Training and preparation are paramount to playing safe in the backcountry, and recently guides and instructors are putting more emphasis on group dynamics and decision-making for when things don’t go according to plan.
It’s always a good idea to seek knowledgeable locals willing to share information on the trouble areas and, if you’re lucky, the sweet spots, so you can maximize your safety and fun in the backcountry.
“If the Niseko gates were a traffic signal, an open gate should be considered a flashing yellow (not green). Proceed with caution, respect the mountains and always consider changing conditions.” – Andrew Spragg
Blanketed by light, dry “pow” every winter, Niseko's incredibly consistent conditions are world renowned, attracting visitors from around the globe looking to get their shot at bottomless powder. The resort`s liberal out-of-bounds policy and easily accessible backcountry terrain serve up unforgettable lines that continue to blow the minds of every type of snow lover from the average punter to world class big mountain pros.
While the accessibility and incredible payoff help make these runs common targets, the hazard is often under-estimated. On a busy day throngs of unsuspecting powder junkies will make the climb to the peak with little concept of the risk they are unwittingly assuming.
Aside from the obvious navigational concerns involved with blindly following others into unknown terrain, the slopes are entirely uncontrolled, unsigned and littered with unmarked natural hazards, including sometimes-giant glide cracks.
These are almost always hidden just behind blind convex rolls waiting for another unsuspecting victim to come flying over the aforementioned roll straight into the guts of the crack. As comical as this sounds, it presents a real risk of serious injury and even complete burial in an area where rescue is not readily available.
Climb the peak of Mt. Annupuri, and you will be offered a selection of top-to-bottom runs typically coated with some of the planet`s finest champagne powder. You may need to brave fierce 100-kph winds and white-out conditions, but drop in and you will find yourself balls (sometimes tits) deep with 1,000 vertical meters of untouched “pow” in front of you…and at the end of it, you can slide all the way back to a waiting chairlift and much needed rest before heading back up for another phenomenal lap.
Niseko’s consistently low but not extreme temperatures, minimal exposure to solar radiation and deep snowpack all help to promote a strong stable base. Despite this, any time you combine snow and mountains, there is an inherent risk of avalanche, and it is important to avoid complacency.
Slides occur here every winter, even on days where ski patrol deems conditions to be safe enough to open the gates, allowing access to Niseko’s side-country. It is important to remain cautious in all unmanaged terrain, evaluate conditions and ride within the limitations of your skills and knowledge.
Andrew Spragg has been living and riding in Hokkaido for eight years. Together with Clayton Kernaghan he operates Black Diamond Tours which specializes in delivering the highest quality off-piste and backcountry powder adventures across Hokkaido. Web: www.blackdiamondtours.com
The Powder Belt
“Before you begin your journey, make sure you go well prepared. It’s essential to have a route plan which suits your own backcountry experience, and something which is achievable with the weather forecast and avalanche hazard of the day. Also consider a contingency plan in case the avalanche hazard is higher than you expected, of worsening weather or injury. It’s all good, until it isn’t good.”—Chuck Olbery
Daisetsuzan National Park contains Hokkaido’s highest mountains and volcanoes. It is also known as Hokkaido’s Powder Belt, an area which produces what would be, without doubt, some of the lightest snow on the planet due to the cold temperatures and low humidity levels.
In the southern part of the park is the Tokachidake area, named after the live volcano. If you want some turns here, you have to earn them. There used to be a ski area below the volcano, but in recent years the volcano has erupted every 30 or 40 years and, after the most recent eruption caused damage to the lifts, the resort was closed. So this area is purely backcountry, with three separate mountains you can access via skins, split or snowshoes.
If you are not inclined to hike, there is the fabled mountain of Asahidake in the northern part of the park. Asahidake is a live volcano but, as far as we know, it has not erupted for thousands of years.
Although Asahidake may be called a resort, there is no ski patrol and, despite the initial benign look of the terrain, there are areas of avalanche risk. A topographic map of the area at the ticket counter highlights these zones. On clear days, a hike to the peak can be a few hours, but be aware the weather can change rapidly and there are few features to help you navigate back to the tram.
The first thing visitors notice at the tram base is the hordes of locals with an array of massive fat skis and surfboard-looking snowboards . A good day here can be very deep, so leave the skinny skis and park boards at home. Asahidake is a mini La Grave or a Silverton; a tram services 500 vertical meters of terrain in what can be best described as backcountry on the front side. Asahidake’s base station is at 1,100 meters, an elevation where most Hokkaido ski resorts finish, so the powder season extends right until the end of March and even early April.
The wind plays a big part in the general distribution of the snow in the alpine and often distributes it unevenly. There will be areas of wind slab and also areas of shallow snowpack to avoid, so exercise conservatism. Be careful with your route-finding on the way up and consider skiing terrain with a good run-out on the down, staying well clear of anything with a terrain trap below it.
In the colder months of January and February, it can be frostbite-inducing cold, especially if the wind is blowing from the north, so be prepared to cover up with a balaclava. I have seen many white and waxy noses. The volcano here is not just live; it is very active, so much so there are web cameras and lava trip wires to warn of any eruptions. If you start to feel the earth tremor, it might not be an earthquake.
There is big terrain here and, if your trip coincides with favorable weather, you can be standing on the roof of Hokkaido getting ready for some long descents. There is everything from alpine bowls, steep chutes and skiing among old growth primeval forest. All routes finish at hot springs where you can soak while gazing up at your own ski lines.
Chuck Olbery is the owner and lead guide of Hokkaido Powder Guides. Chuck has spent years guiding in Canada and New Zealand but has chosen Hokkaido to settle down because he believes it has the best snow he has skied. Web: www.hokkaidopowderguides.com
The Northern Alps
“With such an expansive terrain literally out our back door, there is mellow tree skiing and big alpine mountains that come with their share of appeal and natural hazards.” - James Robb
Japan’s Hida Alps, also known as the Northern Alps, are aptly named after their European counterparts. These mountains are characterized by their steep V-shaped valleys and prominent rocky ridgelines and peaks. In the Hakuba region of these mountains, the ski resorts, for the most part, are dotted along the east facing slopes that lead to higher ridges. It is really above the resorts where things get interesting, and it is what makes Hakuba a unique backcountry location.
Like many sports, the higher the level, the higher the chance is of getting thoroughly worked over. The mountains in Hakuba have plenty of features that, given the right conditions, can be tasty or terribly nasty. One needs only look at the ridgelines on a very windy day to see the wind/snow transport going on. If you’re caught on the ridge, the weather will fiercely hammer you.
Wind-loaded slopes and big cornices are commonplace here in winter and, with the gully-like nature of so many of Hakuba’s higher backcountry terrain, the slide paths can travel down these valleys a formidable distance. Both Happo-One and Goryu/Hakuba 47 have steep, gnarly terrain right off the lifts that ends in funnel-like valleys, so knowing when to go and when to stay in-bounds is critical.
Another hazard I have noticed becoming more of a risk while touring is that created by groups out there. Make sure you aren’t standing or skiing below another group that might be oblivious to where you are, and vice-versa.
Rewards are relative. The simple pleasure of being on mountains moving through the snowy forests can be perfect. That said, there are times when you want to achieve more, challenge a new descent and push yourself a little harder. If it is those more intense ups and downs you are going for, the mountains in the Hakuba area are always going to be here for you.
Spectacular views, check! Steep-ass chutes, check! Technical mountaineering ascents/descents, check! Open powderfields, check! The reward list continues and is only limited by your stamina, the snow-terrain-group conditions and how many hours are left in the day.
James Robb is a professional guide and general manager of the Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba. Web: www.evergreen-hakuba.com
Tenjindaira Tanigawadake, Minakami Gunma
“When in doubt, think about the terrain options, including returning to inbound terrain.” —Mike Harris
Tenjindaira ski area has long been one of Japan’s best-kept secrets. The resort consistently ranks in Japan’s top 10 highest snowfall resorts, is just two hours from Tokyo and has a large variety of terrain, from mellow tree runs to big alpine. The on-piste area is relatively small but has some nice features and the lifts are sometimes slow to open after big dumps, but it is worth the wait.
The main BC area, Nishi Kurosawa, is also known as Avalanche Alley and for good reason. The valley is situated directly below the south faces of Nishikuro Ridge and acts as the runout zone for most alpine avalanche action. Every year a number of size 2-3 avalanches drop and typically one size 3.5-4 avalanche will fill the entire valley with debris. The less time spent in the bottom of the valley the better.
The alpine area is synonymous with rapidly changing weather, with visibility going from bluebird to whiteout within an hour. Strong winds and poor visibility have caused many alpine accidents which have led to the nickname “The Devil’s Peak,” (also because of the shape of the peak).
Make sure you know the mountain forecast and keep an eye out for changes. When in doubt, go out with a local guide.
Tenjin’s main attraction for backcountry enthusiasts is the ease of access into a good variety of steep terrain. The main BC area, Nishi Kurosawa, can be accessed by a short 100-meter hike from the backcountry gate. It provides a number of steep north-facing ridges and valleys with perfectly spaced beech trees, laden with copious amounts of Japow.
The run is a good thigh-burner, starting at around 1,450 meters and ending at the ropeway at 750 meters, with about 600 meters vertical of this being in powder. On a good day you can get in eight-plus loops.
For those who want to venture above the tree line, a 90-minute-plus hike gets you to the near-2,000-meter peak of Mt. Tanigawa where a plethora of alpine routes present themselves; not to mention a breath-taking panorama. It is a big mountain rider's dream come true.
Mike Harris is the owner of Canyons, a four-season outdoor adventure company in Minakami. He has been riding in the area for more than 18 years and guides BC at many of the local mountains. Web: www.canyons.jp
Myoko Kogen, Niigata
“Any time you’re in the backcountry, the risk factor goes up, but the rewards are also so much higher for those willing to put in the effort—both in climbing and in increasing their own knowledge. If you have some basics in navigation, avalanche awareness and First Aid, you can relax and enjoy the journey and set aside the competitiveness (I’ve run into a lot of hyper-competitive Japanese guys recently, for some reason). Go with people who are fun and smart enough to say no when the snow or weather look bad—and cool-headed enough to help you if something goes wrong.” —Bill Ross
Myoko is a great big, still slightly steaming (yet very low on the risk level) volcano at the center of the frontline mountains just to the northeast of the Northern Alps. Its size, location and the mountains around it all conspire to make it one of the snowiest places on the globe which, of course, makes it very interesting for people who like to head into the backcountry to pursue the deep.
With continuous, steady snowfall at largely the same temperature all the time—factors that tend to increase the risk of weak layers, and therefore dangerous avalanches—it’s easy to get complacent in Myoko. The snow is what you’re out there for, but it’s also the source of some of the biggest dangers around.
Several boarders have ended up inverted in snow-filled tree wells and were not able to escape; a soft snow avalanche that buried several cars in nearby Tsubame Onsen also swept a solo skier away. Heavy snow and poor visibility makes it easy to miss a landmark, get into a valley and end up in a very wrong place.
Also, those trees are beautiful and nicely spaced but also very hard; it’s very easy for a powder turn to become a head-first tumble, and that’s not good when there’s a tree in the path.
This is a maritime region, so the snow may not often get as champagne dry as our friends up on that northern island above Honshu—but tree skiing here is great (and most everything good here is in the trees). As a local famous guy says, “Anyone can ski light powder; Myoko snow is for a serious skier.”
There isn’t a lot of off-the-lift sidecountry, so the best runs require a few hours’ hike from the main areas around the base of Mt. Myoko to one of the peaks, but it is worth it, in overhead powder if you’re lucky, or just out sliding through the amazing stands of dakekamba (Erman’s birch) and beech trees, even if the snow is crusty and grabby.
That happens, and it keeps you honest and focused on your skiing and not on the mini-video camera mounted back-facing on your pole so you can shoot your grinning face coming down (which brings us back to those risks….).
Bill Ross is the owner of and lead guide at Dancing Snow (www.dancingsnow.com). He has been guiding in Myoko for 15 years, both in winter and summer.