After a few early March powder dumps, it appears that spring has finally sprung. And seeing as March equates to St Paddy’s day it is nice to find myself (as usual) very far from home and (as usual) the only Irish person in town. A cheesy Paddy’s day picture for my mam is now de-rigour seeing as she has made the outstanding effort to post me Paddy’s Day paraphernalia from Dublin to <<insert country of interest>> for over 10 years now. Thanks Mam.

Nora with her St Patricks Day outfit

The physio clinic that I’m working at here is starting to wind down as the receding powder has led to a correlating drop off in injuries. Whilst Dec, Jan and Feb were marked by injured skiers and boarders in a losing battle with a tree/cliff drop/gully, March seems to be a mellower vibe. People seem to have adapted to the spring conditions and slipped into 2nd gear on the mountain – enjoying the sunshine, spring snow and cruising the groomers. Plus the crowds of Australians have dropped off significantly so there is barely a queue at any of the Gondola’s. However, Mt Yotei still looms over me like a proverbial carrot that’s not been chomped.

Mt Yoteil - my local projectMt Yoteil – my local project

There is usually “Yotei fever” this time of year as the last of the stable conditions begin to melt. The north Westerly face that we look at from the resort here is not its best side but it still looks pretty tempting to those of us living here with a thirst for adventure.. even with a season’s worth of decent powder turns under our snow skirt. Unfortunately Black Diamond Tours were overbooked and understaffed so I’ve decided to do the next best thing. An Avalanche Safety Training (AST) Level 1 certificate. Better to arm myself with knowledge for future touring rather than mourn lost opportunities. And on the plus side, Yotei has definitely made its place onto my “2014/15 Backcountry tour of Japan” list…but more on that later.

J-S in front of our recently dug snow pit
J-S in front of our recently dug snow pit
The AST Level 1 Cert is a must for anyone serious about ski touring and backcountry riding. Our one was ran by French Canadian instructor, J-S L’heureux who had over ten seasons back country experience and four seasons’ guiding experience in Niseko so he was well versed in the local terrain. The theoretical part of the course included avalanche gear, terrain, snowpack and snow-science. In the field we dug snowpits, analysed crystals, did ski checks, recreated scenarios plus transceiver finding exercises and a whole lot of shovelling! In addition, we covered in detail backcountry trip preparation which I thought was really practical and useful – including map reading, route planning, weather analysis etc. and used Yotei as one of the case-study 🙂
Snow crystal analysis Snow crystal analysis

Me and slab Me and slab

Another really important practical tip from the course was this Japanese weather website. I’m a closet weather nerd anyway but this was really fuel for the fire. What I especially liked about it was the real time satellite imaging for precipitation and the accuracy of the trend charts for factors such as wind, humidity and temperature changes.
My previous experience with Snow-forecast had always been reliably unreliable. It was almost like a running joke here with its snow predictions (except for increases in estimated snowfall closer to the weekends for local tourism). And as well-meaning as the avalanche report on the nadare website is, it is just one man’s opinion (albeit based on years of experience). I was not alone to notice a pattern of prudence that I think is overcautious considering the local terrain. In addition, his reports simply do not have enough information if you were seriously planning some back country as factors such as predictive precipitation and temperature/humidity trending in general are omitted.

Surrendering to the mountain.
Surrendering to the mountain! Snowboard for course use only as it was closer to the door.

So in typical fashion, the more I learn, the less I realise I know but at least my transceiver skills are on form and my respect for the mountain has further deepened. As I mentioned earlier, I will be planning some epic backcountry trips here for next year and have decided that I used this season as “market research”. High on my list are some of the bowls off the backside of Mt Annupuri (requires few hours hiking), then nearby area’s such as Kiroro, Asahidake, Furano, Tokachidake and Teine down near Sapporo to name a few. And hiking Yotei and skiing the crater is on the list too – although the more I learn about the surrounding mountains, the more drawn I am to exploring different areas.
Ironically, I found out that I have qualified for this year’s Patrouilles Des Glaciers again in Switzerland which involves a ridiculous amount of skinning v’s skiing (80:20 easily). It is something I would have jumped on this time 4 months ago but when hiking here usually equates with pristine powder, I have opted out of the training commitments in April in favour of experiencing some real Japan. I have outgrown hiking for hiking’s sake. And to leave Japan with only seeing Niseko and parts of Hokkaido would be a crying shame. Mate.
Niseko has powder in abundance but it is not unique for Hokkaido mountains. After doing a season here, I’m pretty confident that I’d struggle to do another one here as it is about as un-Japanese as it gets. On the other hand, after doing a season here I am pretty confident that Niseko itself has nowhere near the best skiing / backcountry that this country has to offer. But it’s a good place to start. I can draw a line in the sand (or snow) for this season after getting pretty handy on my powder skis. With a bit of preparation / planning, I hope to focus on touring some of the best secret spots in Hokkaido next year with a group of choice friends. ….. before they too become Niseko-fied.

Nora in the snow...

So what’s next for me? I plan on spending from now until mid-May rock-climbing my way around Japan via a sweet little renovated van (for glamping) so it’ll definitely be about as off the beaten tourist track as you can get!

Nora rock climbing