Shiretoko Peninsula – The end of the Earth

After a season in Japan that can only be described as too busy, a road trip was in order to explore some remote areas and decompress. Thankfully, Ryan Taylor was kind enough to accompany me to finally ski the Shiretoko Peninsula.

The Shiretoko Peninsula is a UNESCO world heritage area in the north-eastern most part of Hokkaido and in Ainu language, the original peoples of Hokkaido, shiretoko means ‘the end of the earth’. It certainly feels like the end of the earth as the peninsula juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk, which in the winter months is encapsulated in a bed of sea ice.

On the eastern flank of the peninsula, the ‘Northern Territories’ as the Japanese call them, or the Kuril islands as we know them, are clearly visible separated only by the small strait of Nemuro. The Kuril islands were annexed by Russia at the end of World War 2 and is still a point of contention between the two countries.

Kunashiri island (Russia) at sunrise from the flanks of Rausudake

I had visited the Shiretoko peninsula in late March 2016, but abandoned plans to solo ski Rausu dake and other mountains in the area after an early spring caused the local bear population to awake from hibernation. Shiretoko peninsula has the world’s densest population of brown bears and the Ussuri brown bear, whilst no grizzly, isn’t something to be trifled with either.

A handful of good weather days forecast in one of the most weather temperamental zones of Japan meant the opportunity to climb and ski Rausu dake and Shira dake, the two more impressive mountains on the peninsula were afoot.

With a strong spring sun forecast and a lot of new spring snow, Ryan and I set off early (2:00am) to climb the south facing Rausu dake couloir, before the sun affected it too heavily. We needn’t have worried as the strong winds had not only heavily redistributed the snow in the alpine but also kept the surface conditions dry well into the late morning. But before climbing the mountain, we needed to walk up the cleared, but not yet open, Shiretoko Pass road, a 10.5km long journey in the dark up into the winds and early morning orographic clouds.

Early start for Rausudake
Clouds and Rausudake at sunrise.
Joel & Rausudake

The couloir itself is a relatively easy ascent up 750m above the top of the Shiretoko pass, the upper reaches of which require the use of crampons. The upper portions of the mountain were encrusted in rime which thankfully wasn’t icy.

Rausu dake south couloir
Joel climbing the south couloir
Joel climbing the south couloir
Summiting the top of the couloir at Rausudake
Crampon Rausu Dake
A rimed summit and the Nemuro strait with lots of ice.

The descent back down to couloir allowed for many scenic shots and some pretty decent skiing on nice enjoyable, grip-able snow.

Ryan skiing Rausu dake south couloir
Joel skiing Rausu dake
Joel skiing Rausu dake south Couloir
Ryan skiing Rausu Summit

 

And with that it was time to say Sayonara to Rausu dake and descend back to Utoro town and explore the sea ice, local town and fantastic sunset onsen.

Joel skiing lower flanks of Rausu dake
Rausu dake & the road
Ryan & Utoro town & ice
Shiretoko sea ice walking

 

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The next day, we decided to try our luck on Shira dake a very prominent free standing mountain sitting at the base of the Pensinula.

Shira dake from Shira township

Ascending up towards to the summit from the highway, we trudged along the long flat plateau before finally gaining a broad ridge and ascending up into the tree line and seeing towards the upper reaches of the mountain. Crampon’ing up the steep ridge following the summer path led us to the peak, which all occurred pretty quickly once we actually reached the mountain from the highway.

Ryan at Shiradake
Ryan & the summit of Shira dake

A short descent down to the valley below the summit before traversing back to retrace our steps back to the car park, which thankfully, was packed well enough with just enough incline to allow us to glide all the way back over the 4km of flatlands.

Ryan ski Shiradake
Ryan Shiradake Ski
Ryan skiing the Shira dake summit slope.

A successful trip to a rarely skied part of Hokkaido.

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