Posted on Mar 1, 2022
0
NNWNE
Posted on Mar 1, 2022
0 0
NNWNE
7.1km

Distance

4.5 hours

Time

850m

Ascent

1086m

Highest point

6/10
Difficulty
Snow Icon | Hokkaido Wilds
Jan-Apr

Best season

NOTE: During Iwanai Resort catski operation (late-Dec till early March) all hikers must a) sign in at the resort lodge and b) keep out of the main northern bowl. Details here.

Iwanai-dake 岩内岳 (1085m) is a conspicuous peak sitting at the far western end of the Niseko Range. To the west of the sprawling Iwanai Resort and catskiing area is a public up-track to the peak. From the peak, there is some excellent skiing to be had in the inspiring northwestern bowl - the Kenbuto Gully. The Kenbuto Gully requires careful attentiveness to snowpack conditions, but there is some very playful, steep terrain and drops available for those who wish to seek them out. There's a reason the catskiing is popular on this out-of-the-way mountain - the powder is cold and plentiful and views over the Japan Sea are incredible.

We visited this route on Feb 12, 2022

The crew: Haidee, Saoka, Tim, Madoka, Timbah, Tom.

Route Map

Need to know details

Location

Iwanai-dake sits at the western end of the Niseko Range, just to the north of Raiden-yama 雷電山 (1211m) and Mekunnnai-dake 目国内岳 (1220m). The Niseko Range is in the southwestern part of Hokkaido. Iwanai-dake is home to Iwanai Resort いわないリゾート.

General notes

Iwanai Resort describes themselves as existing on “a lost coastal corner abutting the Sea of Japan,” with Iwanai-dake rising majestically 1,086m above the bay. It’s an apt description for this peak, at least insofar as it’s part of an otherwise internationally well-known range – the Niseko Range. From Hirafu (the main village in the ‘Niseko’ resort), it’s about 40 minutes by car towards the Japan Sea. Undeservedly, it’s also known as a wind-swept part of the range, somewhat exposed to the prevailing northwest winter storms. This is undeserved because, in fact, the north-facing gullies and slopes from the peak hold the snow remarkably well. They’re without a doubt the easiest-access north-aspect slopes in the entire Niseko Range. Think season-long, deep, cold-smoke powder. With unrivalled views to boot.

  • Iwanai Resort and access: Iwanai Resort has been commissioned by Iwanai Town to lead all search and rescue operations on the Iwanai side of Raiden-yama – that includes Iwanai-dake. Therefore, anyone accessing Iwanai-dake from the resort parking area must sign in with their intentions at the lodge before skinning up to the peak. Hikers are also asked strictly not to ski in the main northern bowl below the peak. Details here. Follow all instructions given.
Hut
None
Route details

Park up at the Iwanai Resort parking area, and walk up to the main lodge (here). Sign in at the lodge as hikers, and then follow the signposted public up-track to the looker’s far right of the resort. On the topomap you’ll see marked the outline of the old ski runs that are now re-planted – this is the ridge you’ll be hiking up. You’ll spend some time under or next to the old derelict ski lifts. The trees can be tight at times, but after about 1.5 hours or so, you’ll emerge around 770m to incredible views north towards Iwanai Bay. From there you’ll also see the final alpine approach to the summit. This approach is not steep, but can be icy at times, particularly in spring.

For the descent, either head back down the ridge the way you came, or consider skiing the skier’s left bowl, to the west of the ridge you hiked up. Referred to by some as the Kenbuto-sawa 権太沢, this is a complex-terrain bowl with a number of knolls, mini-peaks, spurs, small cliffs, and open areas. Some experience with skiing complex terrain is recommended, and experienced backcountry travellers will discover at least a few days worth of zones to explore there.

Regardless of which descent option you choose, at some point you will be subjected to the return to the resort via the replanted ex-ski-slopes. The trees are tight. There are some half-buried old chairlift cables…it’s a bit of a survival-ski situation. Just remember the good times you had further up, and visualize the hot onsen after the finish line…

Route Timing
Up | 3hrs
Down | 1hrs

The timing above assumes hiking to the peak and returning either along the ridge or a drop-and-traverse into the Kenbuto Gully. Experienced backcountry skiers would happily spend a full day exploring zones in the broader Kenbuto Gully bowl.

Transport

Public transport:

Iwanai Town is accessible by bus from all major nearby cities including Sapporo City and Kutchan. From Niseko, it takes about 1.5hrs (1230yen). From the Iwanai Bus Terminal, there is a municipal ‘shared taxi’ – Iwanai Noriai Taxi 岩内乗合タクシー. For 200yen, you can catch this four-times daily taxi to Iwanai Resort – 8:55am, 10:25am, 12:40pm, 2:40pm. Return times from Iwanai Resort are 9:17am, 10:47am,  1:02pm, 3:02pm. These times are subject to change. See the timetable here.

A normal taxi from downtown Iwanai would cost about 2,000yen one way.

By car:

There is a large parking area at Iwanai Resort here.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Iwanai (岩内) – map no. NK-54-20-7-3

NOTE: The official 1/25000 topo map(s) above can be purchased for 350yen from Kinokuniya bookstore next to Sapporo Station or online (in Japanese).

Aspect
The main aspect skiers are exposed to on the descent and/or ascent is North. Other aspects that may also be encountered while following the route outlined on this page include: Northwest, Northeast. Therefore, keep an eye on the weather forecast a few days ahead of your trip to monitor wind, snow, and temperature. Also, since this route is in the general vicinity of the Shiribeshi area, consider looking at the Japan Avalanche Network avalanche bulletins (updated Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays at 8am) or the daily Niseko Avalanche Information website. These may give extra insight into avalanche conditions in the greater area around the route.

Snow and
route safety

This route goes well into the alpine, well exposed to the elements. In low visibility, the summit ridge could be disorienting. If skiing into the Kenbuto Bowl, take care to check snow stability. The gullies can be deep, with deep holes down to the stream below.

Iwanai-dake North Ridge Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

B

35

Time ascending

C

3

Technicality

Altitude

B

6

Hazards

B

12

Navigation

C

6

Totals

62/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy).  More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Iwanai-dake
Onsen nearby

Our pick of onsen is Okaerinasai おかえりなさい (800yen, location), a traditional-feeling hotspring just 750m from Iwanai Resort. Note that on Saturdays and days before public holidays it closes to day visitors at 3pm. Sansan-no-yu サンサンの湯 (500yen, location) is also a lovely onsen – they have an adorable pet dog (see their Instagram here).

Extra Resources
No extra English resources that we know of. If you know of any, please let us know in the comments.

Guide Options

If you’d like to ski this route and/or explore other Niseko areas together with a local certified guide, get in touch with Jun Horie. He’s a Niseko-resident guide with seven years experience advanced-level ski instructing in Austria (he speaks German as well as English and Japanese). He has also guided in New Zealand and has previously led guiding operations in Hokkaido before going independent. See a full list of English-speaking Hokkaido Mountain Guides Association (HMGA) guides on the HMGA website here

Iwanai Resort runs a popular catskiing operation on Iwanai-dake. They’re passionate about the area and the epic skiing to be had there.

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

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!

Comments | Queries | Reports

Done this route to Iwanai-dake, or others nearby? Thinking of doing it? Please post any feedback, reports, or queries here. Thanks!

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Iwanai-dake North Ridge Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

B

35

Time ascending

C

3

Technicality

Altitude

B

6

Hazards

B

12

Navigation

C

6

Totals

62/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy). Hazards include exposure to avalanche and fall risk. More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.