“Mt. Mekunnai-dake’s attractive feature is the large south-facing slope for skiing. Mt. Mekunnai is a less-traveled mountain, far away from the busy central areas of Niseko range. And unobstructed large slope descending from the summit, as well as the 300m vertical of powder skiing among the trees is a big attraction. There’s no public transport, but the road is cleared until Niimi Onsen, so you can enjoy a quiet ski tour and then a soak in the onsen.” Hokkaido Yuki-yama Guide, 2015, p. 242
Word of a multi-day ski tour along the Niseko range to the Japan sea (article and video here) got me keen to check out the western reaches of this majestic range, extending some 20km west from the bustling Niskeo ski area. A super-clear forecast was going to be icing on the cake. So Andy, Hiro and I made the 3-hour early-morning trek to Niskeo from Sapporo, already catching glimpses of what we could expect up on the mountain. It was shaping up to be a classic – and relatively rare – clear-sky day.
We arrived at Niimi Onsen at around 9am, after a few detours due to Google instructing us to take some roads that were closed in winter. As the guidebook promised, however, the road was cleared to Niimi Onsen. The route starts out on the closed portion of the road, so is relatively flat until just before the first hairpin turn. Already from here, the pointy summit of Mt. Mekunnai-dake is visible in the distance.
You’ll need to find a suitable snow-bridge to cross the creek before heading up the wide ridge towards the 862m plateau. From this point, it is just a matter of weaving one’s way through the trees. The Yuki-yama guide warns of avalanche danger in heavy snow conditions on the broad ridge that runs up to the 862m plateau. Take the narrower ridge on the southern side of the small gully to avoid this area when conditions are avalanche-prone.
Before long, the trees will thin out, revealing a flat plateau before climbing up to the main ridge. Once on the main ridge, you’ll want to turn around and take a look at what your effort has rewarded you with. Hold onto something though, because the view can be breathtaking. We had a view along the Niseko range all the way to Mt. Yotei.
The view up ahead is something to behind also – Mt. Mekunnai’s curious rocky summit, encrusted in a winter’s worth of frost and wind-blown snow. Your skis won’t be much use from the base of the rocky outcrop to the actual summit. So drop the skis and boot-pack the remaining 20m or so to the 1,220m summit.
The way down is a more direct line from were you left your skis, down to the starting point of the stream, at around 900m. When we were there, the surface was just crusty enough to make the skis grab and wander – not ideal, but we could see how in better snow conditions, this would be pure bliss.
Enjoy the 300m or so of vertical drop down to the snowbridge, because there will be a very short boot-pack back up to the road after crossing the stream. From there, fly down the road, and make the decision as to whether you’ve done enough work to warrant a long soak in the recently re-opened (December, 2016) Niimi Onsen (EDIT: Niimi Onsen is closed again as of August 2017).