So our idea was this:
Mt Asahidake, an active volcano and the highest peak of Hokkaido at 2291m, got 56cm of Powder in the most recent snowstorm.
Over half a metre.
So we got really greedy and decided to drive an extra hour and a half to this backcountry haven.
We arrived at the Asahidake mountain centre early, but when we arrived there was a 20 minute queue for the lift tickets and huge, 100 person gondola.
Jumping into the packed gondola, squashing our noses against the glass we saw for the first time, the incredible terrain Asahidake had to offer. Glades, thick forests and open faces of deep, pure, untouched snow presented themselves. There were gigantic gullies carved out of the mountainside, like someone had gone at a block of ice cream with a teaspoon. This was serious terrain.
The piste map was topographical, and highlighted all the avalanche zones on it. Another indicator that no punters go here. There are groomed runs though, A Course, B Course, C Course and D Course. Our plan was to ski the side country and cut back on to the groomers towards the lift.
We were stoked to be up here, none of us had skied off the piste at Asahidake so we were in for a treat. It was so surreal, jagged windblown white peaks stretched out as far as the eye could see with snow-encrusted trees dotted around the arctic wilderness.
We could see a train of people in the distance like little ants snaking their way through the terrain towards a tasty-looking drop. We couldn’t resist but follow them.
Immediately the snow got the better of us, I had never skied on terrain so unpredictable before, like frozen solid waves of snow. Jo Dee was the first to find a hole to disappear in.
She was fine as we fished her out and took it slow until the snow softened up and we were gliding.
The next part of the adventure was a skiers track that snaked around creeks, trees, the sides of snowy rolls, over little snow-bridges and around big holes. We stuck together in our neat little team and called out to each other to alert for dangers 🙂
After about 20 minutes of snaking, the urge to ski some of this gorgeous snow was building. We finally caught up with the team we had been following, at the top of this steep, steep pitch through a forest of big trees.
They directed us along the face to some untouched area, very kindly of them.
Michal asked them where they were headed afterwards, how they were getting out – the way to the B or D Course…
Guy: “ah no we’re skinning out after this”.
Michal: “Skinning? We don’t have skins with us…”
Guy: “Really?! Ah… You’re screwed mate the only way out of here is to skin.”
Our group went silent.
All I could hear was a high-pitched ringing in my ears as my stomach dropped to my feet and my heart pounded in my chest, shortly proceeding the feeling of numb fingers and feet. We were f*cked.
No-one could say anything for a few minutes. Thoughts of whether to turn back were quickly dismissed as the 20 minute trail we used had way too many dangers to safely hike back out.
“Well we might as well enjoy the powder we have in front of us, and then find a way to hike out to the lift from there.”
A wise choice.
Sucking it up, we skied the steepest powder field I have ever experienced. And there was so much snow we were swimming in it!
It was SO FREAKING AWESOME!!
We still dream about that pitch. It was so perfect.
Panting, and just taking in how epic what we had just done was, the reality of the situation we were faced with now sunk in.
The skinners recommended that we followed the creek back to the gondola, before they proceeded back up the zig-zagging skin track. We couldn’t follow them because having no skins meant that we couldn’t travel uphill without side-stepping the entire way. Impossible on steeps in half a metre of fresh powder.
We did some troubleshooting, wondering whether we could just take our skis off and boot pack out. Mario sunk down to his thigh in the snow. Giggling and trying to keep it light hearted, Jo Dee and I pulled him out and decided to keep our planks firmly on our feet.
The Leki poles that the majority of us brought didn’t help in the slightest either. We ended up all swapping poles so at least most of us had one pole with a powder basket to tour with.
Michal and Tomoko had their skins, so they went first, with the aid of Google Maps and some incredible terrain reading skills to create a nearly flat path for the 4 of us duck-walkers to follow.
It was long. Don’t get me wrong, It was extremely pretty through the snow-covered ferns. But it was long.
We traversed knolls, around trees, over creeks, duck walking, shuffling, stomping… any slight incline and we had to turn our skis 90* and side step up through the deep snow. Our legs were burning. correction, just ONE glute and thigh was burning, as we side stepped up with our preferred side.
After about 2 hours, morale was starting to go south, so we stopped for a break. We didn’t plan for this, so food was really low. Jo Dee restored her energy with wasabi peas. Lucky we brought water!
Actually at this stage delirious random chatter about kid’s failed snowmen, tucking and racing down about 3 metres of flat terrain in front of us kept us crying with laughter and away from panic 🙂
After 3 and a half hours of what felt like going around in a big circle; Tomoko and Michal having powered on ahead to find the best way out for us now exhausted, cramping, ill-equipped boot-packers; the four of us reached the fork in the trail.
After some discussing about which way we could go with the hope that we wouldn’t have to climb too hard to make it over the two ridges we needed to to get to the Gondola, we agreed together on Tomoko’s trail.
All 6 of us got really excited when we finally saw a wooden hut. We decided to approach it and find our bearings from there again.
As we came closer to it, we realised that the hut that all 6 of us had seen was in fact just a pile of rocks…
And then we heard a buzzing sound. It must be the gondola!! We got so excited.
It was a drone.
But that meant people! For the first time in 4 hours, we saw humans again. Yelling out to them asking where the gondola was, they replied that it was 100m away.
We were back! Hugs, tears and high 5s were shared before we approached the last descent to the gondola station that we could now see.
But not before we got to ski one last run.
This one felt pretty special. Maybe it was the feeling of relief that we had survived that made it better. Maybe it was the fact that skiing a metre drop into bottomless super light cloud-like snow was the best feeling in the world.
The light was fading and the sky started to turn pink as we skied all the way to the car across the frozen car park.
We had made it.
We bundled into the car, equipped with hot 7/11 tonkatsu sandwiches, and set off on our five hour journey home back to Niseko.
Exhausted and reflecting on the life lesson we had just experienced, I am happy to say that If it were not for Tomoko and Michals excellent map reading and leadership skills; and Annika, Jo Dee and Mario’s willingness to take care of the group’s energy, morale and well-being when the going got tough, I probably wouldn’t be looking back on the trip as a huge success.
Mt. Asahidake made us friends for life. I wouldn’t change that for the world. I love all of them so much and owe my life to them. And it’s a story I’ll be telling for years to come so I’m happy to have gone through it, even though now I carry my skins in my backpack wherever I go.
Hoping for many more adventures with The Cripple Crew ❤