The Challenge camp: How we conquered Yotei-zan
August 21, 2011 2 Comments
Quite a long post ahead, there is just so much to write about.
The challenge camp as I mentioned in the last post was all about the kids deciding to do something ‘challenging’. Apparently there were challenges such as spending 3 days canoeing down a river, or building a raft and living on it for 3 days. The group I was assigned to however, decided on something a little different, they wanted to climb a mountain.
This part of the week was quite boring for me. I speak some Japanese, and understand quite a lot, but I did not understand or speak nearly enough to really help in any way with the planning. Essentially I was there for moral support, this was a great shame for me, as I would have loved to be more involved with the planning and helping decide on what we should do.
My group’s plans changed several times over the course of the two days. Initially the plan was to stay in a mountain lodge that was situated about two-thirds of the way up a mountain owned by a local farmer. We would then get up at about 3:00am and climb to the top in order to see the sunrise. This plan did not go ahead since the track that we needed to drive up was not useable at the time and the director of the nature school also thought that it was not necessarily challenging enough.
The plan then switched to climbing three mountains in three days. We would start with an easy mountain, about 900-1000m high, the second day we would do a ‘hard’ mountain, about 1800-2000m high, and the last day would be another easy mountain. This plan also didn’t go ahead; firstly it would prove to be too difficult to climb three mountains for the kids, there was one especially small kid in the group who wouldn’t have made it. Also we had time restrictions for the camp, we not only had to make camp but also had to get back to the nature school by 14:00 on the 13th. Finally there was no way we could find three reasonable mountains within easy distance of each other.
So the final plan was to climb Yotei-Yama or Yotei-zan, an active volcano of 1898m and known as Ezo Fuji, the Fuji of Hokkaido since its shape resembles that of Fuji-San. We would be given a lift to the camp site at the base of the mountain; climb the mountain the following day, and on the last day pack up and go back to the nature school.
The drive and making camp were actually quite dull for me, although the kids were immensely excited, as they should be. The problem for me was that we had set off around 10:00am and had reached the campsite at about 12:30-1:00. Because we had not planned anything for that day other than to get to the camp site and set up camp, there was very little to do apart from put up the tent and sort out belongings and such. Not especially challenging as camps went, although I have to admit, seeing the mountain and the forests that cover its slopes was quite amazing, and made me immensely excited about our climb to the summit the following day.
To pass the time we went for a short walk to visit a nearby lake which apparently had loads of very big bees/wasps/hornets around it, we didn’t see any luckily as they are meant to be quite vicious if you get near the hive. We then made dinner, which turned out to be Japanese curry. I am now sick of seeing or even smelling Japanese curry, having grown eating Indian and Thai curries, Japanese curry just seems to be a bland, brown mess (very sorry if this offends anyone, its just what I think). And after some washing up we had a very early night, I think around 6:00-7:00pm.
While this may seem immensely early there was a reason for it, the following morning we woke at 3:00am. The temperature had been pretty high, around 30ºC during the camp, and it was also very humid on the mountain. Add this to the fact that we were expecting the climb to take about 5 hours, perhaps longer taking into consideration the weather and also the speed of the kids, if we set off any later than 5:00am we probably wouldn’t have made it back down the mountain before 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. So the early start was essential, firstly to make sure we got quite far up before it got too hot, and secondly so that we were able to make it to the top and back down again before it got dark.
The climb itself was tough, up, up, constantly up, no flat sections to rest from the climbing. The path was very steep, large rocks, slippery parts, tree roots, etc. I started off at a relatively good pace, not too fast, but steady, unfortunately it seemed to be far too fast for the kids to keep up. We had to have constant breaks for them to drink and eat snacks; this is something I wasn’t especially happy with. Not the stopping, but the kinds of snacks that they were eating. On the way to the mountain we stopped off at a convenience store, and while I bought some rice cakes for the climb, the kids loaded themselves with cheap ¥80 bags of sweets that smelled terrible. The rate that we climbed, if it were a graph would probably resemble that of a earth quake, they sped up after the sweets, and when the sugar ran out, barely moved. Not the best way to climb what is a demanding mountain for everyone, especially kids.
The climb was tough for me as well, partly because of the amount I had in my bag. Having climbed mountains before I had come prepared with various layers, raincoats/trousers, proper snacks and a 2-liter water bladder. Unfortunately I was told that I would also have to carry two 2 liter bottles of water as well for the kids, this meant that with my own water, food and kits, along with the extra water my bag weighed around 8 kilos. The Japanese staff that was on the camp with us also had two full bottles of water, along with the kids water we probably had a ridiculous 12-14 liters of water with us. Far too much as it turned out since I ended up emptying one bottle half way up the climb since we hadn’t used any of it, and emptied the second bottle as we descended.
While the climb was hard-going for everyone, the views, which we got from time to time when there was a break in the mist that surrounded the mountain in the morning, were worth the effort.
Unfortunately when we got to the ridge at the top, the mountain was surrounded by cloud and mist, and we also had a very strong and cold wind blowing up the side of the crater and over the top of the ridge. This final part of the climb, around the ridge to the highest point was probably the hardest part in many ways. Visibility was low because of the cloud, and the wind made the going quite tough, especially for the kids, two of whom were actually quite small, and one of them had to be held by the Japanese staff because he was literally being blown around by the wind.
We were walking along a ridge, not the narrowest I have ever been on, but having falls and crags either side of you, plus the wind and the cloud made it feel much smaller. The path was marked by white arrows and blobs painted on rocks, plus stone cairns every so often along the path.
The feeling of finally getting to the summit was immense, it had been a long, hard climb, it was cold at the top and the wind was very strong, but we had made it to the summit in just under 5 hours, quite an achievement for the kids. This was a great feeling for me, since it was the first time that I have been near an active volcano, let alone climbed one, admittedly the last time Yotei-zan had erupted was thousands of years ago, but it is still active.
We took some pictures of our group, had our lunch of Onigiri and then after a brief rest started out descent. Unfortunately, because of the cloud and mist we couldn’t really see much while at the summit, there is meant to be a spectacular view on a clear day, especially since Yotei-zan is alone, in the middle of a plain, with mountain chains around it.
The descent was pretty tricky, and probably harder than the climb. While there wasn’t the same sort of effort as it took to climb the mountain, the descent had its own share of troubles. The path, was narrow, steep, and in many places very slippery because of the almost constant moisture in the air. There were also some very large rocks and little drops that we had climbed over on the way up, which we had to negotiate on the way down. Needless to say there were quite a few slips and falls from the kids as they slipped or tripped on various objects and obstacles; on a couple of occasions I slipped up, but they were mainly due to one of the kids slipping themselves and cannoning into the back of me. The decent took less time than the climb, mainly because of gravity I think, but we made our camp at around 2:30 in the afternoon, something like 3 hours after we had set off from the summit.
The climb and the descent were tricky, and I am very impressed at the kids making it to the top. While I had come prepared for the climb, with proper outdoor shoes (I lacked proper trekking shoes since I did not have enough space in my luggage to bring them from England), multiple layers including thermal layers, water proofs, proper snacks and my water bladder (pouch). The kids were climbing the mountain in trainers and tracksuits, none of them had brought any water proofs, and they didn’t have any gloves or hats for when we reached the summit. but, even being this unprepared and in many ways completely out of their depth, they managed to climb the mountain in 5 hours and make it back down again without any major incident or injury. And while I was not happy at their total lack of preparation and lack of proper clothes for the climb, I cannot hep but be impressed and amazed at them making it, something that they should be truly proud of.
The kids were pretty dead by this point, totally exhausted, but we managed to cook some dinner; this turned out to be udon with meat sauce, quite a simple and fast meal. We then had an early night, with the promise of another relatively early start the next day.
The next day we had to pack up everything and walk from the campsite to the nearest train station at Hirafu, something like 10kms away, from here we would catch the train to Konbu and finally relax in the onsen there. The plan was to wake early, pack and be away as soon as possible since it would start getting hot quite early and also our train was at 9:36 in the morning.
The walk to the station was not so bad, but it was made quite cumbersome because of the amount of stuff the Japanese seem to take with them when they go camping. We had 3 shopping baskets with things like Ceresin burners, pans, knives, and of course a cool box with food in it, not to mention the large tent, which we had all been sleeping in. We did however make the station around 8:30, which wasn’t to bad, and it had not got too hot yet. The train journey to Kondu was relatively short, and the feeling of getting to the onsen was almost as good as when we had summated Yotei-zan, it was also the first time any of us had been able to have a wash in 3 days.
After a good hour and a half soaking in the onsens many baths (I was particularly fond of the outdoor bath) we had a further hour or so to wait for our lift back to the nature school. The drive back itself was nice, with the windows rolled down I could enjoy the wonderful scenery that Hokkaido has to offer. We were also the first team to return to the nature school, and after sorting out all our equipment, washing the tent and such I then spent about an hour lying in the hammock outside waiting for everyone else to return.
There were many tales to be told and lots of catching up to do with everyone at the farewell banquet last night. This banquet also included food cooked by all the staff from different countries, and of course speeches and presentations by each ‘challenge’ team about what they had done over the last three days. It was a great dinner, we all had lots to talk about, but at the same time there was a little sadness, since of course the next day all the kids and some of the staff would be leaving the camp. But at the time what was most important was talking to everyone that was near me and catching up on the tales they had to tell, as well as telling a few of my own.
Overall this last camp had some of the most amazing memories for me, but was also one of the most boring in many ways. I also learned that the Japanese take far too much with them for a mere 2 nights of camping, this made the walk to the train station, while a relatively short one, quite an annoying one since we were all carrying our bags, along with shopping baskets and other things that we had taken on the camp. But apart from that, what I will remember is making the summit of Yotei-zan, and the final meal that all the kids and staff had.