I am becoming a little bit of a powder snob these days after spending just over five weeks skiing in one of the powdery-ist places on earth. After my recent visit to Moiwa, a small resort near Hirafu I am struggling to settle for days that don’t guarentee fresh – or almost fresh – powder turns. Fortunately in Niseko there is pretty much unlimited backcountry, slackcountry or side country with relatively little hiking compared to Europe. After 5 weeks here I have had some pretty epic days and after dipping my toes into the accessible backcountry and untouched powder tracks, I am hungry for more. Unfortunately, because of the more mellow terrain and over-reliance on the gate system (see below), powder hunters here seem to be less avalanche savvey than your average European. For example, I live with 25 other (mainly) Australians and I’m pretty sure I am the only person in a house with a full avo pack and the necessary skills to use them.
Never leave home without….
Th terrain here is easily less steep than your standard alpine resort but considering most slab avalanches (which are the worst type) occur between 25 – 40⁰ with the “sweet spot” being reported at 38⁰, it pays dividends to do your research before stepping out of bounds even in mellow pitched Japan. Thankfully a man named Akio Shinya came up with a life saving idea of the “gate system”. When Mr. Shinya first moved to Moiwa in the 1970’s he was involved mainly in disaster and emergency rescue services and decided that rather than putting all this effort to rescue people, wouldn’t it be better to prevent the accidents in the first place?? He has a wealth of knowledge from a lifetime of weather and avalanche surveillance on mountains and has written 4 books on mountaineering.
His typical day begins at 5:30 am, calling ski patrol, collecting data from the Japan Meteorological Agency and the coast guard to write his daily avalanche report that is posted on the entrance of all the gates. Since he came on the scene Niseko went from having the most fatalities from avalanches in the whole of Japan (remembering Japan has 500+ ski resorts) to drastic reduction in deaths. He has given your average Joe safer access to so much more of the resort due to his knowledge and understanding of the mountain and snow conditions. Thank you Shinya-san.
Gate 6 in Moiwa – open for business today
Moiwa is also home of Shinya-san. The gate system quite simply is a number of access points around Niseko United ski resort that are operated by ski patrol. They advise you of daily conditions and encourage you to read the report from Mr. Shinya which is posted on the gate. When it’s closed, don’t bother, is not worth it. And when it’s open – particularly later in the season (like now) it’s not risk free, especially with more and more crevasse’s appearing around this time of year. In the picture above we spotted more than a handful of pretty nasty cracks around that gate. It pays to be watchful. Two guys died falling into these cracks last year (one Finnish, one Japanese) – granted they were found in places they were not supposed to be but they paid the ultimate price. Ducking ropes is also pretty irresponsible behaviour as one set of tracks under a rope will inevitably lead to others. Not great karma to be creating for yourself when there is so much safe powder to be had!
Speaking of free powder, my plan here is to hit all the gates in Niseko (when open) with the pinnacle of my season and ultimate backcountry plan is to summit Mt Yotei sometime around the end of this month. I will be guided by Black Diamond tours (highly recommended) and intend on brushing up on my avalanche rescue skills with a free two hour training at NAC (which is held 16.30 – 18.30 every Thursday). Or for those without any experience, I’d recommend an Avalanche Safety Training such as AST level 1 ran by Black Diamond tours.
The main mountain to conquer though is fitness – the hike to the summit of Mt.Yotei is between 5-8 hours and hopefully – weather permitting – I get to ski/board the crater or this impressive semi dormant volcano. But also after my last five weeks of experiencing how quickly weather can change here I plan on respecting the decision to turn back if conditions change. I will happily forfeit my powder snobbery / Yotei summit in favour of living to ski another day. As an old friend used to always say to me “a good free rider is an old free rider”. Clichéd but that’s exactly what I’m aiming for.
Beginning my hiking training for Mt Yotei’s 5+ hour ascent – will probably snowboard as I’m more experienced in bad conditions on a board ….although powder skiing the crator would be sooooo much fun! The dilemma continues!
My training partner Yuki – he has summitted Yotei around 5 times in the last 8 years (including running down the inside of the crater)! Local legend.