One major incident occurred yesterday afternoon when I was trying to get my goggles out in the blizzard. My down jacket somehow managed to fly out of my pack. It was a dark moment when I realised it was gone when we returned to the hut.
So today was my rest day in the stone cold hut. Taku went for a ski, and I had tasks to keep busy. First, I made shoes as my boot liners were still moist. The third edition of the shoes yielded a pair of uneven, but well insulated slippers. Next, I cleared all the snow that blew in through the gap in the door overnight. There was so much snow on the top deck, we were lucky to have switched bunks the night before. Missing my down jacket, I also made a full body insulated armour with foil sheets and insulated pad. I finally build up enough courage and abdominal pressure to venture out for a dig. Today was a windy day, thus a higher risk manoeuvre warranting a larger drop zone.
We had decided to leave one day earlier cutting the trip down to 4 days and 3 nights. Probably a wise decision as the snow condition was a little sketchy. Since we had lugged all the food up the mountain, we were keen not to waste any of it or to carry any down. We had switched from a strapped position to being resource rich. Gone was frugalness, and in came over consumption – a common modern day scenario. That day we started feasting like kings.
It was around 2:30pm when I heard footsteps outside, and I wondered if a team of ridiculously good looking, witty, fun-loving, friendly, and cute yetis were going to visit. To my relief it was in fact, Taku, returning from an eventful day in the wind. He had had a ‘little’ tumble down the slope which we would check on the Gopro when we got back to civilisation just how little it was.
It was good to see him back, and even he admitted that it was a bit sketchy to ski alone. So hot chocolate and the best miso soup were on. We followed that with two main courses because this was indeed our last meal. I could not wait to get into my sleeping bag to further the drying process.
The temperature has dropped as the wind calmed overnight. Sleep was fair but not great. The condensation on the sleeping bag made the contact surface quite cold. My eyelids were swollen and so were my fingers and hand for some reason. Morning eventually came and it was time to leave. As we were packing, someone was rapping at our chamber’s door. Another expedition of 6 arrived and they were military-like. They dug out half the windows and started to move in. Thanks guys, we lived in darkness for the last 3 days and now there was light. We tried to exchange some pleasantry, but they were a little shy. Taku said they were a production crew filming an IFMGA guide / Japanese pro skier. I asked what IFMGA stood for rhetorically, and gave Taku that funny answer. It never failed to amuse me.
It was great timing as we had had the place to ourselves with all the space. I didn’t think I would be able to handle yet another ‘Sausage party’ that were so ubiquitous in ski towns. I wondered if they were not so impressed with our yet to be buried yellow snow patches from last night. They helped us with our skis and packs and closed the hatch behind us rather efficiently, but the fog outside lingered thus preventing Taku from navigating. There was just enough time to stain the snow just one more time.
We swapped goggles so Taku could see, the fog lifted momentarily and we headed for the second gully to the east. Skiing with a full pack, and not able to straighten my neck was an interesting experience. At the end of the trip, Taku picked up my bag from the taxi and exclaimed: ‘Young man! Your pack is so light!’, I replied, ‘I know right, I didn’t have a frikking down jacket to carry, did I?’
The condition had improved from 2 days ago and we found some wind packed snow to ski on. The ice layer was mostly covered with a thin layer of wind loaded snow, although at times we could still feel the hard and fast layer under our skis. All in all, it was quite an enjoyable ride down, although my greedy mind was simulating what this place would be like on a bluebird powder day. Looking back up the mountain, there were so many incredibubble lines and the skin up on powder would be less sketchy I believe. We took what we were given and skied to the tree zone where we began a long gentle bush bash. We left the cloud band and the temperature rose along with better visibility. The slope was taking us NNE towards the ocean.
With my pack I was skiing conservatively and not dissimilar to a turtle, and at times I fell out of view of Taku. Knowing that there was only one obvious drainage, I worked my way alongside his lines. I learned that lesson people always talk about with regards to following tracks into an unknown area. As I followed, I suddenly heard a faint voice coming from in front, but quite far below: ‘Don’t land on me’. The snow ahead seemed to have all but disappeared, and as I turned the snow below me gave me a moment of ‘Zero g’ sensation. I then proceeded to experience the 9.8m/s acceleration directly under my skis. I thought to myself ‘I’m falling… I’m still falling!’. Eventually like all things falling I landed, at the lip of a pile of soft snow in front of a snow cave. Taku had landed 3m in front of me after he launched off the drop, spotting it too late as well. I turned around to see a snow cave/ ice fall around 4m in height (10 if I didn’t take a photo showing it was only 4m). We were both largely ok after the drop, and suddenly we were not feeling the cold anymore.
It was sunny and warm when we reached the ocean. It took us an hour to ski the 1230m vert. It was surreal to be back in a town with houses and roads, and the sea view was an added bonus. Sushi and sake were our first thought, however, getting to them was a problem. We needed to trace along the coast anti-clockwise for a few kilometres to our accommodation. We tried to flag down passing cars, but with no success. Taku eventually door knocked his way to a helpful old fisherman who phoned us the only taxi on the island working that day.
It was nice to be able to dry our gear out, and I was glad Taku had the chance to take a shower. Our adventure had come to an end. We marvelled at the photographs on display in the hotel, the many hand drawn lines on the pictures that some lucky locals had skied. Those bluebird days with the white peaks against the blue sky, and beautiful ski lines extending along the gullies, I shall come back for you.
We drove around the island to visualise what we saw on the topo map. What a beautiful volcano island with snow all the way from the peak to the coast. Rishiri is a place that demands patience. Its reward is world class steep and deep stuff skiers dream of. The best thing about it is its remoteness, and that you have to hike up before you get to ski down all 1700m of good sumit to sea terrain as gnarly as you like.
*After word: as we left the hotel, Taku introduced me to a group of pro riders whom he happened to know and we did finally get our sushi and sake fix in Wakkanai and it was incredibubble!
~ The End ~
This was the fitting end to my ski season in Japan 2015-2016. Thanks for reading my articles and all the comments through out the season. Let me know how yours went and hope you have had (still having) a great season, too.