With the Tokachi Mountains off to their best start in 30 years time to revisit this – it’s as good backcountry powder skiing as anywhere in the world on its day, which is 5 – 6 days a week usually here from Mid-December to mid-March!
Being first is to powder skiing as the theory of relativity is to the universe, fundamental. Few people know that better than gnarled Aussie telemarker John Morrell, a 50-something veteran of 30 seasons skiing Hokkaido. Morrell was the first westerner to get serious about introducing others to the delights of Japan’s north island, over a decade before a few pioneering Aussie ski bums and boarders discovered Niseko, and started that backwater’s transformation into the must-ski destination of the new millennium.
Some of those Niseko pioneers made big bucks and big businesses from being in the right place at the right time, and doing something about it of course. But get chatting to them now and they don’t take long to get misty-eyed regretting the good old days, when being first at Niseko was as easy as hopping on a chair, any chair. No need for push and shove at the Ace Quad before opening time, just get up whenever and go pick a fresh line.
Morrell might have missed that gold rush, but he gets up every morning he is on site in the Tokachi knowing that for him those first tracks are still there for the taking, and they are not going anywhere even if he’s a bit late getting out the door of the lonely lodge. So he has no regrets, having been underwhelmed by his 1980’s Niseko experience.
“I went to Niseko first in January ’82, and it rained! I had been skiing in what the locals call ‘Aspirin Snow’ in the Tokachi Mountains, which was – is – like a feather doona to ski in. So I wasn’t actually that impressed with Niseko early on.”
Instead he stayed focused on the Tokachi area from his early base in Asahikawa City, starting to run small group ski safari trips.
“Our clients used to cry, they just couldn’t believe it. Mountains so beautiful, such great snow, the weather – it never got above zero so you could wear your down jacket and not get wet, unlike back country in Australia. Then you got to stay in the Japanese inns – the tatami mats, the food, the onsens. And there were no other foreigners.”
Now it’s his turn to get a bit misty-eyed at the recollection, but in the Tokachi Mountains case a lot has not changed.
“They have no lifts, so there’s almost nobody skiing there still. I took some back country powder skiers from Utah last season and they couldn’t believe it – consistent powder every day yet almost no avalanche danger. There’s never been a winter avalanche death in Tokachi” he says.
Fortunately one thing that has changed radically is equipment. It is so much easier now on fat skis with telemark or AT (Alpine Touring) bindings than the old skinny XC touring skis they used originally.
Morrell’s new ski hire in Furano is stocked with the latest Black Diamond & Kastle skis, which can be delivered to other areas by arrangement, so you don’t have to already be into back country skiing to give it a go. Just have some fitness, and a willingness to put in some effort.
The rewards are there. The snow was perfect in early March for us, even when Furano had sogged out due to a bit of early spring weather.
We were lucky enough to ski with John and his ‘celebrity’ guide, Tim Macartney-Snape, the first Australian to climb Mt Everest, who is also the Black Diamond Distributor for Australia. He’s an expert telemarker and amazingly fit. In his mid-50s he skins up at a cracking pace and still climbs in the Himalaya regularly. If you are fit you can get in plenty of runs with them, but 3 or 4 long runs make up the average day for most reasonably fit, competent but not expert skiers. It may not sound like a lot, but as Morrell says,
“They’re great runs! I’ve taken a lot of downhill skiers into the backcountry and once you get them past that how many runs mentality they love it.”
That is the simple key. In fact he does have a little cheat option, using vans to do a road run up a mountain pass behind the lodge. From here you ski to the outdoor natural onsen tacked onto the back of the lodge. We got 3 road-runners in a short afternoon session after lunch, as we had to return to Furano. Macartney-Snape went back out again, heading for the 2nd ridgeline over from the lodge, his energy far from spent.
Me, I was shot, it was re-hydration and onsen time.
The Tokachi Mountains experience is an easy day trip from there, only an hour or less drive. A few nights at the lodge would be better to get the full experience, and a week or more better again to build up your fitness and skills, as much for the uphills as the down. There’s an art to skinning effectively with minimal effort.
The Tokachi reward is great skiing, with terrain as steep as you want or mellow gladed shots, in arguably the best and most consistent powder snow in Japan. All this with very few others competing for it – we saw a typical lone warrior Japanese back country skier (you really shouldn’t go alone) going hard, and that was it, all day.
Tokachi Mountains info Back Country Ski Japan