Give and Accept the Flowers
Written by Travis Weller
Japan’s Daisetsuzan Traverse is a roughly 70km trail that spans Daisetsuzan National Park located in central Hokkaido Island. The average time to complete the grueling traverse is 5-8 days of all-day hiking, connecting a baker’s dozen of dizzying peaks along the way. The weather is famously unpredictable with many accounts of folks taking shelter for days waiting out unrelenting storms to pass during the mid-July through September hiking season.
Our crew: Drew Smith, Hakim Tafari, Nash Mader, and myself. Our plan: run/fast pack the traverse in two days, in early June, with an overnight in a backcountry shelter roughly halfway through. Ambitious, yes. Impossible, no. Besides, the inspiration for this journey was a more contemporary form of misogi, the practice of transformation by attempting a challenge that forces you to confront fears, doubts, and weaknesses head-on.
Our plan began to unravel after our long drive from Sapporo to Daisetsuzan National Park. When we arrived at the traverse’s northern terminus, Nash was barely able to stand up due to a sudden back spasm that left him bed bound for nearly 24 hours. Returning to the southern terminus in the dark to find a camp spot and begin the adventure after a few hours of sleep was out of the question. Plan A aborted. We regrouped at a local hostel and decided to get an early start going north-to-south versus the more common south-to-north route.
Daylight comes early on Hokkaido with first light peeking through at 3 a.m. Drew, Hakim, and I began the long, steep trek towards Asahi-dake, Hokkaido’s tallest peak, after a quick round of warm drinks and final gear prep. We hit deep snow within 10 minutes from the trailhead and it was soon obvious we’d be traveling atop snow start to finish.
As we ascended through the buried forests of birch and ash trees the terrain opened up into snow fields stretching upwards towards the still-frozen and hidden Sugatami pond. The terrain got steeper as we climbed and by the time we reached the halfway point to the active stratovolcano’s summit, we decided to once again reassess our goals at the small stone refuge.
A decision was made, there would be no attempt at a full traverse. We were traveling very light and would run a high risk of overnight exposure in extreme weather atop the unprotected ridgelines. Plan B aborted. The new plan was to summit Asahi-dake and then continue south to a backcountry refuge, retracing our route the following day. Asahi-dake had other ideas.
The volcano’s legendary weather began to rear its gnarly face as we began the final approach from the stone refuge. Our pace became a slow crawl, literally at times. The wind went from a steady breeze to a full-on raging scream. Our fingers began to mimic the frozen boulders scattered all around us.
Our fields of vision would vary from expansive to nonexistent as we ascended deeper into the mountain’s fury. There was a moment when Hakim and I locked eyes and without words, I knew the summit would be our finale if we even made it that far. Eyes still linked he gave me a head nod, a mini bow of sorts, suggesting he was willing to continue. He was immersed in his personal misogi and I felt honored to bear witness to it.
We slowly continued skyward while the mountain aimed to blow us off its face down into the volcanic steam vents a few thousand feet below. A final switchback and short ridgeline scramble led us to the summit of Asahi-dake. Atop the highest point on Hokkaido island, we embraced and shared a moment I’ll carry with me for eternity. That hug was a culmination of respect, trust, gratitude, brotherhood, and love.
Tears stream down my cheeks as I write this, weeks after returning home from Japan. Written words cannot fully express the emotional transformation that occurred on the slopes of Asahi-dake. The physical goals that went unaccomplished melted away with the winter’s snow and provided nourishment for our spiritual flowers to bloom. Love, respect, gratitude. Give and accept the flowers.