The Myoko Grand Traverse is the ultimate backcountry experience in this amazingly snowy part of Niigata Prefecture.
Myoko Kogen’s 5 main ski resorts are just the beginning of what this mighty volcano offers. These have got very popular with western skiers and boarders over the past few years, and the busier they get the more it’s worth getting beyond them.
From short side excursions to longer hikes above the lifts to linking up between the different areas there are endless back and side country possiblities at Myoko. From a few minutes to a few hours to a few days, you will never run out of options.
Some are simple enough to follow a track with friends when conditions are safe.
Others, especially more extensive ones if you don’t know the area well, are best done with guides, like Bill Ross and his team at Dancing Snow, or Myoko Snow Sports.
Best of all, snow camp up on the rim, like Snow Action’s top backcountry photographer Shaun Mittwollen and his mates and be rewarded by amazing night views like this too.
Welcome to wild Myoko
Tangled snares of birch overhang a cliff line of sharp exposed basalt, iced with a house sized cornice meringue. A quick glance at the terrain reveals such complexity, and the hidden traps that so often grace a volcanic landscape, compounded with a seemingly bottomless winter snowpack. Outflow gullies stream off a conical volcano, before disappearing into the labyrinth below. Fumeroles melt hidden chambers beneath the snow, before breaking free as sulphuric steam that fizzes in the midday sun.
Welcome to the volcanic massif of Myoko, mere kilometres from the neon lights and orderly ticket conductors of urban Japan below, but portraying such untamed wild beauty that it might as well be on another planet – a world of steam and snow.
The Myoko Stratovolcano is a distinct protrusion from the Earth’s crust. Standing at over 2400 meters its foreboding presence dominates the fluvial plains and hi tech apple orchards of surrounding Niigata Prefecture.
The volcano can be sighted from many of the summit lifts of resorts across the region. Keen eyes may note its imperfect appearance, very different from its more famous Japanese counterpart Fuji-san.
The Myoko caldera is a ramshackle bundle of minor peaks surround the central cone, the remains of a much larger volcano destroyed 19,000 years ago in the last major eruption here.
Adjacent to the main cone stands a slightly taller peak. The white mountain of Hiuchi-yama.
It’s possible to mind ski the range from afar for hours on end. Cascading gullies, chutes and rivulets of powder snow beg for exploration.
After a lot of dreaming while working a season here our plan was initiated. To set foot upon the range, to ski the mystical terrain. We pored over charts and maps, and enquired of those who had searched before. Contour lines, aspects and backcountry hot springs occupied our minds for weeks before we finally settled on a route.
A cunning plan
We would ascend from Seki Onsen, contouring the volcanic caldera until reaching Mt Hiuchi and its open bowls and gullies. From there we would continue around the rim descending on the opposite side from which we started. A complete traverse. The Myoko Grand Traverse.
I plod one foot in front of the other. The weight of the skis and boots make each step twice as slow as any urbane walker. The endless quest uphill. It was becoming more apparent our chosen route up the north west ridge had complexities that were un-noted at ground level. It ran like a dragon’s back off into the distance. Our aspirations of skiing epic big mountain powder lines were fading as our energy was sapped by each uphill scale and subsequent false summit.
We had been told our ascent would be a long day out. But it was our second day in the wild and we had yet to sight the apex. Especially demoralising was that the top lifts of Seki Onsen, our starting point, were still in plain view.
By lunchtime the distinct lack of progress was beginning to hurt, and as we gained yet another false summit the prospect of turning around became ever more real.
Up ahead lay another steep incline. Too steep to skin up, the only possibility was a sweaty boot pack, wallowing through waist deep snow.
The group began to contemplate life whilst grazing on trail mix. Around us a spectacular scene. Windless and crystal clear, views of snowy plains stretched off into the distance punctuated by the soaring Japanese Alps.
The photographer inside of me insisted I scale the hill to capture my friends surrounded by such immense beauty and I quickly ditched the heavy pack and began climbing. Twenty minutes later I hauled myself up the final crest. Expecting the hills to continue ever upwards it was surprising to see that the terrain levelled off.
An easy pathway ran along the ridge through stands of speckled birch towards Mt Hiuchi. I snag the shot and shout for my friends to join me.
Atop the summit we decided to camp. Bathed in the warm glow of fading light we set about the evening chores before sitting down to cook and regale the day’s misadventures with ever increasing positivity. Occasional wafts of volcanic sulphur mingled with the aroma of our freeze dried pasta as a galaxy of stars shone down, lighting our hopes with thoughts of great skiing the next day.
Indeed our aspirations were soon to be sated and the next morning we quickly reach an opportunity. A meandering open gully flanked by the curl of a wind lip bearing a very oceanic resemblance. Stands of birch flank the sides, dusted with remains of the last snowfall. The snow is a clean, even white. Worth removing skins for.
One step and we’re in, surfing our way down the gully, slashing and displacing wafts of snow that glisten in the captured light. The cumbersome packs swaying from side to side do little to mask our enjoyment. Upon reaching the shores of a frozen lakeside the gradient levels and our momentum slows. Some distance away an empty backcountry hut sits, buried up to the second floor in snow.
For many an escape from the rigours of daily life consists of relaxing on a warm tropical island in the South Pacific. It wasn’t difficult to note similarities as we kicked back against our gear sipping on micro beers, a warm gentle breeze of satisfaction masking the pungent taste of sulphur in the air. Our beach is a frozen lakeside shore, and our relaxation the release and freedom of expression that comes with skiing downhill.
Unsuspected warmth brews over the southern horizon. Clouds billow and fog rises. The first warm front of the season sheds ice from the trees and as spits of rain start to fall we are skinning away from our last camp in this lost world. The land is shedding its polar cloak as spring encroaches fast.
As we track the shores of the still frozen lake I can’t help but notice further surprises. Here we are in one of the most populous countries on Earth and we had not seen another soul for five days!
Finding such isolated adventure had become an unexpected reward of the trip. The raw complexities of the volcano keeps most at bay, but if you’re up for it it’s more than worth the effort.
The Myoko Grand Traverse crew were:
Shaun Mittwollen, Gabriel Sutter, Josh Wilson, Kelsey McNamara & Bradley De Martino Rosaroll. For more of Shaun’s wild coverage check his awesome Tasmania backcountry ski features here.
Getting to Myoko
Hakutaka shinkansen to Iiyama or Joetsu Myoko, 2 hours from Tokyo, 35 mins taxi from station