Riding Volcanos | Komagatake, Japan

January 16, 2019

 

From the peak of Niseko (An-nupuri), it is just about possible to see the faint outline of volcano Komagatake. You need a clear day - a very clear day - which is a rare phenomenon here in a wintry Hokkaido, Japan.

 

My partner Steve was the one to spot it. 150km away, over the Uchiura bay. It appeared conical, a faint shimmering shadow of Mt. Yotei - the huge volcano that otherwise dominates the view from Niseko.

 

Looking at satellite views we learned that Komagatake isn’t in fact conical, it is a horseshoe shape with two peaks, a saddle to join them and a sloping backside. Historically it was, but it erupted explosively in 1640 which caused a deadly tsunami as it dumped trillions of tons of debris in the surrounding ocean.

 

 

Since this catastrophic volcanic sneeze, Komagatake has cleared its throat 36 times since, the last being in 2002. It’s still active, opening up cracks, fissures and craters in its form. One of these craters we affectionatly called "The Bumhole” and we wished to gaze into its greatness.

 

 

 

 

The Crew

 

Steve - Together almost 9 years, we nurture our volcanic obsessions.

Mike - Our Bristolian adventure friend

And myself - Self proclaimed documenter of our adventures

 

 

 

 

The Mission

 

4:35am

We picked up Mike from Hirafu and set off to join National Route 5. The road that connects Hokkaido’s biggest city Sapporo to the port city of Hakodate, and the road that will take us the whole 150km down to Komagatake. We sped along the empty concrete as the sky lightened. Skirting the great big shape of Yotei silhouetted black against dark blue.

 

6:00am

We reached the sea and a large orange sun hovered above the satisfyingly flat horizon. Small, clean waves were rolling off the pacific to crash on the little littered coastline. And then we noticed, there was more litter than snow down here.

 

It then occurred to us - what if there’s no snow on the volcano?

We’d had a load of warm weather recently, which has been melting the snowpack, but back in Niseko, the snow is so deep there are still buildings partially submerged. But down here, many kilometers south and surrounded by sea... Had we got too used to the abundance of snow that the lack of it didn’t even occur to us?

 

We carried on, driving past sassa, Japanese bamboo.

 

 

6:40am

We finally sight komagatake 18km away.

 

The shape strikes us -  two pointy peaks and a saddle joining them - a very different profile to what we can see from Niseko.

 

As we grew closer we could see the ridges. Looking a wee bit bare for our liking. We crossed our fingers for snow stashes in gulleys. We were headed round the back for a southern trail.

 

On the up side, maybe our start point will be further up the summer road?

Nope.

 

 

8:00am

We start the long approach on snow. Following the road and old snowshoe and snowmobile tracks.

 

We get on the shoulder and it’s a mellow incline all the way to the top. The wind increased in intensity as we ascended. It became clear why the ridges were stripped bear. Soon we were leaning into a relentless wind. Waves of snow and ice crystals rolled towards us and we braced ourselves against each violent gust.

 

Boards on backs we boot pack the remaining 200m of hard pack ice.

 

We make it to the 2km-wide crater plain, the two peaks rising before us. Kengaminekomagatake is the bigger of the two sitting on the SE edge of the crater.

 

The face looked sick.

 

 

 

But it also shined in the sunshine giving away the icy conditions on its steep face. I would have loved to climb it, but even walking along the relatively flat crater, the relentless winds would occasionally slide you backwards. Up there would have been a cold, fast death flume.

 

Steve and I traversed the windy icy crater whilst Mike more sensibly opted to shelter by a rocky outcrop. It felt like an expedition in the wild antarctic crossing that crater, 2 steps forward, one slide back. Occasionally we find shallow pockets of wind blown snow which let us lay our footprints and move faster, but they were few and far between.

 

Despite the weather I take photos of the barren, dramatic landscape. Over the howling wind my radio crackles and Steve’s voice drifts through “I’ve found the bumhole!”

 

100m in front I see Steve, radio in hand, pointing. In front of him I see the edge of a huge depression, a sink hole in the plateau of ice.

 

As we gain proximity to Showa 4-nen crater (aka the Bumhole) the sides drop to vertical cliffs. Reddish bare rock dropping 30-40 metres, with huge icicles that gripped to the overhanging snowpack above.

 

 

 

It was an awesome sight, and one which draws you closer and closer until Steve astutely pointed out our side was heavily corniced. We kept a distance and I’m glad we did. Later inspection of the satellite view, the bumhole stretches further out on our side than it did the other sides, so we were right on the edge of the abyss.

 

Fortunately the wind direction was blowing side on and so pushed us right past. We reunited with Mike across the icy tundra and after an onigiri and some whisky we rode down the way we came. Ice turned to wind blasted snow which was nice for turns but after a few the mellow nature of the walk in meant a straight-line back out.

 

 

The Takeaway

I enjoyed myself immensely and the guys did too. We’ve been riding the deepest powder of our lives all season - it’s what we do for work. But this was an exploration of an active volcano.

 

An adventure into the workings of our planet that fills you with a high that any turns on the way down are a bonus. Ice, rock, wind, bumholes, they make you feel alive.

 

Arigatou Komagatake!

 

 

The Stats

 

Date: 19th March 2018

Location:  42°04'09.9"N 140°40'54.0"E   |   Mt Komagatake, Kayabe District, Hokkaido, Japan

Min Altitude: 315m

Max Altitude: 1004m (Peak = 1131m)

Total ascent: 678m

Distance: 13km

Total time: 4 hours 40 minutes

 

The crew on the instagrams:

 

Steve: @steeve.small

Mike: @mbrookes27

Me (Charlotte): @_charlotteworkman_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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