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Back to basics: safety in Niseko’s backcountry

By 13th December 2008 Niseko Snow Report, Snow

NISEKO is renowned for its liberal, open-minded and lightly policed stance when it comes to off-piste, or the backcountry – a viewpoint that is generally uncharacteristic of Japan. This sense of autonomy has no doubt put the village on the map as both an international ski resort, and also a major domestic drawcard for Japanese snow lovers. But as the old adage goes, ‘with freedom comes responsibility’.

All of Niseko’s snow – and there is bucket loads of it (as much as 15m a season) – may look soft and friendly, but it is as deadly and dangerous as it is dry and fluffy. For those living beneath a rock, Niseko’s unique geographical positioning is the catalyst for these epic snow conditions. Winds howl across the Sea of Japan from Siberia, syphoning up moisture then relentlessly dumping it on Hokkaido, in what are recognised as some of the world’s heaviest precipitations of snow (house roofs and sheds have collapsed beneath the sheer weight of the white stuff).

It’s been a few years since anyone died in Niseko, but within a snowball’s throw of the resort there have been several deaths and serious injuries in neighbouring ranges. Access to Niseko’s backcountry is very lightly policed, and is easy as pie to get to. In doing so, one must take some responsibility for their own actions, rather than relying upon someone else. The dangers of Niseko’s massive and varied expanse of backcountry are balanced by safety information that is readily available, and in abundance. However, in truth, the responsibility lies in the hands of skiers, snowboarders or hikers themselves to ensure their own well-being.

Scott Bowman and Nick Gutry run Niseko Snowmobiling Adventures, and have more than two decades of experience in the wilds of the local area alone. Nick says one of the biggest dangers facing those who wander out of bounds is the false belief that they know it all, along with a complete disregard for local knowledge. Not respecting and regarding the sheer volume of snow and avalanche dangers in Niseko is a common mistake that Aussies, Kiwis and many other foreigners make, they believe.

“I see a major problem for some holidaymakers here not respecting the Japanese and their understanding of the area,” he says. “The locals have experience, authority and training, but because these tourists think they know everything, a lot of foreigners will say, ‘stuff it, what the hell to these guys know?’.”

Scott chimes in: “The locals understand the situation on this mountain, and have been working here for so long. They understand the threats, how specific aspects of these mountains will have reacted after storms. Take notice, it’s not a joke on this mountain.”

While many tourists have the incorrect perception that mountain staff are ‘policing’ or ‘hindering’ skiers and boarders, it is actually the opposite, says Nick. “They are actually encouraging you to explore all the wonderful terrain on offer, but just want to make sure you go to the right areas, and take the necessary precautions,” he says.

“It’s good for people to get into the mindset that these people are not imposing or policing or shutting things down. Look at it from the other point of view, they are allowing people to ride so much more terrain than anywhere else. A lot of people get upset about the no-go areas, which could make up to 10 per cent of the mountain, forgetting what rare freedom they actually do have here in Niseko. We’re in a great situation here, because they have already opened up so much of this mountain. Whereas, elsewhere in Japan, it’s not uncommon for them to just say, ‘right, no backcountry, and if you go out there we will find you in the car park, call the police and they will take you away and charge you with trespassing’. These people are not the police, they are here to help. They could just put a fence up and if anyone crossed it they would get arrested – it’s that simple. But they don’t.” “We have even heard word of opening up even more terrain,” whispers Scott. “But that won’t happen overnight.”

Moving on, it’s not all planning, stats and danger. The positives that have people coming back to the backcountry for more and more far outweigh the negatives. Scott and Nick have for years gladly ridden boards, skis, snowcats, sleds and snowmobiles in the far reaches of Niseko and beyond – areas of which most could only dream.

“For me, it’s getting away from the noise and the crowds,” says Scott, immediately glowing and grinning at the prospect. Nick adds: “And I suppose, in some ways, it’s the lack of rules; once you’ve made the decision that it is a reasonably safe environment out there, suddenly the rules that govern what you can do are boundless.”

After speaking with experienced locals, Powderlife has compiled a comprehensive list of backcountry safety tips for you to tick off before venturing into Niseko’s great white unknown. It all comes down to common sense, really…

• Thoroughly plan your trip. Preparedness is everything. Don’t go into the backcountry ‘umming and ahhing’ – that is a problem straight away. Not being prepared in the backcountry is like going back home and crossing a major highway with a blindfold, or driving through the desert in a campervan and not taking any water.

• Read and understand weather reports, including the very trusted and informative avalanche reports posted in Japanese and English at entries and exits to the backcountry. Alternately, check http://niseko.nadare.info/, a site compiled by long-time Niseko backcountry gatekeeper Akio Shinya and his ‘boys in the know’.

• Let someone reliable know where you plan to go, your destination and what time you plan to be home.

• Explore the backcountry with reliable people. The least experienced person in the group should still know what to do in case of emergency.

• If you area travelling in the backcountry with a crew, make sure you are familiar with all of them, and their abilities. Ensure you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

• Make sure everyone is familiar with equipment, which should include a shovel, beacon, probes, phone, first aid kit, transceiver and studied maps. Having all of the gear in the world is useless until you know how to use it. Beacons should be taken with you, but are a last-ditch effort; they are the equivalent of a pilot wearing a parachute. Most people found by a beacon by rescuers are already dead.

• Know where the ski patrol is located. Being self sufficient is great, but once an incident gets to a certain level, know where to go and who to contact for help.

• If the back country’s closed, it’s for a reason.

• There are no-go areas that should not be entered in any case. They are well sign-posted and marked on maps that can be picked up everywhere in Niseko.

• If you don’t have the knowledge or experience for going off-piste, hire a reputable guide. Watch out for cowboys operating with little experience.

• And there is, of course, one more piece of vital safety information that we all should remember: Don’t eat the yellow snow!

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