THERE’S no doubting that we in Niseko are blessed with access to some of the best snow and terrain in the world. And what makes us even luckier is that so many of these runs – even the backcountry – are easily accessible by lift or gondola. After all, a hike of 20 minutes or so from the top lift can find you on the peak of Mt Annupuri, facing the exciting prospect of a 1000m vertical drop in waist-deep, untracked powder, all backed by beautifully isolated, natural terrain. With the right knowledge crowds are not even an issue; many times throughout the season you can be enjoying these sorts of conditions with only your buddies, and not another soul in sight. With so much terrain accessible so easily, we hear you ask ‘why bother venturing any further out’? Well, why not?
We at Powderlife can acknowledge there is more to Niseko and its surrounds than can be attained by ski, board or snowshoe. For those who are after fresher tracks, even more-challenging terrain, or simply a taste of something different, there are plenty of other options for all levels – ranging from first lines on tame groomers to being in the middle of nowhere and staring down at some of the Devil’s own country. Sometimes petrol power can open up the door to a whole new realm of fresh powder and epic terrain. With this in mind, we thought we would look into one such mode of transport in particular – cat skiing…
Weiss Cat Skiing
THE virtually abandoned Niseko Weiss ski resort, hidden past Hanazono, is a ski resort frozen in time. And therein lies its charm. Since the lifts were shut down a few years ago, the only way the mountain can be ridden these days is by cat. Upon arriving at the rustic Weiss resort, which opened about 40 years ago, you immediately get the feeling you are experiencing a ski resort of a more simplistic, traditional nature. Perhaps this is what skiing used to be like back in ’80s Hokkaido? It’s usually deathly silent at Weiss, and there are shutdown lifts and machinery relics littered about the place, so there’s almost the feeling you are trespassing or wandering through a graveyard, stepping on the grave of skiing’s past. Even the clock outside the resort seems to have eerily stopped, frozen at ’12:26′ for the rest of time. All this just about makes you feel like you shouldn’t be there.
The drive in the car to Weiss is even an experience in itself – it’s in the middle of nowhere, nobody uses the road except for those accessing the resort or the nearby hotel, and the roads are often coated in deeper powder and flanked by high, unmaintained walls of snow. The only things that seem to be functioning at Weiss today are the basic resort clubhouse and, of course, the cat that takes you up the mountain. A 15-minute incline in the cat drops you at one of Wiess’ highest points, facing back down to the clubhouse, with a 2.8km run ahead. When Powderlife visited Weiss, we shared the entire mountain between the three of us, and two Japanese skiers. How about that?! With an altitude of 940m, Weiss is a mellow ride, wide-open runs with plenty of trees and a really natural, organic feeling. The runs are not very steep, and the day we went to Weiss there was half-a-metre of thigh-deep powder that slowed us down a little. So we found ourselves sticking to the groomer just to get some speed up, then ducking off into the fresh pow for a few nice turns, then heading back to the cat track to regain speed.
Weiss would definitely be better on a fast snow day, likely to be found after a light dusting has covered a smooth, quick snow base. So if conditions like this arrive, Weiss may be a good option if you fancy a mountain basically to yourself. At only a couple of thousand yen per person, per run, Weiss is also probably the most affordable option for those wanting to get a taste of cat skiing.
• Niseko Weiss cat skiing costs ¥2000 (per person, one run), or ¥6500 for a day pass. Local companies in town also organise tours of Weiss for those who don’t want to make their own way there. For bookings or more information call 0136-22-2515, or check www.niseko-weiss.co.jp.
Iwanai One-Day Cat Tours
EVER wanted to ride your very own mountain for an entire day? Of course you have! Well, Hirafu-based tour company NOASC can make your dreams come true with its one-day Mt Iwanai Cat tour, only about an hour’s drive in winter from Niseko’s village centre. You and seven friends (that’s eight people in total) can experience some unforgettable powder turns on your own mountain for a whole day. With more than 700m vertical per run, and breathtaking views of the west coast of Hokkaido, it makes for a tour not to be missed. Most definitely the major drawcard and big point of difference with this particular tour is riding down the mountain with the view of Iwanai Bay, and the ocean below. You can even see ships and trawlers in the bay. It’s a pretty safe bet to say most people will have never skied by the sea. Looking in other directions, you also see many more of the surrounding ranges and back towards Mt Yotei.
With ocean on one side and mountain ranges surrounding, get this tour on a clear day and it is simply amazing! Mt Iwanai is ideally suited for your intermediate to advanced rider, similar to Weiss in offering a powder experience both in and out of the trees. So whether or not skiers and boarders are comfortable with trees, they can still enjoy the powder. If you can go through peak gates four and five at Hirafu, and comfortably handle Miharashi, you should have no problems riding Iwanai. The runs on Iwanai are generally well-maintained like a fully-functioning ski resort. This is achieved because when the cat transports riders up the hill, it simultaneously grooms the runs. And as is the charm of most cat skiing tours, the runs never get tracked out! The powder is usually plentiful, too, because Iwanai is one of first mountains hit by weather from the ocean – so the snow really smacks against this resort. Iwanai is laid out similarly to Hirafu, in that the cat goes as far as the top lift, then you hike 200-300m to get to the peak, Iwanai-Dake. The pitch is similar to the King 4 area of Hirafu, with a solid fall line in parts. There are a few open bowls and a couple of ridge lines. But the beauty of Iwanai, especially for snowboarders, is there are no flat benches – it’s just straight down all the way!
• NOASC does one-day Cat tours for ¥25,000 (per person, for four to eight people, or ¥164,000 for the entire cat). Tour lasts from 8am-5.30pm. Price includes cat rental, lunch, guiding, and pick up and drop off. Age minimum is 13 years. Bookings accepted up to 4.30pm the day before the tour. For more information visit www.noasc.com, or call 0136-23-1688.
Fresh Tracks Cat Skiing, Niseko Village
THERE’S something to be said for being one of very few people riding Niseko’s mountain before the lifts are even open. And that’s exactly what you can do when you carve your own first lines with Niseko Village’s Fresh Tracks Cat Skiing. Most skiers and boarders are still rugged up in bed at 6am, and this was when two Powderlife staff, and four other keen snowboarders, were lucky enough to jump aboard one of these nifty cat trips. We discovered quickly that we’d had a lucky 15cmplus coating of fresh snow overnight as we crept up the mountain – a surreal experience with the sun rising slowly in the distance.
The only thing to be seen on the mountain during the 20-minute trip up to launch point were other cats as they groomed the runs ahead of the coming day’s play. Not a skier or boarder in sight makes the mountain feel completely different and an almost unrecognisable environment. And it must be said that the ski or board down may be the main attraction, but part of the whole experience is riding in the back of a cat, watching this snow monster chew through the powder as you climb the steep terrain. Upon arriving at our destination (the top of Niseko Village’s intermediate to advanced ‘Superstition’ run – usually only accessible by a tow rope during the day), we buckled into our boards and were instructed by our two seasoned guides for the day (who, incidentally, must have one of the best jobs in the world!) of what areas we could and could not ride. Then it was on! All of a sudden it was a race to the best and freshest lines. But the beauty of it was that wherever you went, it was all fresh! Carving deep forehand and backhand turns, it was face shots aplenty. There was so much light, fluffy powder that we found ourselves literally inhaling and choking on snow. At the bottom – all of us completely coated from head to toe in snow, laughing and slapping high fives – our cat awaited to take us back up to do it all again. When we reached the top of our second run, we let our group get a head start on us.
It was then that it finally dawned on my colleague and I that we had the mountain to ourselves. “Hey, you realise we’re probably the only people riding this mountain right now?,” I said to my colleague as I buckled into my bindings once more, watchings as our group rode off ahead of us leaving behind their powdery wake. “Yeah, hard to believe, huh?” was his response.
What sweetens the deal is that Niseko Village only does one of these tours each day. Sharing this moment with a close bunch of mates would also only heighten an already unforgettable experience.
• Niseko Village does First Tracks Cat Skiing mornings at 6.10am. Bookings (maximum of six) must be made by 6pm the previous day. Cost ¥15,000 per person, including light breakfast, t-shirt and photo (weather permitting). For more information call 0136-44-3990, or check www.niseko-village.com/winter-activities.
The extreme side to Niseko
NISEKO Snowmobiling Adventures (NSA) specialises in providing some of the best snowmobiling services in the Niseko area. But what many don’t know is they also provide a niche cat skiing service to the crème de la crème of skiing and snowboarding pros visiting Hokkaido. This service is not available to the general public just yet, and not many punters would be interested or game to take on what it offers anyway. Only recently, NSA has taken out riders from Rip Curl, Salomon and Norwegian pro female skiers for days of hardcore, extreme riding that most of us wouldn’t dream about taking on. Most pros are happy to spend most of the day on a cat, hiking and searching for the perfect natural feature for that one killer shot. Forget long, untracked, free-riding runs – this is all about performing for the camera.
The tours are customisable to what the pro is after, but they are usually chasing the same thing – pillow lines, cliff drops and rocky outcrops. If you’re a pro rider, and are after a go at some of Niseko’s best-kept secrets, chances are NSA will know where to go. These pro cat skiing tours are where all those amazing shots you only see in the magazines come from. It’s great that along with providing record amounts of powder, Niseko also has some really steep, intense terrain to keep these extreme riders coming back for more.