Iwaonupuri’s NE Chute had been on my radar for a while, but with so much else to explore around Hokkaido, we’d not really spent enough time in the Niseko Range to commit to doing it. This season, however, with a renewed motivation to get into the Niseko Range and tick off some lines, it was time to have a poke at the NE face of Iwaonupuri.
Haidee and I were once again commandeering Chris’s Rankoshi cabin…once again sans-Chris for a second winter season. “Open the borders!” he would message impatiently as we sent him photos of us making the most of another bumper Hokkaido winter season.
Joining Haidee and me for the trip was Ian and Peter. We arranged to meet at the early hour of 7am at the trailhead, to allow plenty of time for a zone that was new to all of us. With recent reports of avalanche activity in very steep terrain around the area, we were keen to take our time and spend some time checking the snowpack on our way up the NE face.
There were already two huge groups of skiers just leaving the trailhead when we arrived. In the end, they would take the traditional south face route up to the peak, whereas we would forge our own skin track around the eastern flanks of the mountain to the NE face. The weather was settled, with no wind, but it was overcast and dull as we set off. Near the trailhead was a tent.
“What a great spot for camping,” beamed Haidee. “There’s an onsen just down the road!”
We followed the well-trodden skin track for a few hundred meters before veering off towards the northeast. The snow was deep. As far as Hokkaido snowpack goes, it was still relatively early season, with plenty of shrubs still visible out of the snow. We started a very gradual climbing traverse, taking turns to break trail. Every now and then the sun would break through the clouds, allowing us some precious contrast and good views.
We soon made it to the base of the NE face, and started our long zigzagging ascent. Kickturns, where the snow on the uphill leg came up to one’s hip, were tricky for the lead trail-breaker. We took turns.
At around 920m, we gained the faint eastern spur, and were able to wrap around to the NE side of the spur. This was around the altitude and aspect we were planning on skiing in the chute, so we stopped to dig a pit to thoroughly inspect the snowpack.
We dug a pit wide enough to do an extended column test. Mercifully, the sun was shining as we worked, giving us some marginal warmth.
Initial finger tests suggested we were dealing with a very right-way-up snowpack, with beautiful powder as the icing on the top. A single column compression test revealed a marginal early-season rain crust at around 70cm, but it only budged after a lot of force. An extended column test showed no indication of anything propagating.
This slope was looking about as good to ski as you can get.
We filled in our hole and carried on. The forecast was for more cloud from midday, so I was feeling no small amount of urgency to get to the top of the chute before we lost contrast on the snow.
As we emerged from the NW face onto the summit plateau, we arrived just ahead of another huge group of Japanese skiers, marching in line towards the summit. Today was a Monday of a long weekend, so mountain clubs and other groups were clearly out in the Niseko Range in great numbers.
From the summit, we quickly retreated to the quiet and solitude of the mouth of the chute. It appeared we would be the only ones to ski this line today.
Haidee had been apprehensive about skiing the chute right from the start of the trip. Upon seeing the seemingly bottomless abyss suggested by the rollover entry to the chute, she decided that it wouldn’t be for her today.
Haidee and Peter both decided to head back the way we’d come, to ski the slope we’d skinned up. Ian and I decided to stick with the chute.
Ian went first, starting with a cut across the top of the chute. He noticed shooting cracks in front of him, indicative of the wind slab we’d noticed as we approached the rollover at the top of the chute. Wind was howling through the small opening, between the two rocky outcrops that flanked the chute’s entrance, compacting the snow at the very top of the chute. Based on what we’d observed on the ascent, however, we were confident these surface conditions wouldn’t persist as soon as we got below the initial entry to the chute.
Avoiding the slabby upper central section, Ian set off driving a large arc towards the skier’s right side of the chute. He then headed to the center, executing powder turn after turn until he disappeared from my view.
Later, he would send me some footage of the descent, from which I was able to grab the following frames, editing them to try to tweak some contrast from the images.
It was my turn next, and I appreciated having Ian’s tracks to give some sense of contrast and depth. It was my third backcountry run of the season. I was overly conservative in my speed, but still found myself gasping for air a couple of times as great plumes of powder filled my vision on turns.
At the bottom of the run, Ian was there, looking ecstatic.
“I’ve skied steeper in my life,” he gasped. “But I’ve never skied as steep and as deep as that!”
For the close to 2.5hrs we’d spent climbing plus checking on the way up, this one minute run of pure adrenaline was candy. We’d committed a lot of time and thought space to the line, and to pull it off in prime conditions was like a sugar hit straight to the veins.
I had trouble keeping up with Ian after we put our skins on and headed back south towards our up-track. He powered on, singing praises of ‘one of the best runs I’ve had in Hokkaido’.
We were in radio contact with Haidee and Peter for much of our ski back to the up-track. As we arrived, we could see them on their ski descent down the NE face. They were clearly not missing out on much.
With the team reuinted and the sun shining, we celebrated a successful mission with some birthday cake Ian had packed. It was his birthday the day before.
“I got three cakes, so we need to demolish them,” he beamed.
We’d originally planned to do the one run and then return the way we’d come. With the snow condition as it was, however, we decided to make the most of our existing up-track to the summit, and ski the SE face back down to the carpark. This would allow us to avoid the long traverse around the eastern flank of the mountain and we’d get another downhill run. We felt like we deserved it after all the effort to get around to this side of the mountain. So started the long hike back up.
We soon arrived at the summit plateau though, and quickly got ready for the final descent for the day. Ian pushed on to the next ridge over and snapped this shot.
In contrast to our trackless NE face, the southern aspects of Iwaonupuri were predictably tracked up. Multiple groups had left their mark, and we were now later in the day.
Still, we each found our own lines, leaving our last marks on the slopes.
Ian perceptively led us a little further south of the main up-track, and we got a couple more untracked turns in before hitting the pass and the main road back to the carpark.
Ian and Peter decided to call it a day, and we all said our farewells. For Haidee and I, it was straight to Goshiki Onsen for a long hot spring soak. The perfect Après-Ski.