Keeping Safe While Ski Touring in Hokkaido

Posted on Aug 1, 2018
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Posted on Aug 1, 2018
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Backcountry ski touring in Hokkaido is some of the most accessible in the world. It's known for its deep, gorgeous powder, settled on relatively low-angle terrain. Popular ski touring routes are everywhere. Despite the relative low-altitude skiing here, however, Hokkaido has its own unique climatic and terrain challenges which demand extreme respect when heading out into the winter mountains. Here, we cover hazards related to snowpack, terrain, weather, backcountry communications, and more.

Last updated May 2, 2021

Skinning up to Ginreiso Hut near Mt. Haruka (Hokkaido, Japan)
Whiteroom Tours AST2 Avalanche Safety Training Course (Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan)

Assumptions

We won’t be going into generalized avalanche safety here. Here, we assume skiers have completed a backcountry avalanche safety course that covers avalanche terrain assessment, trip planning, and companion rescue techniques. We recommend backcountry travelers continue and refresh their avalanche training by doing an avalanche safety course every couple of years, in addition to companion rescue drills every season. For accredited avalanche safety training in English in Hokkaido, consider: Rising Sun Guides, Whiteroom Tours, or Black Diamond Tours. They’re all based in Niseko. All backcountry travelers should be carrying a beacon, probe, and shovel, and be versed in their use.

Guides, Clubs, And Other data sources

Guides: Skiers new to Hokkaido will be safest exploring Hokkaido’s winter offerings with an experienced guide. Here’s a list of accredited Japan Mountain Guide Association (JMGA) guides (all IFMGA certified) based in Hokkaido: Hokkaido Mountain Guide Association website. Explore-Share.com also has a number of Hokkaido local, certified IFMGA guides available for booking in an easy-to-use format: Explore-Share Hokkaido Backcountry Skiing Guides.

Clubs: For Hokkaido residents or very regular visitors with passable Japanese language ability, there are a number local Japanese outdoor clubs which operate throughout the year. See a list on the Shugakuso Outdoor Store’s website here. Note that these clubs would require some Japanese ability, as communications are in Japanese.

Facebook: There are several useful Facebook groups that you might like to join. These can be a valuable source of information from other backcountry users and a great place to share your observations with others. Sadly there’s no equivalent of the Avalanche Canada Mountain Information Network here yet.

Hazards

EXTREME COLD
Ambient alpine temperatures in Hokkaido regularly dip below -20°C. With wind chill, this can easily reach -40°C (source). This may come as a surprise considering that   Hokkaido is only at about 43° N, the same as Florence in Europe and equivalent to about Hobart or  Christchurch in the Southern Hemisphere. Hokkaido’s highest mountain, Asahi-dake 旭岳, is only 2291m. The winter weather conditions in Hokkaido are largely driven by the outflow of cold air from Siberia; the Siberian High pressure system can result in extremely cold temperatures, particularly in northern Hokkaido. Things do change quickly, so don’t get caught out by the sometimes benign weather. Backcountry travelers should carry the necessary spare insulation required to manage these temperatures in case of an emergency where your party needs to stay put in the mountains for an extended period of time.

VISIBILITY AND STORMS
It snows a lot in popular backcountry ski areas in Hokkaido; our snow system is similar to that of Utah or the Great Lakes but operating at oceanic scale. This post from Jim Steenburgh provides a rough idea of how things work up here but generally, if there’s a prevailing north westerly weather flow then it’s likely to be dumping snow. On a two-week ski touring trip in Hokkaido, it is not rare to only see the sun for a couple of days. For this reason, skiers need to be extremely flexible in their plans. Be willing to enjoy lower-altitude skiing when the inevitable low visibility weather rolls in. White-out conditions are frequent in Hokkaido, not only in the mountains, but also down below – driving can be hazardous during the snow-tap is turned on. One nice benefit of the relatively low altitude and low latitude is that there’s vegetation available across most routes to help with depth perception.

Note that eastern Hokkaido, in the lee of winter monsoon winds off Siberia, tends to have much lower snowfall and long spells of fine weather.

DEEP SNOW
Related to the point above, backcountry skiers will often be breaking trail in very deep snow, much more regularly than in other destinations around the world.  Understand that this can be very tiring, and requires good fitness. For this reason, always plan on a trip taking longer than expected. Even with your 125mm-wide 190cm-long fat skis, expect to be sinking up to your knees or deeper on the climb. A broken ski binding or a twisted knee 10km from the nearest road in 1m of bottomless powder, even at 600m in altitude, is all it would take for things to get very serious very fast.

NAVIGATION
One should expect existing skin tracks to be the exception, not the norm. During heavy snow, we’ve experienced our own skin tracks disappear within about 20 minutes behind us. Similarly, route markers are the exception rather than the rule in Hokkaido. Backcountry skiers should expect to be navigating entirely on their own. We recommend at least two people in a party to have maps and routes pre-loaded to their smartphones in case of ‘the map guy’ losing or damaging her phone. We recommend navigation apps with Japanese official topomaps available. Carrying paper maps and an analog compass is also recommended. 

SHORT DAYS
That 43° latitude means that days are longer than the Canadian Rockies, Europe or Queenstown  but shorter than you’ll find in places like Utah, Colorado, South Chile/Argentina and New Zealand’s North Island volcanos.  At the winter solstice in Hokkaido, the sun rises around 7am, and sets at around 4pm, for 9 hours of daylight. Twilight is about one hour, but this means little in mid-winter, considering that most of the time it’s snowing, blocking out any residual light. The March equinox adds about three hours of daylight, with the sun rising at 5:30am and setting at close to 6pm, with far more useable twilight periods. Carry a headlamp in your pack and make sure that you take spare batteries; we like a simple AA/AAA headlamp equipped with lithium L91/L92 batteries as our emergency option as you can basically stick these in your pack and forget about them for the season.

AVALANCHE
Avalanches do happen in Hokkaido and particular care should be taken after storms. Hokkaido storms drop an incomprehensible volume of snow, and winds will transport new and existing snow across slopes to produce extreme wind loading. Compared with other popular backcountry ski destinations around the world, however, Hokkaido’s consistently cold temperatures and regular snowfall contribute to a surprisingly stable and simple (very few ‘layers’ mid-season) snowpack. Persistent weak layers are relatively rare, and storm-related instability will tend to stabilize within a few days. Late March and early April bring considerable warming events, increasing the likelihood of wet loose activity as well as rain- and sun-crusts creating problems for subsequent snowpack stability should the ‘tap’ get turned back on for a bit. 

Unfortunately, however, as of 2021 avalanche bulletins for the recreational skier are few and far between in Hokkaido (see below). Therefore, the onus very much falls on the backcountry skier to make their own judgements on snowpack stability. You will have limited information available to you online to inform your decisions so step out gently on arrival into an area and take the time to build your own mental model of the snowpack from some primary observation.

POPULAR ROUTES
On some popular backcountry routes around Niseko and Furano, skiers may find themselves sharing the route with multiple other parties. The normal common-sense rules apply – don’t ski above ascending parties, and be aware of where you are in relation to other parties on the mountain.

TERRAIN TRAPS
Terrain traps are a considerable hazard for the Hokkaido backcountry skier. Skiers will most frequently find themselves skiing at or below the treeline in deep winter in Hokkaido, where attractive-looking gullies abound. An avalanche air bag will not help much when a gully slope collapses in an instant, burying a skier deep. Take particular care and keep to spurs where possible. 

HOKKAIDO “CREVASSES”
Gullies and streams are the equivalent of crevasses of Hokkaido. Particularly an issue in the earlier winter months of December and January, snow-bridges across streams and gully-bottoms may not be fully developed. A deep fall through an ill-developed snowbridge is not usually fatal in and of itself.  Self-rescue, however, is often impossible. A night spent at the bottom of a deep snowed-in stream is not only dangerous due to hypothermia, but even if you last the night, by morning, a normal night’s snowfall will happily obliterate any sign of you ever being there, covering your tracks and the hole you fell through. Screams for help will be happily muffled by the glorious powder snow above your head.

The other big watch-out as the season progresses are large glide cracks forming at the top of slopes. This occurs where the entire snowpack glides slowly on the vegetation, leaving huge cracks down to the ground. While these are unnerving to look at from a snow stability point of view it’s unusual to get full depth avalanches until late in the season. On the other hand, the depth of the Hokkaido snowpack means that these glide cracks can take on bergschrund like proportions. Our generally deciduous vegetation means that we don’t tend to have ‘tree-well’ problems, but,  it’s worth leaving your tree-well kits (10-15m of prusik cord) in your pack still for these other hazards. 

Large glide cracks are frequent in Hokkaido. Here we have a selection from a ‘low snow year’ on Shiribetsu-dake in the Niseko region. In heavy snow years a fall into one of these may require crevasse extraction techniques.

Public AVALANCHE BULLETINS

Currently, there’s only three public avalanche bulletins for recreational backcountry users in Hokkaido – two in the Niseko area, and one in the Furano area. None of them are on par with other international backcountry destinations around the world.

For the immediate Niseko resort area and Niseko range, there’s the quirky but daily side-country-oriented Niseko Avalanche Information website. For the wider Niseko area including Yotei, Yoichi, and Shiribeshi, there’s the international-standard, once-weekly, wider-area Japan Avalanche Network (JAN), published on Saturday mornings and when considerable storm events occur. For the wider Furano and central Hokkaido area, the Furano Avalanche Center Facebook page posts sporadic observations. 

For experienced backcountry users used to picking up details of the local snow conditions online you’ll feel ‘blind’ for the first day. Hokkaido does not have any equivalent to the ‘InfoEx’ services used by commercial operators in other countries. Step out gently and dig a couple of quick pits to get your bearings. From that point is relatively easy to maintain your mental model of the snowpack evolution over the season thanks to our pretty consistent temperatures and snowfall.

WEATHER and WHEN TO GO

The weather in winter in Hokkaido is largely driven by the ‘Winter Monsoon’, a fairly consistent cold air outflow from Siberia over the winter months. This tends to be strongest and most consistent during January and February. Hence the mind-bendingly incredible skiing during these months but also the relatively short snowfall peak compare to other snow climates globally. Jan/Feb temperatures can be very cold, and snow falls five or six days out of seven, often with strong winds in the alpine. Compared to the conditions in Honshu, the shorter wind fetch across the northern Sea of Japan means we get a bit less precipitation, but the more consistently cold temperatures means that it all tends to fall as snow. Rain events in winter are possible but will generally be the result of a counter-veiling low pressure system approaching from the south-east.

March, April and May offer lengthening days and much more stable weather. With longer spells of blue sky weather, long 8hr+ day-trips or multi-day ski tours into the Daisetsuzan National Park, the Shiretoko World Heritage area, and other alpine areas become more feasible. Jan/Feb is good for the deepest of deep powder, but good powder snow is also possible in March. 

Not all areas of Hokkaido get apocalyptic amounts of snow. Lower-lying areas of eastern Hokkaido and the Tokachi Plains around Obihiro City get very little snow during winter.

 

Source: Jim Steenburgh - Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth

We’ve found Windy.com using the ECMWF forecast model to offer the most accurate next-day or two-day weather forecasts. They’re a bit useless for anything over a week out, but by the morning of your ski tour, the Windy.com forecast is usually accurate to within the hour. For those who like to read weather maps in more detail we like the analysis and forecast charts from the Korea Meteorological Administration to understand the situation and likely longer term weather pattern. The Japan Meteorological Agency also runs a good network of weather radar stations and these can be useful for tracking inbound storms on a near real-time basis as well. 

TERRAIN

Much of the popular, easily-accessed backcountry terrain in Hokkaido is comparatively mellow and low-angle when compared to popular backcountry regions in Europe, North America, New Zealand and even the other regions of Japan. Excellent skiing is to be had on mostly volcanic topography, on slopes with well-spaced old-growth forest. 

The ‘no steeps in Hokkaido‘ moniker is misplaced, however, with plenty of steep, committing terrain that demands utmost respect. Here on HokkaidoWilds.org, as of 2021 we generally cover a peak’s bread-and-butter route, aiming to reduce exposure as much as possible, while still offering a good time on the downhill. If skiers are seeking out steeper, more exposed runs, good experience with steep terrain is required. Chutes and couloirs are generally skied in the later months of March and April, once snowpack on the steeps has stabilized somewhat; do be careful of the wet slide hazard that becomes a problem in spring though.

Communications

Above the treeline and at summits, mobile phone reception is surprisingly wide-spread in Hokkaido, but should not be relied upon. Mobile reception at trailheads should be assumed to be non-existent, so make sure to have all maps cached and downloaded before leaving town. Two-way radios are a good option for backcountry parties, but radios must conform to Japanese standards. High-power radios require registration in Japan. It’s illegal to use un-registered radios from abroad in Japan, and the fines are steep. See our full overview about two-way radios here.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) commonly used overseas are illegal for use on land in Japan. Satellite messengers, however, such as the Garmin inReach or SPOT device are excellent alternatives – they’re 100% legal in Japan. See our full details about PLBs here.

For residents of Hokkaido, we recommend getting a Cocoheli ココヘリ beacon. This tiny little keyring-fob sized beacon has a range of up to 16km, and is used by helicopter search and rescue teams to help locate distressed parties. It doesn’t have dedicated messaging capabilities, or an SOS button, but can speed up rescue efforts considerably. The basic plan includes insurance coverage for up to three helicopter flights.

Emergencies

For emergencies where mobile reception is available, call the police on 110. They will then coordinate search and rescue based on your general location. If mobile reception is not available, your only option for alerting the authorities is to wait for your pre-designated alert person (accommodation provider, loved one, friend etc to whom you left your plans with) to call the police at your pre-arranged time to alert the authorities, or use the SOS button on your satellite messenger device (such as a Garmin inReach or SPOT). Note that PLBs commonly used overseas are illegal in Japan. 

See our full overview of PLBs in Japan here.

Depending on the location, the first responders may be a local fire department, the police, ski patrol staff, or in rare cases the Self-Defense Force.

RESCUE COORDINATION TAKES TIME IN HOKKAIDO
Be prepared to wait at least three hours for a backcountry rescue in Hokkaido, usually more. There’s only one or two dedicated, well-drilled backcountry winter rescue teams in Hokkaido. Coordination takes time before any rescue personnel even arrive at the trailhead. Factors such as heavy snow, bad visibility, and nightfall will all hamper rescue efforts. Backcountry parties must be prepared for an overnight in the hills, even for relatively easy backcountry ski routes. Carry basic survival kit including a fire starter and thermal blanket in your pack.

BACKCOUNTRY RESCUE CAN BE EXPENSIVE
Primary Search and Rescue Operation – In principle, initial public search and rescue efforts up to about a week in duration are free. I.e., if only public search and rescue teams are involved – such as police, fire departments, Self-Defense Force etc – the rescue operation is free to the user (including foreigners).

Life-first, cost-second – However, mountain SAR in Hokkaido operates on a ‘life-first, cost-second‘ approach. During the initial public-funded Primary Search and Rescue Operation, public SAR teams may decide they need the assistance of private guides, personnel, and helicopters in order to expedite the search and rescue process. In this case, the bill for the individual can start running up from the very first day of rescue efforts. Japan Rescue Organization (jRO) puts the average SAR cost to be around $3,500. The most they quote is $43,700 for a multi-person rescue. See Ridgeline Images’ excellent overview here.

Secondary Search and Rescue Operation – If, after around 10 days of public/private-funded search a person is not found, the family of the lost person has the option of engaging in a ‘secondary search and rescue’ operation. This secondary operation is usually squarely in the hands of private search and rescue teams, so can easily run into the thousands of dollars per day.

SEARCH AND RESCUE INSURANCE

For short-term visitors to Japan, any of the large international mountain search and rescue insurance providers will cover medical, search and rescue, and expatriation costs associated with backcountry incidents. An example is the Austrian Alpine Club (UK).

For residents of Japan, take a look at Ridgeline Images’ thorough list of options here.

SAFETY REGISTRATIONS

In addition to letting someone who cares about you know where you’re going and what time you expect to be back, we thoroughly recommend submitting your backcountry plans to the police via the voluntary registration system, mt-compass. This does not mean the police will search for you automatically – someone still needs to alert the police in order to initiate a search. This can this can speed up rescue coordination efforts, however, because your CocoHeli beacon number, two-way radio channel, intended route etc will be in the database for quick perusal by the authorities.

Comments | Queries | Discussion

2 thoughts on “Keeping Safe While Ski Touring in Hokkaido”

  1. Hi , absolutely fabulous and we know how much work it is! we are in Aus at the base of Mt. Hotham. Last year we started http://www.mountainsportscollective.org to be able to run a backcountry/avalanche advisory here in Oz. On another line I hooked up with Girsberger a swiss Family run business that has been at the forefront of Mountainrescuetechnology for more then 50 years. Great people and we are trying to get some of their products into Japan. Most useful would be the Checkpoint that gives you instant feedback at the start of a trail or gate to the BC whether you have a beacon and that it is switched on with a green light everyone else gets a red light. The other is a Beacon Training Center ( ATC) . Have a look at their site and consider if you want to help or point me in the right direction, as my japanese is non existent. Will definitely come in Feb to do some touring! Cheers love your work.

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ADVANCED FILTERS

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About Filters

REGION: The general mountain/geographical region the route is in.

BEST MONTH(S): Time of year a route is suited to visiting. Some pop all season, some are more limited.

DIFFICULTY: How strenuous a route is, and how technical it is. Full details here.

FREERIDE/SKITOUR: Very subjective, but is a route more-of-a-walk-than-a-ski or the other way around? Some routes are all about the screaming downhill (freeride), some are more about the hunt for a peak or nice forest (ski-tour). Some are in between. 

MAIN ASPECT: Which cardinal direction the primary consequential slope is facing, that you might encounter on the route. More details here.

ROUTE TAGS: An eclectic picking of other categories that routes might belong to.

SEARCH BY LOCATION: You can find routes near your current location – just click on the crosshairs (). You may need to give permission to HokkaidoWilds.org to know your GPS location (don’t worry, we won’t track you). Or, type in a destination, such as Niseko or Sapporo or Asahikawa etc.

Please let us know how we can make it easier to narrow down your search. Contact Rob at rob@hokkaidowilds.org with your suggestions.

Keeping Safe While Ski Touring in Hokkaido Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

D

25

Time ascending

D

0

Technicality

Altitude

D

0

Hazards

D

0

Navigation

D

0

Totals

25/100

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.