Trip Report

A bumper start to the season

Posted on Dec 21, 2020

Posted on Dec 21, 2020

Reading time: [rt_reading_time] min

For the dedicated backcountry enthusiasts in Hokkaido, December can be an impatient waiting game. As the hills develop a good base of snow, we seek out places where the snow comes early, and the undergrowth is thin. One such place is Goryo-yama 御料山 (622m), just southwest of the old closed Kamisunagawa-dake Kokusai Ski Area 上砂川国際スキー場跡. So we headed up there in a blizzard from Sapporo this past weekend to see how the hills were filling up. We were not disappointed. It has been a stellar start to the season so far here in Hokkaido.

The grand plan was to make an easy 1.5 hours drive north from Sapporo on the expressway to Fukagawa 深川, and check out a popular backcountry peak-bagging spot there – Otoe-yama 音江山. We’d only made it about 20 minutes on the expressway before the expressway was shut down due to blizzard and white-out conditions. This spat us out on the busy Route 12 through Iwamizawa City 岩見沢市. Google Maps, bless its AI heart, sent us off on side roads to avoid the traffic, but failed to take into account that about 50cm of snow had fallen that morning, and it was still snowing hard.

This was the Iwamizawa snow-pocalypse everyone had been talking about.

The most snow in December in recorded history.

Snow falling from the sky, and powder snow drifting up from the road as we plowed through it in the car.

“Maybe we should just turn around,” said Haidee.

“We should at least get back to the main road,” echoed Saoka.

We did eventually get back to Route 12, and as we crawled along behind the backed up traffic, we eventually made it out of the blizzard and into blue skies.

We were on  a road that was usually four lanes wide. It was now only just two lanes wide, flanked with massive mountains of snow on either side.

It was now close to 10am, so we gave up driving another 1 hour to Otoe-yama and headed to the old Kamisunagawa Kokusai Ski Area instead, which was much closer.

When we arrived at the cleared parking area, there were another three or four cars there. The likelihood of getting some untracked turns in on the way down was high.

Given how early we are in the season, there was a very good covering of snow. Last year’s low-tide season still lingers in our minds, so seeing this much snow this early in the season is refreshing. Let’s hope it lasts.

We were following in the tracks of a couple of groups of snowboarders, so predictably, the skin track was steep. Straight up. “Zigzags are for the weak!” declared the trail. We were at the top in about 45 minutes, and pushed on into the forest behind the derelict top station and hut. We’d been a bit apprehensive about what we’d find in regards to snow levels. But we were delighted to be greeted by a good covering, and gorgeous fresh snow clinging to the trees.

Very picturesque along the narrow ridge.

From the summit of Goryo-yama, we did the obligatory 1 minute blat down the open area to just above the gully. It’s hardly even four or five turns worth, but it confirmed that the hills around here are well and truly filling up, and the season is off to a promising start.

From the bottom of the summit run, it was skins back on for the 20 minute traverse back to the ski area. Then skins off, and the icing on the cake of a nice few hours in the hills.

The ski area will get another few meters of snow over the season, which will bury most of the shrubs. As it was, however, we were still able to slalom our way between the mature seedlings.

If the descent down the old ski area clearing was the icing on the cake, then the onsen just across the road was the cherry.

We’d avoided going to onsen for a few months due to concerns over the pandemic. But we gave in this time, and it was bliss. It reminded me why outdoor pursuits are so incredible here in Hokkaido – the onsen at the end of the day.

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A bumper start to the season Difficulty Rating





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GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy). Hazards include exposure to avalanche and fall risk. More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.