Past here we only found pine brush in patches along the trail; the predominant terrain was loose, head-sized rocks, dirt, and low alpine scrub. The wind picked up so we ducked under a bush and pulled our sweaters over our heads, but those were shortly soak through as well. Shortly after, we arrived at a little rest area with a couple of benches and a weatherworn sign. Near here was a lively little stream, burbling up from underneath a big dirty shield of old snow. We were hella cold by this point so we walked on by.
We soon left all vegetation behind. At this point I wasn’t really even looking up: the wind blowing into my face kept pulling my hood in weird directions. But under my wet feet the ground was brown, yellow, red, black–big gnarled hunks of rock and volcanic gravel. Behind me, Sam kept stopping every minute or so; the word she later used was “despondent.” The climb wasn’t hard, and I wasn’t tired, but the wind was relentless and I was thoroughly wet and cold. It turns out that walking drenched through a driving wind at 2 km above sea level will chill you right down to the bone. Go figure.
I kept picking out landmarks to overtake, gauging my progress. Eventually I passed a prominent outcrop and looked up for the next one–only to find the ground curving back down and away from me. Atop the outcrop: the carved wooden post that marks the summits of Daisetsuzan peaks! Sam showed up 30 seconds later or so and we ducked behind a bit of a ledge, out of the wind. My fingers were too cold to open a Soy Joy bar, and Sam, evidently tired of my antics, took the bar and tore the wrapper off with her teeth.
After a quick selfie, we raced back down the mountain to get out of the wind. I slipped a good number of times on the wet clay heading back down into the river gully below. By the time we had gotten back down into the forest, the rain had let up a little, and we started to dry out. Back at the car we draped all of our clothes over the back seats, cranked up the heater, and shared a Snickers.
Aizankei Onsen trailhead: 8:35 -> 33-Magari Junction: 8:57 -> Taki-no-ue Junction: 10:25 -> summit: 12:47 -> Taki-no-ue Junction: 14:04 -> trailhead: 14:59
Climbing time: 4 hours, 12 minutes / Descending time: 2 hours, 12 minutes