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Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009
Beyond to the backcountry
By AMY CHAVEZ
Yeah, yeah, you've heard all about Niseko, the ski and snowboard mecca of Hokkaido. You already know it's the in place to go and that people from all over the world flock to Niseko for the famous deep powder snow that averages 15 meters per year.
You probably even know that it's far cheaper to ski in Japan than most Western countries.
Now I'll tell you something you probably didn't know: In Hokkaido, you can climb a volcano and ski down it, you can ski to an onsen hot spring in the middle of the mountains for a mid-afternoon soak, and you can ski a different ski area every day for 100 days.
How is all this possible? Through Black Diamond Tours. This tour company alone has made Hokkaido's backcountry skiing so accessible that backcountry skiing is going to become the next big thing. But shhhhh . . . don't go out and tell everyone now. It's our secret.
To tell you the truth, I had wanted to ski down a volcano for a long time. When I looked around Niseko for a tour company last March to take me, however, it was pretty hard to find.
While one company advertised such a trip, when I wanted to know more details, they admitted they hadn't actually ever done a trip.
But Andrew at Black Diamond Tours, a Canadian skier/snowboarder with Advanced Wilderness training and Avalanche Operations Level 1 qualifications, quickly agreed to take me. Andrew has skied over 15 of the peaks of the hyakumeizan 100 famous mountains of Japan. Why wouldn't he want to ski down a volcano with me?
On the day of the hike, however, the spring weather turned for the worse and we had to change plans.
Instead, we ended up skiing through the backcountry to an onsen. This was an unexpected pleasure to come upon a "ski in, ski out" onsen in the middle of the mountains.
We started by hiking up Hirafu peak with our skis on our backs. Andrew provided me with the avalanche beacon, shovel and probe in my backpack. Now you know why it's called backcountry skiing: There's a lot of weight on your back.
At the end of a 20-minute walk up to the peak, a panorama view of Hokkaido's mountains spread out before us. Andrew explained why Hokkaido snow is so special. "It makes the backcountry safer first of all. Due to the consistent snowfall in Niseko, the snow doesn't layer like it does in North America where it will snow for a few days, then warm up a bit and snow again, leaving layers of different snows and snow consistencies at different temperatures."
Niseko snow, instead, consistently builds up with no thaws in between. And with the variable wind directions in Hokkaido, large cornices don't build up and then fall.
We put our skis on and took off down the back side of the mountain. We skied around more than a few fallen avalanches and snow slides, most of them triggered from the natural process of the mountain shedding its winter coat. In the spring time with constant sunshine, the temperatures rise and the mountain heaves a sigh of relief, triggering slow-moving avalanches of wet, thick snow. As Andrew stressed, if someone gets caught under an avalanche, probe for the victim first, then leave the probe in and start shoveling.
Since this terrain should only be accessed by those with avalanche training qualifications, a guide is necessary to go to these places. And it's especially nice to find a guide who will take you anywhere you want to go and who will let you follow your wildest dreams.
Andrew took me to places where there were no other skiers, because no other skiers know about these places. It was just us and the big, quiet and gentle mountains. Hokkaido's backcountry is like your own snow amusement park where you get to be first in line for all the rides.
Ever since I left, I couldn't wait to get back. Perhaps another reason it's called the backcountry.