Posted on May 27, 2021
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NE
Posted on May 27, 2021
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NE
6.6km

Distance

4.5 hours

Time

638m

Ascent

1984m

Highest point

7/10
Difficulty
Snow Icon | Hokkaido Wilds
Jan-Apr

Best season

Kurodake 黒岳 (1984m) is an impressive buttress to the high Daisetsuzan plateau at the northern end of the Daisetsuzan Range. It’s a popular backcountry ski destination, due to its ease of access via the Sounkyo Ropeway, whisking skiers to 1300m, close to the treeline. Flanked by deep gorges lined with precipitous cliffs and bluffs, the peak is a sight to behold. For the intermediate backcountry skier with good steep-skiing and ski touring skills, this bread-and-butter route to the rocky summit and back is a fine objective in good weather. For reference we've also included a descent to the Sounkyo Village on skis, although most skiers opt to return on the gondola.

We visited this route on Mar 20, 2021

Route Map

Need to know details

Location

Kurodake sits at the northern end of the Daisetsuzan Range in central Hokkaido. The route here starts at the top ropeway station on the Taisetsu Sounkyo Ropeway. The ropeway bottom station is in the alpine tourist village of Sounkyo, about 65km east of Asahikawa City.

General notes

Kurodake arguably has some of the best above-treeline lift-accessed alpine backcountry skiing in Hokkaido. It’s one of those classic antidotes to the misplaced belief that there’s no steeps in Hokkaido. Kurodake has plenty of steeps. Accessibility is great, with the Sounkyo Ropeway taking skiers to 1300m, from which there’s another 700m-vertical or so of exposed-to-the-elements climb to the summit. On a good day with good visibility, the climb and skiing is straight forward. The snow can be exceptional, with Hokkaido power to perfection. On the more usual day with murk and wind, this route becomes a serious environment, calling for good experience, gear, and judgement. Despite there being a ropeway and, from April a couple of groomed slopes, the area above the chairlift is uncontrolled, un-patrolled, serious backcountry terrain.

  • Sounkyo Ropeway: The ropeway runs year-round, but closes with high wind. 2,400yen for a round trip ticket, 1,400yen one-way. See details here.
  • Difficulty: As mentioned above, this bread-and-butter route from the ropeway to summit and back is relatively straight forward for most intermediate and above backcountry skiers, assuming the usual good experience, gear, and careful consultation with the weather. Anywhere off this main up-and-back route, however, becomes extremely committing, remote, and steep, very quickly. Take a look at The Powder Project’s write-up for a good sobering-up.
  • Maps: Our PDF map of Kurodake and surrounds uses official Japan government map data, but that data is not perfect. The Kurodakesawa drainage in particular looks gnarly on the map, with plenty of marked cliffs and bluffs, but they’re just the main cliffs. There are unmarked ones too.
Hut
None
Route details

Make the most of the day, and catch the earliest gondola up the ropeway. You may need to line up, so arrive early. At the top station, make sure to sign the logbook with your details – these details will be used as a reference for any search and rescue incidents (make sure to also let someone know your plans). The upper chairlift only runs in the spring skiing months, so start skinning from the upper gondola station. The climb from the gondola station to the upper chairlift station is fairly flat, and brings you to near the treeline at 1500m.

From the upper chairlift station the slope steepens considerably, requiring long zig zags to gain altitude. Keeping near the northeastern ridge, snow conditions should be quite good to around the 1750m mark. Beyond this, conditions underfoot can often be hard windpack, requiring either a sketchy bootpack and/or ski crampons. The summit itself is most commonly windswept, with exposed rock. Return the way you came, or, if snowpack conditions are suitable, head down the main east-northeastern face for some great skiing before cutting back north towards the upper chairlift station.

From the upper gondola station, it’s possible to ski down below the ropeway. This is not a particularly popular option – most people opt to spend their time lapping the slopes above the gondola and return back to Sounkyo Village via the ropeway.

If descending from the upper gondola station on skis, understand that in places the forest is thick with trees, it can be steep, there’s plenty of sluffing potential, there’s also flat-ish spots, and finding your own route may result in getting bluffed, so take utmost care. Advanced skiers will enjoy it, but many intermediate skiers may find the balance tipping towards Type-2 fun.

Route Timing
Up | 3hrs
Down | 1.5hrs

Assuming you ski the tight, steep trees below the ropeway top station, we’ve allowed 1.5hrs for the descent, mainly to allow plenty of time to route-find. Most people just lap the upper section of the peak, however, and take the ropeway back down.

Transport

Public transport:

Sounkyo Ropeway is accessible by public bus throughout the winter season. See the timetable here. The Sounkyo Bus Terminal is just outside the post office, here. From there, it’s a 5 minute walk uphill to the gondola station, here.

By car:

Vehicle access to Sounkyo is good from Asahikawa. Take the expressway to the Kamikawa-Sounkyo Interchange to speed things up. There’s a large carpark on the western side of the gondola building, here.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Sounkyo (層雲峡) – map no. NK-54-7-2-2

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 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 Furano area, consider looking at the Furano Avalanche Center (on Facebook). They issue sporadic observations throughout the season which may give extra insight into avalanche conditions.

Snow and
route safety

The presence of a large ropeway tends to lull one into a false sense of security on Kurodake. In reality, this nearly-2000m peak is a serious undertaking that demands respect. Consult the weather before setting off and be prepared – this is the backcountry, and demands backcountry skills and equipment. In deep winter, temperatures will happily drop to below -20°C, with windchill on top of that. Those wishing to venture off the main face of Kurodake need to be experienced, fit, and have plenty of time in the day up their sleeves. It’s not uncommon for the inexperienced and experienced alike bluffed, with no option but to attempt a steep bootpack in bottomless powder.

Kurodake Backcountry Skiing Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

B

35

Time ascending

C

3

Technicality

Altitude

A

10

Hazards

B

12

Navigation

B

12

Totals

72/100

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 Kurodake
Onsen nearby

For the day-visitor to Kurodake, the hands-down must-soak onsen is Kurodake-no-yu 黒岳の湯 (location, 600yen) in Sounkyo Village, just a couple of minutes stroll down from the gondola station. The hot spring water is amazing, and the atmosphere in the roof-top outdoor pools is great. The Hokkaido-style down-to-earth Italian restaurant Bear Grill Canyon on the ground floor is also highly recommended – the local Hokkaido venison stroganoff (1,500yen) is to die for.

Extra Resources

Guide Options

If you’d like to ski this route and/or explore other areas of Central Hokkaido together with a local certified guide, get in touch with Takao Miyashita. He’s a born-and-bred Hokkaido based guide. From a young age he cut his teeth on peaks around Tokachi-dake, Asahi-dake, Sandan-yama and others. He has multiple 6,000m-plus peak international expeditions under his belt (including a ski descent from 7,400m on Mt. Manaslu, Nepal). He is one of the leading senior figures in the local guiding and outdoor associations here in Hokkaido and Japan. See a full list of English-speaking Hokkaido Mountain Guides Association (HMGA) guides on the HMGA website here

Yamano-Makochan's Video Report
Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

For a long time, I’d turned my nose up at lift-accessed backcountry. Not so much because of the concept of getting assistance uphill, but simply because of the bustle and lines and grating synthesizer jingles blasting out of ski resort PA systems. But we were in the area. I was speaking at a Ministry of the Environment symposium in Kamikawa, so it made sense that we would try out Kurodake in the winter at last. It would be our first time there with skis in the winter.

The grand plan was to ski Kurodake on the Saturday, and then head over to Tokachi-dake on Sunday. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans, and Saturday was a write-off. High winds, low visibility. So we gave up trying out Kurodake on the Saturday. The weather for Sunday was looking stellar though, so we stayed another night in Sounkyo (at the souless, mass-tourism-oriented Hotel Taisetsu), and hit Kurodake in perfect conditions.

We arrived at the gondola terminal early, to get on the first gondola up the mountain. Being the global pandemic that it was, we didn’t have to line up, and the gondola itself was only about a quarter full.

At the gondola station, we made sure to sign the backcountry logbook before setting out. It was a scorcher of an early-spring day.

Once we were out of the vicinity of the gondola station, I sent the drone up.

Magic.

Kurodake is a princely peak.

The Kurodakesawa drainage to the looker’s right is awe-inspiring.

Daisetsuzan range at its best.

Did I mention it was a scorcher of a day? We were down to t-shirts before long. By the time we got to the upper chairlift station, we were stripping off our long-johns under our trousers. Not a breath of wind.

Already, there were a fast-moving contingent of skiers ahead of us, making their way up the trackless face of Kurodake, cutting a fine-looking skin track.

From the upper chairlift station, we started climbing in earnest. Behind us were two splitboarders who were chatting in English. As it happened, it was Ben and Ruka from Gozan Lodge in Myoko-kogen in Niigata Prefecture. They were on a long campervan trip up north, ticking off a few peaks.

They were setting a cracking pace, so we let them past. This was around about where we opted to put on our ski crampons. The snow surface was relatively soft, but there was a hard, cold layer underneath, which sometimes sent out edges slipping slightly, sapping our strength.

We were soon well beyond the treeline, with perfect views across to the Kita-taisetsu (north Daisetsu) range. We were sharing the Kurodake face with other skiers, splitboarders, snowshoers, and even a couple of post-holing winter hikers.

As we climbed, the surface conditions deteriorated somewhat, firming up such that it felt like the ski crampons were only things gripping the surface. Haidee was struggling a bit, so switched to bootpacking, making use of some nicely set steps, kicked in by a couple of split-boarders ahead of us. I pressed on on skis.

As we climbed, other parties were already starting to descend. 

Soon enough we made it to the rocky summit, devoid of snow. We’d been here before in summer, but this was a first for us in winter. Ironically, today we had much better weather, and even felt warmer than the last time we were here.

Ben and Ruka were still at the summit, basking in the warmth. We chatted for a bit, before they headed off further into the mountains, keen to check out a couple of chutes they’d scoped out over the last few days, down into the Kurodakesawa drainage. We watched as they disappeared into the rocks on the vast plateau.

From the Kurodake summit, we could see across to Kamikawa-dake. Already, there were a few parties headed that direction, and it appeared there was a party already ripping lines down the expansive eastern facing face of the mountain.

The time was getting on, so we got suited up for the decent. I was on a pair of new-to-me Kastle TX-98’s, which was more than a little nerve-wracking, considering the steepness of the top half of the peak. Overall the snow was manageable. Old ski tracks, etched into relief from previous high winds, were only just buried by fresh snow over the last few days. This made for some surprising surprises here and there. Had we had more time in the day (we needed to get back to Sapporo that day), we would have headed further down the main slope and hiked back up. We kept things conservative though, and picked our way to the skier’s left to get straight back to the upper chair lift.

Beyond the chairlift station, it was a blast to head down some freshly groomed corduroy. This would later become the Kurodake ski area, later in early April. 

Haidee decided to pass on the plan to ski from the upper gondola station down to the Sounkyo Village. She took the gondola back down.

I carried on, and enjoyed the careful route-finding down to the village on skis. The skiing was not as bad as I had been expecting from other reports. The upper section straight after the gondola station was tight trees. The middle part was tight-ish trees, but actually fun skiing. The latter part of the route was very steep, and would have been cracking fun, had it not been for some breakable crust cramping my bad skiing style.

It turned out that I ended up getting back to the village slightly ahead of Haidee in the gondola. We met up again and headed straight to the onsen. Kurodake done and dusted.

We’ll be back for sure. Amazing place.

Comments | Queries | Reports

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

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Kurodake Backcountry Skiing Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

B

35

Time ascending

C

3

Technicality

Altitude

A

10

Hazards

B

12

Navigation

B

12

Totals

72/100

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.