This story originally appeared in the October 2012 edition (Volume 41, Issue 2) of POWDER Magazine which can be purchased here.
We had questions. About the steaming calderas, geothermal hot springs, avalanches, the Arctic air blowing off the Sea of Japan. I pushed my ski pole through layers of crust in the snowpack, trying to find something that might slide. Do the hot springs vent through the snow? Do they weaken the layers? Do you remember those ski patrollers who fell into the lava tube?
"No," Powder Mike said.
Farms and two-lane roads crisscrossed the valley floor 4,000 feet below. Rolling, forested hills ran beneath and between them. The pitched-roof houses and cathedral barns looked like they were transplanted from Wyoming. So did the sawtooth peaks running east-west from this ridge—except that three of them were smoking.
Powder Mike skinned ahead, slowly, watchfully, a sulfurous crater bubbling behind him. The snow bridge could give way; the whole slope could slide. He earned his name because he'd visited practically every skiing mecca in the world, and he really liked powder. Which is why we came to this frozen island—to find the deepest, lightest snow on earth.
Halfway up the ridge, the slope became too steep to skin. We took off our skis and bootpacked over the tops of pine trees. Steam swirled around the rimed shoulder as we gained the last pitch. It was icy and near-vertical, with 800 feet of exposure. We chipped steps into the ice with our boots, punched our hands into the snow to gain purchase.
This wasn't a typical Japanese powder experience. Most people looking for the deep on Hokkaido head straight to Niseko—the ski bum paradise 180 miles miles west. But Niseko had recently been bought, bulldozed, skyscrapered, and turned into what The New York Times called "the St. Moritz of Japan." So we were moving on, venturing deeper into the interior of the island, looking for something better, steeper, and bigger.
Most mountain ranges on Hokkaido, due north of Japan's main island, are too remote for everyday skiers. The same frigid air that delivers the Japanese Alps featherweight snow—four percent water content compared to Utah's seven—makes backcountry camping a potentially lethal experience.
Yet Japanese tourists have been making the pilgrimage to the Tokachi Mountains, where we'd come, and most of the country's highest peaks every winter. The tectonic phenomenon that shaped the mountains—and caused the tsunami that decimated the coast of Japan last year—created geothermal hot springs throughout most of the ranges. (Japan sits on the convergence of four tectonic plates and is shaken by 1,500 earthquakes a year.) Since the days of the samurai, Japanese have visited the springs, or onsens, for their healing power. Over the years, entrepreneurs built full-service ryokan lodges around them that maintain mineral baths, guest rooms, and restaurants. For skiers like us, that meant a five-star base camp set at the foot of some of the best backcountry skiing in the country, complete with a dozen hot tubs.
From the top of the ridge, the surrounding mountains looked like a diorama of the European Alps, shrunken from 11,000 feet to 6,000—but with all the contours, steeps, and couloirs. Most of the peaks in the Tokachi are stratovolcanoes and all are contained in Daisetsuzan National Park—the largest national park in Japan with 18 peaks over 6,500 feet. The last time 6,814-foot Mount Tokachi erupted: February 25, 2004.
We skinned along the ridge to the entrance of the couloir and peered in. It was as beautiful as it looked from the bottom, a 40-degree sliver of snow winding down the southwestern face. It was filled in with a foot of powder at the top, so I cut the slope, then dropped in for 15 turns. Mike followed, skiing cautiously at first, then letting it rip through the crux.
We met under a 30-foot rock wall and dropped in for the next leg. The snow wasn't as deep there, but it was consistent and I made 20 turns, following the curves of the couloir as it twisted from left to right. Bright yellow and white volcanic rock flashed by on either side. The chute opened up and I made three long, fast turns down the fall line then slid off to the left.
Below, a crater the size of five swimming pools spewed steam. Above, 100,000 tons of snow hung precariously to the slope. I'd never been in an avalanche-volcano situation before. The consequences seemed horrifying. I cut across the slope toward a ridgeline and the snow got deeper. I kept my speed and made it to the cornice, then thankfully, around the ridge to a mellow snowfield. Mike followed and we skied down to the gulley we'd skinned up that afternoon, then glided along the track toward a stand of silver birch.
It was suddenly cold. Incredibly cold. The sun was down and I couldn't feel my nose. Mike's cheeks were white. We dropped through the trees into two feet of dry powder and glided on the ski track across a wide field. At the far side, we saw a plume of steam rising. A minute later, we emerged from the trees and skied straight for the steaming pools of the Tokachidake Ryounkaku Onsen.
There's a phrase in Japan—hadaka no tsukiai—that refers to getting to know someone outside the constructs of society…without any clothes on. "Naked communion" is a ritualized routine in Japan, practiced in more than 3,000 onsens around the country. Buddhist teachings say bathing "removes seven ills and bestows seven blessings"; in Shinto, purification through washing and rinsing is a custom. Balneotherapists claim that minerals in the hot springs cure ailments like arthritis, diabetes, and skin diseases. For us, soaking in a 110-degree bath—with a 16-ounce Sapporo from the lodge's vending machine—took backcountry skiing to a divine level.
The "Japanese Hot Spring Law" requires that onsens be geothermally heated, contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, including radon and metabolic acid, and be 77 degrees or warmer. Rotenburo refers to outdoor baths, which are usually framed with Japanese Cyprus, marble, or granite. The first night, after meeting our friend Ian MacKenzie—who has lived in Japan for 12 years and knows all things Japanese—we changed into robes we found in the room and headed for the springs. (Rooms are built in traditional ryokan style—rice-straw tatami floor, sliding doors, latticed lights and windows, futons, and thick down quilts.) Towels and robes are frowned upon in the bathing area, so we stripped down before wading into the near-scalding outdoor pools.
Three giant massifs materialized through the steam at the head of the valley. We scanned the ridgelines coming off the mountains while we soaked. They were steep, rimmed with cliffs and chutes and long, white aprons of snow. The snow here is the kind that covers entire features on the mountain, fills gullies, and turns cliffs into slopes. We could see shards of volcanic rock poking through here and there and a little column of steam curling from one of the summits. Birch and sugi pine grew on the west and south-facing slopes. Directly out the back door of the onsen, our skin track winded up the valley floor.
The Japanese take most things seriously, including hospitality, and we found out the next morning that the lodge chef used to cook for the five-star Prince hotels in Tokyo and Niseko. We sat down to a full breakfast of eggs, toast, sausage, and coffee—a welcome find since Japanese usually eat fish and rice for breakfast—and plotted our route. The original plan was to ski to the nearby Hakuginso onsen, but after ogling the biggest couloir in the area—a serpentine, 2,000-foot cleft that we could see directly out the dining room window—we decided to attempt that instead.
Our guide for the week was a 38-year-old Japanese ski photographer named Takahiro Nakanishi, and we followed him down the access road to a cut in the snow bank where a skin track led off. Taka lived in a refrigerator-sized Suzuki Kei Truck—with a 660cc engine—and installed windshields at a Toyota factory in the offseason so he could take the winter off. He unloaded giant telemark powder skis on the side of the road and led us over a stream through a foot of fresh snow and into the forest.
There is a certain peace on Hokkaido that sets it apart from the Japanese mainland. Two major mountain ranges crisscross the island, giving it the shape of a four-pointed star and creating a sacred alpine convergence in the interior. The island was settled 20,000 years ago by seafaring tribes and was one of the last outlying regions to be conquered by the Japanese empire. When settlers from the mainland finally arrived in the 1400s, they found men with bushy beards down to their waists, living in houses with stairs leading to the second floor—to get over the apocalyptic snowfall that fell in the winter.
We skinned alongside fox tracks and gnarled silver birch with swooping trunks. Two hours after we started, the wind picked up and something Ian dubbed "a perishing cold" set in. I pulled my hood over my helmet to try to slow the frostbite growing across my left cheek. Mike and Taka did the same, and we all put our heads down and marched toward the summit.
At the top, we contoured around the backside of the mountain and found a high cornice to hide behind while we put on our skis. I couldn't feel my toes and my fingers were starting to go numb. We stashed skins in our packs, put goggles on, and sidestepped over the ridge. Then we dropped down a steep, hardpack snowfield to the entrance of the couloir.
Ski runs never look the same when you're in them. Sipping coffee in the dining room, the couloir seemed straightforward—a deep, twisting slot that cut through the rock and trees to a dogleg and an icy crux at the bottom. Inside, the run looked like a 40-degree drop-off to nowhere.
Chutes aren't carved by water and avalanches in a volcanic range; they're melted by 1,800-degree lava flows. Which make them more like tubes with 50-foot walls on either side. Any slough, or, heaven forbid, avalanche in the fall line, will take whatever's with it on a waterpark ride to the bottom and bury it under 30 feet of debris.
I dropped in first and simultaneously realized that 1) the tubes were so perfectly shaped there were no safety zones to hide in, and 2) this particular chute was stacked with two feet of blown-in powder. Which was bad for avalanches. But great for skiing. Regardless, we were in already and I kept ahead of the wave of slough building behind me as I made my way down the first pitch. Mike came next, howling and grinning, then Taka, who skied ahead to check out a second crux we hadn't seen from the lodge.
It was a glacial blue waterfall that we had to straightline to get over. We dove back into the powder on the other side, then 20 turns later aired over a second waterfall. The walls of the couloir were so high it was claustrophobic. I was happy when it finally opened up at the bottom, and we skied a wide apron all the way to the valley floor.
Back at the Ryounkaku, the chef had prepared short ribs and kakesoba noodles for us. We ate and sipped green tea and gazed at our tracks for an hour. The whole trip took four hours, and it looked and felt like we'd skied an Alaskan peak—reason enough to take another soak after lunch while planning that afternoon's tour.
Ian Mackenzie knows things about Japan. He knows that if a Japanese man says yes, he actually means no. He knows the names of food and mountain ranges, what places get snow and when. He lives in a farmhouse 15 minutes from Niseko with his Japanese wife and two children and runs a specialized tour company that brings foreigners to Japan to ski powder. He also skis powder—about three days a week all winter long.
The next day was the first day of spring, which was funny because it was minus-40 outside with the wind chill. Ian explained the ritual that the lodge owner's grandchildren played out—throwing peanuts on the dining room floor and dancing around in masks their mom had made from brown paper bags. The owner, Ian said, was an elderly man named Aida San who was a boy when his father built the first ryokan in 1952. Three generations of Aida's family now lived in the lodge.
In Japanese style, Aida and his friends were never taught to ski, the old man said. They were left on the hill with leather boots, bear-trap bindings, a pair of skis Aida's father shaped from white ash—and they learned on their own. The 31st Infantry Division in Okinawa had been skiing around the Tokachi since the end of World War II. The Americans had long legs so they could hike well, Aida said, but they couldn't ski back down. While he was a teenager, he taught them how to turn while his father finished the ryokan.
The lodge opened for business in the 1960s, and soon thereafter, the Emperor's cousin, who was a skier, began visiting. Imperial Highness Prince Tomohito of Mikasa would skin up the road in the winter then into the mountains to ski. A picture of him relaxing on a couch in the Ryounkaku hung in the lodge lounge.
Thick fog filled the valley that day and covered the peaks. We couldn't see our tracks from the day before, couldn't even see the skin track when we headed out. We decided to ski the trees for visibility. Outside the lodge, the perishing cold set in again. My skins were frozen and I couldn't feel my fingers. We started up the track slowly, zigzagging along the ridge. The snow and fog were brilliant white, the mist wrapping around us like cotton. The trees got smaller the higher we climbed, and the wind started blowing. An hour and a half later, we were 2,000 vertical feet above the road, on a white shoulder with old-growth trees placed 30 feet apart.
The Japan Self-Defense Force still practices around Tokachi, and I could hear gunfire at a shooting range below. The forest was magical otherwise. Like many things in Japan, it is programmatically perfect—everything placed as if it was planned that way. In his 1900 book on the samurai culture of Bushido, Inazo Nitobe wrote, "To us the country is more than land and soil from which to mine gold or reap grain—it is the sacred abode of the gods, the spirits of our forefathers." Dropping in to knee-deep smoke at the top of the shoulder, it certainly felt transcendent.
I pushed off after Taka, making lazy turns down the ridge, around a tall pine, and between a few boulders. The fall line dipped over a rollover and I picked up some speed and sank deeper into the snow. There was nothing hard to bump against—no icy base, no tight trees, no rocks. I couldn't even feel my legs moving, sucking up the contours of the mountain, angling left and right over the thick white blanket.
Mike and Taka waited at the bottom and I followed them back to the road. Ian picked us up and took us to the Ryounkaku, where Taka and I headed out again for one more run. We wanted to ski to the Hakuginso onsen and skinned up a ridge looker's left from the lodge. It was a whiteout from the start. We dropped over the crest and climbed another. The wind howled at the top. Taka pulled out a Xeroxed topo map in a Ziplock bag and looked around. The clouds lifted for 20 seconds, and we spotted a gulley to our left.
We figured it had to go somewhere, and indeed it did: straight down, dogleg right, boot-top powder all the way to the trees. We followed some old tracks into the woods, over little pillow lines and through a few openings. We saw a lift tower, and I realized this was the old ski area Prince Tomohito used to visit. I imagined him here with his family, escaping the royal court, the aftermath of the war, and the slow devolution of the empire. He came here to disappear, like many still do, to vanish into the trees and ski fresh powder.
We glided to the front steps of the onsen and left our gear in the lobby. Prince Tomohito's ash skis were inside, as were his son's old ski jacket, hat, and goggles—preserved in a pine frame. Ian met us in the lobby, handed us towels, and showed us the way to the onsen. We stripped down in the changing room and rinsed off in the bathing area. Then we followed a line of granite steps to the springs and stepped into the steaming water.