Niseko, Japan, Jan. 30, 2011, Way Too Much of a Good Thing

Tony Crocker

Staff member
Another 18 inches new, plus 8 more by 1PM. And this time it was snowing down at the base. Someone here is digging out in the parking lot.

Weather deteriorated rapidly. There is a program where they let you ski a restricted area under the village gondola with a guide but it was not running today. Trail map reference: I skied the black run Superstition near the gondola boundary (requires a ~3 minute bootpack) and the top part was consistently waist deep. It became slower going lower down as the pitch decreased, but nonetheless was worth an encore. The wind was howling on the second bootpack, and by the time I got down that time the gondola was closed.

Without the gondola the Niseko Village sector is less than 1,000 vertical with 3 slow chairs, so I joined the considerable lineup for the shuttle bus at the Hilton. I took the first bus which was headed for Annupuri. I knew the weather would be bad there but I also remembered yesterday's tree laps off the lower bubble quad. What I forgot was the traverse into those trees, now flat and under 3 feet of powder. It would take a long time to break trail to the trees, plus the gully runout at the bottom of the trees was no doubt a terrain trap too. All gates were closed for snow stability, and most were inaccessible anyway due to the alpine chairs being closed. I had to stay near/on the trails at Annupuri; any venture into the nearby trees I would soon grind to a halt with skis well buried. At noon I had enough and went in for the same buffet as yesterday.

After lunch I would probably have called it a day if it were not my last day in Niseko. But I took another shuttle bus to the hopefully more sheltered Hirafu side. There was less snow and no wind when I arrived at 2:30 but within half an hour the storm intensified again. Hirafu has a few trails with steeper pitches where I could get in some turns in chopped but still mostly deep snow.

But if I ventured into the trees this was the usual result.

The track(?) behind me.

I stayed near trails so I would have a short slog out if I got stuck.

The Head Jimis are not exactly skinny at 130-110-120. But most of the huge dumps I've experienced have been in California, where the snow is dense and a wide ski will stay near the surface even if the slope is fairly flat. But not here: the skis could easily burrow thigh deep when I hit a too-flat spot. There was some discussion of this at dinner tonight. The most extreme rockered skis, like the K2 Hellbent and Armada ARG, did a much better job of keeping the tips at or near the surface. A pintail design like the Pontoon that also sinks the tail would probably do best in this snow.

At 3:45 I boarded the Ace Lift 3, which normally allows a traverse past the top of the gondola into the Village terrain. But it was total whiteout and the traverse was well buried. So I worked my way back down Hirafu. Fortunately they turned on the night ski lights to improve visibility. A little bit, as here's the Hirafu base around 4:30.

I had a 3rd shuttle bus back to the Village base, finally made it to the lodge about 5:15.

I struggled today to manage 14,500 vertical, probably 9K of intermittent powder. I caught up to that Niseko weekly average snowfall the last two days. This dump is expected to continue another 2 days. It will be interesting to see how soon after it stops that the sidecountry gates and summit hikes can be reopened.

While I've seen a wide range of conditions during my week, it was not a typical week. The norm is consistent moderate snowfalls, not the clear midweek or the massive storm that's happening now. I suspect with the moderate snows the sidecountry stays open as it did yesterday, and the summit also if visibility is reasonable like last Sunday.

All good beta for a Japan trip that I might eventually get around to some day. Japan is second on my big trips list after La Grave (hopefully that one comes to fruition in 2012).

Also much appreciated to see some pics along with the stories this trip!
Japan looks like a great destination for consistent powder if you go at the right times, but from what I've seen in these reports, the resorts aren't conducive to really taking advantage of the snow.

ESMC--We should arrange an FTO La Grave trip in 2012! I should be in Grenoble, so it won't be far away.
Nice trenches.

I'm impressed with Tony's newfound ability to include photos along with his TRs on a real-time basis, instead of posting them weeks later, which was his standard operating procedure in the past. Maybe he can share some best practices with Patrick.

No question about the rockered skis' effectiveness, as mentioned by Tony. The only downside is, as I found out at Grand Targhee, how you tend to float above rather than ski through the snow, resulting in less impressive pix/videos.
jamesdeluxe":3mvhbvmn said:
Maybe he can share some best practices with Patrick.
Digital camera, kids in college and divorced. :-"

There is a high demand for my services at night (homework, household stuff) + computer time is shared between 4 of us. :-({|=
I did not have a laptop computer until I retired. Fiddling around with a card reader on a hotel's computer, sizing pictures, etc. wasn't really practical. FYI admin gets an assist here. Sometime recently he's removed/loosened the size restrictions. So I don't have to downsize pictures to 200K anymore.

It sounds like Patrick should get a laptop computer not only for travel but to relieve the logjam at home.

I have belatedly noticed that the Head Railflex bindings on the Jimis can be moved back of center on the skis with a simple screwdriver adjustment. Maybe that would have helped some. At any rate this situation of so much deep snow on not quite steep enough terrain is a rarity in my experience.

EMSC":3d12hr1j said:
Japan is second on my big trips list after La Grave
About as apples-and-oranges as you can get. Niseko is about snow; La Grave is about terrain.

Staley":3d12hr1j said:
from what I've seen in these reports, the resorts aren't conducive to really taking advantage of the snow.
This is still true to some extent at the big resorts in central Honshu, where off piste skiing is limited. Still, I was never accosted on those 5 untracked runs at Happo in full view of its main gondola. Hokkaido's sidecountry has similar regulations to much of North America. There are 7 gates at Niseko. During the big storm (190cm in 4 days) all of them were closed from Sunday (my last day) until midday Wednesday. The "climb-to-the-peak" gates were closed for wind/visibility sometimes during my week but the Annupuri/Hanazono sidecountry gates were usually open. There's a lot of terrain out there, as evidenced by my getting untracked in Annupuri on day 4 and Hanazono on day 6 of little new snow. Ratio of grunt work to powder vertical in both sidecountry areas is no worse than at Alta.

The more relevant comparison for Niseko is the British Columbia snowcat skiing. Airfare to Sapporo is not cheap, but lodging and food costs are in the ballpark with U.S. resorts and lift tickets are ~$60/day. It's certainly cheaper than a week in the snowcat and no more than a mixed week of resort and cat skiing. The cat will be giving you completely untracked runs while Niseko gives you much higher probability of fresh, deep snow as opposed to the usual "settled powder" in an advance scheduled trip in North American backcountry. With regard to terrain limitations, if you have read my snowcat reports over the years those places will also restrict you to low angle terrain if there's a lot of fresh snow. Niseko during prime January season likely has lower probability of fair-to-poor conditions (wind blasted alpine or heavy/wet snow at low elevation) than I've experienced in British Columbia.

January being prime season in Niseko is another point in its favor. For many Europeans and North Americans prime season in their home resorts or favored destinations is February/March, so less opportunity cost in traveling so far. A couple of Europeans asked me about ski bumming a whole season in Japan or North America. I told them to do both, leave Japan by February 15 and spend the rest of the season in North America, Salt Lake if they wanted to live somewhere for a couple of months and not pay resort lodging prices.
Tony Crocker":206yv6pa said:
It sounds like Patrick should get a laptop computer not only for travel but to relieve the logjam at home.
Wife has done so over 18 months ago, however it's the home related stuff that kills it. Once all is done, not much time or energy to start typing away on a computer. :?