The English sign at the entrance to the trail leading to the Mount Meakan, said that you are attempting to climb an active volcano, and should be aware of erupting lava, flying stones, ash and poisonous gases.
It was the last sign that we saw written in English on this long mountain trail.
From here on we would have to rely on a tiny map that we picked up at the information center, and our hope that the trail markings would be easy to figure out.
Last week, we climbed up Mount Kurodake in Daisetsuzan Hokkaido.
Everyone agreed that it was a challenging climb.
But this climb up this active volcanic mountain, turned out to be a far greater challenge.
It started with a hike into an old forest, with tall trees that were over three hundreds of years old.
The forest was thick and the ground was covered with intertwining tree roots, coated with bright green moss.
Almost immediately the path became very steep, and we climbed up between giant tree roots, often using them as rope ladders.
We brought four small bottles of water between us, and a small bag filled with snacks.
We put on some organic mosquito repellent, but because it was very cloudy, I wore no hat and no sunblock lotion.
This proved to be not such a wise decision on my part, because after we climbed out of the forest, the sun got very bright.
For walking sticks, we found two sturdy, thin and long dry tree branches, which fitted well in our hands.
They were to be our reliable walking sticks for this day of very technical climb.
We wanted a long day of hiking, so we decided to combine two mountain hikes.
Our plan was to start the climb at the entrance to Mount Akan Fuji, and almost at the top, about thirty minutes away from the summit, to turn left and to climb to the summit of the active volcano of Mount Meakan.
We intended to summit Mount Meakan, thinking that its active volcano will be a very dramatic hiking experience, rather than to summit Mount Akan Fuji, which is a dormant volcano.
We thought that starting at the longer trail, will add a few hours to our climb and will make it a long and very lovely day out on the mountains….
Our intention was to go around the volcanic crater, and to finally make our way down over the lava boulders and into the forest and to end at the bottom of Mount Meakan, and from there to walk on the road about five kilometers around the lake, back to our car.
If only we knew what a hard day of serious mountain climbing we set ourselves for….
We parked our car by a small turquoise lake called Lake Onneto.
We started the trail and signed our names at the forest trail that led to Mount Akan Fuji.
The forest had a lot of soil slippage, and the sheer climb over rocks and roots, was challenging enough…
After a long climb, the thick ancient forest gave way to a different forest of low fir trees growing over a volcanic rocky soil.
That forest also disappeared when we neared the top.
At this section of the hike, we still encountered other hikers.
They were fully equipped with mountain climbing gear.
Most of them were in their sixties and seventies and in a husband and wife team.
We also saw a few men hiking alone, and one younger woman, but for the most part the majority of other climbers that we’ve met, were husbands and wives in their late sixties and seventies.
They always greeted us warmly and looked very fit….like people who lived an active outdoors life for all of their lives.
Some had bodies as trim and agile as teenagers, and I felt out of shape for allowing myself to gain weight during this autumn in New Zealand.
I could tell their age by their faces, but also from reading the signing sheet at the entrance to the trail, where each climber had to sign his age and name, before climbing this serious Mountain.
It was nice and encouraging to find other climbers on the path, but we have seen no one after the trail to Mount Meakan’s summit separated from the trail to the top of Mount Akan Fuji.
At the top, where the two trails diverged, the vegetation grew no more.
The only green we could see were very low ground coverings, some hairy alpine flowers and low alpine grass.
On the top of Mount Meakan, the soil changed into small gravel volcanic rock, resembling scree, with a lot of ash.
The colors of the rock had volcanic sulfurous tones of reds, yellows, oranges, purple, ash grey and white.
It was EXTREMELY hard to walk in that area on this loose scree, and I found myself needing to stop for a rest every ten or twenty steps.
I was not sure what was going on… And why was it so hard to climb on that scree…
It felt as hard to move through it, as if it were thick snow or quick sand…
The clouds descended upon us and the visibility disappeared completely.
It was cold, and we were exerting so much energy, that we considered not to continue on the trail that we planned, but to just reach the summit of this volcano and to go down the same way we climbed up.
I developed a blister on my heel, and every step felt painful.
I finally realized that I needed to cheer myself up.
l told myself to stop listening to the pain, and not to focus on something so small as a blister.
I gave myself a pep talk, telling myself to keep on going…. To make it to the summit, and not to allow a blister, or fatigue no matter how much it hurt right now, to ruin what was becoming a most wonderful day of an amazing and challenging climb…
At the summit, the sulfurous smell was intense.
The crater was fuming hot smelly gases, and as we neared the top of this active volcano, we heard a sound that we have NEVER heard before….
Inside the crater the wind was howling in a spiraling and very intense way.
It sounded as if we were standing on the edge of a major expressway, with hundreds of trucks zooming by…combined with howling winds and screams…
It was not only the sound of the wind inside this major crater, it was also the sound of the volcanic activity….. The bubbling of fire and mud, steam venting and rocks melting….
To tell you the truth…. I momentarily imagined that this is what Hell must’ve sounded like… if I ever believed that Hell existed…
It was unworldly… Intense…. A New sound that I have never heard before….
My first feelings upon hearing this sound, was that this volcano was going to erupt… And that this was the sound of it preparing to do so…
We could not see anything while looking deep into this huge crater, since it was covered with clouds, gases and sulfuric steam.
I assessed the situation and realized that even if we had the strength to run in case this volcano really was getting ready to erupt, we could not possibly make it to a place of safety…
Later we learnt that there were large signs written in Japanese, warning hikers that they MUST check with the conservation center BEFORE attempting to climb this active volcano, for information about the current level of volcanic activity.
I decided to assume that the volcano was NOT going to erupt while we were walking on the rim of its crater, but that this sound that we were hearing, was only scary to me because it was the first time in my life that I’ve ever heard this kind of sound…
My conclusion seemed to work, and suddenly I felt a rush of excitement and very happy to be there…all the fear just evaporated out of me.
I realized how often we tend to terrify ourselves, and how often there is no cause for fear…
Jules came over and kissed me, his eyes were shining in excitement and joy.
We stood there on the edge of that volcanic crater, feeling so blessed… And so grateful to be there on the summit of this magnificent place on the earth…. What a wonderful place and what a wonderful life!
We saw only one other climber summit the top of this crater that day.
We asked him to take our photo at the summit.
He was the last climber that we saw in the very long climb down, that we took over rocks, boulders and volcanic cliffs.
The views improved as we turned away from the volcanic crater, and the roaring sound completely quieted down.
We were again in the middle of the wilderness with only the sound of distant birds or bugs.
The gases and steam no longer blocked our view, and the clouds dispersed as we made our way down.
The scenery was absolutely breathtaking.
We could see how high we’ve climbed… The whole valley spread below us.
The distant lake from which we came, seemed like a Topaz jewel in an amazing green setting.
The climb down was most difficult and required all of our concentration.
We walked minding every step…making sure that our hiking sticks were firmly secured on the ground, before we took the step down… The soil beneath us was crumbly and hard to walk on.
I was very tired and felt that it was hard to raise my legs high enough to clear some of the larger boulders.
We actually were walking on seasonal waterfalls.
This path up and down this volcano, is only accessible from June to the end of August.
During the rest of the year it is totally buried under snow.
We stopped to refresh ourselves, drinking our water and munching on the raisins, cookies and peanuts that we brought.
It took us many hours to make our way down the rocks and loose gravel.
When we entered again the forest of the low fir trees, we thought that we were almost down…but we were wrong.
Unlike the way we climbed up, this section of the forest of midget firs, was very long, and we climbed over dry river beds and covered a long distance before we finally entered the same tall ancient forest.
When we were out of the forest of tall trees and back on the road, we were so exhausted that we thought to hitchhike a ride back to our car instead of walking on the road that skirted the lake back to our car.
We put our walking sticks against a tall tree, and we thanked them for the support that they’d offered us on this hard hike.
We walked on the road, but no car came in our direction.
I knew that if I’d raised my hand to stop a car, even people going in the other direction would stop… But I could not get myself to do so….
I wanted to finish the hike as we planned and on our own feet…..no matter how tired we were and how stiff I felt…
We kept on walking for another hour and we reached our car.
Our car was the last one parked in the big empty forest’s parking lot.
We made it back to the hotel just in time for dinner.
We washed our hands and faces and went straight to the dining room.
Later I took a long soak in the hot springs, scrubbed and checked my body.
The blister was hurting, I had tree sap on my hands from holding onto roots and my legs felt stiff, but everything else was OK.
I felt a strong sense of accomplishment.
Mountain climbing does that to you….
You set a goal for the day, and by sunset you have achieved what you’ve set out to do.
It is a very palpable way of feeling successful.
In many other areas in life, it takes a long time to achieve results that can be seen and measured….
But when you climb a challenging mountain, if you make it to the summit and make it down without injury or without calling a rescue helicopter to assist you… Then you’ve made it!
You might feel dead tired, but you still succeeded!
I know it might sound silly, but I was very proud of myself.
It was my period time of the month, and usually I have one or two days during each period in which my body is achy and bleeds a lot.
Today was one of these days…and if I were at home, I would be moaning and asking Jules to go get me this and that, so I could lay around and take it easy…
But instead I climbed a mountain today…. In fact, I climbed TWO mountains today… (but we summit only one of them)
It was a good day!
A day of challenges, excitement, fear, overcoming hardships and keeping on despite fatigue, hostile weather, scary sounds, stiff muscles, pain, a blister and period pain…
It was a GREAT day indeed.
Tomorrow, I plan to write and explain WHY I climb impossible Mountains…