Give me the pits – Avalanche courses in Niseko & Hakuba

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but in the case of avalanche awareness it beats dumb ignorance hands down. If you’re serious about deep snow in Japan then get serious about safety and do an avi course when you get there. NOASC in Niseko & Evergreen in Hakuba offer several each season.

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NOASC courses are bilingual – its great to see the young Japanese riders getting into it too © Owain Price

I signed up for the early start with Trainer Ross Carty’s day course at Niseko, which benefit from his 25 year’s experience in the field, and almost unmatched local knowledge there. Topics covered include classroom instruction on avalanche characteristics, avalanche types, backcountry hazards, avalanche terrain, route selection, plus backcountry equipment and its correct use. In the field, starting at the NOASC base then heading to the backcountry at Nishi One, behind Niseko’s West Ridge, we got to put theory into practice, planning climbing routes for skiing/snowshoeing up, doing pit tests and practising rescue techniques.

It makes for a full on day, especially in the wind and driving snow that hit us in the afternoon. A lot of hard yards for one run down to the carpark at Goshiki Onsen in ski terms, so not a huge powder day, but hopefully one that will stick in memory longer to apply what we learnt.

A few basics of route selection and common triggers for avalanche showed their worth next day, when during a First Tracks morning at Hanazono we bumped into a shaken long-term local skier, who had just walked out to the lift after his group got hit by avalanche beside the cornice, costing him his skis and luckily only not too serious injuries to others in the group.

Looking at the cornice area, and how the day had warmed, it would have to have been one of the most obvious danger zones on the day, best given a wide berth.

Trouble is, and even more so at Hakuba, where steep, long gullies are easily accessed off the side of the main runs, you can be 100% cautious, but it only takes one idiot above you to trigger something they safely might ski/ride out of to kill you. Remember that next time you spot tempting tracks somewhere you have zero local knowledge of before following them.

Anyone who has ever heliskied is familiar with beacon searches, but how many treat it like flight safety briefings on planes? You have guides, you think you will be safe. Not if the guide goes down and you have to get them out fast, or more so out back with just your mates.

For that reason alone I think the NOASC day was worth it, using the gear in bad weather ‘real’ conditions, digging pits, probing, and realising just how small human beings are in the scheme of things against natural forces like tonnes of sliding snow.

You don’t ever want to find yourself frantically searching/digging for anyone, far less getting buried and hoping someone gets you out.

So I concentrate harder on the snow pit stuff. What was a relaxing lecture in the field behind the NOASC base building becomes tougher in a gale up the backside of Annapuri. But fascinating. It’s not hard to grasp the basics of snow pits and layers. This day the lines of the weak layers were easily visible – see the clean pit dug by the NOASC instructor at right. Cutting out a column of snow and applying the shovel tap test brings it home. Three  levels of tapping are applied, scaled up from a gentle wrist tap, then firmer elbow down tap, to a full arm swing from the shoulder, counting to 10 taps at each level.

“Normally if you’re getting stuff on your wrists going up to just your elbow you might be thinking, wooh, don’t want to go here. If it’s going early on your wrist you wouldn’t want to be standing around there” says Carty. “Sometimes it slides just when you cut the back of the column with the saw, so you want to get out of there quick if that happens.”

“When you are climbing up you do your pit on a test slope that’s similar to the aspect and gradient of the slope you’re planning to be skiing. So if you’re coming from the top it’s dangerous, we normally rope up to lower someone in to do it in that situation on our trips, with two guides.”

Under the instructor’s eye it’s easy to feel you are getting the hang of understanding the layers, but it’s a lot of information to absorb, so the smart thing is to record it on your POV – then you’ve got a tutorial for revision before your next BC ski trip.

A pit is no panacea of course, and applying what you can learn about layers takes years of experience, not hours, and layer knowledge is built up locally anywhere over an entire season.

But it is a start, and if you take on board where best to do your pits, and get into the habit of doing that whenever you are heading backcountry, then you can get more proficient, and hopefully more cautious.

Apart from much better understanding of how snow packs work, route planning was the most useful thing I got out of the day – both when and where to head or not according to conditions, safe zones and aspects. It was great to do it my first full day in Hokkaido; for the next two weeks of pow every day I thought a lot more about the lines we took. – Owain Price

In Niseko NOASC have 1 day courses as follows (clic links for updated current year info)

December 27, 2012, 6 January & 27 January 2013,

plus they will do a course for groups of 4 or more on request at other times. Cost for set dates is ¥13000 (you need your own set of avi gear – probe, shovel, beeper, snow saw – and BC gear for hiking, skins or snowshoes;limited rental available). It runs 7.40am – 6pm. For details check noasc.com

In Hakuba Evergreen have 2 & 4 day courses (clic for updated current year info)

2 Day Avalanche Skills Training 1, ¥21000

January 5 – 6, February 2 – 3, & March 9 – 10

4 day Avalanche Skills Training II, ¥55000

January 5 – 9, February 2 – 3 & 9 – 11, March 9 – 13

For details check evergreen-hakuba.com

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This pit gives you a good look at Niseko dumps, the layers easily identifiable © Owain Price

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