Foreword: This is a true story, but don’t expect this when you come calling.
It was fair to say blue bird Asahidake days were rare in mid winter, and to have 3 out of 4 days in the sun was definitely a rarity. With low snowfall and low wind forecasted, we turned back to HQ to pick up some crampons after we have set off from Furano to Asahidake. We had Hokkaido’s highest summit in mind.
For the next few days I would be spoilt to the Nth degree. The trick was to figure out the timing of each event. The crew consisted of Roger and Merv. Roger was the skier in one of my favourite shot of last season, and he had brought his super fit ski touring buddy along this year. Morven’s intel for this tour was ‘Climb’. Perfect.
The snow had not arrived in force yet, so we took advantage of the good visibility to explore the alpine level above the top station. It felt like a different world in Asahidake when you could see for miles. The whole place seemed less intimidating and accessible when you could navigate. We ventured away from everyone in search of fresh lines with a healthy expectation of no more then boot deep snow. As we toured we were able to survey the summit and plot our route for tomorrow when the wind was predicted to be even lower.
The terrain in Asahidake can be somewhat frustrating as it’s skiable pitches are punctuated. You can have a great descent, usually short only to find yourself in a flat area which you will need to put in some effort to escape. In deep snow condition this can be much more strenuous. No wonder snowboarders new to this area and snowboarding with ski poles usually give this volcano a mixed review at first pass. It goes without saying that seeing experienced snowboarders keeping up with skiers with ease in Asahidake is a sight to savour.
We travelled in the lower section of the alpen area to warm up our climbing muscles. We toured up next to the fumeroles near the foot of the crater, and made lazy long sweeping Ss in the wind loaded gullies with boot deep powder snow for the rest of the morning. Under the sun with little wind it was nice and comfortable.
We descended into the tree line for a tranquil picnic lunch before venturing into the flatter area. The snow quality was always nice in this area, and before the terrain flattened out there was a nice steep and deep 80m face to drop in. It was a classic Asahidake tease, super awesome but short ride to keep you wanting more. Navigation was paramount in this area as the lay of the land was invitingly deceiving. Knowing the elevation (especially the bottom station) and having a compass were worthwhile, as we would find out later on in the trip.
We stayed at Nuttapu, a legendary wooden mountain lodge near the bottom station which I have been wanting to stay in since last season (thanks Morven & John). As a bonus we were the only three guests. The owners and hosts Mariko San and Napa San looked after us and gave us a quintessential Japanese experience like no other. We had gastro-sample style meals every night and a scaled down version for breakfast. A complete Japanese ski adventure perfectly blended with a Japanese food experience. I could not think of a better way to eat, see, ski and stay in Asahidake. For tour information check out Alpine Backcountry Guides.
Timing was everything. 7am, get up and walk down to the onsen. Plunge in, warm up all muscles and commence wake up procedure. 8am to 9am eat a gourmet breakfast and gear up. Condition: Primo, 5-10km wind, clear blue sky, sunny.
We ascended up the popular south ridge after taking the 2nd cable car ride up. There were a few people already further up the mountain as it was a great day for climbing. We ski toured half way up until we were unable to get decent grip on the icy surface. Ski crampons would have been useful, although switching to boot packing with boot crampons was adequate. The climb took less than 3 hours at a comfortable pace with plenty of photo op.
We were eyeing up our descent route through the inner crater as we climbed the final phase of the mountain. There were a few skiers already dropping in at this point and a few climbers were walking down the south ridge towards us. Looking back there were over 30 climbers hot on our tail. We saw a mixture of gear used by climbers from AT & climbing gear, to normal alpine ski gear with the skis carried over the shoulder with no backpack or any supportive gear.
The view at the summit was expectedly spectacular. We were able to enjoy it in relative peace. It was cold and windy even on a calm day at the top. We enjoyed the 100% clear visibility and the 360 degree panorama. At first glance down into the crater, it seemed silly to ski right into the steaming fumeroles at the bottom. It felt counterintuitive to be skiing into Dante’s hole like a moth to the flame. But in anyone’s mind at the rim of Asahidake, there was no better option than to charge down through the middle.
I have already picked my line on the left side of the crater in a gully protected by the south ridge. It was still fresh and in need of a pair of lines. There was nothing quite like a long open alpine descent, no obstacles, no trees and consistent snow condition. Over 670m vertical meters of sweepy turns, all the way through the clouds of sulfur steam with the sound track of speed and the gush of geothermal activities. Nuff said.
After another evening of chalet pampering, we prepared for a third day of touring on the other side of the mountain where we have yet to explore. We have decided to start touring right from the front steps of Nuttapu through the cross country course. The wind was gathering momentum and the clouds were rolling in. We headed in the direction of the transient morning sun towards my favourite area of the mountain with uninterrupted and steep terrain. It was a very pleasant boot deep trail bash through the trees and along a staged gradient. The final ascend was less pleasant, it was slippery and difficult to advance. We ended up boot packing up the last part of the climb with Roger kicking in steps at the front. After a very windy transition we couldn’t wait to ski down to more protected areas for a lunch break. All in all we saw 8 people on the mountain today as we attempted to hide from the crowd and the wind.
It was a slow start to our final day as the wind was relentless overnight and the cable car service was suspended in the morning. We eventually got up to the top to find an unskiable mountain. The snow surface was littered with wind sculptures and white horses like waves in the ocean. It was difficult to slide on this uneven surface and edging was near impossible. We discovered the gully near where we were skiing yesterday had avalanched with a 15cm crown and 20-30cm blocks of debris over the entire path of the gully. We took the rare opportunity to practise skiing down the avalanche path in a zig zag search pattern simulating a rescue. An odd way to bid fair well to Asahidake.
The sun and wind were the snow pack’s main enemies and we have seen first hand their effects on the mountain these last few days. It would take a snow storm and a bit of time to reset the damaged snow pack, and it was not even the end of January. We packed up and moved on to San Dan Yama the following day where it was more protected. We stopped 60m short of the summit due to low visibility and high wind. A perfect combo of excuses to turn around and ski the nicer softer snow at lower elevation. And with that it was time to say goodbye to Roger and Merv after an incredibubble 5 days of ski touring together. I thoroughly enjoyed the grown up chats along the way, a real sense of team sport in the backcountry, and introducing the ‘slap and bump’ guide handshake to Roger and Merv. And of course the trophy of our first summit of the tallest mountain in Hokkaido – the majestic Asahidake sitting 2291m above the sea.