The Snow Chasers

Episode 2: Forecast: Rain with a Chance of Knee Deep Powder
A wave of rain shook the window, waking me up. Next to me in the van, my friend was staring at the ceiling in desperation. We had driven late into the night hoping to catch the storm heading for Tomamu. The low-pressure system arrived as predicted but, unfortunately for us, it only brought every skier’s nightmare: rain.

We had parked in Shimukappu, Hokkaido, just 25 kilometers from Tomamu Alpha Resort and nearly at the same elevation as the base of the resort. We were sure the conditions would not be good. Even so, through every tunnel, we expectantly hoped to catch a glimpse of the remnants of a snowstorm. The temperature had dropped, but the scenery was still wet and bleak; snow banks like concrete on both sides of the road.

The sad conclusion finally crept forward from the back of my mind all the way to my mouth as I dared to say what we were both thinking, ‘’It looks like it rained all the way to the top of the mountain.”

We planned to ski Tomamu Resort, stay overnight in the impressive tower at the base of the resort, then join a cat-ski tour we booked to celebrate the end of our three-month snow road trip across Japan. As we stepped out of the car and onto the frozen ground, I wished I had worn a pair of skates. After wandering around the lodge for about an hour, we finally mustered up some motivation to strap on our gear and hit the slopes.

The top lifts, with the most interesting terrain, were closed due to howling winds, so we couldn’t even see if snow had fallen at the top of the mountain. As we were getting in line for the bunny chair, neither of us was optimistic.  On the way up, the screeching sound of some courageous skiers was not heartening. The first (and only) turn I made confirmed my suspicions. It was looking as if our last day of the season would be in the worst snow condition.

We both agreed. This was not a day for skiing. We weren’t used to entertaining ourselves at a resort on rainy days, so it took us a while to realize we could hang out in the Viz Spa House which has everything you need to forget a crappy day of skiing. I have tried a lot of onsen, but this was the biggest indoor water park I had seen. There was a hot spring, a huge jet spa area and even a wave pool. We spent the afternoon marinating in the various pools and being massaged by millions of air jets.

As we walked out of the spa, tiny little snowflakes were falling from a semi-clear sky. After a late lunch and watching what looked like a documentary about a snowball fight league in Japanese, our day ended fast. We enjoyed the view of the illuminated mountain from our hotel room as the sparkle of snow began to fill the sky.

I fell asleep thinking about tomorrow’s snowcat tour and thought to myself, “At least when I am backcountry skiing I can go back to my car after one run if the weather sucks but, with cat skiing, I will have to keep doing runs all day, even if we’re riding ice-hardened conditions.”

We woke up to a heavy snowstorm. High winds and large snowflakes were pounding against our window. Snow was trying to stick to whatever it could find, but the preceding rain made it difficult. After picking up some snacks for a quick breakfast at the hotel’s convenience store, we waited in the lobby impatiently for our guide. Our man showed up at 8 a.m. sharp. He didn’t speak much English but, by the way he handled our gear and packed everything in the van, we could tell he knew what he was doing. 

After cruising around the huge Tomamu complex a bit and picking up our fellow skiers, we headed to the Tomamu Adventure Headquarters. We sat through about an hour and a half of safety instructions. Our instructor was an attractive female guide, so staying focused wasn’t hard for us, but even though I tried to pick up as much Japanese as I could during my three-month journey, I still didn’t understand much of what was said.

In the end, everything was summed up nicely in a five-minute English translation. I couldn’t help thinking Japanese must be a much more complicated language than English.

We were then led to a garage where a really nice helicopter was parked. We were showed how to climb on and how to behave around it. I looked at my friend who seemed equally confused. Are we going heli-skiing?  High winds grounded the chopper that day, so it was Plan B after all—cat skiing.  

We finally jumped in a van and headed toward Mt. Karifuritake. Our driver, who hadn’t said a word all morning, turned off the main road to Tomamu’s private road leading to the area they use solely for their cat-ski and heli-ski operations. As the car was making its way up the road, the snow banks looked as if they were softening a bit. But the road was still icy.

The staff packed our skis and poles in the back of the cat as we ushered in ourselves. We then realized our silent driver was also going to be our tail guide. A 30-minute ride later, we were at the top of the run. I jumped straight out of the cat, bracing myself to hit hard ground. Instead, I sank up to my knees. Everyone looked excited.

After some more safety information, our cute little guide put on her goggles, smiled and pointed her board down the mountain. No screechy sounds here; only the sound of her board gently lifting off the snow.

The tail-guide told me to stay close to our guide’s tracks and to stop at the bottom. Since she was boarding and I was on telemark skis, I expected to hit the icy crust underneath, but it didn’t happen. I was floating gently on top of cream-like snow.

When I stopped next to her, I too was all smiles. I couldn’t believe I was skiing knee deep powder only a day after heavy rain. As expected, our tail guide was a very good skier, rocketing down the slopes. Everyone was stoked about the skiing conditions.

As we gathered around the cat at the bottom of the run, we were all ready for more. The driver brought us around the mountain for some longer runs. The terrain wasn’t crazy steep, but it offered plenty of room to carve turns you wanted. The trees were sparse and the guides were leaving us plenty of room, so everyone could enjoy some fresh snow. The conditions were so great, waking up in the van the day before seemed like a dream.

One more run and it was time for lunch. Another surprise awaited us when we scoped a tee-pee big enough for the whole group. Inside, the ground was covered with evergreen branches to avoid some awkward falls in ski boots, while gently perfuming the air. Lunch was a copious meal with four delicious courses prepared mostly with Hokkaido delicacies. I was surprised to see a fork and knife on the table and no chopsticks. I hadn’t used silverware much the past few months, but it came in handy for the steak.

We used sign language and gestures to share our experience in Japan with our new friends. The incredulous looks on their faces indicated they understood the magnitude of our three-month journey. The chef preparing our meal on the grill inside the tepee made the experience even more interesting. Warmed up with a full belly, I forced myself to drink about a liter of coffee to keep from sleeping on the way back up the mountain.

Yet there we were in the cat for another 1,200 meters of vertical in some nice, soft powder. The guides know the terrain well and only brought us to the slopes benefitting most from wind-deposited snow, and the mountain had many faces that protected the snow nicely from the harsh winds. I ventured a bit farther out from where the guides told us to ski, quickly returning as the conditions reminded me of a hockey rink.

Our last run took us all the way back to where we started. The lower we got, the less interesting were the conditions but, by this point, everyone was grateful for such an awesome day. I must confess we actually discussed pretending to be sick to get out of going on the cat tour because we thought it was going to be a horrible day. This only made the Tomamu backcountry experience that much better and reminded us a “bad” day skiing is better than a good day at home.

Tomamu Heli/Snow Cat Tours

Season: Early January to late March.

Best time to go: February (coldest month, but the greatest snow) or March (good snowpack, usually great weather).

Cost:  Cat-Ski: ¥29,400 (regular season), ¥23,200 (spring season). Heli-Ski: ¥78,750.

Snow Bum Plan:  New for the 2010-2011 season is this great deal. If you stay for a week or more, you can stay and ski for just ¥4,200 a night (includes lift ticket).

Contact Info: Tel: 0167-58-1122 (reservations) 0167-58-1111 (information). Web: www.snowtomamu.jp