The forecast was for a windless, blue-sky day in Niseko, so I dropped everything and committed to a 5am start from Sapporo, to get to the Nitonupuri trailhead before the inevitable crowds. All going well, I’d make it a double today – the stretch goal was to bag both the Nitonupuri and Shakunage-dake peaks in the one day.
The 5am departure from Sapporo paid off, and I was kitted up, ready to hit the skin track by 8:30am. At this point, there were only a few cars parked, all crammed into the small snow-cleared space in front of the Route 66 winter gate.
On the ski track, it was a quick 5 minute blat along the road to the first big road sign after the bridge. Here, I cut up onto the slope. Ahead of me was a group of four university students, one of them clearly a first-timer on skis in the backcountry. He was struggling with the kickturns. I followed up behind them on their skin track, but veered hard around to the left when I saw them struggling through a thicket of brush. The low snow year meant there was still a lot of brush and sasa exposed.
My strategy of making a long traversing zig around the thicket of brush paid off, and I was up and past this minor crux well before the students had managed to drag themselves through the messy tangle of bush. By the time I was at the 874m plateau, I was about 20 minutes ahead of the official guidebook time for the route so far. Despite the low snow, surface conditions were looking good, and the going was relatively easy. To the left I could see Chisenupuri standing up proud.
While the route marked in the guidebook takes the left flank of the compact bowl at the head of the plateau, I was following a faint, snowed in skin track which headed up the right side, and across the face of the bowl. In a heavier snow season, I would have taken the left spur, but with plenty of bush still exposed on the face of the bowl, I followed the skin track, enjoying at least some firm base underfoot, despite the skin track being covered with a good 15cm of fresh, light powder.
It didn’t take long to get to the knob at about 970m. Looking back on the plateau, I could see the straggly group of students plodding about deciding which way to go. I watched them as I chowed down on a dorayaki snack. They eventually followed my tracks up the way I came.
Another 15 minutes or so of zig-zagging up the slope had me starting to wrap around the left side of the southern minor peak of Nitonupuri. Here, I had my first glimpse of the northern, true summit of Nitonupuri. A little further around gave me views of Iwaonupuri to the east, and the Japan Sea coast at Iwanai to the northwest. Despite now being in the alpine, the surface conditions were great, with a good 15-20cm of light, fluffy powder on top of a well consolidated base.
I’d mis-judged my traverse up and around the western flanks of the false peak, and ended up higher up than I needed to be. So I had to skin downhill to the saddle, before making the final push up to the peak proper. The snow here was less fluffy and more hard-packed. The views from the summit were great. Chisenupuri and Shakunage-dake to the west, and Iwanupuri and Annupuri to the east. Weisshorn stood broad and low to the northeast, and there were great views out to the sea. I could see large groups of skiers on both Chisenupuri and Iwaonupuri.
With the grand goal of also scaling Shakunage-dake today, I forewent a blat down the western slope below the summit. With less ambitious goals for the day, this would have been a nice slope to ski, and then climb back up for the final descent down the southern face of the false peak.
So I kept my skins on for the traverse back to the main south face of Nitonupuri. Once at the top of my descent, I could see more punters making their way across the plateau. At the trailhead, there was already a long line of cars parked up against the side of the road.
The descent down the south face of the false peak was fantastic. This being a rare solo mission for me, there’ll be no photographic evidence of such, but it was good for at least 15 turns, all the way to the plateau below. I was able to avoid putting skins on for the short blat across the plateau, before the final steep downhill stretch down to the road. Exposed sasa and brush made choosing one’s line more of a strategic challenge, but I can see why this slope could be an awesome spot for hot laps, even in relatively foul weather.
For the more acrobatic skiers out there, this seemingly perfectly angled tree is here.
Back at the trailhead, the parking situation was, for want of a better phrase, orderly bedlam and well-behaved chaos. Route 66 was well and truly reduced to one lane. Later that week I saw a post in one of the local Niseko backcountry Facebook groups about police posting warnings on vehicles at the trailhead. Some screenshots of some of the sentiment below.
My feeling is that there needs to be some long term solution to the issue of parking at backcountry access points around Hokkaido. Here at the Hokkaido Wilds we’ll be very quick to point out that until late January 2020, we didn’t have any Niseko range backcountry skiing routes posted on our website. Despite this, according to anecdotal reports from locals in the area, the last three or four years has seen an exponential growth in backcountry users in the area. For Hokkaido – one of the most rapidly depopulating areas of Japan – this can be a great thing for the local economy (caveats about foreign capital aside). It also means some pretty big potential paradigm changes to how the backcountry is perceived locally – hopefully in a positive direction.
In the mean time, like all backcountry routes on our site, it’s important at least for backcountry users to be aware of the state of flux and growing pains some backcountry areas are experiencing, and being sensitive of ensuring they don’t block access or cause grievances.
See our tips around backcountry etiquette here: https://hokkaidowilds.org/hokkaido-ski-touring-etiquette
Here’s some alternative routes to try if you find parking backed up too much at this Nitonpuri trailhead.
- Iwaonupuri – A quick 4.5km drive up towards Goshiki Onsen from the Route 66 turn-off.
- Chisenupuri South Face – There’s a large car park at the Chisenupuri ski area. Note that by 10am on weekends, this car park can get very full.
- Mekunnai-dake – Arguably one of the best, most magestic peaks in the Niseko Range. Note, however, that there’s now an extra 4km skin to Niimi Onsen – the road is no longer cleared.