Powder Play

First published in the Time Out Adventure Guide, photography by James Mutter

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There are few dress rehearsals more disturbing than learning to dig your friend from an avalanche. Our guide, Watanabe, shows us how to switch our trackers to search mode before hiding one in the snow and having us converge on it from opposite sides of the car park – a process that takes a distressing amount of time. He then schools us in assembling probes and shovels – equipment I don’t dare ask if he’s been forced to use in the past – while groups of skiers file past and begin ascents of their own. No one give us a second glance: this is essential training for anyone hoping to hike the powder fields of the smoking Tokachidake volcano, a mountain that regularly claims lives and has been known to throw skiers so far off course that they’ve had to dig snow shelters to sleep in overnight.

Not that everyone embarking on ski or snowboard tours of Japan need engage in such potentially threatening pursuits. Those seeking more conventional runs will find lift systems and groomed pistes to rival European resorts – and this despite the nation’s late start in the world of wintersports. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1910 – when Austria’s Major Von Lurch came to inspect the Japanese army and, awed by the mountains in which he found himself stationed, began teaching local soldiers and postal workers to ski – that a national obsession started to take root.

Over the following century Japan hosted no less than 12 World Cup events and two Winter Olympics, while the island of Hokkaido – the nation’s second largest and least developed land mass – became peppered with ski resorts of all shapes and sizes. These range from local municipality slopes like Santa Present Park and privately run ski areas like Kamui to major developments like the sprawling Furano resort. Accommodation options vary from traditional Japanese houses like the Tokiya Ryokan in Asahikawa – complete with robes, straw mat floors and futons – to the glamorous, wood-panelled La Vista Hotel in Daisetsuzan National Park. On top of that, Hokkaido’s mountains are crowd-free (a handful of Australians constitute the only significant non-Japanese tourists) and offer a wealth of cultural riches – replacing glutinous cheese fondues with steaming bowls of miso ramen, and après-ski gluhwein sessions with soothing soaks in geothermal hot springs.

Most importantly, Hokkaido is blessed with the sort of snow that most European skiers long ago stopped believing possible, with the prevailing Siberian air mass annually delivering metre after metre of the lightest, driest powder imaginable – and it’s this that has brought us to the base of the region’s most infamous mountain. The previous afternoon, from our vantage point at the top of Asahidake – another active volcano dotted with vents spewing forth sulphuric steam and grumbling underfoot – the slouched peak of Tokachidake had looked no more threatening than a collapsed ice-cream cone, its silently smoking crater as cheerful as the chimney on a country pile. Yet this is a mountain bereft of gondolas, groomed slopes or the potential intervention of ski patrols: those who brave it do so under their own steam, and entirely at their own risk.

Not that we’re given long to contemplate the dangers: Watanabe estimates that the currently sun-spangled peak will be hidden by heavy weather come lunchtime, so we saddle our bags, set our avalanche beacons to send and begin the four-hour trudge towards a summit that suddenly seems as welcoming as Mount Doom did to young Frodo Baggins. The ascent, difficult under any means, is decidedly easier with skis, which can be adapted with mohair ‘skins’ that allow skiers to shuffle uphill without sliding back down. Snowboarders have no choice but to strap boards to their rucksacks and their feet into aluminium snowshoes, and while the increased surface area of such contraptions reduces the risk of sinking waist-deep, they don’t entirely eliminate it.

 

Japan OneThe early stages of the climb are unproblematic – the gradient forgiving and the snow still relatively secure beneath our feet – and the conversation is broken by awe-struck silences as we soak up the beauty of the snow falling in glittering trails from trees and the green leaves of bamboo shoots poking with impossible lustre from the snowline. An hour into the climb the silence becomes one of exhaustion rather than exultation, the mountain mocking us with awkward angles and the snow three metres deep beneath our feet. Snowboarders are sinking a good foot into the snow despite their snowshoes, occasional slides revealing that they’re actually standing on top of small trees. Hats, gloves and jackets are discarded despite the -10° temperatures, then hurriedly replaced during the halfway power-bar break, when the deep cold begins freezing the sweat on our bodies and filling our hair with mini icicles.

There’s no stripping on the second half of the climb, the now relentless 40° terrain above the treeline and unprotected from the 40-knot winds that force the temperature down another few notches. Clouds have closed in and falling snow is pixelating our field of vision, and as we shuffle towards the summit it’s hard not to imagine us viewed from above, a line of arctic explorers hell bent on discovering our own icy doom.

Not that there’s any such fate in store with a guide as scrupulous as Watanabe leading the pack. After the breathless hugs and handshakes that follow our reaching the peak, he spends the better part of half an hour digging a pit to test blocks of snow for stability, only giving the thumbs up when he’s sure the ground won’t give way at the first tumble or overly-aggressive turn. Even then there’s no rushing our route down: clearly keen on keeping avalanche probes and shovels firmly zipped in rucksacks, Watanabe skis ahead to test every hundred-or-so metres of backcountry before beckoning us to follow on the walkie talkie, a stop-start process that gives us time to admire both our silent surroundings and the majesty of the snow beneath us. The latter is so deep and light that it feels as though we’re not so much gliding on top of it as inside it, every turn kicking up arcs of spray that break like waves overhead, every jump ending in a landing so soft as to make us wonder if we aren’t still in the air.

After the first few hundred metres of pitched powder faces we’re back in the trees, weaving between snow-burdened cypresses and keeping our eyes peeled for the great bears that roam the area (and make for warming if reputedly tough winter stews), until finally we emerge back at the car park, breathless and beaming from ear to ear, our clothes saturated, our gloves frozen, our hats and goggles caked in snow.

Less than half an hour later we’re soaking in the mineral-rich hot springs at the foot of the mountain (the laidback nakedness of Japanese communal bathing comes as a shock to Westerners convinced of the nation’s social shyness), and contemplating the dreamlike nature of the day behind us. Before setting off that morning, Watanabe had promised us that we were going to omoide tsukuru – ‘make good memories’. He wasn’t bluffing. Half an hour of riding might seem a minimal payoff for a four-hour uphill slog, but liberating oneself from the metal drudgery of the ski lift lends an appropriately zen-like quality to what has been, after all, the most memorable run of my life.