Summer vacation in Japan is not an extended affair. “Salarymen” swelter in cities across Japan, working through the heat of summer with only a few days off. Yet even the typical “salaryman” needs a break to refresh the spirit.
Although I may not be your ordinary “salaryman,” I did not want to stand out from my co-workers with a long absence, but I had been dreaming of snowy mountaintops and sweeping S-turns down pristine snowfields since winter ended in Japan a few months earlier. For me, a summer snowboarding trip to the Southern Hemisphere has become a necessity.
Past trips to New Zealand and Argentina to get my “powder fix” have been epic, and the crew for this year’s trip down south included my friends Tetsuo and Tadashi. We first met in the mountains, became friends and now hit the slopes together so often, it makes me wonder how we find time to work.
This particular adventure would see us dropped off in a remote area by helicopter, then holed up in a small hut in the middle of a glacier from where we’d hike surrounding hills and enjoy the simple joy of steep, deep and dry powder. Not your typical “salaryman” summer vacation.
Our destination was Methven, New Zealand, from where we would drive the two hours to the Arrowsmith Range. An expansive glacier sits at an altitude of 1,500 meters, with a small hut right in the middle serving as our shelter. Access to the hut is via helicopter, but, once we jump out, we’re on our own.
Choppers, Sheep Jam & Freshies
Nothing beats waking up to news of 50 cms. of fresh snow. Smiles broke out all around when we realized it had been continuously snowing all night and the weather was just breaking in time for the helicopter to lift off. After a little snow dance at our good fortune, and until the chopper was ready to lift off, we spent time at a local club ski field, getting in our first turns in three months.
This slope was originally a members-only hill, but is now open to the public. Since it was non-profit, the equipment was minimal. We were only looking to get in some warm-up turns, but the powder kept dumping until it was knee-to-waist deep. Before we knew it, our legs were burning and our warm-up required a cool-down.
After a fantastic session, we settled in to wait for the helicopter launch. The day finally arrived and a sky, which had offered constant dumps, now cleared, revealing bluebird skies. We hurried for the heliport where the pilot had instructed us to go and soon found we had a situation on her hands.
There was only one road to the heliport – no detours – and we were stuck in a traffic jam. Not your usual traffic jam; this was a “sheep jam" of the New Zealand variety. We were deep in line behind a herd of sheep. As proud as I am of living in a land with such variety as Japan, I doubt this would ever happen. Thanks to the walking wool, we arrived 15 minutes late. Fortunately, some helicopter maintenance had caused a delay in our departure.
Landing down near our simple hut, built on a scant section of flatland, we enjoyed the “five-star” 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks. We scrambled out of the helicopter and were quickly greeted by thigh-high powder. After speedily clearing the snow-caked door and tossing our bags inside, we decided on a route and began to hike.
My companions were both skiers and made their way smoothly through the deep snow. I trudged along behind in snowshoes with snowboard in tow. The snow was deep enough that even walking in their tracks left me in shin-deep powder. The weather was fresh and a slight, comfortable breeze blew across the glacier. The only sounds under this big sky country were our voices, the wind and the slight sound of our footsteps. The glacier was all ours – not bad conditions – unbelievable!
The peaceful sky was momentarily interrupted as the heli-ski tour guides from “Methven Heli” rumbled across the view. The pilot was no doubt making note of these “hapless ski bums” stumbling across the glacier, but we all are experienced backcountry riders, and without local guides we could choose our own steeps. However this also meant we had to watch our own backs and take responsibility for any missteps.
After a two-hour hike, we finally made it to our drop-in point, checking the snow conditions, pulling knowledge from the blowing winds, glaring sun and towering mountains. We each drew our lines based on a delicate balance between what we had been dreaming of, and the inherent risk that lay beneath. Our fate was in each of our hands – our risk would be our reward for dropping in.
We plunged into the mountain one at a time; I was the last to drop in. Tetsuo and Tadashi, here just moments ago, were now pea-sized figures far below. From their screams I could tell the snow was just right. It was my turn. I took a deep breath...and tool the plunge.
As the ride folded out, I could feel the snow through my board. I gave in to gravity and leaned into a turn, then came back out of the turn and into more speed. The bluebird skies dried out the powder considerably and provided the rare feeling of floating. I didn’t bottom out even on deep turns as the board charged forward. Our three lines were the only tracks on this huge mountain.
As the sun began its descent, we slowly directed our lines back toward the hut. That night we toasted cans of beer and boxed wine we had brought to our “luxury” accommodation. Dry throats were quenched, and there was no price to be put on these drinks with friends on top of the mountain after what we had just experienced.
Playing it Safe
We hiked even farther out on our second day, and the gorgeous weather and cold temperatures kept snow conditions just right even on the southern face. Our route took us toward a huge curl we found on the map, and yesterday’s tracks made the hike up easier, taking only three hours. This particular slope was at a 40-degree angle with a 300-meter descent.
No one could have passed up such a spot, and the three of us turned into rooster-tailing, screaming machines as we cut lines down the mountain. Tetsu pointed his skis straight down the powder run at full speed.
That night we shook off the welcome pains from the glorious day and were forced to make a serious decision. Everything had gone smoothly thus far, but one problem remained. All the huts in this area were equipped with radio transmitters broadcasting the weather conditions at 8:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Based on the report, you would contact the helicopter to ask for a ride down.
Unfortunately, the static was terrible and, if you raised the volume, the speaker just howled, thus making it impossible pick up anything. On the first day we simply didn’t worry about it, went to bed and hoped it would be better the next day.
On the second day we were still unable to pick up any reports but, having heard prior to our ascent, about a weather pattern expected to come in the next day, we made our decision and requested a pick-up.
The next morning we were awakened by the roaring wind on the panes. Just as was predicted, the gales had really picked up and our request for a ride down turned out to be the right choice. Just as we finished eating breakfast, we began to hear the soft whisper of the helicopter. Although we were glad to have a timely ride down off the mountain, in the back of our minds there was disappointment in having to leave. We quickly packed our things and left this snowy playground behind.
We didn’t have another sunny day during our stay in New Zealand and, although our stay at the hut was a mere three days, the memories will last a lifetime. It’s tough for us “salarymen” to take long vacations, but traveling from place to place helps us recognize the good and the bad about our own country. It’s a big world out there, and we’re still looking for our next adventure. The only question is where to next?
Postcript: Shortly after this trip Shoji and Tetsuo quit their “salaryman” jobs to continue their quest for the endless winter.
July-August is peak season for winter sports in New Zealand.
Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) has direct flights from Tokyo to Christchurch on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Direct flights are also available from Kansai on Saturdays.
Return flights require a transfer in Auckland. From Christchurch, rental cars are available, and it is less than two hours to Methven.