Irazú Volcano (イラス 火山)

Just 50 kilometers East of San Jose, at an altitude of 3,432 meters, lies the highest, active volcano in Costa Rica. Since its first historically recorded eruption in the early 1700s, Irazú has erupted a total of 23 times. The most famous of which, in 1963, was the same day John F. Kennedy (US President) began an official state visit. The ash that spread across all of San Jose as a result was so profound that infrastructure was unable to operate at full capacity for an entire year. Fortunately for Ticos, Irazú has been relatively quiet with her last eruption taking place in 1994.

After FINALLY going through the heart-breaking, soul-numbing, mind-boggling process that is searching for, inspecting, and buying a used car in Costa Rica that won’t break on me the day after I buy it… I decided I would explore this beauty of Costa Rica.

The drive from San Jose to Irazú is extremely straightforward, and, if you wake up early enough, you can make it in under 90 minutes with minimal traffic. Broken into three parts, escaping San Jose, enjoying the cooler climate of Cartago, and the adventuring into the mountainside, the drive is actually extremely relaxing, which I will probably never say again about driving in Costa Rica. Once you arrive at the top, there is a toll both that charges an entrance fee and parking fee of about $4 for locals and $20 for foreigners (I’ll leave this issue alone for now).

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View from the parking lot

They say that at the top of Irazú on a clear day, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. If you’ve read any of my previous hiking posts, you’ll know that one thing I’m particularly good at, is attracting clouds to whichever mountain I visit. After parking my car, grabbing my camera, and heading out to take my first few shots, I realized that this day would be no different.

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Mother Nature waving at me

Inside the Irazú National Park Area lies a rather large plateau (seen below) that will take you just to the edge of the crater (left side of image). Of course, given my abilities, as soon as I came down from the parking lot area (far right side of image), the previously clear crater was immediately engulfed by clouds. Interestingly enough, instead of moving in a horizontal direction, these clouds were seemingly shooting straight up from the crater, and then twirling back downwards after passing the plateau.

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Fortunately, with the exception of the crater, the clouds that would pass through the plateau were intermittent. Intense periods of low visibility were quickly followed by breaths of sunshine, allowing me to experience, albeit briefly, Mother Nature at her finest.

 

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Crater clouds being majestic

Even though I was still not able to see the crater due to cloud coverage, I was enjoying the short periods of clear visibility I was offered.

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Oddly enough, Mother Nature sensed that I was feeling rather lucky and enjoying my limited cloud interruptions and decided to present me with this beauty below. As I was taking a picture looking back towards the parking lot, a rather high-speed cloud flew past the camera. Thinking it was just another short interruption, I kept the camera ready, waiting for the opportunity to take the shot. An immediate 15 degree drop in temperature reminded me that it would have been real nice to have listened to guidance and taken a jacket with me.

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Rule 35

After what had to be a minute of near complete darkness, I pulled the camera down, looked around and realized I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front of me. I am humble enough to admit that an ounce of fear stirred within me as I tried to remember just how close I was to the edge of the crater in order to not accidentally tumble down. Looking back towards what I thought was the direction of the parking lot, I saw two figures in the distance. One asks the other, “Are you sure the parking lot is this way?” To which the other replies “I’m pretty sure this is the right way.” It wasn’t.

Now, finding myself five minutes into this extreme low visibility scenario and without a jacket, I started back towards the parking lot, in the opposite direction of where the two lost souls seen below were heading. Mother Nature, sensing my hurried escape, decides it would be a opportune time for a little rain. As I pick up my pace, shielding my non-waterproof camera with my shirt, the rain falling from the cloud I was immersed in picks up in intensity forcing my to break out into a sprint. Continuously wiping water from my eyes and angry that I didn’t even get to see the lake at the bottom of the crater, I curse Mother Nature and her terrible sense of humor and vow to never again return to this terrible Volcano. Of course, as soon as I get to the parking lot, open my car and throw my camera in, soaking wet, I look back towards the plateau, and it is, crystal, clear…

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About 20 to 30 Irazú visitors that day got to witness a 28 year old male, sprinting, soaking wet, towards the crater with camera in hand. There was no way I was letting another cloud rob me of my crater picture.

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Mt. Kayagatake (茅ケ岳) 1704m

茅 – miscanthus reed

岳 – peak, mountain

A good friend of mine had just gotten back from deployment and contacted me. “I’ve been around people 24/7 for the last few months, I just need to get away from people for a few hours.” I knew the perfect solution. My recently newfound hobby, hiking.

“You got any hiking gear? Boots, pants, packs?” I asked. Andrew responded, “Nah, but I should be fine with my running shoes. You think there will be a lot of snow?” The next two sentences would stick with us throughout the entire hike.

“Shouldn’t be that much, I went hiking last week, not that much snow. Plus its a whole ten degrees warmer this weekend, I’m willing to bet it’s all melted by now.”And with that, I convinced him that running shoes would be perfectly suitable for a spring hike.

We set off by car the next morning at 0600 en route to Mt. Kinpu. After about two hours of good conversation and empty (yet still expensive) highways, my buddy looked off into the distance and made an alarming observation.

“Are those mountains ahead of us where we’re headed?” I looked at my phone, “Yeah, they have to be…”

Silence.

“There’s umm…it looks like there’s quite a bit of snow on those mountains…”

Silence.

“Yeah…I guess we’ll see a little snow after all. You think your running shoes will be able to hold up?”

Silence.

“Meh…not much I can do about it now I suppose.”

As we got closer to the mountains and left the city behind us we felt what must have been a ten degree drop in temperature. The car took its first wind up the side of the mountain, and just as it did, we saw just how much snow there really was. “There shouldn’t be that much snow” had quickly turned into “Will my car be able to make it out of here with these abysmal tires?” I looked over at my friend and I could tell he was of the same opinion as me “We drove out this far, theres really no turning back” although I sensed his level of thrill was not quite as high as mine, given the running shoes situation.

I followed the course on my phone that the lovely british voice was directing me towards and we came to an unexpected stop. Before us was a small white truck with an older Japanese man, in what appeared to be his maintenance uniform, closing a large yellow gate that blocked the road. I knew I was in for some exhausting and confusing Japanese.

“すみません、 あの、 行けませんか?” Now, this guy, was either a complete asshole or gave me too much of a benefit of the doubt. He replied, in full blown, fast paced Japanese. The only part I caught was 4PM. So of course I replied, “ああ、そうですか。えとね、いつに入られますか?” His next set of actions led me to believe he was leaning more towards being an asshole than the alternative. He looked at my friend, then back at me, then simply replied “明日.” And with that, he turned towards the gate and proceeded to close it as if we had simply vanished into thin air.

“Sweet. Welp, I guess we’re not going up that hike today…” My buddy, being the sharp Naval Officer that he is, responded without hesitation, “I bet if we can find a visitor’s center around here, we can make our way to a good hike. In less than a minute, he had one pulled up in his phone and we made our way, set back but undefeated.



After thirty minutes in the tourist information center, the employee there kindly recommended we check out a trail just south of there, Mt. Kayagatake. “But,” he warned, “It will be dangerous for your friend because of his shoes.”  I looked Andrew inquisitively and as he gave a thumbs up saying, “Lets get this show on the road.”

We drove off and found ourselves at the start of the trail within the hour. Stepping out of the safety of our car into the cold forest with its makeshift parking lot, we could not see any snow and were both slightly relieved. That sense of relief lasted all of thirty minutes until we left the parking lot and saw nothing suffocating, blinding white snow in every direction. In fact, the only indicator of where the trail went was the absence of trees and slight indentation into the earth.

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I have to admit I began to feel bad for my buddy that was about to hike this entire mountain overtaken by snow, in Nike running shoes. Even though it was fairly warm outside for April, every step had us shin deep in snow. And a wrong placement of the foot, could easily mean slipping and falling over onto the snow, or worse, a hidden rock.

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The tempo of our conversations were timed by the focus, or lack thereof, on our foot placement. “This would be right around the time bears would be waking up,” Andrew pointed out, “I bet they’re going to be rather hungry.” Both lacking a bear bell, we attempted to keep a steady conversation, only when the snow was thinner and the ground, relatively flat. We did this to not inadvertently sneak up on any bears, and to try to keep our thoughts away from the subject of bears; however, that seems to be all we talked about. “What does bear piss smell like? Can you smell if a bear was recently in the area? Can you accidentally wake one up early from a hibernation?”

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Pushing on with our bear talk, we came through this beautiful snow covered valley of trees, with an incline at the end. The bright white snow and thin white trees for hundreds of feet in every direction really made you feel like you were on another planet. It was absolutely stunning to see, but, you could only see so much of it as you made sure you didn’t slip and fall off of the trail.

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The more we ascended, the more the snow seemed to thin out. We could feel earth beneath our footwear and the stress of foot placement eased tremendously. You’d be surprised how much brain power making sure your foot steps in the exact spot takes. We were both pretty relieved to be able to concern ourselves with other things. Like taking pictures, stopping to hydrate, and bears of course.

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The rest of the hike was rather straightforward and uneventful, although challenging. The last 1/3 of this mountain saw the greatest amount of elevation change. Although the snow never died away, it did become small enough of a problem that we stopped paying attention to it. My buddy fell a few times of course, but that was mostly on the descent. Mostly.

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That’s Fuji-san in the background. I can never get a picture of him without some cloud coverage…

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I’m sure he will hate me for bringing this up, but during the descent, we decided to “run” down the mountain. Looking back it wasn’t the greatest idea, in fact it was more of a slide, but it was pretty entertaining. During one leg of this “run” I was leading and all of the sudden I stop hearing the sound of Andrew’s foot steps behind me. I assumed perhaps he was in the middle of a really long, quiet slide so I didn’t think much of it. After a good minute or two of silence behind me, I turn around to find, Andrew, laying flat on his back about 200 feet away. I double back and find him sitting in the snow, with a dirt streak all along his left pant leg. I stupidly remember asking him “What happened?” Even a West Point graduate could have pieced this one together. “Are you alright?” I asked, trying to deliver more purposeful questions. As soon as I realized he was ok, I was dying with laughter. He had, not even five minutes prior, bet me that he would slip fewer times than I would, running shoes and all.

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Mt Echizengatake (越前岳) 1504m

越 -Surpass, Exceed

前 – In Front, Before

岳 – Peak, Mountain

To get to this hike, take a train to the Gotemba (御殿場) station. Once there, leave the station and get a bus bound for Jurigi (十里木) and get off at the last stop. The hike, round-trip, takes about 6 hours to complete, so if you’re planning a day hike from Tokyo, it will be an early, but rewarding, morning.


I had just gotten back to Japan from Christmas vacation in the United States, and I was bored out of my mind. I had regrettably finished all of my Netflix shows on the 22 hour commute to and from home, and I couldn’t find many people that wanted to go surfing in negative degree water (myself included).

Deciding to get off the couch and sweep away my suffocating boredom, I put my morning cup of coffee down and picked up my iPhone. I opened Google Maps (highly recommended app for living in Japan) and looked for a mountain within driving range. I found one just south of Fuji-san, three hours away. Afraid of losing any more daylight, I threw on my favorite pair of hiking pants and was out the door within a matter of minutes.

Absolutely nothing remarkable or exciting happened on my drive to the mountain. I listened to a few podcasts from SYSK (highly recommended podcast, great content, outstanding presentation) and safely arrived about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I parked my car, grabbed my gear (camera and backpack full of one rice snack due to poor planning) and I was off.

About 100 steps up the trail, I kept getting this nagging feeling to turn around. I knew Fuji was close, but even from the parking lot, I had somehow missed the fact that it was this close, and this visible.

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I turned back around, and continued on with my hike. You can see all of the cars in the parking lot in the picture above, but I had yet to see any hikers on the trail. It could just be me, but I’m always a little unsettled when I don’t see at least a few souls enjoying the hike. I use a similar rule when visiting foreign bodies of water. “If none of the locals are swimming, there is no way I’m getting in the water.” Well, I didn’t have that option here after a 3 hour drive so I tried to just put that thought away.

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This small patch of leafless trees wasn’t the most comforting either

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About halfway through the ascent, I finally came across another human being, a group on their way back down the mountain. Solo hikes are fun because you don’t have to worry about too much talking, too little talking, pace, or burdens of injuries, but, too much silence is rather unsettling. Overcome with excitement, I had failed to realize that it was too early for anyone to be making a descent.

As I passed by and greeted them, the leader of the pack stated “Be careful, its dangerous.” I asked why in Japanese and I’m not sure what startled him more. The fact that I understood his comment, or replied in Japanese, but shock and confusion was well written all over his face. “There’s too much snow ahead, you need (word in Japanese that I did not know).” “Eh” I replied “what is it that I need?”

His face shifted back to calm and collected. As if me not being fluent and able to understand Japanese completely put his world back in order. “Cramp-onzu.” “Cramp-ons,” I thought, “Hmmm….that is definitely a thing that I do not possess.” Slightly defeated, I asked if he thought I could still continue. Unsure whether to use English or Japanese he replied “Ah….maybe ok because…..” The words had escaped them. “強いので、その大丈夫です,” he proudly stated, “気を付けてね,” waved, and continued his descent.

I thought to myself. “I’ll be ok because I’m strong?….What does my strength have to do with the snow?….It must be pretty bad if they all decided to turn around….I wonder if this is going to be one of those situations where I wish I made THE OTHER choice….Well, no turning back.”

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It took me at least another 20 minutes of hiking before I even saw snow. I had started to think maybe that guy was just messing with me. When I finally did see the snow, I was naively unimpressed. I distinctly remember thinking “Locals here always over-prepare and err too much on the side of caution.”

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And then I was alone again. Not a single soul. “Where are all of those parking lot car owners?” I thought to myself. The snow on the trail began picking up, but nothing worth worrying about. It was so thin that I could “feel” the dirt beneath each step. I told myself I was really glad I didn’t quit.

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Trees could save a fall

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And that’s when the snow reared her subtly irritating head. It wasn’t so much the thickness of the snow, but the “challenging” aspect to it. I now found myself on angled trails, with no real grip on my boots and no cramp-ons of course. I alternated between trying to shimmy up this trail, not fall off, and grab trees to pull myself through when I could. I, hated, myself. Why was I so stubborn? Why did I decide to swim when none of the locals were swimming?

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The snow never gave way to dirt, it was always ice. Ice, ice and more ice. My boots couldn’t grip to save my life. If I wasn’t holding on to a tree, I was sliding, or on hands and knees, digging into the snow with my shivering hands, and planting my legs to prevent myself from sliding backwards. I was slightly comforted in the fact that there were so many trees all around me that if I fell, it would be a short “slide” into a tree nearby. However, I would lose all sense of direction and would be in some serious trouble.

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I had decided by now two things. 1. There was no way I was going to let this snow defeat me. And 2. I need to invest in some hiking gloves. Sliding up the mountain, I found a new drive to not let this mountain beat me. I would allow my hands to go temporarily numb to the point where I could no longer grip the trees and then curse myself as I warmed them back up. I’m sure, if you could have been there with me, you would have died of laughter. The funniest part, I think, was in the thickest part of the snow. There was a small gap where no trees could be reached. My hands were numb and my legs were killing me at this point from digging so deep into the earth. I tried to “hop” in between the gap of trees in order to grab the next tree. Well, I successfully “hopped” in between, but when I went to grab the tree, my hand was too numb to even feel for anything, let alone grip it. I lost my balance and fell hard on my right knee. I was livid. This damn snow. I went to stand up, but I realized, that any significant shift in my center of gravity would have me back on the ice. So, I slid back, using my hands to shuffle me along to the last tree. My “weather resistant” (read: non-waterproof) camera had snow all over it like it was about to be in an Old Navy Christmas Display. I finally reached the previous tree, hands burning, and I just sat there, trying to wash away my frustration.

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About five minutes later, I finally got back up and attempted to “hop” again. This time, I wrapped my fleece around my hands for added grip. Successful, I continued my ascent and was graced with a marvelous sign. No, more, snow. I’m not really sure the science behind it. I had always assumed that, the higher the altitude, the stronger the snow, but I wasn’t complaining, neither were my hands.

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I finished out the hike energetic but grumpy. Once I got the top, I finally saw another person. A friendly lady that asked me to take her picture. I did of course, and in return she offered me a Japanese snack. I was deeply embarassed as all I had to offer in return was a rice snack that had, without a doubt, been crushed from all of my falls on the trail. I thanked her and realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I laugh at it now, but all of my irritation, frustration, and pain suddenly made sense. I ate her delicious snack and began my descent. My first thought, “I’m going to have to get to that damn point again, and I’m really going to lose it.” Fortunately, gravity would be on my side this time.

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But seriously, where were all those people who parked their cars in the parking lot? I’m still pretty creeped out by that to this day.

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Mt. Asahi (旭岳) (Pt. 4) 2291m

About halfway through the hike, the elevation REALLY started to pick up. Fortunately, it seemed as if I was outside of bear territory; however, I was no longer just “coasting along.” Instead, I was in drenched in sweat, muscles aching, reconsidering my decision to hike this mountain. Rather than clearing, as I assumed it would once morning gave way to noon, the fog decided to pick up. I could not see more than 50 feet in any direction, and had no reference other than the occasional height post, of how high I really was. Given this, the edges seemed THAT much more terrifying.

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A little after noon, I decided to take a quick energy/snack/water break. A group of two, younger Japanese women who seemed to be in better shape caught up to me. “Konnichi wa!” they greeted. Just as I prepared to reply, a rude and obnoxious clap of thunder interrupted me. “Hmmm…” I thought, “probably not the best time and place to hear that.” I looked at the two girls the same way I look at flight attendants during turbulence. These girls looked like mountain pros and if they weren’t worried, everything should be fine.

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One of the girls looked out into the fog, tilted her head to the side, and drew her breath in hesitation. She said something to her friend, and they both contemplated what I’m assuming was their decision to continue on. I forgot what the word for safe was so I stated the word for danger in a rising intonation and pointed behind me. “Abunai?” The friend that had been silent before laughed and said “Oh-Kei desu…..maybe.” We were over 1500m (4900ft) in elevation, and there was thunder, I assumed either next to me or below me. I frightenly chucked, “nice…ki o tsukete” and they were off. I took a few more minutes to hydrate and eat my sugar gummies as they faded off into the mountain. IMG_0041

This being my first mountain, I couldn’t grasp how much personality she had. But between the fumaroles, the smell of gas, the colors from green, to blue, to brown, to red, and even the noise of wind rushing past thousands of feet in the air…it was hard to not be overwhelmed. Not to mention the unwelcomed thunderstorm.

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The rest of the hike was quiet, besides the constant thunder in the distance. The higher the elevation, the higher the elevation change, or so it seemed. At certain points, I was, hands and knees, climbing over boulders, thanking myself for investing in quality hiking boots and pants.

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These birds at the top of the picture were ZOOMING by and making this incredible screeching noise.
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“Hello!” Never missing an opportunity to practice their English.

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Finally making it to the top, I took a picture of the “view.” I was a little disappointed at first with how low visibility was, but, it gave the mountain quite a bit of personality throughout the entire hike.

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Peak of the mountain. 2291m (7561 ft)

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The hike back down wasnt TERRIBLE. However, the steep incline, or decline I should say, made it tough to go at a slow pace. All of the locals, along with their bear bells, seemed to have trekking poles that they would use to support them going down. I had no such contraptions and my knees took quite the beating for it. I made it down in roughly three hours, and back to the hostel in four. I had JUST enough time to through my clothes in the laundry one last time, shower, and catch the last bus back to Asahikawa.

I would HIGHLY recommend this hike, late in the summer. It is grueling, but well worth the pain. Thinking of going? Check out the Live Webcam to see the snow coverage. I personally wouldn’t go if there was snow due to how steep some parts were, but some of you may be more adventurous than I. If you have any specific questions about the hike, how to get there, when to go, feel free to find us on Facebook or fill out our Contact Us form. Hope you enjoyed the trail! Next stop, Wakkanai.

Mt. Asahi (旭岳) (Pt. 3) 2291m

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Pressing on through the hike, I was calmed considerably by the beauty of the trail. I had never seen a fumarole in person before and I was pretty awe-struck by it, as if I was getting more intimate with Earth. I’ll let the beauty of the hike, speak for itself.

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Fumaroles in the distance

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Someone took a picture of me…taking the picture you see above this one…

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