Writer Orion Ray-Jones experiences the zen, exhilaration and terror of backcountry skiing as he prepares to summit and descend a mountain in the Tokachi range, home to the world’s most famous powder snow
“I’m not going to get out of this one alive. I’ve finally bitten off more than I can chew.” My mind repeats this mantra every time I find myself in a precarious situation – becalmed at sea, lost in a jungle, rocketing towards a racetrack’s tyre wall. But today, there’s a new line to the refrain: “I’m too old for this.”
All I hear are these self-reprimands, as thick, soup-like clouds have silenced the sound of mountain wind. Beyond the tips of my mustard-coloured skis, I see nothing but depthless white in every direction, even though I know I’m just metres away from a gaping chasm. Only my nose receives sensory data. The stink of sulphur reminds me that somewhere nearby an active volcano is burbling under the snow.
Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s major islands, has gone from virtually unknown to international skiers to a skiing haven in less than two decades. While warming weather makes for unpredictable conditions in the Alps and Rocky Mountains, winters here consistently dump snow thanks to a steady Siberian wind blowing over the Sea of Japan. Ski resorts here regularly see more than 17 metres in a season, double or triple that found in Western resorts. And not only is it a lot of snow, it’s the best kind of snow: “Champagne powder”, dry, light flakes that make skiers and snowboarders feel like they’re floating as they blast through head-high accumulations. Here, they call the snow “Japow”.
Following a first wave of adventuresome foreign powderhounds in the late ’90s came a slew of recreational skiers and snowboarders. Small mom-and-pop ski operations that had long catered to locals were transformed into glamourous, world-class resorts. By the end of next year, Niseko (Hokkaido’s toniest ski resort) will have new Park Hyatt, Ritz-Carl- ton Reserve and Aman hotels, among others.
But I’m not in Hokkaido for luxe hotel chains. I’m here to conquer its rugged backcountry, untouched wilderness that hasn’t been manicured and made safe for the masses. Specifically I’m here to ski the slopes of Mt San- dan in the volcanically active Tokachi range.
I’m woefully unqualified for the feat. Winter never comes to Thailand, my home for the past six years, so my ski skills have atrophied. And having recently celebrated my 41st birthday, I now get knee pain from just walking down hills. Would a week really be enough time to prepare for an attempted summit and descent in a mountain range that regularly erupts?
I start rebuilding my skills in Niseko, beloved for its “sidecountry” – backcountry zones that are accessible from the top of a resort’s ski lifts, thus requiring little hiking to reach. Most Japanese resorts once banned guests from skiing outside their regulated trails – called “pistes” in Europe or “courses” in Japan. Niseko was one of the first to embrace backcountry skiing, providing access gates to the untamed forest just beyond its boundaries. When the conditions are safe, ski patrol opens the gates, allowing thrill-seekers to blaze their own trails.
I spend the day exploring Strawberry Fields, Niseko’s most famous sidecountry zone. While technically backcountry (which means ski patrol isn’t required to rescue me, and if they do, it won’t be cheap), the area is surrounded by inbound pistes and should be a relatively safe start for a rusty skier. My technique is terrible, but I remain upright. It helps that I’m skiing slower than most people walk.
Later that night, in Hirafu, the hippest of Niseko’s four towns, I meet American Evan Wilcox for a drink at Buddha Bar, which is full of dancing, drinking Australian holidaymakers and local expats. The lanky, handsome, 28-year-old pro snowboarder has spent his last three years in Niseko. When I tell him I’ve spent the day poking around Strawberry Fields, he grimaces. “You should go with someone who knows what they’re doing,” he says. “You’re on a big powerful mountain with ridiculous amounts of snow. Niseko is a safer place for backcountry. But it’s still backcountry. Experienced guides have died in Niseko, just outside of the resort.”
Despite the risks, the appeal of backcountry skiing is undeniable. “The best part is just being in nature,” he says. “You’re in the mountains, it’s quiet, there’s incredible scenery.”
Training on Weiss Mountain
The next morning, I meet Wilcox for a coffee before our guided backcountry outing with Niseko Weiss Powder Cats. We’re joined by two skiers, two snowboarders and our two guides, red-bearded snowboarding coach Rob Hunt and local adventurer Tamaki Yamasawa. After a quick safety briefing, we drive to Weiss Mountain for our day of cat skiing.
A snowcat, or “cat”, is the vehicle used for grooming ski slopes. It has wide tracks instead of tyres, and a massive engine that can haul heavy equipment – or a small group of skiers – up steep, slick inclines. Niseko Weiss Powder Cats’ vehicle is a particularly luxurious specimen, complete with a cushy, heated cabin.
Now wild, Weiss Mountain was once a ski resort. But all that remains is an abandoned hotel at the base and wide trails that cut through the surrounding forest. Our first run is on one such trail, once a rolling intermediate piste. It hasn’t been groomed in decades, and an unmarked blanket of knee-high fluff makes the steady decline more challenging than expected. Powder skiing is an active sport. Instead of simply shifting your weight and angling your skis’ edges, as on a hardpacked piste, you must bounce and twist your legs from turn to turn. My legs have long forgotten how to lift skis out of snow, and I’m soon lying on my back, head facing downhill. My body is fine, but my ego is bruised. I dust off as much evidence as possible and continue downhill.
Throughout the day, the cat takes us to different parts of the mountain. The guides time each run to the arc of the sun and air temperature. Snow conditions change quickly, and the remnants of a recent avalanche make me glad I’m with pros. After a lunch of onion soup and pork-cutlet sandwiches, we progress to steeper pitches, and Yamasawa starts to encourage us with the international battle cry for action sports: “Send it!”
Clearly the worst skier in the group, I’m proud to never slow it down, though I don’t exactly send it. Despite losing a ski once or twice, and moving at a pretty cautious speed, I manage to never be the last one back to the cat awaiting us at the bottom of the mountain at the end of each run.
Credit: Matt Standal
Getting serious at Mt Kariba
The next night, at a quaint country inn on a dramatic coastline two hours’ drive from Niseko, I sit with a trio of Italians in their thirties for dinner. Each looks the part of badass athlete. We’re soon joined by guides from Hokkaido Backcountry Club, maybe the island’s most extreme guiding operation. Junichi Saotome is a 31-year-old from near Tokyo, and Dawn Riley is a petite Alaskan snowboarder who says she’s on her “fifth thirtieth birthday” between sips of beer. As she briefs us on tomorrow’s cat adventure, I quickly realise that Riley, who’s more than a head shorter than the shortest Italian, is the real badass in the room. She’s been a resort patroller and helicopter ski guide and has survived more than one avalanche.
The next morning, we depart early for the base of Mt Kariba. It’s a menacing 1,520m mound of raw nature. “There are bears around here,” Saotome tells me as we unload skis. With significantly steeper terrain than Weiss, the mountain also poses a much higher risk of avalanche, and so we start the day with an avalanche-rescue course. The Italians and I struggle to find and dig up imaginary bodies. Riley implores us to “move faster – after 15 minutes, survival rates drop by 90%.” It’s an eerie reminder that backcountry skiing can be a deadly activity.
Each time we alight from the cat, near Kariba’s summit, we put on our skis, and then Riley has us “party shred” – ski together as a group – to the top of ever-more-intense descents. Then, we ski down one by one, leaving 10-second gaps. Too many people on a mountain face can trigger an avalanche. And even lightweight Japow will become a concrete-hard tomb if a slab comes sliding down.
The day is absolutely terrifying and terribly fun. Again, I’m the least skilled in the group but don’t slow it down too much, despite frequent mishaps. Kariba’s faces are exceptionally steep, its trees are tightly spaced, its topography is unpredictable and littered with “snow bombs” – blocks of ice that have fallen from trees and been hidden by a blanket of fresh snow. But skiing is all about adrenaline, and it’s elating to survive this mountain’s challenges.
Test run in Furano
It takes me two buses and six hours to get to the town of Furano, smack in the middle of Hokkaido and not far from my volcano goal. I’ll take a couple days to acclimate to the area’s conditions, so I’ve hired a guide from Whiteroom Tours to take me out through Furano Resort’s gates. Brooke Edwards is in her mid-forties and wears her hair in braided pig tails tied with flower bands. Another professional-level Alaskan athlete with decades of guiding experience, she soon feels like my long-lost hippie sister. As we slurp ramen at a mid-mountain restaurant, we stare out across a valley filled with frozen lavender farms.
“That’s Daisetsuzan National Park, the volcano spine you’re going to ski tomorrow,” Edwards says, pointing at the next range over. “The Ainu, the native people of Hokkaido, call it the playground of the gods. Skiing there is like skiing inside of a fairy-tale.”
After lunch, Edwards takes me to secret powder lines that only a guide could find, often stopping to point out a glide crack (a sign of an imminent avalanche), obstacle or moment of natural beauty. Most importantly, she gently corrects my bad habits, improving my skiing more in a few hours than I have managed over the last few days. Her practical advice (“stay forward, keep your hands forward and use the poles like a metronome as you dance”) is interspersed with sage-like ski wisdom: “Snow is just water in its frozen form. Feel at one with it when you’re powder skiing. You have to trust the flow of the mountain and be in a flow state to be able to enjoy it, because if you’re not, you’ll just be terrified, with snow in your face, convinced you’re going to hit a tree.”
Rising to the challenge of Tokachi
There’s little to protect Trevor Staats’ stark naked body as he furiously shovels snow with his hands. I should probably help him, but I suspect his task is Sisyphean, doing little to cool the scorching hot water of the wild onsen. Instead, I stay submerged in the near-boiling water, hidden amid dense forest and billowing clouds of snow.
We’ve just finished skiing the best powder of my life on the slopes of Mt Asahi, Hokkaido’s tallest mountain at 2,290m and marked with many creeks that demand an experienced guide like Staats. It’s my first day seeing a Hokkaido snow shower, which has been dumping thick duvets since before sunrise. It’s also the first day that I feel like I’ve skied at a respectable level, probably due to Edwards’ guidance the day before.
Staats helps manage Alpine Backcountry Guides, Hokkaido’s oldest Western-owned ski touring company, and tomorrow, he will be keeping me out of trouble on the way to the summit of Mt Sandan, located beside the very active Tokachi-dake, the tallest volcano in the range.
“It’s a lot wilder and more remote,” he warns. “You need to be an advanced-level resort skier, preferably with a bit of backcountry experience.” I confess I’m probably not at that level. Staats lowers deeper into the water and says, “You were great today.” I protest that, while I may have fooled him today, I’d eaten a lot of snow over the past week.
Scaling Mt Sandan
“It’s like a field of diamonds,” Staats marvels as we climb through a sea of crystalline snow. Yesterday’s snowstorm has vanished, and today, the morning’s bright blue sky is interrupted only by the steam spewing from the top of Tokachi-dake. The uphill half of our ski touring is a peaceful affair. There’s little wind, so snow has yet to cover the night-time footprints of animals.
It takes a couple of hours to reach the summit. Massive mountains are notorious for creating unexpected changes in the weather, and this one is no different. As we eat a packed lunch of salmon-filled onigiri (rice balls), clouds suddenly start swirling in the valley off the back side of Mt Sandan, and so we quickly prepare for the fun part – skiing fresh powder all the way back down.
But before we’ve done a dozen turns, the clouds breach the summit and submerge us. Staats, always a few turns in front of me, stops to warn of a small cliff line we’re running parallel to. Soon the world has disappeared behind a sheet of fog, so Staats goes ahead to confirm that our route avoids the nearby precipice. Left by myself, my inner monologue begins to panic. But it doesn’t last long; after two days of skiing and talking, I’ve come to have complete trust in my guide’s mountaineering skills. Two minutes later, he calls from below, and I follow his voice at a tortoise pace, my skis never more than a millimetre outside the ski tracks he left.
When I catch up, he is sporting a carefree smile, pointing uphill. There’s less fog at this lower elevation, so it’s easy to see the gully we’ve successfully avoided. “This snow is great,” he says, beckoning me further downhill before leaping into a series of graceful turns. My temporary panic vanishes in about two seconds as I bound down after him, looking for any bump that I can launch off of.
A week ago, I was nervously inching myself down mellow resort runs; today, I’m trying to gather as much speed as possible before taking flight from the tops of fallen trees and snow-covered rocks. Thanks to Hokkaido’s best guides, and inspired by the immense beauty of the island’s magical nature, I’ve been transformed from a fortysomething to a 10-year-old, whooping every time I land in a big drift of cotton-candy snow.
Acclaimed chef Shinichi Maeda helms An Dining, a neo-traditional Japanese restaurant in Hirafu. Here are his favourite Niseko eateries:
“The chef makes traditional Tokyo sushi, and it’s amazing. He uses local seafood and has a contact at the Tokyo Tsukiji market for the very best tuna and other fish that we can’t get in Hokkaido.”
“This Italian restaurant is family-owned. The older brother trained in Italy in traditional Northern cuisine, and the younger one trained in Tokyo making amazing pastries.”
“This is a new style of food for Hirafu. It’s a really high-end izakaya – very well-designed and not traditional. I really enjoy the stone-grill dishes, which you cook yourself on a hot stone.”