If you have already discovered what is so special about backcountry skiing and splitboarding, you may also have realized Hakuba is a great backcountry launching point. However, I see many aspiring backcountry visitors come to Hakuba who never quite click with the valley and miss out as a result.
Hakuba’s ski resorts only go a small way up the local mountains, mostly facing east. If you want to benefit from higher altitudes, or select from a wide variety of terrain on different aspects, you need to leave the resorts. For many, this is a new journey. To turn your back on the ski lifts and make the most of Hakuba’s diverse backcountry terrain requires you to make a few mental shifts.
The Commitment Shift
The first is a commitment shift. Like many long journeys, it begins with small steps. It’s an investment in the future where every bit counts. At least 50 percent of what you do today is for the benefit of tomorrow. The Hakuba Valley richly rewards that investment over time as you encounter many days where there is no good off-piste skiing in the resort or in the lift-accessed backcountry zones. Yet, there is often so much untouched and seemingly unwanted powder in the backcountry, which is all yours, in return for the time you’ve put in.
Hint: Do recon missions when the snow isn’t good, then return armed with access and terrain knowledge when the snow is great.
The second mental shift is seeing appropriate terrain and perceiving yourself in it. I don’t mean fantasizing about being a backcountry skier or boarder on an epic run. I mean actually seeing and analyzing terrain followed by appropriate action.
It is hard for new backcountry riders to conceptualize their place in the backcountry, yet everyone has a place out there so long as they have enough technical riding skills to go along with fundamental avalanche training and the right equipment. Where in Hakuba’s back country is your place? Those beautiful backdrops are not cardboard cutouts; they are yours to ski and snowboard.
As you try to identify appropriate terrain you would like to experience, keep in mind a lot of the good stuff is not visible from the valley. This is where maps help a lot. Also, the best valley-bottom views are often from roads visitors would never visit.
You can’t see a mountain when you are on it, or very close to it, so find places in Hakuba that will give you a wider view. Remember there is good terrain, which you may not even notice, in the shadow of the bigger picture-postcard eye-grabbers. There could be low-hanging fruit near the lifts as well.
Hakuba has an abundance of such terrain, but don’t be blinded by it alone. Try to see what others ignore. Look beyond the popular and obvious choices; it doesn’t have to be great to be good. Also, when you are in the mountains on the big side of the valley, look east. Look at those hills and valleys and how they roll into bigger features, all the way toward distant Myoko. Hakuba is just a town, a dot on a map, a starting point.
The Hakuba Valley has two sides and two ends; explore them all. On one side of the valley is a small stretch of the much larger Kita Alps, and there is no other mountain range like it anywhere else in Japan. A lot of it is simply too big and steep to be practical, but there are significant zones within this range which are accessible and offer excellent ski touring itineraries for people with an advanced level of backcountry experience and training.
My message is simply to stop “looking” and start “seeing.” Put yourself in the picture and make it happen. Backcountry skiing and splitboarding takes the technical riding skills acquired through repetition in resorts and allows you to use them to develop your own personal art-form of backcountry travel into terrain you may never have otherwise seen, only looked at.
It is probably time for a reality check. If you put an unprepared person lacking common sense into a snowy mountain environment, the mountains can suddenly be very dangerous. More accurately, it is ourselves who are dangerous; the mountains just make it obvious and sometimes fatally so.
Humility and patience, quality training, appropriate gear and preparation, and mentorship from someone genuinely more experienced are all vital in your journey as a new backcountry rider. Every day in the backcountry can be a day of valuable experience; however expect to score a lot of dud days.
A lot of terrain is actually pretty bad. Sometimes, after all the effort to identify and get to a zone with the right incline, aspect, elevation and location—with respect to snow quantity—you arrive in a sweat to find it is convoluted and full of scrub and regrowth rather than well-spaced mature beech trees.
Hint: Look for beech and avoid oak and cedar plantations. Also, if an area looks convoluted on a detailed Japanese government topo map, it will be convoluted. Quality 1:25,000 scale Japanese maps with their 10-meter contour lines seldom lie.
You can ski in Hakuba and the wider Kita Alps for six months, non-stop, starting in late November. Yet few people experience December, despite it being when the sun is lowest in the sky. This allows for good, sunny aspects to remain skiable for longer. Likewise, April is under-appreciated and when a few summer access roads are opened and reliable corn is on offer.
If you want to be a backcountry rider who makes the most of the Hakuba Valley and the Kita Alps, it is very limiting to look at Hakuba through the January-February lens. Other than the classic winter conditions in January, December and April are the best backcountry months.
Think of Hakuba as a staging area for a wide area of terrain. Break the valley into distinct zones which have their own attributes. Tsugaike is a great place to start exploring one zone within the Kita Alps. From the top of the gondola, you can go for half a day, half a week or more. Most of the distant terrain is not even visible, unless you get yourself into just the right spot on the far side of Tengu-para.
Other terrain surrounding the valley is accessed via penetrating roads, so the trick is to learn which ones are cleared in winter. The hard part is finding a place to park your car with 200-cm. snow walls on either side of the road. If your road is not cleared, can you get deeper into the terrain on skins?
The summer road to Sarukura is an in-town example of this. If it has been windy above tree line, the large area generally referred to as Otari and then Itoigawa is your friend. Too warm and sunny with no new snow? Then you need north-facing slopes and higher altitude. You can find that in Tengu-para if you look for those special pockets that accumulate and preserve snow. Finally, the south end of Kita Alps gets less snow, which is sometimes a benefit, though the tree type and spacing can be a gamble.