The natural answer was, of course, yes. Junior, an energetic ever-positive bundle of stoke, would be the icing on a nice early-morning blat up Shiribetsu-dake’s West Bowl. With his tail wagging, Junior led the way as we set off from the roadside at around 7:30am.
While Andrew had been up Shiribetsu-dake more times than he could count, this would be my second time. The first was during a storm, on the third day of AST2 training with Whiteroom Tours. On that trip, we’d not been able to get very far up the western bowl before doing the requisite compression tests, and then making a hasty retreat.
Today was much more benign, with hardly a breath of wind. There was also much less snow than the previous year. The Hokkaido snow season felt like it was still about a month delayed. Even then, the forest approach to the bowl was enchanting and calming, snow clinging to the trees.
Before long, Andrew, Junior and I were at the base of the climb proper.
We started up at the base of the avalanche slide path, but soon veered right into the trees. There were multiple skin tracks and snowshoe tracks, some at humane angles, some not so. We eventually chanced upon a more rationally angled skin track, and followed this on it’s zig-zagging path up the slope through the trees. By the time we got to just below the saddle, we were getting breaks in the clouds with beautiful sunshine. Testament to this year’s dismal start to the season, we were still picking our way across exposed sasa bamboo grass.
We stopped to dig a pit, to see if we could replicate findings from the previous days – a disintegrating rain crust at about 60cm. We found the crust, but couldn’t get it to make the snow above it to move during the compression test. It turned out, however, that it was being held in place by some errant sasa.
We pushed on towards the saddle.
“This is super rare,” mentioned Andrew as we arrived at the saddle. “I’ve hardly ever been up here in clear weather, and I’ve been up here often.”
We didn’t have clear views very far in the distance, but visibility immediately around Shiribetsu-dake was good. The sun was warm. It hardly felt like January at all. Junior was clearly enjoying it, perusing his kingdom from high above on the west bowl summit. Following his gaze down the hill, we could see a couple of other parties making their way up through the trees to the saddle.
As we were gearing up to make our descent, a Hokkaido Backcountry Club heliski helicopter came in to land on the true summit, some 500m away. From the looks of their promotional materials, it seems as though their heliski offerings give very quick access to the eastern gullies and spurs of the mountain. For those happy to splurge both the emissions* and dollars to outsource the climb, route and safety decisions, a short helicopter trip to the summit would be a great way to get easy-earned turns.
*We approached Hokkaido Backcountry Club for comment on emissions, and they acknowledged the need (and their desire) for long-term emissions solutions for heliskiing. They told us that theirs is “one of if not the most efficient heliski operations in the world regarding fuel usage” due to close proximity to the mountain, low elevation, near-new Rusutsu Resort helicopters they use, and efficient pick-ups and drop-offs.
Once we were kitted up for the descent, we started on down. Junior the Snowdog careened down behind us, charging through the powder like he was bred for it. Despite the still exposed early season sasa bamboo grass, it was good skiing – a bit tracked up due to the lack of overnight snow, but good times.
As we made our descent back through the forest and onto the approach road, we passed the late-comer hordes. We were glad to have had an early start – we were done and dusted by just after 10am.