Saturday, December 31, 2016

Japanuary 2016

Backcountry skiing requires three simple things: snow, weather, and terrain. If you just want snow you could go to Buffalo NY, Moab is usually sunny, and the coast of Hawaii has steep, interesting terrain. The moment the three elements are combined it becomes a complex problem of local weather, repeat avalanche offenders, and snowfall history. Its hard enough somewhere you know like the back of your hand, let alone on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. 

After an incredible time in Hakuba in January 2015, Alex and I couldn't wait to go back. Erik Mehus, Ken Hill, and Josh Wulff were itching to join. There was just one problem: it was raining in Hakuba. So, one week before flying west, we changed our whole trip. 

There were no van rentals left in Hokkaido, so we'd have to drive north from Tokyo - at night, jetlagged, on the wrong side of the road, and with no knowledge of Japanese. Driving away from the airport was terrifying.

Going north there was less and less road and more and more snow.

By dawn we were almost to Hakoda.

It snows so much in the mountains of northern Honshu that the roads close every night. Alex and I tried to recover as we waited for the gate to open:

Two hours later we were anxiously waiting in line for the tram. Dropping in was ridiculously deep. Wulffsan said it was the deepest snow he'd ever seen.

Unfortunately, the Hakoda wasn't steep enough for all that snow and the line for the single tram was too long. That night we regrouped over a "Coolish" and poured thru topo maps.

Near the Hakoda Onsen we pulled the AlpHard off the road,

and skinned into the woods.

Ripping skins, we looked across the valley at Hakoda:

The Onsen is the snowiest inhabited place on earth.

Josh said Day 2 was the deepest day of his life. That wasn't the last day he'd say that.

We had one more day on the main island before we'd take the ferry to the Hokkaido; for breakfast in Aomori City we refueled on fish, cinnamon rolls, and mystery calories:

Then we went deeper into the zone from the previous day:

Ken found a moment of perfection to finish the day:

Then we raced back to catch the ferry.

That night, dinner on the ferry came out of a vending machine.

Full of rice triangles, hot dogs, and round things with brown stuff on top we tried to catch up on our sleep:

Next morning we woke up in Niseko and went looking for powder snow at Moiwa Ski area.

Moiwa was deep, but it was also mellow. We decided to look north to Kiroro.

By the afternoon Kiroro was tracked out, and we dropped over the ridge into the backcountry.

As dusk came, no one wanted to stop.

Kiroro was so good we spent the next two days lapping the backcountry there. The program was simple: ski,



stand up to see around snowdrifts on the roads,

bounce off pillows,

sign our lives away for more calories,

and end the day in the dark.

We had one day left before we had to race back to Tokyo. Promising weather brought us to the top of Annupuri.

Alex waited for a break in the clouds to drop:

Then we watched as Erik dropped into his last turns of the trip:

Out of fuel and full of memories we turned south for Tokyo.

In January 2017 Zack, Khalial, and I returned to Japanuary. Based on my last two visits, we decided it was best to head directly to the more dependable snow of Hokkaido. Although Hakuba is steeper, we were there to ski midwinter pow, not the gnar - there's plenty of that in Alaska.

From Tokyo we took a local flight to Sapporo where we rented a 4WD station wagon and headed for our Airbnb in Kutchan. We picked Kutchan because of its central location between Kiroro and Niseko. I can't find her on Airbnb anymore, but our host Akiko, provided a fun, quirky, affordable and memorable experience. Somehow the place didn't burn down either. 

The town of Niseko was overrun by drunk Australians talking loudly about gross sex fantasies with their bespectacled Japanese hosts. They reminded me of Texans at Vail. In Akaigawa we found an authentic onsen devoid of Australians where we'd stop on the way home from Kiroro.

Even on Hokkaido the snowpack was thin and we had to work for it. Persistent northwest flow was favoring Kiroro over Niseko which still had too thin of a snowpack to fully crush vegetation down low. Additionally, it snowed almost the entire trip, making it hard to get into the alpine around Niseko. We skied awesome glads on Mount Yotei while it dumped snow. There were other groups in the area, but it didn't feel crowded. 

At Kiroro, things had changed since the previous year. All backcountry gates were manned to ensure that all users had filled out backcountry travel plans. Additionally, the line at the mountain center to fill out BC user form was often 30 minutes. With the militant BC enforcement, skinning out of the parking lot into the backcountry was tricky. Buying the 3 hour pass and wrapping that into an afternoon tour proved to be the easiest solution.

I'd go back to Niseko in a second. Kiroro and Moiwa are good storm day inbounds options. The 3 hour Kiroro lift ticket is a great way to start a lift accessed tour. Mount Yotei has great glades for storm day touring. And, of course, hiking out of Annupurri is incredible on bluebird days.

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