Spring In Hakuba, Part 1


Soon after I arrived in Japan on a Wednesday morning, I was barging through a barrier and sprinting up a large set of stairs in Tokyo central station carrying a douchebag.

A douchebag, of course, is actually a rollable ski bag. Though it felt really heavy it only weighed 17kg, far less than my baggage allowance, which made me feel pretty stupid when I checked into my flight wearing every layer I had to “save weight”. Pretty impressive actually considering I had skis, boots, skins, crampons, shovel, a tent, and a winter weight sleeping bag. Hashtag “Dynafit problems”.

So I managed make the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano, and the Alpico bus to Hakuba. They were close-run things. If you think I get stressed on a weekend Blue Mountains trip, you should see me travelling solo in a foreign country!

The Powder Lodge

The place was actually deserted when I got there, the owner Nick being in a hospital in Matsumoto having knee surgery. For the rest of the trip he would be hobbling around sadly on crutches. Matt and Lee were having a rest day, as the clouds were in up high, and showed me around.

The view from the common room
The view from the common room

To paraphrase the old saying, if you’re the best skier in the room, you’re in the wrong room, and I quickly realized I was most definitely in the right room. I figured I was the worst skier in the lodge by a fairly large margin, and I’m including Nick and Hiro’s young daughters here (they were on like the Hakuba junior moguls team). Everyone there basically skied full time and had been there for the season.

Heli Free Tsugaike

Morning dawned bluebird with fresh snow. A pretty good first day!

Morning light on the Three Peaks - Yariga-take, Shakusi-dake, and Shirouma-dake.
Morning light on the Three Peaks – Yariga-take, Shakusi-dake, and Shirouma-dake.

Lee, Zach, Matt and their friend Dave were going to climb Hiyodori and tour from there, and I asked if I could get a lift and at least skin with them to the top, and then see how it worked out. On the drive over, they discussed how bad the local avalanche forecast was with Damian away, and how it was underrating danger after the recent storm, was generally worse than useless, and getting people from out of town in trouble. Uh-huh.

(Luckily for me, it had rained to the top the week before, and this had done a great job of solidifying the snowpack, which was now a frozen block below the new snow. Before this they had been going through “the biggest avalanche cycle I’ve seen here, maybe the biggest I’ve seen anywhere” according to Lee)

I managed to buy a points pass to share with Dave, and we caught the gondola and another lift up. Lee set off breaking trail at a good pace through tricky variable snow. It wasn’t the world’s greatest piece of routefinding, it seems no matter where you go crappy skintracks are a certainty in life. The ridge up top was pretty easy going.

Hiyodori ridge
Hiyodori ridge

Luckily there was a splitboarder in the group so I was saved the indignity of being last.

The high point had great views.
The high point had great views.

Looking down the northern aspect, a pretty damn steep, treed run with a foot of heavy new snow, I decided this was not the place to embarrass myself for my very first run on my very first day skiing since October! I wished the guys good luck (they skied out to the Norikura resort) and followed the skintrack back down the ridge, then ran back down the southern side through the trees towards the cat track. The snow had nice sections but was definitely sun affected.

Then I joined the crowds hiking up towards Tengupara. With the avalanche risk, I decided to get to the mellow-looking bowls to the north-east of the plateau.

Lots of snowshoers were out.
Lots of snowshoers were out.
20150326_110658
Views towards Happo One.
Shrine at Tengupara
Shrine at Tengupara

The helicopter operation was running and many folk who looked, uh, “less prepared” were hiking up Norikura to ski the “avalanche bowl”. There was hollow windslab all over the Tengupara plateau, but everyone seemed to avoid the start zone that Damian has noted and nothing was triggered. Actually it looked really good!

Norikura avalanche bowl
Norikura avalanche bowl

But I kept to my plan and skied off the back to the north bowls which turned out to be very mellow. Aah well better safe than sorry I guess.

Not really powder, but fun fresh snow.
Not really powder, but fun fresh snow.
Lunch spot with Myoko-san in view.
Lunch spot with Myoko-san in view.
Skinning through beautiful forest.
Skinning through beautiful forest.

I did a few runs then decided to get out before the Tengupara front bowls spent too long in the sun. They were tracked out from the heli clients and really heavy. I skied out through the resort, a long cruisy run.

I made straight for the foot onsen.
I made straight for the foot onsen.

Happo South Face

It seems even in Hakuba you can’t avoid Aussies in Niseko and Ben, Seb, Shannon, and Jo checked in, on a road trip after they’d spent the season working in Niseko.

Seb and Shannon were keen for “a hike”, and so we went up to the top of Happo to see how things went.

The terrain just off the top of the resort is a siren song - fantastic, but also extremely serious avalanche terrain.
The terrain just off the top of the resort is a siren song – fantastic, but also extremely serious avalanche terrain.

It was surprisingly fast and low-angle skinning up the Happo One highway, and before we knew it we were past the Dai-San cairn and at the ‘tree bench’ just before the Mumezawa bowl.

More winter mountaineers.
More winter mountaineers.
Cairn.
Cairn.

The corn looked fantastic, but we didn’t have the brightest start and the clock was ticking, and Seb’s skin glue chose this moment to stick to his bases. He spent a while trying to scrape it off. Always waiting for the splitboarder…

“I’m sending an angry letter to G3”

I went first and it was really excellent corn and steep enough to be exhilarating.

The zone we skied.
The zone we skied, you can see the ‘tree bench’ up the top.

The snow had rain runnels and it was really fun skiing (corn spines?). The big south-facing bowl we skied in to was more good mellow skiing and we made skier’s left for the ridge, to look down into the main drainage that leads out from the south face.

We ummed and ahhed deciding to continue down – it was really hot and probably too late. We were right in our assessment, but continued anyway “because reasons”, just like in every cautionary tale. We made a bad choice to ski an almost northeast-facing sheltered gully, where the snow had been kept dry instead of softening up, but was now getting wet quick. We set off a loooot of pinwheels and wet sluff, and skied one by one as fast as we could through the bad choke point to safer terrain. We got away with it but I think it was the dodgiest snow conditions of the trip. The skiing was actually really good but it’s hard to concentrate on it when you’re worried about the snow!

There had been some full-depth glide avalanches lower down, and we had to pick through the piles of debris which was adventurous, but it was pretty safe by that point.

We crossed the river to the Hakuba 47 base area, where Ben picked us up.

It turns out the facemasks people wear on Japanese public transport aren’t a bad idea

A couple of days after I arrived I came down with a pretty bad cold. I blame the strenuous excercise at Tokyo station. I forbade myself from being sick on good weather days, and was able to push through pretty well, though I was coughing for most of the trip unfortunately. It was a factor in me choosing not to do any overnight trips or really big objectives.

What Lee, Matt & Zach were up to

The core crew at the lodge pretty much showed me what the real standard is for ski mountaineering. While I was there they did:

  • Skied Goryu-dake in a day, by the craziest line zig-zagging through couloirs right through the middle of the Diamonds. To get there in time from the first lift, they had to literally jog Killian style along the Toomi ridge.
  • Skied Shakushi-dake NE couloir, in a day, from the road. 3AM start, 6km approach up the snow-covered summer road, then about a 2200m vertical up the Daisekki and then up the ridge to the top.
  • I think they skied the Shakushi central couloir as well if I recall correctly, same approach.
  • Skied Shirouma-dake, also in a day from the road. Same deal as Shakushi, 3am start, 6km approach etc.
  • Then they skied Shirouma again a second day in a row.

It was great to see, as all our “projects” on the Kosci main range are basically rest days in comparison, so it’s lit a fire under my ass to get fit, get up early and get out to the Western Faces.

A couple of rest days

I skied one resort day at the Happo resort, and also there was a rainy day where we sat around.

Locals playing in the snow.
Cute dog playing in the snow.

For the next two-day weather window, I had the option of trying to organize stove gas and supplies and going and camping out from Tsugaike, or doing day trips to Happo to get more skiing done. In the end, easy access won out. I’m disappointed I didn’t have at least one night camping out, but the forecast wasn’t great, and bluntly I wasn’t fit enough to get the most out of it. The Happo lift system was all too alluring.

Continue to Part 2.

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