A Backcountry Experience - Niseko Japan
Niseko, Japan is fast becoming an international destination ski resort. The area is known for its epic powder (15 meter annual average snowfall), big mountain runs and uniquely Japanese feel but many visitors to the area miss the incredible back bowls descending from the peak of Mount Niseko Annupurri.
The back bowls are outside of the ski area boundary and are accessed from the top of the Hanazono ski area. From here you will see a backcountry gate where you can begin the 15-20 climb to the peak. Niseko has a very different attitude towards its backcountry terrain than most ski resorts and has developed a unique set of guidelines named the Niseko Local Rules. This system permits access to the backcountry through specific entry gates. Once passing through the gate, you are now out of the ski area and responsible for yourself. Despite this, the ski patrol does assess the avalanche hazard of the back bowls and will open and close the gates based on this. It is extremely important to enter only through the gates in order to be aware of the stability on that day.
Despite the hazard assessment, do not be lulled into a false sense of confidence. First, the ski resort does absolutely no avalanche control (explosive blasting, grooming, snow packing etc.) and there are no marked runs. Remember that even with the most advanced snow study techniques, the science is definitely not exact. As such, every person entering the backcountry should be fully equipped with avalanche safety equipment (transceiver, shovel and probe), be aware of the inherent risks and have avalanche training. If you do not have this equipment and knowledge, it is highly recommended that you hire a guide and equipment from one of the local tour operators before venturing into the backcountry.
Once fully prepared and at the peak, the mountain is your oyster. You have the choice of dropping the northeast face, north face or south faces of the mountain. The northeast bowl is home to 600 feet of powder leading down to a cat track. A short walk up the cat track brings you back inbounds from where you can ski back to the lifts. While this is the shortest run, it also provides the easiest re-entry to the ski area allowing you to cycle a number of laps fairly quickly.
Option two is the north face which opens up to 1200 vertical feet of uninterrupted fall line powder. If you head this direction, be sure to pull up and begin traversing skiers right before you reach the valley bottom. Follow the tracks leading back to the ski resort otherwise you could be in for a long walk. This route offers one more good short pitch before hitting the long goat track (snowboarders beware, it is a long difficult traverse and you will have to unstrap at least once) that eventually leads back to the Hanazono base. At the end of the trail you will reach a road; walk or ski straight across and follow the cat track down to the next road. At the road make a right turn and you will arrive at Hanazono lift #1.
The third option is the South face and provides the longest continuous vertical of any run in the Niseko area. Ski the open bowl 1800 vertical feet all the way to the valley bottom where you will enter a natural halfpipe. Fortunately, this valley drops fast enough that you can carry your speed all the way through as it wraps around the mountain. Eventually (if you follow the tracks) you will enter the forest and zigzag your way through the open glades back to the Annupurri ski area. Re-entering the inbounds terrain, follow the beginner course back to the gondola and head back up for more.