We made an early getaway from Hakkoda, hoping to get some quality time on the northern slopes of Iwaki-zan in the afternoon. The early morning drive paid off, as we arrived mid-morning to a rather sleepy-looking Aomori Spring Resort ski area car park. We had the rest of the day ahead of us, with the only commitment a booking at a small pension on the other wide of the mountain.
“Are you bringing your drone Rob?” asked Chris.
“Nah, it looks pretty overcast up there,” I replied.
Chris pondered for a moment, before we both left our drones in the car.
We geared up, bought our one-way lift tickets, and headed up the gondola to the top of the ski area.
At the top station, we skinned our skis and started straight up into the forest above the ski area. We were on an already well-tracked skin track. We weren’t the only ones with their sights on Saihoji-mori peak today.
Also getting ready for ski practice was a group of Japan Self Dense Force cadets. They were strapping their leather boots into their telemark-style cross-country skis.
Overall the snow conditions were good. Not amazing, but good. This was the 2019/2020 low-tide season after all. In both Hokkaido and Tohoku, it had been a low snowfall start to the season. Still, the change in forest scenery was refreshing for us accustomed to a different species of trees in Hokkaido. The Aomori forests just seem to have an enchanted feel to them.
The view from the main alpine ridge heading to Saihoji-mori was stunning. All clouds had dissipated, leaving just a pure white conical Iwaki-zan summit in their wake.
There was not a breath of wind.
“Who’s stupid idea was it to leave the drones in the car, Robert!” puffed Chris when he arrived at the ridge.
He was right. So far on our Aomori trip, we’d shunned the extra weight of the drones in our packs, since weather forecasts were clearly for high wind or low cloud.
Today, this would have been our chance.
But we blew it.
We’d just have to enjoy the scenery from ground level.
We continued along up the ridge before following the skin track on a sketchy traverse below the Saihoji-mori summit. We took turns along the track, keeping distance between us.
“Someone has balls,” Chris remarked, pointing to a pit about 1/4 along the skin track. They’d clearly been wanting to check the stability of the snow, but it was a little far out onto the slope for our liking. Their gamble had clearly paid off though, and we at least made it across unscathed.
The alpine scenery was simply spectacular. We all felt at least a twinge of temptation to keep pushing on to the summit of Iwaki-zan. In reality, however, it was already getting later in the day, and any higher on this side of the mountain appeared to be mostly hard wind-packed snow. We’d most certainly want to have crampons, and it wouldn’t be a quick descent either. Next time.
From the minor peak of Saihoji-mori, we ripped skins and made the short descent down to the gully below. The snow condition was variable, with some dry surface powder in places, and some wind-affected snow in others.
We skirted along the floor of the gully for a few hundred meters before crossing a snow bridge to start the climb back up the other side. The promise was for good skiing on the other side of the ridge.
In any normal snow year, there probably is amazing skiing on the other side of the ridge. However, with about 2m less snow than an average year, we were still dealing with more brush that we’d hoped. Even then, however, we managed to get some turns in on some nicely shaded aspects.
The lower part of the route spat us out onto the piste. We hammered it back down with a thrilling end to a nice walk in the hills.
All that was left now was to head to our accommodation on the other side of the mountain. On the way, we dropped into the small onsen village of Dake 嶽. To our dismay, we were outside of the time for day visitors for most of the onsen in the area. We visited a small souvenir shop and as we were paying up, I mentioned to the cashier that it was a pity we’d missed out.
“That’s too bad!” she lamented. “Let me talk to next door to see if they can help you out.”
She called up the onsen next door, and firmly instructed the owner to open up for us.
“They’re waiting for you now!” she beamed to us as she put down the phone.
10 minutes later we were soaking in a gorgeous outdoor tub overlooking the snowy village.
That night, we were booked in to Pension Wonderland, a European-style pension owned and operated by a local nature guide. After seeing the traditional Japanese onsen hotel, we had a little bit of post-purchase dissonance, but we’d chosen Pension Wonderland on the recommendation of a local hotel when we went to book to stay at that local hotel.
“You’re coming to ski here?” the old lady said to me on the phone. “Well, I’m not sure we’re the best place for you. You should stay with Pension Wonderland – the owner knows everything about the mountain,” she said, essentially talking her way out of taking our tourist yen.
In the end it was worth staying at Pension Wonderland though. The owner was a passionate outdoor lover, and he went on to helping us out with a shuttle the next day.
I asked him if he still frequents the backcountry in the winter.
“About 15 years ago, two friends and I were skiing up Iwaki-zan and were caught in an avalanche. One of my friends died. I haven’t been in the alpine in the winter since,” he replied.
“But you all seem to know what you’re doing, so be safe, and enjoy,” he continued.
That night over dinner, he gave us some tips for our next mission – skiing the well-known Daikoku-zawa valley the next day.