Helvetia Hut had long been on my list of huts to visit here in Hokkaido. It was always pushed down the list though, because nowadays, there really isn’t much point staying there. It is close to a main road, and there isn’t really much skiing to be had in the immediate vicinity. The history and charm of the hut is a big draw card though, so I finally made the trek into Hokkaido University to book and pick up the key. In the process of researching about the hut, I also discovered that Matashita-yama (股下山, 820m) is a relatively popular mountain for snowshoers and budding backcountry skiers. I figured this might make for a nice overnight trip (albeit not at all necessary to overnight).
Also along for the trip were three new friends Dominika (the Hokkaido Wilds’ graphic designer), and two other fine Polish skiers Dominika had convinced to come to Hokkaido for a month’s worth of skiing (Piotr of Pure Powder Mag fame, and Antek of Black Crows fame), as well as Haidee and Rick.
This would be the three Poles’ last foray into the Hokkaido hills, as they were due to fly back to Poland on Monday. They were already parked in their campervan when we arrived at 10:30am to the parking area, keen as always to get on the trail. The parking lot was full – perhaps a large group had gone to the Okuteine Hut?
We got kitted up and headed in the opposite direction across the main road, and on to the Helvetia Hut. As expected, it was a quick 20 minute skin along the river, and there it was, in all its Swiss glory.
Inside, the hut oozed charm and functional sophistication. A carved wood kitchen sink was a gorgeous touch, and the solid steel plate wood stove looked like it would very effectively heat the hut. There were some plastic chip-packet wrappers littered around the hut, but I wasn’t took quick to judge the last human occupants of the hut…there were likely furry friends in the hut too. A quick look in the guest book suggested the main users of the hut were young members of the Hokkaido University Academic Alpine Club. Despite (or perhaps because of) the hut’s proximity to a main road, the hut seems to be well used.
We didn’t hang around too long in the hut – just long enough to drop our overnight gear and have a very quick bite to eat for lunch. We then started up towards Matashita-yama. This first required finding a spot to cross the Asaritogesawa River (朝里峠沢川). We found our crossing just in front of the gully we needed to climb up to get on to the plateau at the base of the mountain. Once up the gully, we headed straight for the 583m point marked on the topomap. From there, the route up the ridge was well marked with long, colorful ribbons tied to trees. We had no way to tell whether these were permanent fixtures of the route or temporary. But we followed them, checking our progress on our own maps along the way, and they led us faithfully along the way.
From around the 730m mark, the ridge flattened out somewhat, and we were bumbling over large, solid waves of snowdrift. It was only 600m or so in distance from this point to the summit, but a couple of false summits made the distance feel just that little bit longer. We made the decision to take the skins off at the summit, but it is somewhat questionable as to whether this was the right move. The ups and downs we’d experienced along the way to the summit involved much more ups on the way back than I recalled when getting to the summit. We were spending quite a lot of time side-stepping. Next time I’ll be keeping the skins on, I think.
Once back at the end of the ridge’s flatt-ish bit, we decided to drop down into the slope to the skiier’s left of the large gully (around here). This proved to be a great run with some good open areas. We ended up lapping this slope three times. I was expecting some open area long the route, but not to this extent. This was an unexpectedly fun icing on the cake to this short route.
At around 4pm, as the sky was starting to lose its light, we reluctantly bid our farewells to the slope and started our way back to the hut. It was relatively quick going back along our skin track. The rest of the evening was spent trying not to overheat too much next to the roaring fire at the hut. On the menu was yaki-niku inspired BBQ, cooked, of course, on the stovetop.
The next morning the fire was cold, as was the hut. I quickly got the fire going again though, and some of us enjoyed crepes (the mixture made the day before at home, and carried to the hut in a large PET bottle), again cooked on the stovetop.
With six of us in the hut, it was just about the right size. Officially the hut can sleep 12 people, but it would feel pretty crowded if it was full.
We finally got out of the hut at around 9am, after giving the place a sweep out and closing the shutters. The hut itself was awesome, but I can’t really see myself making the effort again to get the key and stay a night there. There are more remote-feeling huts around, with better skiing. All in all though, it was worth it to experience a bit of Hokkaido ski touring history. Helvetia Hut was one of the first backcountry ski touring huts built in the 1920’s in Hokkaido.
The skin back to the cars was uneventful. It felt like a rude shock to be ingloriously waddling across the main road, but as always, I had that surge of ‘holier-than-thou’ feeling, looking at all the poor suckers driving to the ski area just up the road, to pay their dues only to wait in line with all the other punters. But perhaps I’m just biased 🙂