Last year when I visited the Shokanso Hut and Mt. Shokanbetsu for the first time, the weather was so rough that the coastal road had been closed due to waves crashing over the road. This year also, the weather was atrocious, with howling winds and at times near white-out snow squalls.
But if one thing had taught me from last time, it was that once you’re tucked into the valley at the foot of Mt. Shokanbetsu, it can be an oasis of calm. So Haidee and I made the 3 hour drive from Sapporo, hopeful despite some very dark clouds and rough weather on the way.
The plan was to stay with Hiro and his friends for two nights at the hut – the Charlie and John would meet us there at the hut on the second night. Hiro’s friends had managed to arrange a two-night stay because they were affiliated with the mountaineering association that manages the hut. For the general public, stays are limited to one night (EDIT: As of October 2018, non-emergency stays are now prohibited for the general public during the period that the road is closed for winter – source).
Sure enough, as soon as we arrived at the end of the snow clearing up the valley, we were greeted with plenty of snow but only a slight breeze. Just overnight there was at least 45cm of fresh snow. Enough that we had to clear a parking space for our car.
We geared up as quickly as possible, as it was already past 2pm, and we were hoping to get to the hut before dark. Despite Hiro and his friends breaking trail to the hut the day before, their skin track was completely buried in snow, leaving us to break trail for the entire 4.5km from the cars to the hut. Some might call this kind of thing meditative I guess.
We finally arrived at the hut at around 4pm. Hiro and the others staying at the hut had the fire going, and we were welcomed into the warmth with stories of a day of epic powder. We were hopeful to experience some of the same the next day.
The next day broke to more of the same from the previous day: blustery-looking upper reaches of the valley, but calm conditions lower down near the hut. The previous night I had asked about the prominent-looking ridge sandwiched between two rivers just west of the hut, and others who knew the area well confirmed there’d be good skiing there. Better yet they were all heading out that way today, so Haidee and I joined in with the throng.
The route up the Western Ridge traverses along the open eastern slopes for a while before starting the steep climb up to the ridge. The ridge itself is quite steep, and requires some tight kick-turns. At around 475m in altitude, there is a small hump on the ridge, and this was where the group decided to drop down the western side of the ridge to the valley floor.
This spot gives some nice steep turns between well-spaced trees, but unlike yesterday, the snow was deep but heavy. It was quite the effort to get any speed up at all.
“It looks like we’re skiing in slow motion,” remarked one unimpressed member of the group.
After the one run down the western slope, the group decided to skin up the other side of the valley to the ridge directly west of the Western Ridge. Haidee wasn’t too keen on the steep slopes and heavy snow, so we opted to return to the hut and do some bird-watching along the more mellow numbered ski touring route south-southeast of the hut (route guide here) instead.
This is the true beauty of this area – there are so many options for beginners up to experts. And best of all, even the ‘expert’ areas below Mt. Shokanbetsu’s peak are relatively sheltered from the brutal winds that buffet the upper reaches of Mt. Shokanbetsu.
When we got back to the hut, a late lunch that merged into dinner was under way. Hiro had lugged a massive sled’s worth of food with him up to the hut. This included prime Hokkaido venison, shot a few weeks earlier by some friends. This was cooked with onions, garlic and olive oil on some foil on top of the wood stove. It was hopelessly delicious.
After the late lunch was finished, most of Hiro’s friends left to head back home. Just after they had left, the two Australians – Charlie and John – arrived at the hut. They had only arrived in Asahikawa City by plane the day before, and had spent the morning in Asahikawa replacing most of Charlie’s ski wear which had been lost somewhere enroute by the airline. “Thank goodness for travel insurance,” Charlie said. “I arrived in Hokkaido in shorts and a t-shirt. The Shugakuso Outdoor Store in Asahikawa was my saving grace,” he beamed.
Luckily John just happened to have a spare splitboard in Japan already from a previous trip, so it was only clothes and other bits that Charlie had to replace.
“It was probably an issue with my ABS airbag backpack that caused the luggage to be held in Jakarta,” he surmised. “All the paperwork had been perfect for leaving Australia, but something obviously didn’t get through in transit.”
After Charlie and John settled in to the hut, those of us left in the hut worked on getting through a couple of packs of somen noodles left by the previous group.
The next morning was a whirlwind of activity as we all tried to out-do each other with our breakfast creations. Charlie and John were cooking pancakes, I had put together an omlette, but Hiro outdid us all with freshly baked bread in the wood stove.
After breakfast, Haidee, Charlie, John and I headed back up the Western Ridge for another crack at the same downhill slope Haidee and I had done with the larger group the day before. Unfortunately the snow had not improved much, but it was nice to get out before we headed back to Sapporo.
John and Charlie stayed on another night at the hut, as it happened that another group arrived to stay the night as we were heading out. I was quietly jealous of them – a warm hut was a nicer prospect of the 2 hour skin back to the car on that flat access road.
Overall a great two nights away at this small slice of paradise on a blustery long weekend.
And blustery it was! Despite the calm conditions around the hut, it was still blowing a gale on the coast. It was howling as we entered the Auberge Mashike onsen (location), and it was howling as we left an hour later. At times on the coastal route in our car back to Sapporo we were reduced to a crawl with our hazard lights on, trying our best to just make out the edge of the road in the white-out conditions.