The northern and western aspects of Niseko Annupuri are enigmas. They bear the full brunt of prevailing winter storms, and yet if one chooses their location right, the powder can be as deep and soft as anywhere on the mountain. One such spot is the Kita-shamen, so it had long been on our radar to check out. With a forecast of blue skies and scattered snow showers – the best forecast for Niseko I’d seen in a few weeks – it seemed like today was the day for it.
A merry group of six set off from the Annupuri gondola lower station. Still in the throes of a global pandemic, the line for the lift was civilized, unlike when Japan’s borders were open to the world.
If you’re lucky enough to be reading this whilst in Japan in the future when borders are open, I feel for the fact that you’ll also be waiting in line much longer than we did on this particular day.
We were headed for Gate 2, in order to exit the ski area and head for the summit of Niseko Annupuri. It was the first time any of us had hiked to the summit from Gate 2. There was some cursory discussion about whether to put skins on, strap skis to backpacks, or just sling skis over shoulders and boot it. We sort of decided to just boot it. At the last minute, I re-checked the map and decided it was far enough to warrant an extra few seconds strapping my skis to my pack. The others just slung skis over shoulders.
Not too far into the bootpack, we were starting to punch through to the vegetation below. This ridgeline clearly sees a lot of wind. While moderately wind-packed, the snow cover was miserly. I stopped to put my skins on, wondering if the time lost to doing so would indeed be made up for in the easier climbing.
Skins made the going much easier, however, and I even soon caught up to Matt, our man way out front. I gained the small false peak and got my first glimpse of the Hirafu hordes climbing up to the peak from Gate 3.
“That is nothing,” said Simon to me afterwards. “Before the pandemic it was pure bedlam!”
In contrast to the relative warm sunshine of the southeast side of the mountain, at the summit, it was blowing a gale. Visibility was less than ideal for our descent onto the north face. We all kitted up for the descent a little apprehensive of what we were getting ourselves into.
Just as we were getting ready to launch ourselves off the scoured summit edge next to the summit shelter, the clouds cleared. This allowed us to see the perfect launching pad on the short western summit ridge heading away from the shelter. It was clearly going to be powder turns the whole way. Suddenly things seemed much brighter.
A number of people had already skied the slope before us, but overall we all had untracked lines. Pure heaven.
We all regrouped near the wooded bottom of the slope, and carried on the remaining few hundred meters to Route 58. A solid skin track was already set along the road, making things almost too easy.
And now it was a bluebird day.
The temptation to ski Iwaonupuri was strong. There was, after all, a nicely set skin track most of the way to the summit. But, we had other plans. We were keen to lap the Goshiki Bowl above Goshiki Onsen.
Suffice it to say that plan worked out nicely, despite the weather that rapidly deteriorated after our Goshiki Bowl of powder (Goshiki Bowl route overview coming soon).
With the weather fast deteriorating, and certainly no time for a soak in the hot pools, we made our mad dash for the Mikaeri Bowl and final descent back to Annupuri ski area. The only redeeming factor of that return was that we had a tailwind.
I dearly wanted to take photos of that descent, but the conditions just weren’t having it. As we descended to the racetrack back to Annupuri, I saw shooting cracks extend beyond my ski tips. Wind slab was forming fast. We spent no time savouring the slope. We just went for it.
The gully and well-used racetrack spat us out as promised at the base of Annupuri ski area. We re-grouped and congratulated each other on an eventful, enjoyable adventure out back in Niseko.