It had been on the to-do list for far too long. Friends had done it. “Make sure you take crampons,” advised Rick. And we’d even seen the rare unicorn-of-a-trip-report on the Internets with pictures of someone slaying the downhill on gorgeous deep powder. It was time for Haidee and I to check out this enigma of a winter mountain for ourselves.
Tarumae-zan is not a popular mountain in the winter. Those driving past for the first time might wonder why not. It is a gorgeous conical mountain, just begging to be skied. But as we can now attest to, the approach in winter is long. About 2 hours of endless ever-so-gentle uphill skinning along a mostly featureless access road. While the hutkeeper has permission to use his snowmobile to access the hut, the general public requires a permit to use snowmobiles. Furthermore, the most accessible slope – the northerly slope – also bears the brunt of the prevailing wind. It’s a rare day on Tarumae-zan when there’s enough snow to ski from the summit all the way back to the hut.
All that said, for those willing to accept her shortcomings, Tarumae-zan can be a very rewarding long day out…or so we were told.
We began our slog up the road just on day-break. We started early, as we were hoping to get to the summit before the forecast bad weather rolled in. At this point in the day, it was glorious sunshine, and warm enough for short sleeves.
We made relatively good time, and by the time we made it to the hut road turn off, it was still glorious sunshine. We were feeling good about our prospects of getting to the summit with unobstructed views.
As we approached nearer to the Tarumae Hut, we could see that it was unlikely we’d get any skiing on the northern face of the mountain. The bare, rocky, sandy face was in it’s usual winter form – stripped of snow. We kept our hopes high for some better snow on the easterly aspects.
As we passed the hut, we said hi to the hutkeeper – he was outside and clearing some snow from the entrance.
We kept moving on, still hopeful for a sunny summit.
It wasn’t long after emerging from the treeline, however, that we could see the forecast northwester rolling in. In a matter of about 10 minutes our wonderful view across Lake Shikotsu was obscured by low cloud.
We’d only made it about 15 minutes up the main hiking trail before we made the choice to switch from skis to crampons. There were exposed rocks, and it was clear we were not going to be skiing down the slope. We depoted the skies, and with icy conditions underfoot, we were feeling more secure with spikes.
The next half hour saw us stumbling into mostly a white-out, until we finally made it to the summit ridge. “This is hardly the views I was expecting,” commented Haidee.
At the summit ridge, a strong wind was blowing. Not strong enough to push us off our feet…but enough to give us pause as to whether we really wanted to see the summit sign or not. But the ridge was mostly void of snow, so visibility was OK. So we pushed on, trying to stay to the right of the ridge, out of the wind. The summit sign was almost worth the effort.
The descent was less than ideal. The summit ridge was OK, because we could see some form of outline in the topography. Once off the ridge, however, we were once again stumbling into a disorienting whiteroom. Our up-tracks were completely buried, despite coming this way only 20 minutes earlier. We kept relatively high as we descended on a traversing arc around the flank of the mountain. At least on this sheltered eastern side there was less wind. Eventually we made the call to start dropping down towards where we figured we should find the faint outline of the edge of the summer trail, stripped bare of snow.
Sure enough we found it, and used it to guide us back to our skis. Funnily enough, we’d depoted the skis at the perfect spot – they sat at some sort of invisible layer. Above it was white-out. Below it was great visibility.
We made the switch back to skis, and high-tailed it back to the hut. The skiing wasn’t great, with crusty, thin wind-slab packed snow on top of softer snow underneath.
Back at the hut, we decided to knock on the door and ask if we could sit for a while next to the fire to warm up and scoff down some lunch.
The Taruame Hut is not open to the public for overnight stays, but it is very much welcome to day visitors. The cheery hutkeeper ushered us in with grand fanfare. The roaring coke stove was pumping out the heat. A slice of pure bliss in an otherwise blustery, snowy, cold environment.
Once we extracted ourselves from the warmth of the hut, the descent back to the car was a mix of straight-shot zooming, some skating, and a couple of spots of side-stepping. It wasn’t amazing. “No wonder not many people do this trip in winter,” I mused to Haidee.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d probably do it again, with a guarantee of better weather. The winter views from the top of Tarumae-zan promise to be amazing.