Posted on Mar 28, 2019
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Posted on Mar 28, 2019

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115 0
Reading time: 9 min
15.5km

Distance

7 hours

Time

1594m

Ascent

1721m

Highest point

9/10

Difficulty

Snow Icon | Hokkaido Wilds
Mar-Apr

Best season

Rishiri-zan (利尻山, 1721m), also referred to as Rishiri-fuji (利尻富士) is an extinct volcano, rising majestically out of the Sea of Japan off the west of Japan's northern-most city of Wakkanai. In this route overview, we outline the classic northern ridge approach to the summit, via the Rishiri-zan Hut. This winter route to the summit is most popular due to its relative ease of approach. Clear windless days in winter are extremely rare on this exposed hulk of a mountain, so we recommend the spring months of March and April for attempts on the summit. While summitting (from the hut to summit) does not require ropes or technical climbing skills, crampons and an ice-axe are essential, and some prior experience with steep, icy, and narrow ridge-line summits would be preferred.

Extra hut to summit photos and description supplied by Barthélémy du Peloux

Last updated Jul 20, 2019

Route Map

Need to know details

Location

This winter ski mountaineering route is located on the northern side of Rishiri-zan, off the coast west of Wakkanai City in northern Hokkaido. It starts at the end of the snow-clearing, just beyond the onsen, around here. Depending on what season skiers visit, it may be possible to drive all the way to the Hokuroku Campground, here.

General notes

Rishiri-zan’s many volcanic gullies offer over 1500m of sustained descent from either the formidable icy summit or convenient points further down the many summit spurs. In this route overview, we outline the popular northern approach, which connects with the summer trail near the hut at around 1250m. The prevailing winter wind on Rishiri is northwest, so in reality, this route is not actually the best for seeking out the best snow. Southerly and easterly aspects will be better for that. Approaches to the summit from the south or west, however, are much steeper and many require technical climbing skills. That said, even on this northerly approach, there is some good skiing to be had in the gullies on the way down.

Calm days in winter are few and far between on Rishiri. “There are occasional days when there’s less wind,” mused the owner of the Green Inn Backpackers where we stayed during our visit to Rishiri. “Calm days are almost unheard of,” he said. This equates to icy ridgelines and times of extreme gusts. While crampons and ice-axe are not always a must in order to get to the hut on this route, anywhere higher than the hut will most likely require them. Ski crampons will make the approach to the hut much more comfortable in all but the best conditions.

  • When to ski Rishiri Island
    The best season to visit Rishiri Island for backcountry skiing is March and April. While snow is consistently the best during January and February, the weather is notoriously unstable during these deep winter months. As I liked to say during our trip there, “Rishiri is a long way to go for bad weather.” Some of the handful of ski guides who guide on Rishiri don’t even offer tours on Rishiri till late February. Weather is most stable in the late winter months of March and April, and the snow is still fantastic in the many gullies, couloirs/chutes and valleys on the mountain.
  • Weather forecast for Rishiri Island
    The most reliable forecast for any area of Hokkaido, including cloud cover and cloud altitude, is on Windy.com. Rishiri Island is no exception. Windy.com’s forecast for Rishiri Island (here) was spot on down to the hour, from about two days out. Note however that cloud cover can be very aspect-dependent on Rishiri Island. Often times, the windward side of the mountain will have thick cloud, while the lee of the mountain will be clear blue skies. Use Windy.com’s forecast in conjunction with this knowledge of higher probability of clear skies on the lee side of the mountain to fine-tune your options on the mountain.
Hut

Rishiri-zan Emergency Hut (full details here)

The Rishiri-zan Emergency Hut (利尻山避難小屋) is a basic but solid structure on the mountain’s exposed northern hiking trail. It is nestled in a small saddle at 1232m between Chokan-zan (長官山, 1218m) and the Rishiri-zan summit. The hut is open and unlocked for use year-round, however in winter there may be a need to dig down to the hut’s second-story door in order to access it, depending on snow volume on the mountain.

Rishiri Green Hill Inn Hostel (full details here)

The Rishiri Green Hill Inn Hostel (利尻ぐりーんひるinn) is a skier’s dream come true on Rishiri Island. With epic, unobstructed views of Rishiri-zan, ski-in and ski-out access to the mountain, easy access to stores for self-catering, a beautiful wood stove in the common dining area, plus the cheapest per-night cost on the island in winter, it is the best wallet-friendly base (besides free-camping in the snow near the onsen) for self-guided exploration of Rishiri Island in most seasons. Officially, the hostel is closed during the deep-winter months between November and February, but the hostel is open to inquiries during the ‘off’ season also.

Route markers

This route is not marked. From the onsen, follow the road south towards Hokuroku Campground. From the campground, keep heading due south into the small valley, where you will have some options of gullies to skin up. Either stick to the gully on your left, or start up on the ridge – this choice will largely be dictated by snow conditions. Keep on heading up to join with the summer trail ridge which will lead you to Chokan-zan and then on to the hut.

  • From the hut to the summit: Barthélémy du Peloux gave us this report for the final approach to the summit (we were turned back at the hut due to strong winds): “Climbing from the hut to summit does not require super technical skills, however it is not to be underestimated. Rishiri requires a good mix of ski and mountaineering skills! On the way down we met three guides with clients all fully equipped with ropes and so on. I would not say they were over-equipped for it as someone not used to this kind of climbing and exposure could easily get overwhelmed. I did the entire trip with my cousin. We are both super keen on ski touring, and in our opinion the hut to summit approach was no big deal; there were no “tricky” points as long as climbers are careful. We did not have ropes. During the entire ascent, the steep right side of the ridge leads straight all the way to the ocean. The left side is more a “steep looking” slope that can be skied if conditions are suitable. Not for us this time unfortunately. On the way down from the summit to the hut, we did one section facing inwards with crampons; maybe at around 1600m for 60m. We started to ski down from about 1550m.”
Route Timing
Up | 5hrs
Down | 2hrs

Expect about 4-5 hours from the onsen (here) to the Rishiri-zan Emergency Hut, and then about 1-2 hours from the hut to the summit. Bank on about 2 hours from summit back to the onsen. In the GPS route file for this route, there are two diverging routes part way up. Take the western route on the descent if snow conditions are stable and vegetation is covered, as this wide watershed allows for some excellent steep skiing.

Transport

Public transport:

There are daily ferries to Rishiri Island, leaving Wakkanai ferry port (location) at 6:55am and 1:55pm between January and April (see timetable here). Tickets cost 2,500yen each way. There is no extra charge for skis/snowboards. To get to Wakkanai, either take a highway bus or the train, with service from centers such as Sapporo and Asahikawa. Once in Rishiri, it is a 1.5km walk from the ferry terminal to the start of the route (route here).

By car: 

There is plenty of parking at the Rishiri Onsen (here). If visiting in April, it may be possible to drive all the way to the Hokuroku campground here.

Physical maps
  • Hokkaido Wilds full Rishiri Island Topomap PDF (A3, 1:25000 scale, 6 sheets) – download (67Mb)
  • Hokkaido Wilds full Rishiri Island Topomap PDF (A0, 1:25000 scale, 1 sheet, 841mm x 900mm) – download (40Mb)
Official Topo Map: Oshidomari (鴛泊) – map no. NL-54-17-13-2

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).

Snow and route safety

Rishiri-zan is a ferocious bulk of a mountain, which bears the brunt of the northern Japan Sea’s extreme weather. Climbers must be prepared not only for highly inclement weather, but also the courage to put safety before objectives. Make conservative plans while consulting the weather, and ask around for lower-altitude alternatives for days when the wind is up. Also, as Barthélémy mentioned above, the final approach to the summit from the hut does not require technical climbing skills, but does demand some experience with the dizzying exposure that some sections of the final approach entail. Less experienced climbers may want to be roped up with the guidance of more experienced climbers.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Rishiri-zan
Onsen nearby

The Rishiri-fuji Onsen (利尻富士温泉保養施設, 500yen, location) is at the end of the route described on this page, so that makes the most sense for a post-ski soak. Note that in winter (November till April) it is open from noon till 9pm, and is not open on Mondays.

Extra Resources

Guide Options

If you’d like to ski this route and/or explore the rest of Rishiri together with a local certified guide, get in touch with Toshiya Watanabe here. He is the only certified guide based on Rishiri island. And his videos of skiing on the island are epic. If Toshiya is booked out, then contact Takao Miyashita – he offers northern Hokkaido ski trips, as well as Rishiri expert-only and upper-advanced climbing trips.

Photo Gallery

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

We never made it to the summit of Rishiri-zan. We’d been hopeful, and even started at 4am in order to try to beat the wind, but by the time we’d made it to the hut at just over 1200m, the wind was strong enough to reduce us to a crawl in places. With a forecast for double that wind speed by early afternoon, we gave up hope of scaling the final 500m in altitude gain to the summit. We made our hasty retreat, enjoying some nice pockets of dry powder in the gully on the way down.

But let me back up a little. Quentin was itching for an excuse for a holiday away from Ulaanbaatar’s snowless winter, and had emailed me if I had any plans in Hokkaido for skiing in late March (we’d skied a couple of times in Hokkaido last year together). As it happened, I was vaguely hoping to get out to far eastern Hokkaido to document Shiretoko Peninsula’s options, so I invited him to come along.

Fast forward a couple of months, and we’d planned a full eastern Hokkaido ski trip, with a wildcard plan to drive up to Wakkanai in the north at a moment’s notice if the weather forecast indicated a window of a few days of clear weather on Rishiri Island. As it happened, a few days out from starting the trip Windy.com indicated clear skies for at least two days that week, so we hastily changed plans. We booked some beds at the only backpackers’ hostel accommodation on the island open at that time of year (mid-March), and committed to the 5-hour drive up the coast to Wakkanai to catch the ferry.

We were visiting Rishiri during a season that had seen the lowest snowfall in history across Hokkaido, so while this made us slightly concerned about skiing on Rishiri, it did made the drive up the coast relatively easy. We made it with plenty of time to catch the early afternoon ferry on a lazy Sunday.

This wasn’t my first time to Rishiri Island. Haidee and I had cycled there on a north Hokkaido cycle-camping trip a few years back. During that trip, Haidee and I had only seen Rishiri-zan without a shroud of clouds for about 30 minutes before it closed in again. I was hopeful for something better this time. The ferry staff took our skis to stow them below deck, and we walked onto the ferry carrying our various skiing paraphernalia.  

Once away from the dock, I took a nap – it felt like a very long way to drive just for a ski trip. An hour later I roused myself and wandered outside. Convivial views of the relative bustle of Wakkanai City had been replaced with an intimidating, towering bulk of a mountain. “It is much bigger than I had anticipated,” said Quentin. “It’s just all mountain. The whole island. Nothing but mountain.”

It is quite difficult to capture the bulk of Rishiri-zan, both in words and in pictures. It is a volcano, but infinitely more beautiful, imposing, rugged, and present than other free-standing volcanoes such as Yotei-zan or even Mt. Fuji. There is no inviting symmetry. Its rocky spires and razor-sharp spurs demand an immediate respect. The mountain oozes indifference. A climber does not conquer Rishiri. Any benevolence this majestic massif shows is only a momentary lapse, after which she will unpolitely tell you to f*@ck off.

With a mix of excitement and apprehension, we disembarked and were greeted outside by the lovely owners of the backpacker’s hostel. There would be no skiing today, as we arrived at just before 4pm. We settled into the lodge-like hostel and enjoyed a relaxing night in. We were very happy to discover that the hostel was only a few minutes walk from the nearest convenience store. The curious Nicot store sold fresh fish, veges, and other goods alongside timber framing for your building project. For dinner I made use of the wood stove at the hostel for some stove-top pan-fried bacon-wrapped chicken.

We were even more happy with the hostel owner’s offer to drop us off at the campground the following morning. He hardly batted an eyelid when I asked for a 4am start. Usually they do a run at around 5:30am, but the hostel wasn’t busy when we were there – they were able to accommodate our request. The weather forecast was for strong winds later in the day, so we wanted to maximize our chances of getting to the summit. As it happened, the lack of snow this year meant that rather than just taking us to the onsen as planned, our intrepid hostel owner was able to drive us all the way to the upper Hokuroku Campground, saving us at least 1 hour of skiing up the road. It was a hairy ride, with the 660cc 4wd van screaming its lungs out, chattering across the icy ruts.

From the campground trailhead, we more or less followed the summer trail, packed hard with snowmobile tracks. The main guiding operations on the island use snowmobiles to transport paying guests over the flatlands to access the better skiing. While snowmobiles are not allowed on the mountain itself, this service, while coming at a price, would maximize time on the mountain. We made good time across the flats from the campground though, and were soon approaching the main climb up to the hut. This would prove to be a 500m slog up varied snow surfaces.

A young solo Japanese skier who was staying at the hostel was also dropped off with us, and had sprinted ahead of us, but we caught up with him at around the 700m point. He’s opted to stick to the ridge, and had already switched from skis to crampons. The exposed ridges were all very icy, but he was sinking through the ice up to his knees in the undergrowth underneath. We chose to stick to the gullies as much as possible, where the snow was still soft enough for good purchase on skis. This required multiple kick-turn zig-zags up an ever-narrowing gully. At the head of the gully, Quentin and I attached our ski crampons, whereas Hiro powered on just with skis, and Rick opted to remove his skis and carry on with boot crampons.

After much effort, we finally made it to the summer trail ridge which would lead us up to the Chokan-zan peak (長官山, 1218m) and on to the Rishiri-zan Emergency Hut. This ridge was steep and icy at times. Hiro and Rick chose to stick to the ridge, whereas I followed Quentin on a heart-racing hard-snow climbing traverse to another pocket of relatively soft-ish snow.

Beyond Chozan-zan, we were already being buffeted by very strong gusts, some requiring some effort to stay standing. There was some discussion as to whether we should even continue up to the hut. We pushed on, however, and tried to enjoy the views despite the strengthening gusts. The summit of Rishiri-zan was in clear view, and was just magnificent. In better weather it would have been infinitely attainable.

At the hut, however, it became clear that this was as far as we would go today. Pieces of ice were being plucked off the ridge and hurled across our faces with gale-force intensity. Inside the frigid hut we scoffed down some food and warm tea, and started to make our descent. We were taken aback at the young solo skier who left his skis at the hut and carried on on foot, despite the deteriorating conditions. We’d later hear from the hostel owner that he’s made it back down the mountain (on foot, without his skis) much later than planned, after spending a cold few hours sitting in the hut for shelter.

Rick had opted to leave his skis further down the route, where he’d changed to crampons. So we gingerly chattered down hard crusty snow on the ridges and over exposed haimatsu low pines to better skiing in the gully we’d skinned up. We didn’t even consider the broad western gully marked on our GPS track, as this was a mine-field of exposed low pines. That would have to wait for a year with more snow.

Once out of the wind and into the gully, the skiing was steep and fun. Plenty of mostly-soft snow, about four days old, and only slightly wind affected. As timing would have it, about a week after out trip, Rishiri had a huge dump of cold dry powder. You really do take your chances up here when self-guided. 

Multiple sources had told us that the prevailing wind on Rishiri Island was from the northwest, so this classic approach to the summit was always going to have sub-optimal snow, when compared with other aspects. But we were glad to have given it our best shot, and as a summit-dedicated route, for experienced climbers it was certainly straight forward.

Once back at the campground, we rocketed down the campground access road, skied along the cycleway, and cut across some fields to arrive directly accross the road from our hostel. Unfortunately we’d done this trip on a Monday, so no onsen on the way home for us! Monday is their day off, it seems.

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Comments | Queries | Reports

Done this route to Rishiri-zan, or others nearby? Thinking of doing it? Please post any feedback, reports, or queries here. Thanks!

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