WHEN POWDER DREAMS COMES TRUE: BACKCOUNTRY SKIING IN JAPAN WITH BRETT DAVIS
For those who have an unquenchable affinity for sliding on snow, a trip to the “Land of the Rising Sun” is a bucket list item. One that every powder skier and rider dreams about and covets. In most winters, Yuki (the Japanese word for snow) falls in abundance in the northern regions of the country, with the island of Hokkaido the bullseye for the potent Siberian winter storms that stream across the Sea of Japan leaving feet of snow in their wake–or at least that is what the marketers and influencers of the world want us powder dreamers to believe.
During my first attempt to live my dreams, I spent three weeks enjoying the amazing food, culture, onsens (traditional Japanese bath houses built around natural hot springs), and Japanese hospitality, but the Yuki wasn’t so dreamy. Don’t misconstrue my words, as it was a grand trip—one that ranks near the top of my international cultural experiences. However, I went there, as everyone does, with visions of collecting face shots while swooping through glades of birch trees. Instead, I found myself playing the aspect game to hunt out soft snow while applying loads of sunscreen—much to the chagrin of the locals who were not used to seeing the sun for extended periods in the winter. When asked how much it snows every day, the local ski guide gestured with his hands from six inches apart to an arm width. No appendages from the snow gods fell from the sky, but it was fun skiing off summits with the ocean as a backdrop.
This past July, my colleague Josh and I made the decision to retake the chase for the Japanese powder that eluded us the first time. On New Year’s Day, we flew off to the Orient, lowering our seatbacks to slumber away the hours across the Pacific Ocean with visions of our skis cutting through deep powder. Ahhh…
Those who ski beyond their own backyard begin to become obsessed with the weather of their future destination weeks and even months prior to their arrival. In November, Josh and I started checking the snowfall status of the Niseko region of Hokkaido weekly. Similar to what we are now experiencing in our home region of southwest Colorado, the Siberian snow machine is slow to turn on, with the flakes really beginning to fly come late December rather than in November as was the case in the past. We realized that we might be a bit early to achieve our winter fantasies, but our faith in the snow gods was strong. With optimism, we packed our ski duffels with the big powder boards and storm shells that we would need for our dream conditions—we hoped the law of attraction would exert itself.
When choosing between which ski pack to bring along, the more touring-oriented Headwall 55 or the technical ski mountaineering-designed Crux, we decided to go with the latter. Though we had no plans to ski off summits and down steep couloirs, the smaller and more featured-oriented Crux 40 seemed like a worthy partner as a ski guide pack. This wasn’t purely a pleasure trip, as we would be guiding a party of eight who were just as obsessive about the ultimate Japanese powder experience. All fingers were crossed.
Upon landing in the Hokkaido city of Sapporo, we found cold temps and snow on the ground. It had been snowing heavily for the past ten days – the snow machine was on. Wahoo! With excitement, we picked up our rental vans and collected our crew before beginning the two-hour drive to our basecamp hotel in Grand Hirafu—the ski tourist destination for the Niseko region. The weather for the drive was sunny and clear, but a storm was brewing.
Waking the next morning, our vans and the streets were covered with six inches of new snow, and it was still falling. Josh and I had been up since 5 AM, assessing the avalanche hazard and checking weather forecasts and models to come up with a tour plan for the day. Things were looking good. There would be no need to begin the trip with an application of sunscreen.
The day’s schedule would become the routine for the trip. Up at 5 AM for a morning hazard and tour planning meeting. Breakfast at 7:15 AM with our crew of shredders. In the lobby at 8 with everything needed for the day. Load vans and drive by 8:30. At a backcountry ski/ride trailhead by 9:30 (dependent upon the driving conditions). Split into two groups of five and begin skinning through fresh snow by 10:00. Hoot and holler our way down gladed tree runs until returning to the vans by 3 PM.
Drive to a nearby onsen (Japanese hot spring). Soak and sit in massage chairs for an hour or two. Return to the hotel by 6 PM. Dinner out on the town. Evening meeting to debrief the day and discuss plans for where to ski the next day. Lights out.
During our first three days of skiing, the sun had yet to make an appearance. Light snow continually fell, providing four to six inches of fresh powder every day. As expected, our turns were soft, and our group’s stoke was high. As I drifted off to sleep on the eve of ski day number four, visions of skiing through overhead powder floated through my lucidness. The precipitation rates of the current storm cycle were forecasted to ramp up.
Looking out our hotel window and into the dark at 5 AM, it was difficult to see how much had accumulated overnight. Heavy flakes swirled by the streetlamps below the window. The first indication that it was going to be an extraordinary day was the ding of our phones with a WhatsApp message from the company that delivered our lunches every morning. There would be no lunches delivered today – they couldn’t get out of their driveway.
The roads were snow-locked. The second indicator of what was to come was a quick look at our vans. They were buried under nearly 3 feet of snow. My dreams were coming true!
The Japanese word, Sunõgurõbu, means “snow globe.” After digging out one of our vans, we ventured into a life-sized snow globe. The roads had gotten narrower overnight, with the industrial Japanese snowplows working hard to clear some passable space for safe navigation. Once at our chosen trailhead for the day, we had to dig out a space for the van as the normal parking lot was still under feet of snow. By mid to late morning, we were finally on our skis and breaking trail through waist-deep fluff. The Yuki was light and bottomless.
At this point in the story, I will let the images convey what was experienced over the next couple of days. The armload of snow that fell that evening made lots of snow lovers' dreams come true. With the storm cycle that began soon after our arrival continuing, the flakes just kept coming, and the snow continued to pile up. Some of the deepest consecutive days of my ski life were experienced with the much sought-after face shots felt on every turn. Ahhhh…powder bliss!
The particles in the snow globe finally came to rest when the sun emerged for a beautiful sunset as we boarded our plane home. Lowering my seatback, I closed my eyes to replay the feeling of skiing through an endless cloud of powder. The screen in my mind soon went black, and I fell into a deep sleep of contentment.