Extreme hikers from Hong Kong, Japan, and France have inspired entire communities to face their fears, balance a busy life, and partake in something bigger than themselves by getting lost in adrenaline, nature, and adventure.
A rush of adrenaline, a challenging trail, and expansive views – that was the breath of fresh air we had been craving for the past months. As we grew more restless, we sought a change of pace in nature, and when the usual trails became dull, we sought bigger thrills that would push us mentally and physically. The need for a different perspective sent us exploring trails off the beaten path and testing the waters—literally and figuratively. Whether it’s multi-day treks, stream-trekking, or coasteering, the possibilities for adventure seem endless.
Meet some of the leaders across Hong Kong, Japan, and France who have made an impact by exploring some of the world’s most challenging hikes, and let them inspire you to go on your own adventure.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
What other top-tier city offers the energy of a concrete jungle and the option to escape into nature amongst the rolling hills, rugged coastlines, and waterfalls in equal measure? With the most popular hikes becoming increasingly crowded, however, Hongkongers have started looking for uncharted paths—and communities such as HKOutsider have made it easier to discover obscure trails and hidden gems. The HKOutsider group brings together like-minded people from all walks of life and all levels to explore unfamiliar routes in Hong Kong. One weekend you could be scrambling up empty paths right next to the crowded ones around Lantau Peak, while the next weekend you could be stream-trekking and canyoning along the Mai Dai Stream, or coasteering around the breathtaking High Island Reservoir in Sai Kung.
“Hong Kong’s unique topography gives you different exposures and different adventurous aspects,” explains Roland Sharman, the founder of HKOutsider. “Exposure and height all add a different level of adventure.” New sensations and thrills may be what draw you in, but it’s the HKOutsider community that will make you stay. Composed of people who are equally curious and passionate, the strong support network will be the wind at your back, encouraging you every step of the way as you conquer your fears and push your fitness level. “The physical and mental aspects are interconnected,” adds Sharman. “It’s all about your attitude. If you challenge yourself, you will get fitter and stronger mentally. The changes to your self-worth will transfer to everyday life. It’s really empowering.”
If you prefer exploring on your own terms, head to the HK Outdoor Adventures website, started by trail runner and swimmer Iurgi Ruiz de Gauna. Much like Sharman, Ruiz de Gauna finds these hidden trails by following his own curiosity—such as seeing a piece of concrete sticking out in the distance that turns out to be a tunnel leading to a mine.
Ruiz de Gauna focuses on three main activities: coasteering in the autumn and spring, stream trekking in the summer (once it has rained enough), and exploring mines and caves about three to four weeks a year. His step-by-step description of each hike is accompanied by a difficulty rating, as he puts extreme emphasis on the potential risks and the importance of being well-equipped.
Despite the risks, he believes that people should be aware of the many treasures Hong Kong offers. “There is a deep psychological impact when you observe the landscape from a nature’s point of view. Imagine how powerful it feels swimming in a waterfall with a view – back then that’s where hunter-gatherers would go to control what was happening around while they hunted.”
The impact these outings have had on intrepid explorers is significant, according to Ruiz de Gauna. Families have seen their kids grow increasingly confident with each outing, while people who didn’t grow up hiking suddenly find their inner child while jumping from rock to rock.
CONQUERING THE KITA ALPS
Japan’s Kita Alps, also known as the Northern Japanese Alps, are a hiker’s haven due to the mountain range’s dramatic scenery during the green season. Perfect for exploring the natural splendour, the Tateyama–Kurobe Alpine Route is popular from June to early November. Most visitors use the eight different kinds of transportation to travel along it, including a tram, a cable car, and an electric bus that goes through a snow corridor with walls up to 20 metres high. Along the way, they’ll take in the stunning mountain range views as well as the Kurobe Dam, Japan’s tallest dam (at 186 metres).
Adventurous souls choose to undertake the down-climbing trek that runs from the Kurobe Dam to Keyakidaira. The snowy weather only allows hikers to do the trek within a period of six weeks every year, during which wooden bridges are installed to traverse the river. Romain Démare, an avid mountaineer and trail runner, spent every weekend in the mountains while he lived in Japan. He did the Kurobe Dam to Keyakidaira route in October, and was lucky enough to witness the beautiful sight of koyo (autumn leaves) that splashed the mountain with shades of vibrant reds and golden ambers.
This trek isn’t for the faint of heart, as the majority of the path is dug into the side of the cliff overlooking the river. It’s all downhill and takes about two to three days to accomplish, with camping being the only option to get a restful night’s sleep after a challenging day of hiking, scrambling, and fumbling through dark tunnels. “You realise how small you are among nature,” says Démare. “With no way out from start to finish, you really feel something, being in the middle of nowhere.”
About 5 kilometres away is the Hakuba region. Well-known as a ski resort area in the winter, it’s equally breathtaking in the summer. Behind the mountain chain where the ten ski resorts are located is another mountain chain—taller and wilder. The full 29-kilometre range can be done in three to four days, and hikers can stay in mountain cabins along the way. The route doesn’t dip below 2,500 metres and is extremely remote, with a lot of scrambling involved via ropes and ladders. But the feeling of being above the clouds and gazing as far as the eye can see is unmatched.
“It takes a lot of preparation,” attests Démare. “The great thing about training is that the fitter you are, the longer distances you can do in a shorter amount of time, meaning you get to explore places others might not see. It also gives you a sense of security, knowing you can escape quickly if there’s ever a problem. You just feel so free—it’s magical.”
For more trail options and other things to do in the Hakuba Valley, the website Let’s Do Hakuba has all the answers. Hikes can vary from easy scenic ones, such as the two-hour trek from the top of the Happo-One ski resort up to a small pond called Happo Ike, to more challenging hikes that require crampons, such as the climb up the Daisekkei Ice Field. “There are also many scenic lakes in the mountains and even a couple of hot springs where you can soak your tired muscles after a long day,” says Kevin Mollard, the founder of Let’s Do Hakuba. “Trails are well signposted and easy to follow.” The organisation can help book guided tours, half-day walks, and multi-night hikes, and will suggest the best trails depending on your ability and fitness level.
THE EUROPEAN TRILOGY
One city consistently draws trail runners, hikers, and anyone else looking for a real dose of adrenaline: Chamonix in the French Alps. Known as a mecca for extreme sports, Chamonix is home to hundreds of trails, globally known races, and a bucket-list item—Mont Blanc. Specifically, the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-kilometre multi-day trek circumnavigating Mont Blanc that takes you through challenging terrain across France, Italy, and Switzerland, is sure to take your breath away.
Mags Nixon, author of the Tour du Mont Blanc blog, first did the trek with her mother and daughter. She created the blog to ensure that hikers set out with all the information they need before starting the hike, including training tips and what to expect from the different stages and shelters (all situated within 5 kilometres of one another) along the way.
There are 11 stages and the trek takes about 11 days to complete. While not considered overly hard, the hike has more accumulative altitude than climbing Everest. “Rocky boulder fields on variant routes can transport you into lunar landscapes, whilst fixed iron ladders on a couple of sections will get your heart racing,” says Nixon.
The trek represents a mental challenge as well, as hikers have 170 kilometres of mountain passes and peaks to look forward to from dawn to dusk. “When the initial excitement has faded, and with the cumulative days on the trail pushing your body up the relentless climbs and down the knee-jarring descents, it’s completely normal to question why you set off on this adventure in the first place,” admits Nixon.
The French route features balcony trails with views of Mont Blanc’s jagged icy peak and frozen rivers nestled between two mountain slopes, whereas the Italian side is wilder, with imposing rocks, snow, and ice. The landscape softens as hikers cross into Switzerland, where “chocolate-box chalets” are spread out across verdant meadows.
“Walking day after day through such unforgettable, unique landscapes and crossing unmanned frontiers into three countries makes you feel truly alive,” says Nixon. “As we collapsed with exhaustion each afternoon into the comfort of the high-altitude huts, bursting with weary but happy hikers, we’d wash down a hearty meal with a well-deserved glass of local wine and at that moment in time, life was perfect.” Indeed, we can’t imagine a better way to feel on top of the world.