AS the 2011 winter season gradually winds down, skiers and snowboarders can be overheard saying, “What a great season it’s been!” But at Gassan Resort – a ski resort in Japan touted as having the ‘strangest’ season – the ski season is just about to kick off.
To many hard-core skiers and snowboarders, Gassan Snow Resort (620 km south of Niseko) is known as the mecca of spring/summer snow resorts. Located in the southern end of the Dewa Terrain and known for its overwhelmingly heavy snowfall, Gassan Snow Resort operates from April 10 until mid July. When the season began last year, the upper part of the slope still recorded eight metres of snow.
Aside from a spring/summer snow opportunity, a sense of freedom is something that attracts many hard-core skiers and snowboarders. Once you take the one-kilometre long pair lift from the bottom, you have three choices for your descent. The easiest is to simply go down from the drop-off point, just like any other snow resort, but this ride isn’t the best option to fully enjoy the thrilling terrain of Gassan. Option number two is to take a T-bar lift from there and hike to the summit of Ubagatake, located 1,670 metres above sea level. (During early April, the T-bar lift is not running – requiring 40 minutes to hike the summit.) The third and hardest option is to conquer 1,984 metre-high Gassan itself. This path requires two hours of hiking from the lift, but an incentive to this boot-camp type hike is a beautiful descent, which can stretch up to eight kilometres.
This sense of freedom in Gassan can be enjoyed by non-backcountry lovers as well. On the bottom of the slope, you can make your own kicker and practice tricks. As for lunch, a typical ‘Gassanist’ opens up a lunch box on the edge of the slope for a mini-picnic. Some extra hard-core Gassanists bring in a portable barbecue and set it up on the flat and dry part of the slope, and throw a party in close proximity to the skiers racing past.
Gassan’s landscape changes week by week. Visiting Gassan in April is like hitting an early morning slope in Niseko. The snow is not powder, but remember, the mountain was left as it is for an entire winter, providing a heavenly experience when you ski down the mountain. During May or June, the snow begins melting rapidly and it turns into a kind of snow sorbet. And at some point, you have to hold your ski/snowboard in your hand when riding a pair lift, and hike for five minutes to finally hit the snow-covered section of the slope.
Though the snow condition worsens week by week, there is a positive side: During the summer season, Gassan is known for great trekking sites with an abundance of different kinds of flowers. As the snow begins to melt, these flowers begin to emerge from the surface, converting the usual lift ride to a little bit of ohanami (flower viewing).
Now, a few reminders – in terms of snow and facility – it’s important to stress that Gassan is nothing like Niseko. The snow is hardly powder, apres-snow activities are barely available, and hiking is essential before descending. In that sense, Gassan is not quite a resort, it’s simply a snow-mountain covered with some lifts.
But still, for those of you who still crave a chance for some snow riding while your friends are all wearing t-shirts and enjoying the surf, Gassan is a good place to be.
Where: Gassan, Yamagata Prefecture
Getting there: 1 hour drive from Yamagata Station
When: April to mid-July
Cost: Lift pass – ¥4,600/day
T-Bar lift – ¥200/ride
Words and Photography by hiroki yanagisawa