The idea was simple.
“Let’s build an igloo in the crater and stay overnight,” beamed Timbah.
Tim, Ben, and myself agreed in principle to the proposal. If we ascended via the Hirafu Route, then we’d have the hut en route to bail out to if anything prevented us building the igloo.
The forecast for the weekend was favourable. Not perfect, but favourable. Almost no wind. We might have to contend with some lower visibility for the morning of the descent, but this was forecast to clear by 10am.
Considering we had to commit around 2 hours to building the igloo, we arrived early at the trailhead, at just after 7am. We would have arrived earlier, but we were also juggling concerns over surface conditions. I knew from previous days in the Niseko Range that morning surface conditions were like concrete. Warming during the day, with clear skies overnight was adding up to inevitable bullet-proof conditions up high on Yotei-zan. While we wanted to allow ourselves plenty of time for igloo construction in the crater, we also wanted to give the mountain some time to warm up a bit.
This is the reality of ski touring in Hokkaido in spring time.
By the time we’d fitted boot crampons, divvied up food and group equipment, and double-checked our overnight gear, it was after 8am before we set off.
“Even assuming it takes us 7 hours to get to the crater,” I calculated, “we should get there at around 3pm, so we should be fine.”
Still, holding expectations lightly, we set off at around 8:30am.
Predictably, conditions underfoot were concrete-like. A slight dusting of snow.
A clear view of what we were committing ourselves to, however – the western face of Yotei-zan – was right in front of us as we skinned across the gently sloping approach. Packs felt heavy on our shoulders.
It didn’t take long before we gained enough altitude to look down upon the now insignificant-looking Niseko resort area. The sun was out, and it was now a warm mid-morning climb.
Conditions remained largely favourable underfoot until around the 1200m mark, where we all added ski crampons. The incline was getting steeper, the air cooler, and surface conditions were allowing less purchase into the snow for our ski edges.
The broad, featureless face was consistent in its angle, and getting more consistently hard-packed in its surface.
It was at around 1300m that we had a major setback.
“Ben has just lost a ski,” radioed Tim.
Somehow, one of Ben’s skis had come loose from his boot, and was about 200m down the slope, mercifully slowed to a stop by the softer snow down that far.
“I’m going down to get it,” radioed Ben.
Tim, Timbah and I carried on to a less exposed spot on the ridge proper, and dug in for an extended wait. On the ridge, a frigid, strong wind was blowing. The sun came and went behind high clouds. It was cold, and not the ideal conditions for staying put for any length of time. We all donned our heavy layers.
And then came a more worrying radio call.
“OK, so I just fell about 300m,” radioed Ben. “And I’ve lost my other ski now. I can’t see where it is.”
We ascertained that Ben was OK, and he wasn’t injured.
“While I was sliding down the slope I did wonder if I was going to stop before hitting the treeline,” he explained. “But just as fast as I started gaining speed, I suddenly stopped because I hit the softer snow down lower.”
Timbah, Tim and I convened and discussed the options. It was pretty clear to us that we needed to call it a day and let go of the idea of getting to the hut, let alone the plans of building an igloo in the crater.
“Ben, we’re coming down to you, and calling it a day. Let’s go find an onsen,” we radioed.
Just as we were getting ready to rip skins and ski down to Ben, however, he radioed in again.
“I see my ski,” he said. “I can get to it, so we’re all good. I’ll put my boot crampons on and climb back up to you guys.”
Had it been anyone else, I doubt we could have taken them seriously. But Ben being the goat he is, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. We’d wait for him to climb back up to us.
Adding to our contentment with that decision was the fact that the weather was improving. While we’d previously been buffeted by strong winds, feeling chilled with patchy cloud cover, the sun was now out. We were feeling warm. The wind had died down.
Before long, we had eyes on Ben. He was making fast progress now he was on his boot crampons. He seemed to be breaking through every now and then, but was making good progress.
In about 30 minutes, he’d made up the ground he’d lost to the slide.
Once we’d re-grouped and Ben had taken a well-earned break, we pushed on. Now, with no intentions whatsoever to build any igloos in the crater. To the hut it was. Once there, we’d figure out our next move.
Timbah, Tim and I spent another hundred vertical meters or so on our skis, but soon switched to boot crampons. It was steep, cold, and solid underfoot.
Making it to the shelf below the crater rim proper was like heaven. Finally, we were on less steep terrain.
The going on crampons was slow in parts though, with all of us falling through in places.
And then, we crested the last small rise before the shelf proper, and there she was. The impressively rimed outcrop that is the hut.
“There’s the hut!” I yelled.
“What? Where?” replied Timbah.
He was looking straight at it but hadn’t registered it as a man-made structure.
Timbah, Tim and Ben arrived at the hut ahead of me, and were in the process of gaining entry when I arrived. The hut was basking in the late afternoon sun. A sight for sore eyes.
We only stopped at the hut long enough to drop our overnight gear. We knew the forecast for the next day would be cloud till mid-morning, so we wanted to grasp the opportunity to ski the crater while we could, with the last sliver of daylight we had left.
Shadows were growing longer. We had to move fast.
We hurried off in the direction of the crater rim, on our skis now, but still with ski crampons on. We were on a rimed, bullet-proof surface. At least it wasn’t the steepness of previously.
We arrived at the crater rim just as the sun was threatening to drop beneath the horizon. Mercifully, the sky was clear for as far as we could see, which promised a longer-than-most dusk.
We ripped skins and took turns to ski the average, slightly wind-loaded snow to the crater floor. A more cohesive thin layer of windpack covered less cohesive snow underneath, making the turns less care-free than they might have otherwise been.
But. Crater skiing. At dusk. With good mates. That’s hard to beat.
The climb out of the crater was relatively straightforward, apart from some loose-snow-over-bulletproof patches which made the going a bit slow. Ben, understandably, looked pooped. He’d climbed about 300m vertical more than the rest of us today.
At the crater rim, we were greeted with some of the most impressive twilight vistas I’ve ever experienced. Shades of blue, yellow, orange, red, magenta, and purple all melded into one glorious gradation of color.
Once back in the hut, we proceeded to settle in and cook the massive feast we’d brought with us – a nabe hotpot consisting of copious veges, tofu, udon noodles, and pork.
We slept in the ground floor room, and slept well. Timbah woke at 4am to check if we’d be getting any sunrise action, but informed us we were well and truly socked in. We proceeded to sleep until 9am – the ground floor is entirely buried in snow, so all the windows are completely shaded from any external light. It was an easy sleep-in slumber.
As we were preparing to leave at around 10am, another party of three skiers arrived at the hut for a break. They’d hiked up the Makkari side of the mountain.
“The snow was good,” they reported.