The impressive inactive strato-volcano that stands alone in the middle of flat rice fields and tiny local towns, adds something special to our daily life rituals in Niseko.
Usually completely hidden in the thick snow clouds, or with a wispy halo brushed around it’s peak, the opportunity to gaze upon it’s peak is rare.
On this full moon, behind Lawson’s perched on a snow wall, taking in the facets highlighted by the moonlight was a contemplative moment for me, as I prepared for a giant leap…
Tomorrow, I was going to climb this mountain.
The volcanos name is Yōtei-Zan, directly translated as “sheep-hoof mountain”, whereas its nickname in Japanese is Ezo-Fuji. Ezo being the old name for Hokkaido, Fuji as it resembles the famous peak in Honshu, Mt. Fuji.
At 1898m high, It’s the tallest peak around the Niseko region, a tempting feat for members of the backcountry touring community in Hokkaido.
…And with the high winds, micro-climates, avalanche risk, un-patrolled areas, and usual ice crust at the top, this trek is not for the faint hearted…
…but earning turns was never meant to be easy.
This Friday was the perfect day. It had been storming all week, and then the winds significantly dropped and the snow clouds disappeared the day before, giving some time for the snowpack to settle and the sun to come out.
On top of the usual morning check of skis, boots, poles, helmet, goggles, gloves, we had a few other essential items to bring with us to keep us safe and happy.
Avalanche gear is at the top of the list, the bare minimum you should be bringing is a beacon, shovel and probe.
If you or your friends are caught in an avalanche, buried under metres of concrete snow, the chances of finding them and saving their life is significantly increased if you ALL carry these items AND know how to use them. There’s no point just one person having a beacon, switched on, and knows how to use it if that friend gets buried. How will you find them without having one yourself to pick up its signal?
I hate to scare you guys, but it’s important! Your life is in the hands of your friends and theirs in yours. Be prepared!
We went with Nathan and Kimmi, two very experienced guides from NAC. They had heaps of practice spotting avalanche terrain and suggesting the best areas to skin up and ski down.
Mt. Yotei has four ways to accend the mountain. The Kutchan, Makkari, Kyogoku and the Kimobetsu trails. They took us to the Makkari side to start, which is the longer but gentler slope of the four. These trails can also be hiked in the summer.
What started with a chilly, fairly flat incline turned into a sweaty climb through the forest. Delayering was essential and I soon got down to a T-shirt… even if the temperature was -10!
Skinning up is a really good cardiovascular workout. I can only liken our mission to doing a half marathon, as for me keeping a positive mental attitude throughout was going to keep me going. Pacing ourselves on this mission was really important, too many stops and our hearts would have to work harder to maintain a consistent heart rate, and hike too fast and we would burn out before we reached the peak.
One thing I learned from this journey is the team you go with is key. A solid group of friends will make or break your hiking experience. Being able to trust each other when things go wrong will make yourself more at ease, and having a laugh will keep up the team morale.
We were fairly new to doing kick turns, and halfway up were getting the hang of it. So we had a competition…
To be honest I think my tutorial was a 10/10… of what not to do.
The trail through the trees was fairly mellow, and we started to ascend above the tree line onto a steep, wide open powder field. We started to get excited. Every step up the zig zag opened up to more and more exciting terrain. Being an un-lifted mountain, there was heaps of untouched powder to ski and I was happy to just be up this high on this pitch as I knew how good it would be to ski down.
The zig zags were getting tighter and the amount of kick turns we had to do increased. Seeing how high we were up already was intimidating, and after our last few struggling kick turns before our plan to descend at 1pm, we took a break at 1320m.
This was the first time anyone had heard of being able to skin up all the way to the top. Usually from this point the powder has been blown off and hikers have a 2 hour boot pack on ice.
We watched a few at the top ascend about 50m in half an hour, and decided to ski from here, where the snowpack will still be enjoyable to ski, and we would get the first lines down.
Skins off, layers back on. Ready to ski.
It was glorious.
We skied section by section, stopping in sight of the rest of the group, avoiding rollers, knolls and large trees.
Legs were like jelly in the ankle deep, heavy powder.
I made not the prettiest of turns but flying down through the open fields was worth every bead of sweat, every tear, every step up to get the opportunity to enjoy this moment.
The trees get tighter and the terrain undulates and rolls and folds and drops and barely I can make turns tight enough with the burning legs to avoid the hazards.
Annika screams at me to stop before I make the same mistake she did moments before dropping off a cliff and hitting a tree. I find her curled up in a ball next to the offending obstacle, luckily not hurt.
Bursting through the forest to the last open pitch, emotions sky high and with exhausted elation, we bounce over the snowy rollers and head back to base.
30 minutes after leaving the top, we were back at the car. Something I had never even thought possible of doing, as in my mind it was always reserved for hardcore big mountain skiers, became a story that I can now share with others.
I have heaps of respect for this beautiful mountain, she was kind to us on this particular day and gave us an experience we would never forget.