Last year, Haidee and I had planned to go for a two-night ski camping trip to Nakadake Onsen during Golden Week. The weather forecast for that string of five public holidays, however, was less than ideal – high winds with snowfall. So we went cycling instead to Yagishiri and Teuri Islands off the coast of Hokkaido (route here). This year’s Golden Week, however, was no less than 10 days long (to celebrate the ascension of the new Japanese emperor). This meant we had a better chance at hitting a few days with great weather. And indeed we did hit the jackpot this time, with a string of three days of brilliant blue skies – our Nakadake Onsen ski camping trip was on!
The only spanner in the works was that we’d not booked a rental car – we don’t own a car – lest the weather not cooperate like last year. It was now two days out from our planned trip, and it seemed every rental car in Hokkaido was booked out for the entire 10 days of this extra long Golden Week. Our mate Chris came to the rescue, however, and lent us his car he wouldn’t be using during that time.
We arrived at the bottom of the Asahidake Ropeway at around 9:30am on Sunday the 28th of April, after driving from Sapporo that morning. We’d hoped to be a little bit earlier, to get the first lift up at 9am, but we still felt like we had plenty of time. We walked out of the upper ropeway station to glorious, glaring sunlight.
Looking up towards Asahidake from the ropeway station, we could see a line of hikers and skiers heading up towards the summit of Asahidake. Today, we’d see people in crampons, on skis, and just hiking up in sports shoes. Our packs felt heavy on our backs as we crossed the flat snowfield towards the base of the climb. We were both in two minds as to whether it was a good idea to schlep all of our camping gear up and over Hokkaido’s highest peak. I was even carrying my Italian mokapot coffee maker…if we were going to camp out for two days in the snow, I wanted good coffee…
Haidee was also at the tail end of a head cold. This seemed to sap her normal energy, and we made slow progress. I opted for a less steep climbing strategy that involved us making a few long climbing traverses with some kick-turns along the south face of the main ridge. This helped blunt the sting of the climb – everyone else was tramping up the rocky ridge, those with skis had them strapped to their packs.
At around noon, we stopped in the sun on the southern face, and sat down for some onigiri rice balls for lunch. There were clear, unobstructed views along the Daisetsu and Tokachi Ranges. We couldn’t have asked for better weather.
From around the 2100m point, we finally joined the throngs on the main summer trail ridge. There was just enough snow covering the ridge that I was able to clamber my way up to the small ‘step’ at 2250m without taking my skis off. Haidee opted to carry her skis for about 100m of particularly narrow trail. We’d brought crampons (both boot and ski), and we both briefly used our ski crampons, and Haidee used her boot crampons when walking the short distance with her skis.
We were at the summit before long, and quickly took some pictures. For both of us, this was our first time at the summit of Asahidake, Hokkaido’s highest peak. There was a stiff, cold breeze blowing, so we didn’t spend too much time at the top – just enough to take the skins of the skis, and get ready for a short descent to the saddle between the three peaks of Asahidake (旭岳, 2291m), Ushiroasahidake (後旭岳, 2216m), and Kumagadake (熊ケ岳, 2210m).
We’d had high hopes for the descent from the summit to the saddle. It was supposed to be a punctuation mark of great downhill skiing during this mostly uphill or flat day. But unfortunately we didn’t get the corn snow we’d hoped for, and rather, we were skiing on a very hard, icy surface. With heavy packs on, it was tough on the legs. We took a long well-earned break at the saddle, in the warm sun with hardly a breath of wind.
Whereas the summit and the approach to the summit was relatively bustling, we were now well and truly alone in a moonscape like environment.
After our leisurely break, we put our skins back on and started our way towards the Ohachidaira crater. Whereas the summer trail follows a ridge most of the way, we opted to stay on a low traverse, as there was already no snow along the ridge. This was tough going in places, especially on our wide skis (mine are 105mm underfoot, and Haidee’s are 103mm). The snow was hard in places. Haidee put her ski crampons on for better grip. The day was getting late, and the shadows were getting long. We passed two other skiers who had opted to pitch their tent on a bare piece of ground. Were we foolish to carry on, considering the day was getting on?
The views across Ohachidaira crater were worth the effort, however, and from here, it was mostly downhill to Nakadake Onsen.
Once again, we were clattering and scratching our way down icy north-facing slopes, towards the small saddle on the crater rim, where the summer trail veers off towards the onsen. In hindsight, we descended a little too far towards the saddle, and ended up having to clamber across a couple of small spurs with no snow in order to get back to the spur above the Nakadake Onsen gully. Either way, snow was all rather thin on the ground up on the crater rim.
I’d seen reports of groups skiing into Nakadake Onsen via a cathedral-like rocky ‘gate’ just above the onsen, and I was keen to try this out. We eventually found a spot on the ridge to drop down into the very narrow mini-couloir, and it was indeed inspiring, rocky topography. I would have preferred more snow, as we had to clamber down a few meters of rock where the snow had already disappeared. Haidee was convinced the whole cathedral of rocks would collapse down on us – they were towering above us, put into stark relief by the late afternoon sun.
Right below this gate to Nakadake Onsen, was the onsen and four tents already pitched nearby. One of the occupants of the two large tents closest to the onsen gave us a cheerful wave as we descended. It was every bit as idyllic as I’d hoped. With daylight fading, we quickly set up camp close to the stream, and cooked up a hearty dinner of fresh veges, tofu, and soba noodles. We’d taken a leisurely 7 hours from ropeway station to Nakadake Onsen via Asahidake, and we were pooped. We didn’t even soak our feet in the onsen that night…
Our plans were constantly changing during this trip. The original plan was to camp at Nakadake Onsen for two nights, spending the day in the middle exploring some skiing options on the surrounding peaks, and then actually skiing across to Kurodake to make it a full traverse across the range. That plan was canned early on due to the lack of snow on the tops and around the Ohachidaira crater rim. We’d likely be carrying our skis quite a ways. By evening on the first night, we’d also all but decided to just make it a one night trip, and return to Asahidake Ropeway the next day. The skiing on the north-facing slopes was so dismal – hard and icy. Why torture ourselves on less than ideal snow?
The next morning, however, we woke to glorious, warm sunshine, and things started looking a little more rosy. This little pocket of paradise that is Nakadake Onsen is situated almost perfectly running west to east. It gets the evening sun as well as the early morning sun. We had a leisurely breakfast, soaked our feet in the onsen, and mulled on our options for the day.
It was around 9:30am that one of the other campers returned from a very early morning ski up to Antaroma-dake (安足間岳, 2194m), a peak that had been on my radar for a possible ski on this second day of our trip. I asked him how the snow was. “It was amazing,” he gushed. “The perfect spring snow on the southern face.”
I was hoping this would be his reply. By this time, Haidee and I were both leaning in the direction of staying another night at the onsen. We had mountains of food, and the thought of packing everything up after only setting up the night before felt like a whole lot of work. Now that we’d had some positive information about Antaroma-dake, a day of skiing was sounding much more palatable.
So, we quickly geared up and made our way down to the plateau to start a 2.5 hour climb up Antaroma-dake. I’ll leave the trip report and route guide for that trip for another time, but suffice it to say it was some of the best skiing I’ve done in Hokkaido. Gorgeous views, massive wide open bowls, and fantastic spring corn snow.
We were back at Nakadake Onsen by around 2pm with plenty of time to spend the rest of the day napping or soaking our feet in the hot spring. I spent a bit of time digging the spring a little deeper. If someone was keen enough, they’d easily be able to soak their full body in the spring. It was quite silty, however, so I decided it would be more effort than it was worth. Haidee spent some time perched on a rock with binoculars in hand, watching some of the curious birds who were visiting a small patch of recently uncovered grass. We were also pretty sure we could hear nakiusagi (northern pika), but we never got a glimpse of any.
Like the previous night, the clear evening allowed us views across to the city lights of what we assumed to be Higashikawa Town in the distance. With hardly a breath of wind, it was all a very pleasant night. It was cold – perhaps -5degC – but calm.
The next day consisted of packing up and getting back to the Asahidake Ropeway. We had a long drive ahead of us that day, so we were packed up and on the skis by 6:30am. It was another beautiful blue sky day. We’d really hit a great string of brilliant weather for this trip.
Another group was also packing up as we were leaving. The green tent next to us and its three elderly occupants. I’d wandered past their tent a previous night, and got a waft of warm, alcohol-fume air from the entrance of their tent. They were a jovial lot. I asked them if they were some kind of mountaineering group. “No! We’re just friends who like mountains, onsen, and alcohol!”
To get back to the ropeway, we had to cross the expansive Susoai-daira Plateau. This would be a terrifying place in bad weather, I thought.
This was obviously a popular place to visit with skiers, snowboarders, and hikers, even at this time of year. There were plenty of ski traces around the place. In an attempt to avoid having to put skins on the skis, we opted for a high traverse most of the way back to the ropeway. It could be debated whether this was worth it or not. We did our fair share of small sidesteps along the way.
We arrived back at the ropeway top station at around 8:30am, just before the first load of tourist throngs were due to arrive. To my great excitement, the ski courses had just been freshly groomed. For the first time in my life, I’d be getting first tracks down a freshly groomed ski slope. I was on fat skis with a pack pushing 20kgs, but still, it was divine. The group of gazelle-like cross-country skiers near the bottom of the run practicing uphill skiing, in lycra and their super light, skinny skis, looked on in bewilderment as I barreled past like an unwieldy elephant.
It was with a great sense of achievement that we arrived back at the car, in glorious, warm sunshine. This trip had certainly been on my radar for a very long time, and I was very happy that we’d had the weather and time to pull it off. A huge thanks again to Chris for the lend of the car – this route is accessible by public transport, but we’d likely missed the weather window had we gone that route.
We allowed a gear explosion, filling Chris’s car with damp tents, gloves, boots, and then got on our way. We settled in for the 5-hour drive to Lake Kussharo, to visit Rick, who was in the area with his wife, visiting his mother-in-law. This would be our last chance to catch up with him before he moved back to the UK. He’ll be sorely missed!