On a recent trip to Hakuba I had the pleasure to meet local legend and back country guru Dave Enright. It was the start of February, the avalanche danger was at an all time high, so Dave took us out to show us how to do it safely.
story & pics Matt Hull
Canadian born, he fell in love with Japan after visiting the country on a student exchange when he was 15. After many years of travelling and skiing he settled on Hakuba as his home and with his wife started up Evergreen Outdoor Centre, where we met the morning of our hike.
With a pack full of camera gear and an out of place looking split board amid the fat touring skis of my fellow hikers – Jorma, Jakke and Jukke from Europe – my legs were already starting to ache. We jumped into one of the vans and headed for the bottom of the Happo One resort. After a quick gondola and two chair rides we’re at the top of the mountain. Setting up touring gear, putting skins on and shedding layers of clothing, it was a beautiful sunny day, so clear we could see all the way to Mt Fuji on the horizon.
Although there are hundreds of resorts in Japan, Hakuba is unique in that it is the only area with lots of true lift accessed alpine skiing. Most resorts with genuine alpine terrain stop their lifts at or near the tree line. So accessing alpine areas means slapping skins on and working up a sweat.
Hakuba, however, has lift accessible alpine and sidecountry which is incredibly easy to traverse to, even for boarders. This means that anyone can be out in this exciting, yet dangerous terrain without having to work for it. Which is great for the experienced backcountry riders who feel like an easy day, but dangerous for people with no experience who think, “That line looks sick!”
While the guys and I put our skins on, swapped goggles for sunnies, and took photos of the magnificent views, Dave had been filling out our trip card. All groups going out of bounds need to fill out a simple form that lists the hikers names, details, intended destination and route, the more information supplied the more authorities and rescue parties have to work with if something does go pear-shaped. Paperwork done, beacons checked and packs strapped on tight we headed off to go and ride this awe inspiring terrain.
I hadn’t skied tree-less high alpine since a trip to New Zealand many years ago, and I forgot about that feeling of riding down a ridge line not having to dodge trees, just turning when you want to and keeping yourself out of harms way of snow that wants to follow you down. This is exactly what Dave took us to, carefully choosing our paths, making sure we stopped on the higher ground and spaced ourselves in a way to minimise potential harm to the group. I was shooting from a ridge across the valley that Dave picked out for me to ride. From my perch on the side of this mountain it was great to observe the rest of the group through my camera lens as they made their way down the ridge lines, nothing but a skier and the colossal mountain beneath them.
On the long traverse out, during which I cursed myself for being a snowboarder as my calf muscles were about to pack up and leave me, we stumbled upon the aftermath of a large avalanche. This slide had made it down to the valley and quite a distance up the other side. With rubble the size of armchairs and the consistency of concrete it really cemented (excuse the pun) in our minds the consequences of being caught in one of these displays of the power of nature.
With the ride out complete, we arrived at the base of Hakuba 47 which neighbours Happo One. Sweating profusely we ordered some pizzas for lunch, and this gave me a chance to chat to Dave, a much easier feat when I’m not panting and trying to keep up with someone who is clearly a lot fitter than I am.
Sitting there eating his wood fire pizza it’s clear that Dave is a man of the mountains, wrapped up in outdoor gear that looks like it has all been used to it’s full capacity and his long dread locks being kept under control by an ‘old faithful’ beanie. He talks about his company Evergreen with fondness, not just because it’s his creation but because of what it stands for. There are many touring companies and adventure sport companies around the world, however Evergreen is all about being respectful to the mountains, the name reflecting this respect to the environment and the mountains that are his home and livelihood.
With bellies full and more insight into Dave and the mountains he lives in we grabbed our gear and headed up Hakuba 47 for our second hike of the day. This time we were swapping high alpine for more familiar trees and an even more interesting ride out.
At the top of 47 we got as high as we could by lift and it was time to get the skins on.
From our position Dave pointed out the avalanche path across the valley from a slide which had made news headlines recently. Luckily no one was caught in it, but the immense size could be clearly seen even from where we were. The slide was triggered remotely by two riders, meaning that the riders weren’t actually on that face, they were just close by and had unsettled the mountain enough to make the highly unstable snow pack let go. The force of this slide sunk home when reports said that debris and cloud from the slide had reached several hundred metres up our side of the mountain. I wouldn’t have wanted to have been in that valley that day.
After another trudge up the mountain we reached our destination, a ridgeline that overlooked some spectacular terrain. Our journey was to the right, a beautiful complex terrain path with perfectly spaced trees and a ridge winding down the valley, the line that we were soon riding. We dropped in one by one, once again stopping at safe points Dave had pointed out for us.
After an extremely fun, long run through perfectly spaced trees we came to a man made waterfall, part of a flood water system. Dave was taking his skis off and strapping his poles to his backpack, I looked around for a bridge, stepping stones or even a canoe, it was then that I realised I was about to get my feet wet.
I can now with great wisdom tell you that no matter what technique you use to walk through water in ski or snowboard boots, it won’t help, your feet will get wet. I met Dave on the other side of the bank with a big grin on his face, “And that Matty, is why we leave this hike until the end of the day”. I still think there was probably a bridge 100 metres up stream, he just does it for the enjoyment.
Another 20 minute calf burning traverse out and we reached the base of Hakuba 47, again to meet one of Dave’s employees in a warm van. With wet feet, aching muscles and grins from ear to ear we sat in the van as it bumped down the road through the valley. With the sun low in the sky and the mountains glowing a pinkish hue it’s clear to my fellow hikers and I that Hakuba is a pretty special place. Dave sat in the front of the van chatting to his colleague about his day and how the other tours of the day went. He was obviously not even slightly tired, and you know that tomorrow he will be up at the crack of dawn, smile on his face and taking a group of fresh faces up his mountains so they too can understand why he does what he does and why he will always call Hakuba home.
Evergreen Early Bird Specials: Evergreen founder Dave Enright is a former cover shot guy for snowaction, apart from being the acknowledged guru of Hakuba backcountry. But that’s just a fraction of what they offer – kids and adults ski/board schools with the best English speaking instructors, powder programs, a funky cafe and even a skate park in the basement. Book online by October 31 & save 10% on all snow sports school programs. More www.evergreen-hakuba.com
Japan Specialists Early Bird Specials Nagano and Hakuba’s No.1 winter specialist has a wide range of Early Bird specials to all resorts, including Hakuba, Nozawa, Shiga Kogen. For Hakuba specials include free nights and discounts ranging from 10-20% on accommodation. For families, FREE kids ski rentals for early bookings. japanspecialists.com
Black Pine Lodge, one of Hakuba’s most popular mid range properties, is Australian owned and handily located on the shuttle route, has a super early bird 20% off if you book by September 30. Limited space, and only bookable direct at http://blackpinelodge.com/contact
The Green Plaza Hotel at Hakuba Cortina is, as we point out in the feature, one of the funkiest places to stay anywhere and your step out the door to some of the best rsort tree skiing on the planet.
For more details www.facebook.com/HakubaCortinaResort