Cortina Hakuba, tree ski heaven & great place to stay

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We’ve been telling you for a while the best way to ski Hakuba’s powder champion, Cortina, is to stay there and not just day trip. so we sent the team – Austin Toner & Sam Perry – to prove it, and, as always, blend inconspicuously with the locals. Matt Hull took the pics & filed this report.

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austin toner drops the dam © matt hull www.themattimage.com

Our home for the next few nights, the Green Plaza Hotel, is nothing if not impressive. Standing alone at the bottom of Cortina resort the huge structure is dwarfed only by the mountain behind. With it’s very prominent red roof and European styling it’s definitely like nothing else in the Hakuba valley, or anywhere.

In the lobby, standing with your neck craned back, you can look up to the inside of the ye-olde-worlde looking wooden beamed roof past the 8th floor balcony, these levels accessed by two glass tube style elevators not designed for people with vertigo.

Down the hall you have the operational side of why everyone comes here: the ski rooms, with hundreds of lockers to store gear for day trippers as well as large ski lockers for hotel guests – but not large enough for the boys 130mm plus under foot powder skis. From the lockers you pass the equipment rental shop and head through automatic doors direct to the mountain base, with 3 access lifts to choose from.

We suited up and headed out. While on the lift I was concerned that it hadn’t snowed for a couple of days, and I was starting to think that the fresh lines and pillow drops – all the good things I had heard about Cortina – were going to be out of the question.

Regardless of the snow conditions, we were extremely keen to see what this mountain had to offer and made a beeline straight for some steeper trees that were laid out under one of the major cat tracks. By rights they should have been tracked by 9am, this is now a popular resort, and with a lot of Aussies around trees don’t stay fresh for long. With my camera lined up to catch the action the boys dropped in off the cat track and disappeared – 2pm, two days after a dump, and this patch of trees right under everyone’s nose is for the most part untouched. The boys vanish in a spray of powder and ‘wooo’ noises.

All afternoon we were continually being shocked by not only the fact that this snow was still here, but that it hadn’t lost any quality, still light with no surface crusting or heaviness to it, and we hadn’t even gone exploring yet. That would have to wait until tomorrow, the sun was bowing down behind the mountains and beer was calling our names.

After taking full advantage of the always affordable Asahi beer vending machine outside the room we ventured down to the Onsen hot baths that this hotel is famous for. Nothing soothes aches and pains like the natural hot spring waters of the mountains, and the baths here are better than any I have seen. They have 11 different types of baths, including a giant ‘bum-burningly-hot’ onsen with a large open window to the resort outside. Beers aren’t allowed in the onsen, which is probably just as well anyway as the super hot water would knock you for six with a few beers under your belt, err, towel.

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Austin Toner in front of the funky Green Plaza Hakuba © matt hull www.themattimage.com

The next morning we woke to an incredible Japanese sunrise, shook off our hangovers at the buffet breakfast, which had everything from bacon and eggs, fish and rice to a disturbing amount of chocolate.

We were out on the hill at first lifts, taking full advantage of staying at the resort. Even though it wasn’t a powder day we were still excited to get out and explore more of this mountain, especially the tree skiing that’s put Cortina on the map in recent years.

For various reasons the majority of resorts in Japan do not allow tree skiing, or have a very limited amount of areas where you are allowed to explore. A lot of it boils down to tradition, which is everything in Japan. The answer you get the most when asking why they don’t ski trees is, ‘Because we don’t’.

This mentality is changing however with the younger generation, along with a push from western guests that’s seeing more and more resorts changing their policy or at least opening more areas where you can ride. Dave Enright from Evergreen Tours, who worked ski patrol at Cortina back in the day, spent years helping persuade them (see box opposite).

With the inbounds explored, a large amount of it single handedly tracked by our little trio, we strapped beacons on, slid shovels and probes in our packs, and made our way out into the back country.

Now the only thing that makes this back country is that it’s not avalanche controlled and not patrolled – there is no hiking necessary to access it. On this day conditions were good and we were confident to carefully explore.

This ‘back country’ area is accessible through a gate off the top lift with the usual ‘Enter at your own risks’ signs. Take heed, just because this is a large gladed area doesn’t mean that it’s safe from sliding, far from it, and if the snow in this area did let go of it’s grip on the ground there is a huge terrain trap at the base. Now with that doom and gloom aside I can tell you it’s awesome.

We were now three days after the last dump and still riding incredible snow in this huge playground. The boys found plenty of drops, tree Vs and open faces with waist deep powder to play in.

Then the valley snakes down to an immense and somewhat out of place dam wall that controls the flood waters at the end of the season. We took full advantage, getting out the avi shovels to make the most of these incredible structures. The ride out is a long yet fun traverse back across a neighbouring resort and a short lift ride up to just above the red roof of the hotel.

After three days exploring this resort, it’s side country and it’s cushy hotel I can see why the hype exploded about this place.

If you are up for partying and sleeping in late then you should probably stick to the main town of Hakuba, but if you are keen to rise with the sun and be on the first chair then it is well worth taking advantage of the hotel and all it has to offer.

It’s ok though for those who want to sleep in late, we’ll leave some fresh lines for when you get up. Maybe.

[the ticket] cortina

what’s new  Cortina rocks, with packages to suit all budgets – they start from Y8800 per person per night 2 share including lift pass, breakfast and onsen on their 2013 Early Bird special deal book by 31/10/13.

Details www.hakubacortina.jp or chikuni@hgp.jp

snowfall 12m (18.57m in 2011/2012!) summit 1402m base 872m vert 530m

terrain 92ha, sensational tree skiing and cruisy groomers out front of hotel & over in adjoining Norikura • 30% adv/exp • 30% int • 40% beg

lifts 7, including 2 express quads

day pass ¥3300 or day package coupon ¥3500 incl ¥1000 lunch & onsen

more in the Ski Japan 2013 app issue

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Sam Perry & Austin Toner blending with the locals © matt hull www.themattimage.com