Hokkaido Japan Jan 4-10, 2016
I spent the week before christmas and the week of Jan 4-10 exploring a few of the Hokkaido’s back-country and lift-accessed back-country in numerous regions in Hokkaido.
General Hazard / Snow and Avalanche conditions
Although locals claim there is a lower than normal snow levels we found incredible ski conditions. We still had to ski trees with care as the low density snow hides rocks / bamboo / trees. The creeks present a considerable hazard - particularly since they tend to have very steep sidewalls and are slow to freeze given the widespread onsen (hot) water.
We managed Windslab and Storm Slab avalanche problems - which tend to settle out quickly. It snowed 10-30cm nearly every day we were there. Winds come from the W/NW and load the S/SE/E quadrant and often overlay sun crusts. Wind increase rapidly with elevation.
Avalanche ‘Control’ in ski resorts
There is little if any avalanche ‘control’ conducted at ski resorts in Japan to what we are used to in Canada. Most ski hills do not open avalanche terrain and try to manage avalanche hazard by preventing people from being exposed to the risk. If you leave the organized piste to ski trees or open bowls there will likely have been NO avalanche control. E.g. We encountered touchy soft slab conditions where a small - otherwise low hazard avalanche - could sweep a skier into an open creek.
Accessing the back-country from Ski Resorts
The Japanese have very strict rules around skiing only where you are supposed to ski. They have established groomed runs and for the most part - you are not allowed to duck rope-lines to ski trees adjacent to the runs or ski below the gondola. If you do - you may encounter unmarked cliffs, open creeks and uncontrolled slopes where a small avalanche can sweep you into such obstacles. And - you may lose your pass for the day / season if a ski-patrol gets upset.
Many resorts are developing policies to open up the back-country and off piste areas.and these rules change rapidly. Each resort seems to have a different policy and set of procedures. One resort had changed its policies in the 2 weeks we skied there. I will try to outline what I have learned below. In all cases - skiing with Avalanche rescue gear (Beacon / Shovel / Probe) and also a creek / cliff rescue rope is essential. If in doubt about the policy - try to find an english speaking staff to help explain it.
General conditions / logistics information of popular ski resorts
This resort is located in central Hokkaido and seems to be less popular with foreigners than some of the other resorts we visited. Its great for the day you go from Furano to New Chitose. I spoke to one English Speaking patroller who told me that the hill does not ‘allow’ people to ski back-country but that “what we do is up to us if we left the resort”. Like all resorts - we would be responsible for any rescue costs. They have an “experts only” yellow arm band that allows you to ski off piste. There was no formal gate system to access the adjacent back-country.
This resort boasts some of the deepest snowpack in Hokkaido & is learning to accommodate the interest of foreign skiers who want to ski backcountry. They have a new - and very confusing - system to access the back-country found at the Mountain Center. You must file an intentions report and show a ‘pass’ to a gatekeeper when leaving the resort.
Kamui Ski Links (150-750m)
Kamui Ski Links is a small but seemingly great resort a half hour from Asahikawa that offers great skiing - and back-country - when it is stormy up high. We did not ski here - but heard reports of good back-country that is popular with local enthusiasts.
Furano is another large and well developed resort located in central Hokkaido. There is some off-piste and back-country skiing available here - and this is where we found some of the best slack-country long lines. Notably - the previous policy of dis-allowing off-piste and back-country skiing has been changed. Complete your intentions form with the ski patrol at one of the 2 mountains.
Niseko United (30-1310m)
The Niesko complex is the most popular resort system in Hokkaido. Comprised of four ski resorts: Hanozono, Grand Hirafu, The Niseko Village and Annupuri Kokusai Resort. We did not ski here - but I’ve heard that there is a well organized system of gates to access the back-country adjacent to each of the Niseko resorts. Many of those lines involve long traverses back into the resort. Due to the number of foreign skiers (largely Australian) skiing these gates I’ve been told it gets skied out very quickly. They produce a daily avalanche bulletin and list of which gates are open.
Skiing in Daisetsusan National Park
When skiing back-country in Daisetsusan National Park all back-country skiers are required to sign an intentions form / route plan. These are located at the onsens / visitor centers / hotels adjacent to the trailheads of popular areas like Tokachi-dake / Furano-dake / Asahi-dake and many others. Inquire locally if unsure. The forms are in Kanji - but here is the translated order:
Tokachi-Dake / Furano-Dake
There are 3 zones: the 3 degrees zone, the tokachi-dake zone, and the low entrance to Furano-dake. This region is pure back-country. Although there is a story that one area was gladed so that the Prince could enjoy the back-country skiing in the park back in the 70’s. Fabulous onsen’s are to be found.
Kurodake - Located in the Onsen town of Sounkyo on the North-Eastern end of the Daisetsusan National Park - is a backcountry paradise. Unfortunately, it closes down for the height of the ski season for ‘maintenance’. I’ve heard that there is simply too much snow. It will be closed from Jan 4th - Feb 4th, 2016. This ‘resort’ is not patrolled and there are great back-country lines adjacent to the resort - but be sure not ski below the resort or into any steep ravines.
Asahidake - Daisetsu San
Asahidake or Daisetsu San is the highest mountain in Hokkaido and is located in the North-Western end of the Daisetsusan National Park and is accessed from an Onsen town of the same name. This is where we encountered some of the deepest powder I have ever seen. This area is accessed by a single Tram and has 2 cat roads down with numerous back-country lines through short steeper sections.