NISEKO’S famous, fluffy and plentiful powder is what brings thousands upon thousands of snow enthusiasts to this little corner of Japan every year. Every winter, harsh weather from Siberia travels across the Sea of Japan, drawing moisture from the ocean. And where is one of Mother Nature’s first ports of call? Niseko, Hokkaido would be the correct answer.
Niseko’s snow can be as light as baby powder; so light you can’t make a snowball (so you’re generally safe from snowball sabotage here…). Any Niseko local will even tell you the snow’s sometimes so light, you can literally inhale it. You’ll find the powder is sometimes so light and sticky it’s hard to get rid of – coating your beanie, jacket, pants, hair, beard or moustache. Often the white stuff will just stick to you until it finally melts off with time.
The ultimate experience for skiers and boarders is to pull a big turn and get a nice face shot of Niseko’s powder, then look behind you to see your snowy wake hanging in the air for second after second. This soft, pillowy snow also means you often have a softer landing to take that bigger drop, or go that little bit quicker than you ordinarily would.
For many first-timers, Niseko’s light snow, and abundance of it, can be a little intimidating. The powder here can take a little getting used to, because it sometimes rides differently from other places in the world. But, once you are used to it, there’ll be no turning back!
The Powderlife crew have spent plenty of time deep in the powder of Niseko, so we decided to share a few handy hints to enhance your powder experience…
Skis/board: longer, fatter skis and boards are a must in Niseko’s powder! Some suggestions are K2 Pontoons for skiers, or the Niseko-produced powder-munching board, the Gentemstick. Generally, the longer or fatter the board means less rear leg burn and stress on the rear knee. Boarders should remember it’s best to set your bindings back closer to the tail for powder. Skiers, the fatter your skis, the less you need to work on keeping your tips up. Powder-specific boards and skis are designed for staying out of the powder, with minimal work for the rider. A park board or thin skis won’t really do the trick.
Powder skirt: (middle pic) this may sound a little feminine (especially to the guys) but a jacket fitted with one of these skirts will stop snow getting in unsavoury places. Underpants full of snow is (mostly) not a pleasurable experience. Also, if your jacket is equipped as such, make sure your skirt is fastened to your pants, making the skirt more effective, and also protecting your back/stomach from snow burn, should the jacket be pulled up while riding.
Sleeve skirt: (bottom left pic) also handy in the powder, this allows you to feed your thumb or fingers through holes to stop your sleeve from sliding up, and to stop snow from getting into your sleeves.
Face mask: you may look like Hannibal Lecter, or like you’re about to rob a bank, but a good face mask will stop those cold, cold winds from freezing your face off. A Niseko run on a cold day or night can literally render your face numb and your mouth speechless. Face masks also stop powder and ice from congealing on your face (especially if you’re proudly sporting a beard or moustache!).
Helmet: you can be shredding through powder at top speed then rip a turn only to see nothing but fluffy powder. This moment is generally when trees or other obstacles tend to sneak up on you, so best wear a helmet. These days snow helmets look pretty cool, are generally super-warm, and are even sometimes fitted with headphones! Plus, most of the locals here who are serious about their tree runs and backcountry riding wear one!
Fitness: Before the start of your season or holiday, it may be a good idea to work on your fitness and strength – your body will thank you later! Riding powder is without doubt a full-body workout, and after your first few days you can feel as though you have run a marathon, or at least had a heavy session in the gym. Every muscle can ache, especially your arms, abdominals, chest, shoulders and, of course, legs (thighs/calves). Therefore, prepare beforehand with some squats, push-ups, sit-ups, step-ups or lunges, along with some cardiovascular exercise. This will make your first powder experience much easier to bear, while also decreasing your risk of injury. For a detailed snow-training regime, visit: https://www.powderlife.com/magazine/last-word-on-health/preparation/.
GETTING THE MOST POWDER POSSIBLE:
• Heard the old saying ‘the early bird gets the worm’? The same applies for powder. First lifts – or some serious local knowledge – are your best chance for finding some fresh. So, unless you deal well with late nights followed by early rises, maybe an earlier night is a good idea before a big powder day. It’s hard to be king of the bar and king of the mountain. And with Murphy’s Law the way it is, you can almost guarantee if you have a late night, the powder gods will have paid a visit come morning.
• There are places you may have a better chance of locating powder. Often the best pow can be found amongst the trees (especially pine trees), as large amounts of snow can fall from the tree branches to the ground below, where the powder can accumulate, protected from the wind. Wind-blown stashes are also a good idea, so look at the direction the wind is blowing and consider where the snow may be going (such as gullies).
• Sometimes the best powder stashes are not the most obvious. Instead of just following someone’s tracks, think outside the box and consider where you may find some untouched powder (without doing anything dangerous, of course!). Sometimes a short traverse or a bit of a hike can be very rewarding. Seek and ye shall find!
HOW TO SKI/BOARD POWDER:
Start out slow: Firstly, test out the powder just off the groomers to get a feel for it, before venturing further out off-piste, or into the backcountry, where areas can be more remote, dangerous and tend to have much deeper, harder-to-ride powder.
Lean back: Without putting yourself off-balance, you should lean back slightly to ensure your nose/tips are kept out of the powder. But, with the right powder skis or board, most of the work should be done for you.
Follow those tracks: If you hit a flat patch, to save yourself having to push, skate or hike your way out, sometimes it can be a good idea to ride in someone’s tracks. Why do all the hard work when someone else has already done it for you?! Just make sure the tracks are going the right way back…and preferably not into a tree!
Feel the flow: When riding fresh powder as a beginner, it can be best to not perform too many fast, drastic turns. Just go with the flow, stay balanced and enjoy some smooth, slow, drawn-out turns.
Pay attention: Be aware the powder can change in an instant; one minute it can be fluffy and friendly, then the next hard, icy and wind-packed. Know the conditions, and the way the snow looks and feels.
PREVENTION AND RECOVERY:
Avoid falling over: This may seem abundantly obvious, but you’ll learn this over time because it’s just such a darn pain to get back up!
No turtling: If you’re on your back in the powder ‘turtling’ (named as such because you look like a turtle trapped on its back, limbs flailing wildly) it can help to face back up the hill, roll over on your stomach and push yourself back up from there. Also, to stop your arms sinking into the powder when pushing up, try packing down the snow in front of you with your hands and using that hard-packed pad of snow to push yourself back up.
Hiking out: in case you are boarding and have to hike up a steep, powdery hill, hold your board by the back of your bindings, dig the board into the snow parallel with the hill, then use it, with your legs, to pull yourself back up. You can do the same with skis if you place them together with your stocks, or an easier option is to put some ‘skins’ on your skis and ‘skin up’.