How I Almost Died on Mount Asahi in Japan

by Jun 25, 2019

Ever been on a vacation where you had an – “Oh fuck, I might actually die here…” moment? Almost all travellers have at least one story where their life was truly in peril. I’ve had a few encounters of that kind on the road, but my favourite one has to be at the Daisetsuzan National Park in Hokkaido, Japan. Daisetsuzan is a vast and gorgeous National Park and home to the Daisetsuzan Volcanic Group, a group of active volcanic peaks, the highest of which is known as Asahi-dake or Mount Asahi; where this story takes place.
Volcanic steam erupting from Mount Asahi (Asahidake) covered in snow

Mount Asahi (Asahi-dake)

Now, any sensible person who knows anything about anything would tell you never to go alone to a snow covered mountain, especially one that you’re going to for the first time, which is an active volcano and for which you don’t have a single piece of mountain climbing gear to your name. Not even snow poles or snow shoes.

But the Ranajay of 2017 was above such boring advice. Not only did I show up at Mount Asahi alone (having attempted and failed to book a tour-group the day before), I also showed up wearing only a down jacket and a pair of cheap boots I had purchased the week before from Asahikawa. I had worn this down jacket to Matterhorn, Switzerland a few years ago and had found no reason to let go of it because it was so damn comfortable. My friends liked to call it the Kim Jong-il jacket because it apparently made me look like the late dictator.

Ranajay-and-KimJongil

The resemblance is striking

So, there I was, at the base of Mount Asahi, wrapped in my Kim Jong-il jacket. It had taken me a long time to get there because you need to take two trains, a bus and then a cable car to get to the base. Everyone else I had seen on the way up was fully decked in snow gear but I had come a long way to walk away with a few measly photos. I wanted to see the volcano up close! There was steam coming out of it that was visible from miles away! As I looked around, there were a couple of small groups that were making their way up the mountain.
I remembered what my friend had told me about mountains – “Don’t go alone” and “Always follow the trail, otherwise you might fall through the snow.” I chose to focus on that second piece of advice and picked one of the bigger trails that had been impressed in the snow. The trouble with heavy snow is that you don’t really know what you’re walking on top of. It could be solid ground or it could be on top of trees. That’s why hikers often use snow poles to test the ground beneath the snow to see if its suitable to walk on. You can also pull yourself out of deep snow using the poles. What one should never do, is to walk without any snow poles or special snow shoes on a mountain that’s covered in snow.

 

The Way Up

 

So, up I went without any snow poles or special snow shoes on a mountain that was covered in snow. I relied solely on the mercy of the trail because other hikers had used the same trail and it had a slightly higher probability of not ending in a deep dark hole through some snow covered trees with frozen bodies of hikers at the bottom. At this point, I feel like a disclaimer is necessary:

Please, do not attempt any of the things I did on Mount Asahi. If in doubt, please read the title of this post once again. 

 

This was some time in early February when the snow season is at its peak in Hokkaido, so the snow on Mount Asahi was powdery and pristine. I have never seen snow like that before or since! There were hardly any clouds in the stark blue sky and the sun was shining down on me. Honestly, I was having a great time!

The trail was a bit difficult to walk in portions, when my feet would suddenly sink into the snow, all the way up to my knees (did I mention I wasn’t wearing any waterproof pants?), but it wasn’t too bad. Even though the temperature was -10°C, I was sweating profusely and had to take my scarf off from time to time and open the front of my jacket to cool myself. There was crystalline snow below and blue sky above. I was in heaven.

Panoramic view of Mount Asahi (Asahidake) covered in snow
I kept remembering the videogame, Skyrim, and the beautiful wintery world I had hiked through on many playthroughs; only this time, I was doing it in real life. It had been an hour since I first began my hike and I was almost at the steam vents now. The group ahead of me was enjoying a view of the volcanic steam erupting from deep within the earth. The air smelled like sulphur.

I felt jubilant, exhilarated, ecstatic! It was my first time hiking an active stratovolcano and I hadn’t expected to get this close to an actual volcanic vent. I hummed one of the songs from Skyrim which is aptly titled – Far Horizons and remembered what the Greybeards used to tell me all the time in the game- “Sky above, voice within”. 

Ranajay taking a break next to volcanic steam vents on Mount Asahi (Asahidake) Hokkaido
The steam vents of Mount Asahi, up close, were an unforgettable sight. Sulphuric steam roared out from the bowels of the earth and became clouds in my front of my eyes. I watched in awe. Soon, I was the only person there. The group I had been following had moved on ahead, probably making their way to the summit. I relished my alone time with Mount Asahi’s gushing orifices and shot a couple of videos proclaiming that Michael Yamashita had nothing on me and should go and suck it (Michael Yamashita is an amazing photographer and it was part of a running joke I had at the time to always curse his name because of all the amazing places he visits. He should most certainly NOT suck it). Inhaling all that sulphur can go to your head, in my experience.

 

Vertical videos strike again!

The Way Down

 

Tired and satisfied, I decided to make my way back to the cable car station. Now, something very interesting about mountains is that the weather can change drastically in the span of a few minutes; one minute you might be frolicking beneath clear blue skies, taunting Michael Yamashita and the next minute you might find yourself wearing a Kim Jong-il jacket in the middle of a mild snow storm. Another interesting thing about this particular mountain was that the volcanic vents were rather popular, so there were several tracks that led to this place. And I couldn’t distinguish the one I had taken from the rest because they were all crisscrossing each other, knitting themselves in an intricate tapestry of confusion.

I had to think fast because the snow had started to get heavier and I was in no way equipped to weather an actual storm; hell, I was just wearing a pair of Uniqlo Heattech leggings underneath my jeans!

I picked one of the trails that seemed to be going back the same direction I had come from and began my descent. Snow kept falling on me and the clouds descended on the mountain. As I hurried down the trail, my feet sank deeper and deeper into the snow. The snow came all the way up to my thighs. I literally had to keep moving faster in order to not sink deeper into the snow. My jeans were nice and wet by now and all the sweat I had accumulated on the way up had begun to chill my body. I added on to the old batch of sweat with a brand new one as I half-ran, half-stumbled down the mountain.

The trail wasn’t a straight though. It twisted and wound in places. Things were starting to disappear around me fast in the falling snow. Tracks were being covered in layers of fresh snow, groups that were far away but previously in my line of sight were now gone. About 15 minutes later, the trail in front of me disappeared as well.

“Always follow the trail, otherwise you might fall through the snow”, I remembered my friend’s words of wisdom. But what do you do when the trail ends in the middle of nowhere? I strained my eyes to see through the sea of white. If there was a group nearby, maybe I could shout to them, although I would only do so as a last resort because if there’s anything I had learnt from watching cartoons is that shouting on a mountain might trigger an avalanche (this might actually be a myth though).

But there was no group in sight. In fact, I could hardly see anything in the blinding white of the mountain coupled with the relentless onslaught of the snow storm. Even though I was wearing sunglasses, I was experiencing the beginning stages of snow-blindness (snow can reflect more than 80% of the UV rays that fall on it). It was hard to keep my eyes open and I had a headache from doing so. As I scanned my surroundings between short breaks of closing my eyes, I spotted what looked like another trail. But I would have to traverse through several meters of fresh powdery snow without any snow shoes on to reach it. The risk of falling through the snow was considerably high.

I looked to the skies above, but I couldn’t see a thing. There was no sun to guide me. Waves of snow pelted my numb face. My legs were cold and tired and my chest was sore from breathing the cold winter air. I could hardly keep my eyes open. In that moment I realized that I might actually die here alone on this mountain.

 

“Sky Above, Voice Within.”
I stood there wondering if I should just shout for help. Would my voice reach anyone through the storm? Or should I take a leap of faith and wade through the uncharted snow to reach what appeared to be another trail?

The voice inside me told me to walk towards the trail. I closed my eyes and summoned all the strength within me. I had chosen to follow my voice.

Without further hesitation, I took my first step into the fresh snow. My foot went straight in, all the way to my crotch. But it stopped there. I picked my other foot up and plunged it into the snow as well. Waist deep in snow, I began my march.

 

The Long Way Home

 

With each step, I had to lift my foot as high as I could so that I could gain a bit of ground before my foot sank into the snow again. If I didn’t do that, I would keep sinking further and further into the snowy depths of Mount Asahi. It was slow and tiring work. Each step carried with it a risk of breaking through some hidden treeline and plunging me deep enough to not be able to get out. But standing still carried a greater risk of being buried in the snow storm. Little by little, I made my way forward, not stopping for anything. My throat was parched from all the cold air and the falling snowflakes I was swallowing. I didn’t even stop for a sip of water.

By the time I reached the new trail, the storm had started to subside. I looked at the fresh trail behind me that I had just ploughed into the snow over the last half hour and wondered if any of these trails were made by people like me, who had no idea where they were going or what they were walking on top of. Visibility was still very low and I had no idea where I was. I looked around me and all I could see were clouds of white and the omnipresent, headache-inducing bright glare of the snow. I thought about all the hikers who got lost in the mountains, their well preserved bodies found the next spring. One unlucky step and I could fall through the snow and join their ranks.

The trail in front of me was a shallow one but seemed to have been walked recently. Beads of sweat had frozen onto my face and my lips had lost all sensation. I cupped my hands around my mouth and blew into them to warm myself. Having made it this far, I decided to take a break and make a short video before I went further ahead. If I did die, maybe someone might find the video in spring, on my well preserved corpse.

 

The video looks a bit grey, but in reality it was really bright and I could hardly see anything

Fortunately, the voice within me had guided me in the right direction. This new trail was an easy one to walk and the snow had started to subside. I could see the volcanic vents of Mount Asahi again, far behind me. I trudged along, slow and steady. As I reached the edge of the visible snowline, I saw the cable car station.

I had made it. A huge wave of relief washed over me and I began to laugh. I wish I had recorded that laugh, but I don’t think you need an introduction to it. You’ve probably experienced that laugh too, one time or the other in your life. It’s the laugh of victory, of you thanking yourself for sticking it through, of you celebrating your sheer good luck. It’s the laugh that says, “I can’t believe I made it!”

Back in the warmth of the cable car station, I bought myself a hot can of coffee from the vending machine (isn’t Japan amazing?). I dusted the snow off my Kim Jong-il jacket and warmed my cold and wet legs next to one of the radiators. I was alive. Before I took the cable car down, I took one last look at the beautiful Mount Asahi.

Clouds of endless steam rose from within its heart, into the endless grey sky above.

 

 

Happy Ranajay after surviving Mount Asahi (Asahidake)
I hope you enjoyed my story of surviving an unexpected encounter on the slopes of Mount Asahi. I don’t know how I managed to walk away without a single scratch that day; maybe it was the spirit of the mountain looking out for me, maybe it was the voice within that guided me to safety, maybe it was just dumb luck; but I do know never to try anything like that again. And neither should you! It was incredibly stupid and I’m lucky to be alive.

If you’re interested in hiking, here’s a great article I found on REI’s website with regards to snowshoeing – Do I Have to Stay on the Trail While Snowshoeing?

Do leave a comment below if you enjoyed this story and share it on social media. If you would like to read more stories like this one, subscribe to my newsletter. If you would like to share your own travel story on Ranajay On The Road, where you thought you were a goner, you can leave a comment below and I’ll find a way to contact you. 

I’ll make a follow-up post to this one detailing what not to do when hiking in Mount Asahi. Until then, I’ll leave you with this beautiful song from Skyrim. It’s called Sky Above, Voice Within.

 

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