“Mt. Piyashiri – the name comes from Ainu, and means ‘the mountain with boulders’. From central Nayoro City, its slopes look gentle, and in winter, it is known as a place to see vertical pillars of glistening snow dust in the air (sun pillars). There is a hiking trail from the Shimokawa Town side, but it is not suitable for winter climbing because of the long approach – the forest access road is impassible till the end of April. Generally, in the winter people will access the summit via the [snow-bound] Piyashiri Sightseeing Road on the Nayoro City side, but here we outline the Piyashiri River route.” Yuki-yama Guide, 2015, p. 436
Continuing what feels somewhat like a binge on Hokkaido mountain huts, I invited Hiro to come with me on a ski touring trip to Mt. Piyashiri, 3 hours drive north of Sapporo. There was no higher reason to do this trip, other than the fact that I’d seen pictures of Mt. Piyashiri’s ice-encrusted summit hut, and thought that staying overnight in it would be fun. It was also a decent way north in Hokkaido, closer to Wakkanai than Sapporo, and I was keen to see that part of Hokkaido in winter.
Hiro picked me up in Sapporo at the ungodly hour of 5am. I shudder to think what time he had to leave his place to make the drive to mine, at the other end of Sapporo. We were keen to get going early, and try to beat the forecast. The weather forecast was already predicting 40km/hr winds and light snow at Mt. Piyashiri in the early afternoon.
To our surprise, as we parked up in the Nayoro Piyashiri Ski Area car park, we were greeted with sunshine. Either way, however, we figured that even in relatively marginal weather, finding the hut wouldn’t be too difficult. We would follow the Piyashiri River to around 450m in altitude, and then once on the ridge, so long as we were gaining altitude we were sure to connect with the meandering Mt. Piyashiri Sightseeing Road. This road, closed and snowed over in winter, runs directly to the hut.
The route starts and finishes at the ski area, so we felt a little self-conscious walking past the ticket shop and ski patrol offices on our way up to the Piyashiri River valley. It appeared as though today was some kind of snowball fight championship day. Hiro commented it was strange that the kids were not using real snowballs…perhaps the snow around here is too dry and powdery to be used as snowballs…
After walking past the ski field buildings (including the snowmobile tour outfit), the valley soon closes in. There is no real sign of a road until a bridge veers off to the right. It is entirely possible to get to the summit of Mt. Piyashiri by crossing the bridge and following the 12km road up to the summit. The valley route is much more interesting, however, and it is the route recommended in the Yukiyama Guidebook so we carried on up the river (creek) valley on the left side of the Piyashiri River.
We passed a sign saying something about entering a forestry road, but there did not appear to be any indication of this being a forestry road. The further up the valley we went, the less likely there would be any way to get a vehicle up here. The Yuki-yama Guide has the route follow the left-hand side of the river all the way to the 400m point. At the 400m point, there is supposed to be a waterfall blocking the way forward. From there the route crosses the river on a snow-bridge. We saw no such waterfall, and had to cross the river a couple of times to avoid some very steep traverses right next to the river.
At around 415m on the valley floor, there is a steep scramble up onto the wide ridge that runs up to the sightseeing road at around 750m. From here it is plain sailing to the road. So long as you’re gaining altitude, you’re likely to connect with the road above. Once at the road, you’ll likely be following snowmobile tracks up to the hut. We preferred to stay off the road and cut our own tracks through the gentle summit ridge. Some of the snow-encrusted trees here are really beautiful.
The hut, which is less than a few minutes walk from the summit, could be a challenge to find in true white-out conditions. For most of the winter it is encrusted in white snow. You’ll likely have to dig snow from in front of the door to gain access.
Inside, the hut is welcoming. Directly beyond the main entrance door is a semi-outside area which leads to the toilet. Through another door is the hut interior with sleeping platforms, a stove, and a large stack of wood. The small window on the left in the outside photo above does not shut properly. A similar-sized window at the back end of the hut shuts, but is not sealed very well. Therefore, in windy conditions such as we had, below-freezing air happily makes its way into the hut from one end, and any warm air you’ve created with the stove happily exits the hut from the other. For better or worse, there is cell reception at the hut (as tested on AU and Docomo phones).
After getting the stove roaring and a couple of pots of snow sat on top to melt, we donned our warm clothes and headed out for a quick skin to the summit. The wind was roaring, and it seems like we had just made it to the hut in time – the visibility was now less than 30m or so. Hiro quickly abandoned the idea of doing a couple of runs down from the hut and back again.
On the menu that night, as usual, was a Japanese hot-pot and shabu-shabu fusion. The fire had been going for around 3 hours by this stage, and had finally heated the hut enough to notice the temperature difference between the entrance-way and inside the hut.
The next morning at around 2am I woke up to use the toilet, and figured I would put another couple of logs on the fire. There was hardly a breath of heat remaining, so I gave up on that idea. At 7am when we finally roused ourselves from warm sleeping bags, it was easily below zero in the hut. Water in bottles had turned to slush. If it wasn’t as windy, I’m sure the hut would not lose its heat so quickly…
After hearty breakfast of the same we’d had the night before (shabu-shabu for breakfast – total luxury), and giving the hut floor a good sweeping, we got away at around 10am. First, Hiro shoveled the 1m or so of snow that had drifted in front of the entrance door.
The way down from the hut/summit is slightly different to the way up. The goal is to get to the ridge that runs from a 692m peak (here) down to the valley floor where the sightseeing road crosses the river. To get there, the initial run down from the hut to the sightseeing road is nice, but then the terrain flattens out substantially once on the sightseeing road. Later in the season it might be possible to ‘skate’ this part along the road, but in deep snow conditions, it might be better to don skins sooner rather than later. For us, a lot of snow had fallen overnight, and we spent far too long only just getting some momentum along the road without skins.
Once we finally got to the semi-saddle where the road goes up and to the west of the 692m peak, we stopped to put on skins. As we were doing so, a group of snow-mobilers roared past, clearly loving the new snow conditions. One rider stopped to ask whether we had got to the summit, and didn’t seem fazed to hear that we’d stayed the night in the hut.
The ridge that runs down to the valley floor starts out quite broad, and we had to check our maps a few times to make sure we were not taking a shortcut down to the sightseeing road. Once on the ridge proper, however, it is nicely compact ridge. There are plenty of trees to navigate, and watch out for the odd fallen trunk here and there.
At the terminus of the ridge at the valley floor, the only way we could find to get off the ridge was a small slope on the southern side of the tip of the ridge. The other sides were more or less short bluffs. On the valley floor, the route is the same as the way up – past the ski field buildings and back to the carpark.
Nayoro Onsen is literally right opposite the ski field car park, so we wasted no time in shedding our gear and getting warmed up. The onsen itself is nothing to write home about – there’s no outdoor bath, and while it is natural, the hot spring is a ‘recirculated and filtered’ type. But you can’t beat stepping off your skis and into the warm lobby of an onsen.