Slipping slippy!! I look up from my phone to see we are facing sideways, no time to brace as we collide with the snow after performing a complete turn. Nii-san and I look at each other, and I raise my eyebrows; what just happened!? The van makes some strange noises pulling into a nearby carpark, but a quick inspection shows the damage is minimal. A couple of mudguards need readjusting. "It's our lucky day!" we say. A handshake and embrace and we're off again down the road to Niseko town. A few minutes down the road is a pile-up involving 1.. 2.. 3.. 4 cars! Most people drive slowly, so thankfully damage is minor, but the ice on the roads requires extreme care. Tea from the thermos in the Seicomart carpark to calm the nerves, and we're off again.
Nii-san, a Japanese man with long hair, glasses, and a big smile, is older than he seems when you consider his activity. He is still maintaining youth pursuing his outdoor passions. A keen rock climber and backcountry skier, he has set up home in his campervan outside Setsu Getsu Karou (Translated as Snow, Moon, Flower House or something like that) near Kimobetsu for the season intending to go backcountry skiing every other day. Nii-san knows the Chisenpuri and Niseko backcountry area like the back of his hand. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to spend 2 days skiing with him, he is one of the friendliest, funniest and most generous people I have met.
Setsu Getsu Karou is owned by Maiko (Airbnb Account), she and her partner bought the small abandoned primary school (abandonded due to declining population), and turned it into a local history museum. You could easily spend two days wandering around its hallways and classrooms observing the many photos and items on display, and I did in fact spend an entire day doing this! Maiko runs an airbnb with private and hostel style rooms, along with a resteraunt with meals cooked by her in her kitchen. She has three cute kids, whom I played basketball with and observed their cooking skills. On Christmas eve I was the only guest staying, so Maiko invited me for dinner with her family and her parents who live in the house next door. From this point onwards I felt like I was a part of the family. I was so taken by the place that before I had left I booked another 4 day stay for later in the trip.
A few months previously, while hunting around online for people to go backcountry skiing with in Hokkaido, a friend put me onto Couchsurfing, a website where people volunteer a place for a stranger to sleep, in return for conversation, experiences and cultural exchange. On this website it is easy to find people with similar interests who are willing to meet a stranger and show them their home, and as I found, especially when your interests are as specific as backcountry skiing. There were only a few people in the Hokkaido area on couchsurfing with backcountry skiing listed as an interest. I messaged all of them, asking not so much whether I could stay at their home (for accomodation was not the primary concern), but rather whether I could go out skiing with them.
One of the people who replied was Yuki. She had the following statement on her profile "You need your fat ski, a beacon, a probe, a shovel and expert skills of skiing if possible... no ski no life". I wondered whether I would be up to her standard! She offered to have me stay with her and her husband in Sapporo for a few nights. I could join them for skiing during the day. She let me know that her English skills were not very good, but I was very happy to have someone to ski with.
When it came to meeting Yuki, I drove from Setsu Getsu Karou towards Kiroro, but a message from Yuki said that the destination had changed due to conditions and we would now meet at Teine. As I got out of the car in Teine, I realised with a shock that I had left my skis in the drying room at Setsu Getsu Karou! I scrambled to hire some downhill skis and boots, which were skinny and heavy. My phone battery was about to die, and I stood around waiting feeling stupid. We figured out that I had gone to the wrong car park, and I jumped on the Gondola up to the upper mountain section of the ski field. I skied down from the Gondola, and finally met Yuki in her bright blue ski outfit. We didn't say much, and she motioned for me to join her on the lift up to the top of the mountain.
A few broken sentences were exchanged, and we jumped off the lift. I followed Yuki through a gap in the fence, next to which were bright red warning signs with Japanese writing. Wondering what I had gotten myself into, we walked in silence with our skis slung over our shoulders up the gentle incline and past the radio towers on the top of the hill. As you clear the top, and walk around the abandoned Gondola station perched above the cliff, a panoramic view of the ocean and the city of Sapporo opens before you. As I stood there enthralled, Yuki already had her skis on and dropped over the edge. I quickly scrambled after her, clunky with my rental skis.
While not steep by world standards, Teine and its sidecountry area is one of the steepest resorts in Hokkaido. And so it was, my first time on rental downhill carving skis, following a stranger who was absolutely fanging it on steep, tracked out off piste snow, no hesitation whatsoever. She didn't even really look back to see if I was following. I couldn't help but get the impression this was some kind of test. We paused briefly at the top of a long gully. This, Yuki tells me, was the old olympic men's slalom course. It was at this point I was really missing my skis, I took several tumbles, apologising profusely to Yuki who was often too far away to hear anyway!
At the bottom, a long and fun traverse ensues to get back to the resort slopes, winding around the hillside and dodging through trees. I'm ready for a rest, but Yuki points at the lift and says "again!".
I stayed with Yuki and her partner Masahiro at their appartment in Sapporo, and they guided me around Rusutsu and Teine showing me many favourite spots, undoubtedly learned after a lifetime skiing in the area. Luckily our trip to Rusutsu enabled me to grab my skis again from Setsu Getsu Karou, ready for a chest deep powder day. I'm very grateful for their friendly company and their impressive hospitality. A couple of days later, they left for Niseko, and I went to collect a hire car again for the next stage of the journey.
While collecting the car, I got a message from Sam. Sam and I had met through a mutual online acquaintence. He was living in Niseko for the season working in a ski store, and was super keen to get out backcountry skiing. Earlier on the trip, we had been out to Chisenpuri in a storm with an American named Jack, and had a brilliant day. So I was excited when Sam mentioned he thought the weather would be good to make an attempt at Yotei. I agreed, and quickly drove to meet him at Niseko that evening. At his share house, we sketched out a plan, and told a friend what we would be up to the next day. I attempted to fall asleep on the couch, but the housemates were up for a late night, so I made a dash back to the car to grab some shuteye before the next day's adventure.
In the morning, we drove the 10 minutes to the car park at the trailhead on the North-East side of Yotei. Yotei is an impressive looking stratovolcano which dominates the scenery for miles around. Climbing it is a fantastic opportunity. Many people are gearing up in the car park, this is the best weather we've had for weeks, and it also happens to be New Year's Eve; today's adventure is a fitting celebration and satisfying way to end 2017.
Following a group of Norwegians who had left before us, I was thankful for their tracks, but at the same time cursing how steep they were taking them! As we cleared the tree line, Sam and I took note of the changing snow conditions. We were concerned about the possibility of a wind slab, and decided to stop and dig a snow pit before we blindly followed the others up the steep slope to the top.
The results were encouraging, but it was easy to see that just 20 meters over, on the same aspect, the loading pattern in the gully was different. We decided to stay up on the ridge. Every now and then we would stop to take a brief rest and admire the surroundings, which were truely breathtaking!
Before reaching the top it was necessary to remove skis and bootpack the last couple of hundred vertical meters. The firm snow was verging on crampon territory and we were almost regretting not packing our crampons for the day! Sam was convinced on the way up that we should skip skiing the crater because he needed to get back early for work, but one look down from the top and the temptation was too great.
After returning from the bottom of the crater, we stood at the lip and prepared for our run down to the carpark. It was at this point I should have realised I had left part of my backpack nearby to collect on the way back, but I forgot! I guess somebody will find it in Spring. The first couple of hundred meters were a little touch and go on the ice, but as the snow improved, we were able to open up the throttle a little, and fully enjoy then end of an epic New Year's Eve out on the hill. Sam did a write-up on his blog about it, you can find here: http://www.forloveofthemountains.com/2018/01/01/mt-yotei-finishing-2017-well/
But that wasn't the end. Back in Niseko, I met up with Yuki and Masahiro for the annual flaming torchlight skiing for the countdown to midnight. They had very kindly invited me to join them in the formation for the number 18. We hiked up the hill and got into position. The resort lights were turned off. As the clock struck 12, we lit each other's torches and made our way down the hill.
I got into the car at 1am and drove slowly and carefully back to Setsu Getsu Karou in the moonlight. Inside, waiting next to the fire, Maiko and a friend and guest Ken (visiting from Honshu), were welcomed me with drinks in hand. We had a second celebration and stayed up late into the night talking, drinking and listening to jazz on the record player.
The final destination on my list was to check out the Tokachidake area. Under the recommendation of Nii-san, I booked a couple of nights at the North Star Lodge, run by a friend of his. This lodge is very pretty, but well outside my usual budget. It was a last ditch ploy to try and find someone willing to accompany me on a backcountry trip out to Tokachidake. Luckily, after returning from a day skiing at Furano, a family from the U.S who was also staying there overheard my questions about ski partners, and very kindly offered to let me join them on the next morning's adventure to Furanodake.
The next morning the father was feeling sick, so they sent their 18 year old son out with me (a total stranger more or less!) for a backcountry adventure. He had done a fair bit of skiing, but also surprising lacked some basic knowledge about avalanche risk evaluation. I took at leaf out of Nii-san's book and ran through a beacon search drill, each of us taking turns to bury and find beacons. Here I was able to pass on some of the tips from Nii-san, and reinforce my own learning, whilst also getting to know what my new partner would be like under pressure.
After digging a snow pit and deciding that today would be a good day to stick to the trees and avoid steep slopes, we made our way to just above the tree-line. The snow surface gradually got icy as the wind picked up. On our way down, I overshot our contour to traverse out to the creek we had crossed on the way in. As we made our way back, I spotted a hand line for a walking track and took my eye off the compass, assuming this would take us to where we wanted to go. After a while, we found some tracks and realised we had completed a circle!
That afternoon we joined the rest of the family at the carpark. I went skiing with their father (who was feeling better) in the trees above the road, and finally returned to meet the family at the Onsen! It was cold, and the snow was falling into the hot pools outside, the end of the last day skiing in Hokkaido.
I came to Japan not so much seeking good skiing, as seeking the opportunity to meet new people; to see a different culture, and have adventures. Don't get me wrong, the snow in Hokkaido is amazing! But I think if I had spent my entire holiday in Niseko or with my friends from home (like so many foreigners who come to visit this snow covered island), I may have missed the better part of the experience on offer.