I’d been itching to get to Shira-dake this season for a while. Unlike the rest of Hokkaido, however, reports from friends suggested a lower-than-usual snowfall this season around Sapporo Kokusai Ski Area and Kiroro. “Word is that Shirai-dake is still a bit bushy,” said Greg a few weeks ago.
It was now a few weeks on, and we had a Saturday to kill. As bushy as it might be, I was keen to check this route out. In the past, it had always been relegated to the “it’s so close to home that we could do it any time” bin. Hence we’d never been there. Today, however, would be the day.
Haidee, Simon, Alex and I arranged to meet at the ski area car park at 8:30am. As a last-minute ring-in, Sean also joined in for the hike. Chris’s car was in getting it’s bi-annual shaken (registration and warrant of fitness) done, so Haidee and I were in a rental Nissan Leaf 100% electric car (see our thoughts on the car here).
We started out walking through what seemed to be the staff car parking area. This got us to the gully that Alex, Simon and Sean were familiar with from their past side-country escapades. “We’ve often eyed up the northern aspect slopes on the other side of the gully,” mentioned Simon. “They’re not really accessible from the ski area sidecountry, so we’re really looking forward to checking them out.”
As we ascended the clearly well-traveled gully-floor skin track, we had to jump out of the way of the first of the side-country punters from the ski area as they hurtled down in a hurry for their second lap. Soon enough, however, we cut off the main Asaridakesawa-kawa gully into an even tighter, steeper gully. At this point, we were consciously choosing to follow an established ski track, rather than the guidebook up-track I’d marked as a GPS route from the Hokkaido Ski Touring Guidebook. It appeared this skin track was following one of the descent options marked in the guidebook, however, so we went with it.
The initial narrow gully was a bit disconcerting, with its very steep walls, but the skintrack soon climbed up and onto one of the spurs on the looker’s right.
I remarked to Sean that the route was all rather bushy. “On a normal season, most of this would be covered,” he replied. “Strange that Niseko and Central have been getting buckets of snow, but just this small area around Sapporo Kokusai has been left out somewhat.”
It was still only mid-January though. In most years around Sapporo City, realistically the hills are only fully filled up reliably from February onwards.
That said, as we climbed, the slopes we were on became more and more appealing for the downhill. The snow underfoot was soft on top, with a firmer base. It was going to be very easy skiing.
We were following an old skin track that had clearly had at least one other person on it today. It faithfully followed a series of pink tape ties to trees.
Eventually we caught up to the person who was ahead of us. It was an older gentleman, getting ready to ski back down. “This is about as far enough for me today,” he said cheerfully. “You guys enjoy the rest of the climb!”
This was at around 1100m, and it wasn’t long before we climbed through the final stand of dwarf white birch and onto the summit ridge.
As anticipated, the wind was whipping across the ridge, so we all suited up in goggles and extra layers. Far in the distance, the ski area was in sight. Thankfully we were now far enough away, with the wind blowing in the opposite direction, that the inane synthesized jingles and soulless announcements from the ski area loudspeakers were now inaudible.
Looking towards Asari-dake to the north, we could see a gaggle of more than ten snowshoers, slowly making their way along the ridge in our direction. We could only assume they’d come up from the ski area lift. To the east we could see the summit of Shirai-dake.
Amazingly, it was blue skies. We’d climbed mostly with a light snow falling, and had had very little expectation of any sort of a view – or visibility for that matter – from the top. With the perfect visibility, we now had a renewed motivation to get to the summit before the weather packed it in again.
The summit was broad and flat, and we spent little time hanging about before we ripped skins and headed down.
I’d been lamenting for a while that most of my posts here on Hokkaido Wilds didn’t have much downhill actions shots, so I attached my GoPro to my backpack shoulder strap, set the 4K movie to super high quality, and set it running. This allowed me to grab a few frames from the footage later.
Simply put, the downhill was sublime for the top half, and manageable for the second half. Had there been a couple more meters of base covering the brush, it would have been sublime all the way down. I made a mental note to come back later in the season.
The downhill was over, as always, far too soon. We soon found ourselves scooting along the mellow gradient of the main gully floor. And then we were spat out into the gaudy, blaring mass of humanity that is the ski area. It was a shock after the relative calm and tranquility of the untamed hills.
I’d finally experienced the well known and well skied Shirai-dake, and I can see the appeal. We’ll be back for sure.