It had been a very sunny few days in the Niseko area. Southerly aspects were baked. Crust in the morning, concerning heavy snow during the day, transforming to crust again in the afternoon.
Northerly aspects, however, were still fresh. Surface conditions on the north facing slopes were still cold, dry, and powdery. The problem with the Niseko Range, however, is that many of the good north-aspect slopes are relatively difficult to access, compared to the southern aspects.
So we set our eyes on Iwanai-dake. Many of us in the group had heard mostly grumbles and complaints about Iwanai.
“It’s always super windy,” said one person.
“That side gets hammered all season,” said another.
But Windy.com was forecasting light winds and clear visibility for today, so we went for it. On the drive over to Iwanai from Niseko, even the Japan Sea was calm.
The mountain stood out like a sore thumb on the range. I can’t believe we haven’t spent more time over this way. It looked amazing.
From this vantage point below, I could see our planned route up the looker’s right ridge, and then down into the looker’s far right bowl.
It was to be a merry group. Me, Haidee, Saoka, Tim, Madoka, Timbah and Tom. Madoka had grown up in Iwanai Town, but had never climbed Iwanai-dake in the winter. “It’s just not something I would have thought to have done until now that I have taken up backcountry skiing,” she said. “So this is exciting to see this place in a different light.”
From the car park, we headed straight to the wooded uptrack under the old abandoned chairlifts at the western-most side of the current ski area. Iwanai Resort was once a sprawling lift-access oasis of cold-smoke powder. It’s still an oasis, but now it’s cat-powered. There’s one functioning lift in the center of the resort, but it only goes part way up. For the full Iwanai powder experience, it’s either small-group catskiing for multiple mechanized runs, or a three hour hike to the summit to ski away from the resort. We chose the latter today.
The old ski area, replanted with trees, was a strange place. The old remnants of the chairlifts were curious. But the whole place felt like nature slowly trying to regain what had once been lost.
About an hour after setting off, we turned around and were taken aback at the view. Already we had a decent view of the Japan Sea and the Shakotan Peninsula further in the distance.
As we pushed on, the scruffy regrowth started to give way to older-growth forest. And then we were beyond the treeline, into the alpine, with full access to the epic views Iwanai-dake is famous for.
To our left was an extraordinary bowl. “We’re going to ski that, right?” asked Tim.
“I’m pretty sure that is saved for catskiers,” I replied. I hadn’t checked the Iwanai Resort website for a while, but I had a feeling I’d seen something like that. Checking the site later, I saw that this was indeed the case.
While I would have loved to have skied that bowl, I can get behind what the resort is doing. John Greiner has taken on a worthy project to transform a once derelict ski area into a powder haven with easy access via cat. Hats off to John and the local town council for having a crack at it. We’ll certainly respect that by keeping out of the catskiing zones.
The weather forecast was for somewhat deteriorating weather from noon. This weather appeared to come in a little sooner than that, however, and we found ourselves shrouded in thick cloud at the summit.
It was atmospheric though, adding a nice edge to what I was seeing through the viewfinder of my camera.
The cloud complicated our descent from the summit somewhat. It was clear that the exposed upper northwest face of the Kenbuto Gully bowl was hardpacked, with whisps of shark-fin vegetation caked in a season’s worth of ice and snow.
We dropped a ways down the summit ridge to the south, but still, surface conditions were less than ideal. Visibility was low. We were skiing by feel.
We started to wrap around the west side of the north-south summit ridge, and finally we came to decent snow. To our left, we were surprised by a peculiar conical spire separating two clear gullies down the bowl. Looking at the topomap, this large spire was the rocky outcrop on the map marked at 599524 on the grid.
We took turns to descend, and as we did, the cloud started to lift, giving us a better view of the surroundings. The whole bowl was a moonscape. Otherworldly. And the skiing was good!
On the way up the main ridge to the summit, we’d spied an interesting-looking, low cliff band, marked on the map at around grid reference 594527.
“I have to take a closer look at that,” declared Tim.
Up close, it looked much less gnarly than it did from far away.
We high-tailed it across a couple of gullies, and started skinning up towards the skier’s far left ridge. Along the way Haidee took a fall and strained her knee.
“It feels OK at the moment,” she said soon after the fall.
We pushed on towards the ridge, noticing a strengthening stiff breeze. The afternoon’s forecast higher winds were starting to kick in.
Once at the ridge, we debated heading further up the ridge or not in order to get some more vertical descent.
“My knee is getting progressively more painful,” Haidee reported.
The wind was also picking up a bit, so we decided to head back down. We had already explored a little more than we’d originally planned anyway, so we were happy to call it good.
“I’m still keen to ski that cliff,” Tim declared.
Timbah and Tom joined Tim, as Haidee, Madoka, Saoka and I headed down below and to the side of the cliff to get a good view of the impending carnage. I was hopeful to get a shot of one of the boys cutting a big arc in the snow with the Japan Sea in the background.
From the top of the bluff though, it was clearly difficult to gauge where one was.
“I’m going to drop from here,” Tim said over the radio.
After some back and forward though, it was clear that he was still not where he thought he was. He moved a little further north.
“I’ll just shimmy down a bit so I can try to see what I’ll be skiing,” he radioed.
“WHOA! Avalanche!” Tim exclaimed into the radio.
We’d not encountered any hints of instability during the day so far. The JAN avalanche advisory for the day was all green, but true to their advice, Tim had found a small isolated wind slab that let go over the edge of the bluff.
It was a relatively harmless size 1 avalanche, unlikely to have buried a person. The bluff was not really steep enough of high enough to have hurt anyone had they been caught in something over it.
Yet, this was enough to seal the deal on calling it a day. The boys retraced their steps, earmarking that bluff for another day.
The return back to the Iwanai Resort lodge was fairly average. A lot of traversing. A lot of tight trees on the replanted old ski slopes. I opened up the speed a bit at one point and got summarily ejected from both skis when they got caught under an only-just-buried chairlift cable.
Gong show would be a good descriptor.
It was sweet relief to finally arrive back at the base of the mountain.
Despite the average lower half of the mountain, however, Iwanai-dake is a peak I’d like to get back to at some point. There’s still more to explore. Particularly in the longer spring skiing days, forays across the broad Raiden-yama and Mekunnai-dake summit plateau would be well within the realm of possibility.
That night, Tom invited us all over to his cabin in the woods for dinner. Or perhaps we all invited ourselves for dinner…
We’d not been there before, and were blown away by the utter perfection of the place. Access required a 10 minute snowshoe/skin in from the main road. Wood burner stove. A treasure trove of tools in the basement. Quiet. Warm. The quintessential Hokkaido cabin dream. Thanks Tom!