Backcountry Powder, Hokkaido, Japan- Yeti Style February 26 2015 2 Comments

author: Jeff Clapp (Gifu, Japan)

Things started off all wrong, so very very wrong. Flurries in Sendai, Japan the night before I blasted off to Hokkaido for my annual powder fix, along with forecasts of solid snow EVERYDAY for the next week, seemed like the perfect beginning to a trip of endless powder. Not just any snow folks!  It's some of the lightest fluffiest wafer thin powder ON THE PLANET.

Our 'gaijin' (foreigner) crew from Gifu City Japan used to hit the Nagano ski areas, such as Hakuba/Goryu and the '98 Olympic famed Happo One (oh-nay), almost every weekend during the season. From Gifu, smack dab in the centre of Japan, it's only 4hrs drive away for awesome off piste trees and backcountry hiking but 'Jimmy quit. Joey got married' you know, things change. But do they?


When I first moved to Japan I had just switched (upgraded? heh heh) from skiing to snowboarding 4 years prior, and despite the totally crap conditions in Southern Ontario (crap snow if there even is any, exorbitant prices and matching line-ups, topped with 'hills' you can toboggan down - cafeteria trays work great...ah yes, but that's another story...) I was still completely hooked on riding, so much so that a large influence on where I would locate in Japan was based on the proximity to good snowboarding areas.

Now, over 13 years later,' band break-up' and all, you could say that not only do some things never change, but after experiencing the snow in Japan, my snowboarding craving has intensified.  Nagano has taken a back seat and the last remaining active members of our group, Simpson and I, have made it a point to do a yearly massive 2 week powder plunge off the deep end, Hokkaido.

I will state here that just prior to the 2013-14 season, my awesome daughter Sky was born.  So given the craziness at our place getting used to our future shredder, I had to settle for one Nagano weekender and a few day trips in Gifu. But the smoke has cleared, and with my lovely wife and daughter securely stationed at Grandma's place in Sendai for a much welcomed extended visit, I was free once again, to go hunting in Hokkaido.

Our 1st stop and usually the only stop, is Niseko.  Hirafu to be exact. My first time there was back in Mar 2002, just 6 months after arriving in Gifu. Back then Hirafu was still quaint and I was still renting equipment.

My plan was to ride deep pow for the first time in Hokkaido but that was foiled by a massive dump in Gifu in Jan 2002 which saw me and friends thigh high in on piste fluff and almost completely alone on the slopes due to the white-out conditions. What a day!!

It was in Hirafu, where I first learned of the K2 'Clicker' binding system which I still ride today. I even found a pair of MSR/Clicker snowshoes on eBay for like 70 bucks, oh yeah! Yes my board and bindings are over 12 years old! These days, surprisingly in spite of an explosion of development in the past few years, much of Hirafu's quaintness remains, rooted in the family run pensions, bars and restaurants. But you'd better make plans to visit soon as Hirafu is on the brink of annihilation by an onslaught of development fueled by the hordes of tourists all looking for one thing, SNOW.

And where IS the F#$**#NG snow!? That's what we got stuck asking ourselves this trip as the forecast in our corner of Hokkaido dried up just as we arrived on Jan 29th and the rest of the country got pounded. Reasonable (not epic) accumulation came an agonizing 4 days later. But that doesn’t mean we were in the pow yet! In Hokkaido, while the resorts are not responsible for off piste skiing, they don’t prohibit it as they do in most other places in Japan. At Niseko, a well organized gate system is provided that allows access to AWESOME back country. These gates remain closed during and after most snowfalls to allow the snow to stabilize, limiting avalanche risk which means that while the snow on the piste is gobbled as it falls, the snow outside the gates stays perfect until the the gates are opened.

So what’s to be done when the snow sucks? We wait. There’s not much pleasure in slugging over pistes hacked and moguled by skiers, none that is that can be matched to a good night out of amazing food and nama (draft – literally ‘fresh’) beer and of course sleeping in. And Hirafu has plenty when it comes to great eating and drinking. However, if you guys are on a hunt for another kind of ‘fluff’ we don’t recommend Niseko, dysphemistically called, Nisecock in the heart of Cockkaido by a radical dude we rode with one year, due to the overabundance of loud, overbearing Aussie guys that dominate the night scene.

But with powder vultures flocking en masse, waiting for those gates to open, timing is critical to get to untracked bliss and we timed it PERFECTLY!

6 days after arriving in Hirafu, Al’s friend Ian showed up just in time with his dry British wit and sexy (we forgive him for being a skier), we nailed Gate 5 just as it opened and gobbled up bottomless, over the knee, super sweet, steep and deep with perfectly spaced trees!

But it gets waaaaay better! As we came up the lift after the short hike on the cat track from the bottom of G5 (a necessary evil for G5) looking for another go, we noticed the trippy single chair to the peak gate was starting to cue and the gods of pow pow shone on us a second time that day as the opening of the peak gate was announced!

We joined the line of powder hounds, clambering up the 20-30min (if you’re fit), well-groomed track, up to the peak, and after we popped through the low hanging clouds into bluebird bliss, the site to behold was enough to make even the hardcore riders stop their march to gawk in awe. There, floating on a swirling sea of cotton, stood Yotei-san (mountain), the Fuji-san of Hokkaido so called for its unmistakeable likeness to the giant iconic symbol of Japan.

After pausing slightly for some pics, we completed the accent and quickly decided to attack the fiercely coveted Niseko Annupuri back bowl. I’ll let the video speak for itself but I will say that hitting freshies on the back bowl is when you can say, ‘That’s what we came for’ and it just melts away all the anxiety that builds when the sky is blue and the slopes are barren. What a CRACKER of a day!!

Of course, the satisfaction of an epic day out is soon replaced by the insatiable hunger for more powder and with everything tracked out and no new snow (again!) on the horizon, our eye was on Yotei-san. Every year Yotei-san stands watch over the town and mocks us with her beautiful white. Some years the snow’s been just too amazing for even one day off from our mad, all-mountain pass, circuit around Niseko United (the name given to all the resort areas on Mt Annupuri) hitting all the hot spots for lines. Some years, like this year, when even singing the praises of ‘Let it snow’ to little know snow god Dean Martin won’t bring in the blizzard, we’ve looked to Yotei-san. The thing is so does everyone else so finding a guide has proven to be very problematic. In fact, a lot of people book guides when they book their trips, up to 6 months in advance.

But this year, we were finally able to book a group tour with a local operator and we set out full of hope on a pristine day touted by all as a ‘perfect Yotei day’. Perfect that is if you have any level of fitness remotely close to what is required for the climb which after only 10 mins it became apparent that one in our group did not.

While the hike was enjoyable and the ride down 2/3 or the mountain was definitely better than average, Al, Ian and I were very disappointed to have our chance to summit Yotei-san quashed by others in our group.

Ian was so pissed that he summited Yotei-san the next day with 2 other guys and no guide.

That being said Ian has climbed in the Himalayans etc etc so his experience, skill and risk tolerance are well beyond Al’s and mine. I don’t recommend anyone to climb any mountains much less even head off piste anywhere without a good knowledge of the area and/or an experienced guide and of course all the necessary avalanche training and gear.

Here’s my advice if you’re planning a hike up Yotei-san

• Book well in advanced and pay the extra for a guide for your private group. No public group tours!

• Make sure your guide has actually summited Yotei-san (preferably multiple times) and actually has the intention of trying a summit with you.

• Make sure you have adequate gear, training and fitness levels.

• Manage your expectations: Fewer than 25% of all attempts on Yotei-san result in summiting.

Hiking 2/3 of Yotei-san and riding down seemed like a good way to wrap up the Niseko portion of our trip. With no new snow, I relaxed and packed while Ian was climbing Yotei and Al was still feverishly trying to sniff out some powder stashes.

Our next stop on the trip was Asahikawa, giving us access to Kamui Ski Links and Asahidake. We had a last minute thought to check out the last day of the Sapporo Snow Festival on our way through Sapporo. A few beers later we offered a snow dance to Dean Martin.

Unfortunately, this trip has a very melodramatic close, the best part of it being the hotel and night life in Asahikawa. We rode a couple days at Kamui with just enough new snow to obscure all the bumps from sight but still remain choppy and hard - HELLO ANNOYING!! 

In one last attempt at fresh lines, we hired a guide for the day at Asahidake, Hokkaido’s highest mountain. They have a ropeway (aerial tram) that goes every 20mins dumping people just below the peak and 4 courses (runs) which are really just cat tracks. Asahidake is for experienced back country riders with avalanche gear and training only.

Considering the minimal new snow on the trip, Asahidake was a nice finish as we had several runs through nice trees with nice bottomless and a great plunge down the Asahidake back bowl for some sweet steep and deep fresh tracks.

BUT short is the operative word at Asahidake. Compared with the Niseko Annupuri, the tree runs and particular back bowl run we had were very short but the real kicker was the flat and sometimes uphill run out at the bottom of all the runs we took and a grueling flat traverse across the mountain to enter the back bowl. For all of these flat sections we either had to put on snowshoes which was a joy compared with ‘poling’ our way along while strapped into our boards. Frankly, this was HELL!! We figured if there was a good dump and you could ride the alpine from the peak it might be worth it but otherwise we feel Asahidake is a little overrated.

All in all we had a fun trip as it’s very hard not to have a great time in Hokkaido. After all we did get our epic day but this year we were also reminded that sometimes getting freshies means you’ve gotta spend time working for your vertical!