Photos and article courtesy of Ross Cole-Hunter.
It sounded like a crazy plan when it was first explained – wake at 4AM, meet at 4:30AM, hike up to the summit of Mount Yotei and then document what is thought to be the first attempt at paragliding into the crater of Mount Yotei, and then paragliding back down to the base of the mountain.
It was still dark and people were still crawling out of the closing party at The Edge Bar when we met at 4:30AM in Hirafu. There was a feint glow in the sky signalling that the sunrise wouldn’t be too far behind. It was here that I first met the flying Dutchman, Pepijn Meyer Zu Schlochtern. If throughout the season you noticed someone paragliding in the Annupuri area, chances are pretty high you saw Pepijn.
He has been waiting two seasons for the opportunity to paraglide from the iconic Mount Yotei, but the weather conditions have to be just right for it to be possible. The barely lit sky was starting to cloud over, but the forecast was for a clear and calm day. It not only needs to be clear (so Pepijn can see where he is going), but the wind also needs to be calm, something that is difficult on such a high and exposed summit. However, all signs pointed to today being that rare day that the weather gods would give their blessings and make it possible.
After a quick stop at the 24HR Lawsons in Hirafu, stocking up on onigiri, Pocari Sweat and Snickers bars, we crammed in to the car and made our way to Hangetsu-ko, the start of the western Yotei trail. The sky was finally starting to get light as we prepped ourselves for the hike, checking beacons, packing shovels and probes and strapping on snowshoes for what was likely to be a rather icy ascent. If you want to read more about what to expect from a hike up Mount Yotei, have a read of this blog post.
We kept a rather rapid pace up the lower slopes of Mount Yotei, stopping only a few times to take in food and water (and to let Pepijn rest his back from lugging a rather monumental pack with his paragliding equipment). As we were climbing in the shadow, the snow remained hard and icy, making it possible to walk directly towards the summit. It also meant that it was quite cold, something I wasn’t prepared for after looking at the forecasted warm temperatures.
It wasn’t until nearly three-quarters of the way up that we were first blessed with the warmth of the sun. Blessed and cursed, as we were walking directly towards the blinding light.
After a little under five hours of hiking, wondering why I was doing this again, we reached the summit. But, it was a minor victory. By the time we had reached the summit, the weather had turned sour. While it was sunshine and blue skies for us at the top of Mount Yotei, 1900m above sea level, clouds had rolled in and formed a thick sea below us, making Pepijn’s paragliding descent impossible.
Unfazed, Pepijn made his way to a section in the north side of the crater that looked to be suitable for him to paraglide from. Unfortunately, the wind inside the crater was too erratic to be able to safely paraglide. We waited, and waited, and waited some more, but the winds inside the crater were shifting from many directions, and unpredictably gusty making it far too dangerous for him to attempt a flight.
We were all a little disappointed by this setback, as we’d all put in considerable physical effort to get here and would have loved to have seen him fly. But, safety is the key concern, so we admitted defeat. Begrudgingly. We were less than enthusiastic about snowboarding (and Pepijn was even less enthusiastic about skiing) back down Mount Yotei. It had been quite some time since it had snowed last, and the snow was quite hard and icy during the climb. Of course, it had softened a little since the sun had been out, but it was still going to be soft slush at best.
Pepijn decided to play with his parasail in the flat (for Mount Yotei) area by the Mount Yotei Hut, to at least give us a photo or two of it in action. The weather had gotten even worse with minimal visibility, but Pepijn was now happy with the wind, even if he couldn’t see where he was headed. So, we did what did before – we waited for the weather to improve.
It paid off – ever so slowly the clouds cleared enough for Pepijn to see back down to the farmer’s fields near the Hangetsu-ko car park that we started the hike from nearly 8 hours ago. He prepared himself while we got in to position with the cameras. His wing inflated and he started to lift off the ground. And then he lifted a little higher. And higher. And higher. And the next thing we knew, he’d disappeared out of sight around the other side of Mount Yotei. He’d been taken away by the wind, and we’d been left behind without the footage that we’d hiked Mount Yotei to shoot. Victory was sweeter for some than others. Not long after the cameras had been packed away, and the buckles on the bindings clamped down on our boots, The Flying Dutchman called to say that he’d landed safely! Of course we were relived, but also amazed that he had managed to get down so quickly. Though, as we had assumed after he sailed out of sight, he had indeed landed on the north side of Mount Yotei. Turns out it was in a field by the onsen in Kyogoku!
Luckily, the snow had turned to soft slush (said no one ever) and we enjoyed some big spring snow power turns down to the car.
So, how did Pepijn spend his time waiting for us to snowboard our way back down the mountain and drive quarter of the way around Mount Yotei to pick him up? Relaxing in the massage chair at that onsen, of course. And, surprisingly, his arrival from the sky wasn’t cause for surprise or interest – apparently it went un-noticed.
It was high-fives all round. He was visibly relieved, and somewhat exhausted from a massive mission, as were we all. So, it goes to show that it is possible to paraglide off Mount Yotei, though it requires a lot of hard work, and just as much luck and patience.