Frostbite in June – Cycling the Shiretoko Pass
Mark Twain once said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Okay, he never actually said this, but whatever – it’s a great quote! This post is about a new quote which you can correctly attribute to Dmitry: “The coldest I’ve ever felt was a June day on Hokkaido, Japan.” (And this from a guy who lived through dozens of winters in Russia, Chicago, and Buffalo.)
It started innocently enough. After an eventful rest day near Rausu, we needed to cross the Shiretoko peninsula to reach the town of Utoro, on the opposite coast. The entirety of the Shiretoko peninsula is a designated national park, and is known as one of the most remote parts of Japan. The lone road connecting the east and west coasts takes you over the Shiretoko pass, with its highest point at 740 meters. We heard the road is only open from April-October, and even then can be closed due to bad weather or lingering snow. On good days, it’s a popular driving route with great views of Mount Rausu and Kunashiri island.
A few months ago the idea of crossing a mountain pass on our loaded Bromptons would have been a complete non-starter, but now, after months on the road, we were feeling good. We had sweated up and down the tea hills of India, after all, and in hot and humid conditions. In comparison, Shiretoko wasn’t looking so bad: 16km to ascend 740 meters to the top of the pass, and another 16km coasting down to the other side to the seaside town of Utoro. Not too long a distance, and we could always push the bikes on the higher grades. Plus, looking out our hotel window, the weather was looking good:
So off we rode. We knew that the weather at sea level would not necessarily be the same as the weather on the pass, so we prepared accordingly. Warm layers, a thermos full of hot tea and some Cup Noodles, which we planned to heat up with our recently acquired Jetboil and consume as a picnic lunch somewhere along the way.
It didn’t take us long to see our first snow. It’s not uncommon for snow to linger on the Shiretoko pass long into the summer.
Nor to start pushing our bikes up steeper grades.
Still, the weather was holding, the cars were few, and the scenery was beautiful as we ascended.
The higher up we got, the prettier things were, necessitating stops for Brompton glamor shots.
The weather was getting a bit foggier.
And a bit chillier, too.
Neither one of us had decent gloves – it was June, after all! Still, pedaling up the constant up grade kept us pretty warm, and the views were hard to beat.
As we neared the top of the pass, the views gave way to a denser and denser fog.
There was also much more snow, and the wind was picking up.
The top of Shiretoko pass greets you with a small parking lot, a pair of outhouses, and little else. Except, in our case, there was more. Whatever weather system had been buffered by the mountain was in full play here. As we crested the pass, we were hit by a piercing wind and a not-quite-rain mist in the air, which the gusts and the suddenly frigid temperatures were quickly turning into ice on every surface.
The wind, wet, and cold, created icicles on every surface.
We were suddenly very cold, and the idea of having a leisurely picnic at this midway point was far from enticing. We just wanted to get the hell down this mountain. Cycling over a pass usually has a predictable, literal arc: You huff and puff and suffer on the way up, and then you’re rewarded with a lovely, lazy coast on the way down. Inclement weather can throw a spanner in these works, however.
We had one desire: to get down the mountain as quickly as possible. There were two major issues. First, even though we were both wearing every piece of gear we’d brought, our clothing was woefully inadequate for the real winter sleet storm we found ourselves in. Second, we were now coasting down a descent, which meant that there was no more heat generated by pedaling.
A minute or two into the descent I stopped being able to feel my hands, which were covered by a sad pair of household work gloves acquired at the 7-Eleven. Mila’s fingerless gloves weren’t doing much better, so we stopped to stick our hands in our armpits and regain some feeling in our fingers.
This done, we rode down some more, only to have to stop again. Smiles were beginning to be in short supply as the situation worsened.
We rode on, stopping every minute or so to stick our hands in any warm place on our bodies to get our fingers from numb back to painful. Resuming riding after the third stop, a new wrinkle presented itself. I looked up at Mila riding ahead of me and saw that her bike was riding jerkily, as if she was losing control of the steering. Just then a deep chill ran through me and I understood: We had both begun shivering so hard we could hardly keep control of our bikes.
Our planned easy, sunny riding day was turning unexpectedly dire. The past few months of bike touring had placed us in a few tricky or risky feeling situations. We’d been buzzed by speeding semi trucks in India, narrowly avoided a couple of run-ins with wild bull elephants in Sri Lanka, and of course were lucky to be in the right part of Nepal during the devastating earthquake there. Yet here, on a July afternoon in Japan, was the first time in our trip that I started to experience a level of alarm that was verging on something close to fear. Hypothermia and frostbite were feeling like very real possibilities just now.
We were in the woods, wet and chilled to the bone, with miles to ride to any civilization. We couldn’t wait the winter conditions out – it was too cold, there was no shelter, and we had no way of knowing how long the storm would last. Riding back up wasn’t an option either – we’d already descended too far, plus the worst weather was at the higher altitudes. We had to keep descending out of the weather system to a warmer altitude, but it was this very act of descending that made us exponentially colder. At first, we stopped to warm our hands and jump around every 1.5 km (Mila was ahead, and keeping track by the mile markers), then every 1 km, then every few meters. At a certain point, the stopping didn’t seem to make any difference: we couldn’t stop shivering. My fingers, exposed to the wind on the handlebars, went numb the minute we started riding. And now we were shivering so hard I wasn’t confident in our ability to control our bikes on a wet, potentially icy descent.
I had one thought: Boil water to get our core temperatures up. There was no good place to stop, but we couldn’t wait anymore, so we laid the bikes down on the shoulder of the road and furiously dug the necessary tool out of our packs with barely functional fingers. Looking back, I’m sure my fumbling with assembling and then lighting the Jetboil with my sluggish, alarmingly numb hands was a ridiculous sight, like watching a hungover raccoon trying to open an aspirin bottle. In the moment, I admit I didn’t quite see the funny side. But I got the flame lit and about 4 minutes later we had water for Mila’s cup noodles.
And, of course, a warmer for her hands.
While we waited for my water to boil I snapped a couple of photos, in case we stayed on the mountain forever, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Looking at the pictures now, I realize it doesn’t look like much of anything. I can only assure you that this is the coldest I have ever felt in my entire life.
Like the proverbial hipster that burned his throat, I gulped the boiling water down before it was cool. Any pain in my throat was more than mitigated by the nucleus of warmth that began radiating outward from my stomach. Maybe we wouldn’t die here after all! Our cores and hands sufficiently (barely) warmed, we started off again. I think Mila was more rejuvenated than I was, because she rode on while I stopped every couple of minutes to gulp the tea that we’d also made with the Jetboil.
A few more minutes into the descent, I saw Mila waiting for me on the side of the road. I almost rode past her in an effort to get lower. I was starting to shiver again. But then she pointed behind her. It was a parking lot! We had reached the Shiretoko Nature Center. Also known as The Greatest Place In Japan. We ditched our bikes in the parking lot and stumbled through the glass doors into a heavenly, heated, indoor space. We must have been a sorry sight, because one of the park rangers, a young uniformed woman, came out from behind her desk and quickly led us to a part of the room where she mimed that we should press ourselves against a panel on the wall. It was a heater! And it was amazing.
The next 45 minutes was spent sitting down, basking in the warmth and elevator music of the Nature Center, and drinking cup after cup of vending machine hot chocolate. Gradually, we began to feel like human beings again.
From the Nature Center, still cold but no longer feeling in danger, we coasted the rest of the way down to the small town of Utoro and our hotel, which, blessedly, had its very own onsen. God bless Japan and its culture of hot baths. After 15 minutes of immersion in that scalding spring water, I finally got full feeling back in my fingers and toes.
Dry yukata, frozen toes.
After the epic soak, we were ready for something cold from the vending machine. Japan taketh away, Japan giveth.