Posted on May 10, 2022
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SEWN
Posted on May 10, 2022
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SEWN
31km

Distance

15 hours

Time

2000m

Ascent

1308m

Highest point

7/10
Difficulty
Snow Icon | Hokkaido Wilds
Mar-Apr

Best season

The Niseko mountain range is string of lava domes and stratovolcanoes running from the eponymous Mt Niseko-An’Nupuri in a roughly East-West orientation to the coast of Hokkaido on the Sea of Japan. A spring traverse along the Niseko range offers a great one-to-two-night introduction to under-canvas ski touring with the option to dial up, or down, the physicality by selectively bagging & skiing off peaks along the way. Often referred to by locals as the Niseko Haute Route, the tour becomes even more high-class for those who are prepared to drop down to the old Nimi onsen ruins to put together a backcountry campsite complete with geo-thermal water.

We visited this route on Mar 25, 2022

The crew: Rob, Chris, Timbah and Ben

Route Map

Need to know details

Location

The Niseko Range is in the southwest of Hokkaido, about 2.5hrs (90km) drive west of Sapporo City. It stretches east to west, from the bustling ski resort town of Niseko to the Japan Sea coast. Skiers can start the traverse at either end of the range (see more details below).

General notes

The moniker Niseko “Haute Route” was borrowed by locals from the European version, but the concept is the same: a multi-day, high-level ski tour route up in the alpine, ticking off as many of the major peaks in the range as possible along the way. When visibility is good – as is often the case in spring – this is an incredibly inspiring route with plenty of variation. The descents off Niseko-Annupuri, Iwaonupuri, Nitonupuri, Chisenupuri, Mekunnai-dake, and Raiden-yama are also amazing. The final descent from Raiden-yama to the sea is a particularly unique experience that caps off an amazing volcanic traverse.

  • Direction: Most skiers complete the traverse east to west. That is, from Niseko to the sea. This direction involves about 20% less climbing overall (and also means 20% more downhill). Symbolically, this direction has an aesthetic appeal. The escape from the madding crowds of the resort area, all the way to the wild ocean…
  • Where to start: If starting in the east, most skiers start at the road-end car park near Goshiki Onsen on Route 58. A ‘true’ traverse might start at the base of any of the four major ski resorts of Niseko, however hiker access is limited on the southeast side of Niseko Annupuri – consider taking one of the first lifts (8:30am) up and hiking to the Niseko Annupuri peak from there. The King Lift #4 in the Niseko Grand Hirafu ski area gives most direct access to the peak via Gate 3. Note, however, that backcountry gate openings are not guaranteed (see the Niseko Rules here), and the west face of Niseko-Annupuri can be horribly wind-affected and icy, particularly on early-spring mornings. If the purist in you must hike from the base of Niseko-Annupuri, then a ridge-line hike to the west of Osawa Bowl starting from just east of the Niseko Moiwa Ski Area Center Lodge (around here) might be feasible, however make sure to start well before 8:30am, as the Osawa Bowl and Back Bowl sees a huge number of sidecountry skiers descending from first lifts (see Moiwa Ski Area map here, and topomaps here).
  • Where to end: The Japan Sea coast side of Raiden-yama is a labyrinth of rugged cliffs, high narrow spurs, wind-stripped ridgelines, and deep, tightly wooded gullies. As such, there’s no pleasant way to finish close to Cape Raiden-misaki 雷電岬 (location), which would, arguably, be the purist’s choice of route terminus. Therefore, most skiers opt to ski from the Raiden-yama summit due north towards Iwanai Town. Arguably the most aesthetic balance between access, skiing quality, and a true sea-side finish is to ski the ridge north from Maeraiden-yama past the 997m point, just west of Narukami Falls 鳴神の滝 (location), and northwards to the little abandoned fishing port at Shikishimanai 敷島内 (location). There’s a small parking area there and a bus stop (6 buses daily, see Transport Options below). That ridge offers very nice skiing, if not wind-packed for most of the season. Skiers tempted to ski down to the derelict Asahi Onsen 朝日温泉 (location) via Raiden-toge Pass 雷電峠 and on to the derelict Raiden Onsen 雷電温泉 (location) should expect a solid dose of adventure skiing – think steep, very narrow and tightly wooded spurs with questionable snow cover, heading into tightly wooded gullies and sketchy traverses. In theory, a descent from Raiden-yama west-southwest to the coast from Raiden-toge Pass to the coast at Rankoshi Town (around here) is also possible. However, the Rankoshi Side offers no services – the Iwanai side offers better public transport options back to Niseko, a good array of restaurant options, and even onsen.
  • When to go: The Niseko Traverse can be completed at any time during the ski season, from December till April. Surface and weather conditions are best in spring (March till April) – expect fast hard-pack and/or corn and good weather windows of up to 72 hours/3 days. In deep winter (December till end of February), surface conditions are as deep as they get anywhere in the world, and weather windows of more than 12 hours are rare.
  • Route timing: Spring – 10-20hrs (1-2 days) | In spring with firm surface conditions, fit skiers have been known to ski from Goshiki to the sea, hitting all peaks along the way (30km, 2000m+ ascent), in a single one-day push of under 11 hours (see Bine Žalohar’s report here). Winter – 3-4 days | In the mid-winter months, the traverse becomes a much more challenging ordeal – with shorter daylight hours, deep snow, and dramatically shorter alpine weather windows, expect up to three days or more, with relatively little opportunity to remain in the alpine for the duration of the traverse (see Aaron Jamieson’s late February report here and the Way East video here).
  • Peaks along the way: Niseko-Annupuri ニセコアンヌプリ (1308m), Iwaonupuri イワオヌプリ (1116m), Nitonupuri ニトヌプリ (1080m), Chisenupuri チセヌプリ (1134m), Shakunage-dake シャクナゲ岳 (1074m), Shirakaba-yama 白樺山 (954m), Maemekunnai-dake 前目国内岳 (980m), Mekunnai-dake 目国内岳 (1202m), Raiden-yama 雷電山 (1211m).
  • Escape routes: The beauty of the Niseko Haute Route is the plethora of good escape routes along the way. If at any point you need to get out of the alpine or indeed to a public road, it’s relatively easy to do so within a couple of hours. We’ve marked the escape routes on the topomap, so take note of those during your planning phase.
  • Camping/accommodation: Besides Goshiki Onsen at the start (or end) of the route, there are no huts, campsites, or facilities along the way. If making this an overnight or multi-day traverse, you’ll need to plan in advance feasible places to camp in consultation with the wind direction forecast. In general, plateaus and saddles in the alpine are very exposed to the elements. Skiers may wish to sacrifice some elevation gain to drop down below the treeline to dig in for the night. The Niimi Onsen ruins 新見温泉跡地 (location) make for a unique overnight halfway along the range – note that as of 2022 there was hot water still flowing, but all buildings have been removed (only foundations remain).
Hut
None
Route details

If starting from the resort side of Niseko-Annupuri, take a lift up to Gate 3 (Grand Hirafu ski area, King Lift #4) or Gate 2 (Annupuri ski area, Jumbo Pair Lift #4) (trail map here), and hike to the Niseko-Annupuri peak. Descend to Route 58.

If starting from the road-end on Route 58 just beyond Goshiki Onsen, park up at the large snow-cleared parking area just before the end of the snow-cleared road. Head up Iwaonupuri on the standard ascent route via the southern ridge to the looker’s left of the bowl. This is a fairly mellow ascent, and the summit is flat and quite featureless. Descend the same way. While it might tempting to descend the west side from the peak, this slope is steep, rocky, and has a number of bluffs.

Continue west towards Nitonupuri, via a picturesque rolling plateau. The climb up to the Nitonupuri summit is relatively short and straightforward. If snowpack conditions are stable, there’s a fine descent via the west face of Nitonupuri to the snowed-in Route 66. A more conservative descent would be via the broad ridge to the skier’s left (south) of the west face bowl.

For the ascent of Chisenupuri, we’ve marked on the topomap the most conservative, common route up to the peak, via the south face. If conditions allow it, connecting with the summer trail ridge would be the more direct, albeit slightly more exposed, ascent option. Descend Chisenupuri on the south or southwest aspect – the west aspect proper is often wind affected.

At around 890m on the flanks of Chisenupuri, head due northwest across the broad, featureless saddle towards Shakunage-dake. The Shakunage-dake peak is easily gained, and the descent north off the peak towards Shakunage-numa is very short-lived. Continue in a north-then-northwest arc, following a broad ridge-like feature towards Shirakaba-yama. The descent from the 1041m point north of Shakunage-numa is very mellow, but the vast plateau-like descent is fast and inspiring.

Make the long traversing ascent to the diminutive Shirakaba-yama. From here, skiers need to decide if they’ll push on in the alpine, or drop down to Niimi Onsen to camp. The descent to Niimi Onsen wipes off an additional 250m of vertical gain (when compared with just skiing to Niimi Pass), which needs to be made up for the next day. That said, the onsen hot water still flows freely at the onsen ruins (just foundations remain), so intrepid skiers may wish to indulge in the ultimate Hokkaido ski touring experience – wild onsen in the snow with a camp nearby. There’s also a spring in the vicinity of the ruins, at the north end of the large pond-like pool.

Regardless of whether you drop down to Niimi Onsen or not, you’ll cross another road – the snowed-in Route 268. This roughly marks the half-way point in the traverse. The ascent to the Mekunnai-dake summit is one of the more significant ascents in the traverse – it’s long and particularly exposed to the elements. Mekunnai-dake is an impressive volcanic dome with a very distinctive rocky summit.

From the Mekunnai-dake summit, it’s a hard-packed, rattly descent down to the Panmekunnai Moor, after which the final ascent of the traverse begins – the long, gradual approach to the rather anticlimactic featureless peak of Raiden-yama. If you’ve not experienced any strong wind on the traverse yet, you’ll most likely experience it here. Bitter northwesterlies blow uninhibited from the Japan Sea, slamming into Raiden-yama’s buttressed northwestern side.

The most practical descent to the sea takes the skier along the broad northern ridge from the summit, via Maeraiden-yama, skirting the 997m point, and down to the small hamlet of about five houses at Shikishimanai. This ridge offers some great skiing, with views of the sea the entire way down. At the terminus of the ridge is a steep bluff, but just above the bluff is the ruins of an old house. There’s a decaying access path to the house to the skier’s left of the house, which will lead you to the main highway. Head just 50m southwest along the highway, and you’ll come to the dilapidated Shikishimanai port. Surely it’s time for a celebratory swim!

You can either wait for one of the six buses that stop at the Shikishimanai bus stop, or walk the 5km northeast along the coast road to the Iwanai Bus Terminal 岩内バスターミナル (location).

Route Timing
Up | 8hrs
Down | 3hrs

Depending on the season, this route could take anywhere from 11 hours (in spring) to two to three days of around 8 hours each (in winter). There’s up to 2,500m of total ascent, with about 15 transitions required if hitting all peaks along the way.

Transport

Public transport:

The Niseko resort area is well serviced by public bus and rail from Sapporo City. See access details on the Niseko United website here. Access to Goshiki Onsen in the winter is by private car or taxi only. Expect to pay around 7,000yen for a taxi from central Hirafu to Goshiki Onsen. From the Raiden coast, there is a public bus service running buses six times daily to and from the Iwanai Bus Terminal. From Iwanai Bus Terminal, there is a direct bus back to the Niseko resort area via Kutchan Town. If you have to escape from the route part way through, your most practical option would be to call a taxi. Note that in Hokkaido there are no taxi callout fees, no matter how far.

By car:

There is plenty of parking at the large public snow cleared parking area at the Goshiki Gate on Route 58. There’s also plenty of parking at any of the ski areas around the southeast base of Niseko Annupuri. At the end of the route on the Raiden coast, there’s a small cleared parking area just before the entrance to the Narukami Tunnel 鳴神トンネル on Route 229 along the coast, just above the Shikishimanai Port (location).

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Nisekoannupuri (ニセコアンヌプリ) – map no. NK-54-20-7-2
Official Topo Map 2: Chisenupuri (チセヌプリ) – map no. NK-54-20-7-4
Official Topo Map 3: Raidenyama (雷電山) – map no. NK-54-20-11-2
Official Topo Map 4: Raidenmisaki (雷電岬) – map no. NK-54-20-11-1

NOTE: The official 1/25000 topo map(s) above can be purchased for 350yen from Kinokuniya bookstore next to Sapporo Station or online (in Japanese).

Aspect
The main aspect skiers are exposed to on the descent and/or ascent is South. Other aspects that may also be encountered while following the route outlined on this page include: East, West, North. Therefore, keep an eye on the weather forecast a few days ahead of your trip to monitor wind, snow, and temperature. Also, since this route is in the general vicinity of the Shiribeshi area, consider looking at the Japan Avalanche Network avalanche bulletins (updated Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays at 8am) or the daily Niseko Avalanche Information website. These may give extra insight into avalanche conditions in the greater area around the route.

Snow and
route safety

This route is heavily exposed to changing weather conditions. But, it also offers numerous ‘exit’ options to ski down to one of the snow-cleared road ends. Be sure to take a map so that you know where these escape routes are. Avalanche hazard is very manageable with good terrain selection options throughout the trip.

Niseko Haute Route Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

A

40

Time ascending

A

10

Technicality

Altitude

A

10

Hazards

C

6

Navigation

C

6

Totals

72/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy).  More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Niseko Haute Route
Onsen nearby

Given this is a point-to-point tour you’ll have options at both the start and end of the trip. Goshiki Onsen 五色温泉 (location, 800yen) is a must-visit at the eastern end of the range, as are any of the Niseko resort area onsen – our pick of the bunch is Ikoinoyuyado Iroha いこいの湯宿 いろは (location, 800yen), hear the base of Annupuri ski area. In Iwanai there are two great onsen up the hill by the Iwanai ski area: San san no yu サンサンの湯 (location, 500yen) and Okaerinasai onsen おかえりなさい (location, 800yen). Of course, during the traverse, there’s the ‘backcountry onsen’ experience at Nimii onsen.

Extra Resources

Guide Options

If you’d like to ski this route and/or explore other Niseko areas together with a local certified guide, get in touch with Jun Horie. He’s a Niseko-resident guide with seven years experience advanced-level ski instructing in Austria (he speaks German as well as English and Japanese). He has also guided in New Zealand and has previously led guiding operations in Hokkaido before going independent. See a full list of English-speaking Hokkaido Mountain Guides Association (HMGA) guides on the HMGA website here

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

By Chris Auld

It had been 25 months since I’d been able to join a Hokkaido Wilds trip, but with borders finally opening and my business visa in hand for some meetings in Japan, I was able to tack some touring into the schedule. Our plan for the Niseko range traverse had come together slowly and then all at once. We’d been really focusing on the Niseko area for a forthcoming project and this was absolutely one that we needed to tick off. We penciled the weekend a few weeks out, started a group chat on Messenger for the logistics, and kept our eye on Windy.com for the weather.

A few days out we made the call to do a Friday-Saturday trip; day one was forecasting bluebird but with winds increasing on the Friday night from the [warm] South-West the second day would be more challenging. Getting to the campsite would be fine and then we’d need to make a call on the second day’s section based on conditions on the ground. We would start early on the Saturday morning to try and get-‘er-done before the forecast rain rolled in.

In the end we were a group of four. Myself and Rob were joined by Ben, who’s a Chisenupuri local, and Timbah, who’d driven down from central Hokkaido on the Friday morning. Strictly speaking the tour should start at Mt Niseko-An’nupuri [Rob: strictly speaking, walking up from the base!] but we decided to forgo the crap-shoot of the ski resort backcountry gates opening and instead started at Goshiki onsen.

Morning Zoom [Chris: Microsoft Teams!] calls notwithstanding, we managed to head off from the car park at about 09:45. We skipped the summit of Iwaonupuri and pushed on to ascend Nitonupuri. There’s a bunch of steep but short ski lines to be had in the terrain between the two peaks and I noted to Rob that they’d be worth a write up sometime, but we carried on, the group were all focused on making camp in plenty of time to ski down to Nimi onsen.

There’d been a solid 30cm of snow on Tuesday afternoon but even the relatively solar-sheltered NE slopes off Nitonupuri couldn’t withstand the warm ambient temperatures and it was a cream-cheesy descent down to route 66. Still, these were undoubtedly the best turns of the trip. Our full post on this zone is here. Once again, we skipped a full summit of Chisenupuri and instead contoured our way around the southern slopes; given our time again we’d probably have stayed a little lower to avoid the steeper slopes which made for slower going on edges rather than ski-bases.

The rest of the first day into camp was broadly uneventful, but offered some inspiring vistas. Far more of a walk-than-a-ski as I am often want to say. We’d made good time and felt happy that we were able to drop down to the old Nimi onsen ruins to pitch camp for the night. It was sad to see Nimi onsen pulled down a few years back as in full Ryokan with dinner + onsen mode it would have made this traverse something special. But, we had high hopes for there to still be flowing hot water and so we skied down for a nosey.

We were in luck… there was hot water… a lot of it…and it was damned hot too. The onsen facility closed in about 2016 and the buildings were fully removed a couple of years later. It’s a bit sad that such a great facility has gone but at least there’s still an opportunity to enjoy some of the warm water that still flows. The Good Hokkaido blog has some great photos of the Nimi onsen facilities before it was removed so you can dream of what once was. Your mileage may vary in terms of water flow and ability to build up a little pool, but, when we visited there was a very steady amount of very hot water.

The hot water vent-pipe that remains flows water into a 1.5m wide concrete drain. We were obviously not the first to have come here and there was an old tarpaulin sitting in the drain that we used to build a make shift dam and pool. The water temperature was a bit hot and so we found ourselves needing to drop snow into the pool to keep the temperature down. At first we shoveled but then after a while we whipped out our Rutschblock cords and worked to cut large chunks out of the snow walls.

The channel that had been cut out by the warm water also made a fantastic area to setup our camp-kitchen for the night. Even though we were pack carrying all of our food for this trip, a single night away meant that we went for the ‘heavy but fresh’ option and we’d be cooking a full backcountry nabe. Such high end cuisine was deserving of a high end backcountry kitchen, and so Rob and I set about construction into the walls with a cooking platform and a food shelf. 

For those not familiar with Nabemono (鍋物, なべ物, nabe “cooking pot” + mono “thing”), it’s a Japanese hot-pot dish consisting of simmered broth, vegetables and meat. The great thing is that it runs to about three courses and is dead simple to cook out here in the Hokkaido Wilds:

  1. Cook the meat/veges/tofu in the hot water, fish them out with  chopsticks, and eat. We’d packed cabbage and a tone of awesome mushrooms for extra umami.
  2. Next add noodles to simmer in the broth. Udon worked really well on this trip.
  3. Finally, you’re left with a tasty soup.

We even had tare (タレ) dipping sauce. Rob had forgotten this on his first trip to the Rankoshi store the night before. He took-one-for-the-team and drove all the way back for a second trip. He also grabbed a couple of ‘small’ Aquarius  drinks and decanted the tare from the relatively heavy and fragile glass bottles into the empty PET bottles. Good thinking that man! 

While there was rain forecast for Saturday we’d gone with the ‘travel light’ accommodation option and so the four of us planned to pack into Rob’s ultra lightweight cuben fibre tipi tent… a feat that was surprisingly easy and actually quite comfortable in the end. We slept early and woke early… well some of us woke early… Rob and Timbah were up and at it from about 0400hr while Ben and I *loudly* discouraged such an early start.

I took one last turn in the kitchen to prepare coffee with my new-found-post-pandemic toy; a Wacaco Nanopresso portable Nespresso pod coffee machine. Two stays in Jacinda’s 14 day Managed Isolation and Quarantine detention system had rather refined my DIY coffee system. The Wacaco also provides for a normal coffee basket if you want to bring ground coffee… or a hand-crank coffee mill. Full credit to Niseko regular David Addison for sending me down this path of backcountry luxury.

Dawn was just breaking as we began the second day’s journey. A short skin up the road before we ducked across the creek and climbed directly towards Mekkunai-dake. Your mileage may vary a bit here; as the spring melt kicks in we suspect that the creek crossing will get quite sketchy and you may find yourself climbing further up the road to the saddle before continuing westward.

As well as the most butt-ugly hiking pack any of us had seen in our lives, Timbah had brought his bluetooth boombox along too. The former was excusable on account of the “it’s all my ex-girlfriend left me” sob story we got to hear [several times throughout the trip], the latter was significantly less forgivable; Rob and I had to put it down to inter-generational differences. Ben seemed generally indiferent as to both the pack… and the boombox.

Nevertheless, there was marching to be done and nothing makes a long march better than some marching music. Memorable favorites from the section to Raiden-yama section included The Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros and Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.

At least we could say that Timbah would finish the day significantly more cultured than when we had begun. 

The march went on. And on. And on. 

More of a walk than a ski to be sure and it was getting windy now. Still no rain in sight but we certainly didn’t have the bluebird conditions of day one. Visibility was still reasonable under the slowly thickening layer of altostratus and we could see through to Kariba yama in the southA trip down there is definitely on our plans for winter 22/23. 

 

The summit of Raiden yama was a much larger plateau than I had anticipated. We found the summit marker, well about 20cm of the summit marker, sticking out from the snow. Visibility had retruned a bit and was good enough for some great views across Hokkaido. The Shakotan peninsula was stunning and is another part of Hokkaido that we’ve got to get out and explore on skis next season.  

Typical for Raiden, wind at the summit was howling. Aaron Jamieson reported similar conditions on his traverse a few years back. With nothing hindering it, the winds off the Sea of Japan barrel across unabated.

The ski down the main ridge was the longest descent we’d had on this trip, and mercifully it wasn’t all that bad for the most part. There was a goldilocks zone of about 300m vertical where the porridge was “not too hard, but not too porridgey”. 

The woods quickly got woodier below the tree line. Along with it the snow descended into a hot sticky mess. No small amount of survival skiing ensued.

At the terminus of the ridge we were finally bootpacking. But to where we’d need to bootpack, it wasn’t immediately clear. The map suggested a slightly less steep bluff to the descender’s right, but a quick look over the edge suggested it would be quite the scramble.

Then we found the remains of an old house. If someone had managed to live up here on the bluff, then surely there was a path somewhere.

Timbah forged ahead, doing a full circuit of the old decrepit ruins. “There’s an old path down here!” he hollered triumphantly.

The path led us down right to the coast. A short walk had us arrive at a very convenient, deserted-looking old boat ramp. I suspect that it’s probably an active fishing harbour for much of the year. This was cause for great celebration, as we’d originally planned to descend a different route which may not have given us such direct access to the sea. This alternate route meant we truly skied from the eastern end of the range to its terminus here at the Japan Sea. 

Accomplishment unlocked.

Timbah and Ben quickly stripped off and committed to a celebratory dive into the sea. While the weather was warm, that water was still not much more than 5 degrees Celcius. I forewent the ceremonial dip, and feel vindicated for the choice after hearing the clearly painful noises coming from Rob as he also went for a dip.

MVP award for the trip went to Haidee for picking us four stinky boys up at the boat ramp.

Following a trip like this to the coast, it only felt right to have sushi. Makoto Sushi 誠寿司 (map) appeared to be one of the few Iwanai such joints open at the time. The owner hid his surprise at five foreigners suddenly turning up well after lunch time, and whipped up some amazing lunch sets for us all.

A fitting end to a great two days out in the Niseko Range.

Comments | Queries | Reports

Done this route to Niseko Haute Route, or others nearby? Thinking of doing it? Please post any feedback, reports, or queries here. Thanks!

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Niseko Haute Route Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

A

40

Time ascending

A

10

Technicality

Altitude

A

10

Hazards

C

6

Navigation

C

6

Totals

72/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy). Hazards include exposure to avalanche and fall risk. More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.