We’d been going back and forth about this weekend trip for at least two weeks. The original plan was to climb up the Yufure Hontani Gorge via the Yufure-goya Hut. But being late March, there were concerns that if the temperatures got too high, the crags and gullies on either side of the main gorge might start shaking off their winter coats. We’d seen enough reports from late April and early May to suggest the Hontai Gorge was home to plenty of full-depth avalanches (case in point). “A nest of avalanches,” one climber called it.
That said, if the temperatures stayed low enough, we’d have been keen to have tried it out. As it so happened, however, the Sunday we’d planned on doing the trip was well above freezing, even above 2000m.
This was somewhat of a nail in the coffin for the Yufure Hontani Gorge idea. About mid way through the week leading up to the trip, the forecast was still for good weather on Sunday, so we’d head up to the hut on Saturday, and then just head up to the summit from the hut via the Kakutaro ridge and main ridge.
On Friday, however, the weather forecast had nothing but clear skies and cold temperatures, plus no wind, for Saturday. I quickly messaged Tim and Hiro.
“Let’s go for the gorge tomorrow!” I excitedly tapped at my phone. “4:30am pick up for you guys!”
They agreed to the super early start from Sapporo, and thus it was that we managed to get to the mountain before 7am on the Saturday.
But then we saw it. Standing clear, momentous, glaringly proud. Ashibetsu-dake in all his glory.
Seeing this iconic Hokkaido mountain in such perfect weather laid waste to all the wishy-washy plans to climb up the gorge. The climb up the gorge was highly dependent on a number of things going right. The approach to the hut had to be relatively straight forward along the Yufure River (we’d find out the next day it was not easy at all). We had to feel comfortable regarding the avalanche activity and stability of the upper slopes of the gorge. We’d still be climbing almost 3 hours up an incalculably beautiful but also highly risky gorge.
“I have an idea,” Tim and I almost said in unison. We both had the same idea. We decided to head for the summit via the most likely route for success – the Shindo summer trail route. We’d lug our overnight gear and food up to the 1107m knob, depot it, carry on to the summit, then pick up the gear on our way down to the hut.
There were still plenty of unknowns in this plan. I’d heard of at least one ski party climbing up from the hut to the 1107m point via the old Kakutaro trail, but we had very little beta on the steepness or forest conditions.
Our spring skiing adventure weekend was getting off to a very adventurous start.
We made good time up the summer trail, despite packs heavy with food and overnight gear. Hiro was carrying some ground venison for dinner, and we’d also split up between us some rice, more yaki-niku style marinated pork and beef, and two big bags of pre-cut vegetables. We were going to eat like kings at the hut…we just had to lug all of that up 700 vertical meters, and then ski down 500m with it at the end of the day.
The air temperature was cool, but the sun was hot. Soon, we were peeling off the layers.
Then, Tim lost balance and fell over on a kick-turn. He slid a few meters down the slope before his ski caught on a small tree. It was an awkward spot to be stuck upside down on the slope. It took him a while to get himself unstuck, but all was well.
“Oh f%#k!” he exclaimed. “My binding is broken.”
Somehow, in the fall, the walk/ski lever on the toe piece of one of his bindings got ripped off. They were new Fritschi Tecton 12‘s. They now only worked in ski mode.
After some fiddling, however, Tim worked out that he could still use the bindings for walking and skiing. He wouldn’t be able to lock them as tight as they would otherwise be in walk mode, but the ski mode still allowed him to walk in them. The trip was not over for Tim.
With the binding drama sorted, we pushed on to our depot point at 1107m. It felt like a long way. A long way of fighting against gravity to schlep overnight gear to. But the relief once we did drop the overnight gear was sweet. We were given fresh legs in the form of significantly lighter packs.
What we foolishly thought was the summit of Ashibetsu-dake also seemed peculiarly close.
It wasn’t until we got on top of Hanmen-yama 半面山 that we realized that while the summit was relatively close, it was hugely more extravagant than the false summit we’d been looking at.
A party of about eight climbers, skis strapped to their packs, were slowly boot packing their way up towards the summit.
“Now this is a real mountain,” I joked to Tim. He agreed. A mountain like this makes the Niseko range feel like a kindergarten. A kindy with the most epic powder ever, yes. But still. This was something else.
We hurried across the flat-lands of Hanmen-yama and then the final long traverse to the base of the final steep climb to the summit. While Tim and Hiro were putting on their crampons, I sent the drone up for some aerial shots.
Immediate vertigo ensued.
Just 15m away, over that edge, was a precipitous drop.
It was both terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time.
Grateful to have snow steps already kicked into the slope to the summit, we set off with skis strapped to our packs and crampons on our boots. It was easy going. Nearer the summit it was clear that we were now above a void below, which got the heart racing just that little extra.
By the time we made it to the crowded summit ridge, the other group was kitted up with their skis, ready to ski down.
Soon after, they launched themselves off the summit and screamed down the slope, ripping up great chunks of crust. It was clearly not great skiing. Varying between only-just-breakable crust to solid bulletproof crust.
And then one of them was falling. Sliding down the mountain. Actually sliding, and gaining speed.
There was nothing below the skier that would indicate they were about to have a worse time than they already were, so we just watched them speed up…and then slow down as they hit the warmer snow about 100m below.
After the others caught up to the skier, the skier soon stood up and carried on. Only to crash a second time. This time only sliding perhaps 50m.
Ashibetsu-dake. Unforgiving in a forgiving sort of way…so long as you’re falling on the right slope, I guess.
After watching the drama unfold under us, we carried on along the summit ridge a few meters to the summit proper. The compact summit was breathtaking.
Hiro cracked open a miniature 135ml can of Sapporo Classic beer, and we shared in the satisfaction of getting to the Yubari range’s highest peak.
We kitted up and started our own descent from the summit. The going wasn’t as bad as the straight-down-the-slope chap had made it look. Verging on enjoyable even. I couldn’t find my GoPro, so no first person frame-grabs, but here’s a photo of Tim learning how to ski on Hokkaido spring ice.
As we descended, the snow soon transformed into fast spring corn. We were very tempted to head down the gully (as indicated on the map), but we were feeling pressed for time. We still had a huge unknown in the form of the descent from the main ridge to the hut, so we opted to return along our ascent route to avoid having to hike back up to Hanmen-yama.
The ski from Hanmen-yama to our depot point was fun too. Some narrow ridge skiing, but there were pockets of nice slopes through well-spaced trees. We got excited at one point and almost skied down the wrong ridge, only realizing just in time to traverse back over to the main ridge.
Once we were loaded up with our overnight gear and food again, we started the careful ski down the north-facing ridge to the hut. It was bulletproof crust.
A 15kg+ pack does nothing for one’s skiing confidence, so we were all doing a lot of side scaping and not much turning.
The snow improved somewhat as we descended, and the slope was surprisingly skiable. Steep, but not too steep. Trees, but not too many trees.
Soon, we spied the roof of the hut.
To our utter amazement (and later immense gratitude), there were people down there at the hut. They were clearing the snow off the roof of the hut.
For a hut so remote, it took us by complete surprise. Even more surprising was that one of the snow-clearers was none other than Yassan from Tree Life Guiding. Haidee and I had taken part in a ‘monitor tour’ with Yassan as our hiking guide a few seasons back.
“Hey Rob! Was the skiing fun?” he asked in his usual upbeat way.
Got started on ferrying our gear across the river to the hut. No feet were wet in the process. Particularly not Hiro, who had brought plastic bags just for the purpose.
We pitched in with the snowclearing. “Take care of the windows,” Yassan ordered. “We want to keep the clear so we get some light in the hut.
Yassan and his team had been working on the roof for over four hours. When they arrived, the roof was one great big mushroom of over 2m of snow. One of the team was fixing up the chimney, even as smoke was rising out of it.
Soon, we were tasked to find some more firewood. “There’s only a little bit left in the hut from last season,” explained Yassan.
Hiro and I had brought foldable saws for the purpose, and soon had a good stack of old, dry-ish deadfall.
This kept us going for the night, allowing Hiro to whip up a storm on the wood stove. Tonight, it would be wild venison hot-pressed sandwiches (Hiro is a hunter in his spare time).
Sleeping in the hut was cosy with almost ten people in it. There’s much more space for more people, but the upper sleeping platforms are dusty and haven’t been swept out or cleaned for years it seems. I slept well, despite a dripping near my head from melting snow that had blown in from the second story window.
It’s a basic hut, to say the least.
The next morning, the snow-clearing team left at before 8am.
We decided to climb up to Ochacha-dake 御茶々岳, so I’ll post that route shortly.
THE DESCENT FROM THE HUT
The descent from the hut back along the Yufure River gorge was fairly brutal. I’d heard reports of people saying it was the toughest part of any skiing in the gorge, but not many people wrote the details. In one report I read, the author said “I think that’ll be the last ski adventure I have this season…time to relax and behave myself.”
We now know what he was on about.
I can’t tell you what the route is, or how things will be when you do the route. Clearly, depending on how much snow has fallen, or how much snow has avalanched, or how much as dropped from great heights, one’s route will be quite different to anyone else’s. It’s a roll-with-the-punches sort of a route.
Perhaps most surprisingly from the outset is how steep the gorge is directly below the hut. The hut, situated in some kind of inconceivable sanctuary of calm, lulls one into security. Once one leaves that sanctuary, it’s a fight for one’s sanity that photos really don’t do justice to.
We were vaguely following snowshoe tracks and the occasional old rotten ski track. But sometimes, they would simply end at a gaping hole in the stream. Or they’d be traversing seemingly impossibly steep drops to the river below. Fine-grained route-finding at its finest.
And then came the river crossings. “Since you’re on skis, you’ll probably only have to cross the river a couple of times,” said Yassan in the hut the night before.
Perhaps we were missing the details, but we ended up crossing the river more than seven times. I lost count after that. Sure, there were parts where colossal avalanches had buried the river nicely, but they were few and far between. In the end, we all eventually just gave up taking our skis off for the crossings.
To add insult to injury, by the time we’d made it back to the car with about 1.5hrs of daylight remaining, Haidee had dutifully notified the police that we were well overdue our originally planned completion time. In my excitement to head up to Ochacha-dake on Sunday, I’d conveniently forgotten what I’d communicated to Haidee, and failed to let her know of the change of plans (which I could have done at the summit of Ochacha-dake or indeed using my Garmin inReach).
As it turned out, we arrived back at the car about 20 minutes after the call had been made, so were greeted at our car by two cheerful coppers from the Furano Police department. After a great amount of back-and-forward making sure that we were indeed the three hapless adventurers who had been lost but now found, the officers left us to heaed to Furano for an onsen hotspring soak and dinner.
Adventurous spring-time Hokkaido backcountry adventure…check.