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.
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.