Dirk looked at me with wide eyes. “You have your PhD defense on Monday, and you want to go ski touring in the weekend?” But how could I not. The boys from France would be nearby, and they were up for exploring. And what can be better to take one’s mind off a presentation than a solid weekend of backcountry skiing, in Hokkaido’s powder mecca? So we decided to head further afield this past weekend, to the Tokachi mountain range, a 2-hour drive east from the Sapporo area.
Haidee, Dirk and I had stayed in the amazing Hakuginso mountain lodge the night before. In my excitement to experience what the Hokkaido Yuki-yama guidebook (ISBN 978-4-89453-804-7) calls the ‘Holy place of powder snow’, I put my skis and skins on and went for a near-full-moon hike up from the lodge at around 9pm. The clear sky allowed the moon to light up the landscape perfectly, including the majestic Mt. Maetokachi. Vapor poured from its active craters.
On the Sunday morning, the boys from France (Mathieu, Vincent and Angelo) arrived in time for skins-on at 7am. It was still only just getting light. Overcast and with a light snow falling, it was a subdued start to the day. “Don’t worry,” Mathieu beamed. “At the top, voila!” He gestured with his hands clouds parting, giving us a massive view over the surrounding landscape. The weather forecast suggested his positive attitude was not misplaced. I was hopeful too.
The route up Mt. Sandan-yama starts on a long-defunct Japanese government-run skifield, just above the Hakuginso lodge. Haidee joined us on snowshoes for a few hundred meters before heading back to the lodge to do some PhD work. We said our farewells and veered west up a western branch of the skifield, up onto the main ridge that would take us up to the summit of Mt. Sandanyama.
It was still early, and it showed in our quiet trudge up the slope. We were all lost in our own thoughts, caught up in the simple bliss of putting one foot in front of the other, slowly peeling back the groggy morning fog of mind. Before long, however, we were out of the lee of the ridge, and were shaken awake by a stiff, biting cold wind that pinched at my cheeks. Already at 1,400m in altitude, I was approaching the highest I’d been on a backcountry trip in winter in Hokkaido. I pulled out a balaclava and yanked it on, and enjoyed a reprieve from the wind.
I’ve quickly found that ski-touring is a very meditative activity. I think it has something to do with the tracks that skis leave in the snow. In particular if I’m following in already-made tracks (I did a lot of this on this trip – thanks Mathieu and Vincent!), the slide-step-slide movement is rhythmic, slowly but surely making my towards the destination. All surrounded by a beautiful world of cold and white.
After what felt like minutes, but was actually just over two hours, we arrived at the top of Mt. Sandan-yama. And, true to Mathieu’s enthusiastic positivism, the skies cleared soon after. While the plains of Furano were still in cloud to the north, the majestic Mt. Tokachi and surrounding peaks to the south showed us their full glory. I felt small and insignificant. And so too did Mathieu, who sprinted along the ridge to the south of Sandan-yama’s peak, in order to see if there was a possible route from where we were up to the summit of Mt. Tokachi, as an extension to our current trip. “It is only 9am, and the weather is stable,” he argued.
Mathieu arrived back 10 minutes later, having deduced that there was likely to be a route, but it would be much further than we had food or pre-planning for. We scoffed down some food and made preparations for the descent back down the way we had come.
No sooner had we started our descent, however, than we realized that it would be a challenge. Massive icy clumps lay hidden under soft powder snow, as did low-lying pines. We all started off with gusto…But one by one we came foul of the invisible traps under the snow. No one was hurt, but it dampened the free-flying feeling of hurtling down the hill.
We descended most of the way down Mt. Sandan-yama, and it was only 10am. So the decision was made to traverse across a couple of gullies to a track heading up Mt. Maetokachi. With all the time in the world, we would try to make it two summits in one morning.