There is a science to avalanches. And gravity, it has been said, is a bitch. Any slope steeper than about 45 degrees sheds snow naturally and consistently. Few slopes in Niseko fit this category. Most fall between 20 and 45 degrees, a range that holds snow and allows it to build up, and with so much snowfall, it can really, really… really build up. A number of factors can trigger the load to slide and while the risks can be assessed, there is one thing that cannot be calculated – when it’s going to go.
For those unfamiliar with the mountains, it’s hard to believe such light, fluffy snow can be so deadly. For an indication of just how heavy accumulated powder snow can be, you only need to take a drive out and about the countryside surrounding Niseko – frequently you’ll see old houses and sheds collapsed in on themselves. Snow sliding off a roof onto a parked car can easily smash a windscreen or put a very nice dint in a roof or bonnet. Take a few thousands roof loads of snow and drop them off the top of a mountain and you get a feeling for how serious even a small avalanche can be.
In 1999 two local mountain guides took two seasonal workers, Yuko and Hitomi, on a snowshoe tour through the Harunotaki (summer waterfall) bowl – the big, cliff-lined, out-of- bounds valley to the left of Hirafu when looking up at the mountain from the village. It was a beautiful, sunny, early spring day – so picturesque it would have been hard to imagine anything bad could come of it. Perhaps fooled into a false sense of security, they made a fatal mistake. They trekked through the bottom of the gully and took a break. That’s when the face slid. When snow slides it goes in the direction of least resistance – down. Where the group was standing was the lowest point of the dip in Harunotaki meaning that, like a funnel, everything above them was headed their way. Through learned instinct, one guide scrambled as high as he could up the gully wall. As the avalanche reached him he got buried up to his waist. The other three weren’t as lucky and as the wall of snow hit them, they were swallowed up and buried.
Australian Ross Carty, former ski patroller and now owner of NOASC adventure company, had just got on the quad lift above the Alpen Hotel. He got a call on his mobile telling him there had been a slide and could he go and have a look. Within 15 minutes he was on the scene and found the hapless guide probing frantically.
“He was pretty panicked and told me there were three people down there,” says Ross. “He was working near where they were standing and I went and had a look around the base of the trees just below because that’s where people will often end up. A little while later he found something. You know you’ve hit a body if the probe bounces back after you push down – imagine poking yourself with a pen. So we started digging.”
An hour and 20 minutes after the avalanche they found the girls, Yuko on top of Hitomi, under 2.5m of snow. Yuko was dead. But by landing on her friend, she had created an air pocket for Hitomi and perhaps saved her life. They found the other guide about five metres further down the hill. He was curled over on his side and was also lucky to be alive.
What triggered the slide is not known but one of the theories is that it was a skier or boarder who had ventured into the out-of-bounds bowl. Unfortunately, riding untracked powder snow can be an irresistibly seductive pursuit, and except for the first half hour of any day, you’ll be lucky to find such virgin canvas within Niseko. It doesn’t take more than an hour or two for most of Hirafu’s off-piste powder to get cut up. It’s about this time powder junkies are lured out of bounds.
It was not long after the Harunotaki avalanche that Niseko United conceded they couldn’t stop people venturing out of bounds. So, in association with the Department of Forestry and various other local bodies, they agreed to allow off trail and back country access to the greater public under certain circumstances. Part of this agreement was that a firm set of rules be established. All bodies concerned agreed on what is known as the ‘Niseko Local Rules’ and it’s under these rules that skiers and boarders are now free to enjoy (almost) the whole mountain.
In terms of freedom to ski and ride where you want, Niseko is somewhat of a pioneer in Japan, and to a certain extent matches other forward thinking resorts around the world. In fact, it actually allows more freedom than many resorts in the US who don’t allow back country access at all. If one is caught ducking a rope into back country they may well end up in the back of a police car. Niseko follows the lead of resorts across Europe, the US and the southern hemisphere by allowing backcountry access through specific gated points on the ski area boundary.
The individual who was pivotal in the instigation and implementation of the Niseko Local Rules, and subsequent freeing up of the backcountry, is a local man named Akio Shinya. In the small community of Niseko he is a man who needs no introduction. For 20 years Shinya-san has been assessing avalanche conditions in the Niseko area. With out Shinya-san, Niseko may not have such a liberal back country policy, there would be much less terrain to ride, and many would argue the area may not have even boomed to the extent it has in recent years.
Shinya-san was born in Sapporo and moved to Niseko 34 years ago. Since then he has operated his small family run lodge Woodpeckers. He’s a highly experienced mountaineer both at home and abroad. “I’ve climbed many big mountains across Asia – The Himalayas, China, Pakistan, Russia… Actually I’ve done more than 10 expeditions to the Himalayas. I’ve climbed a few of the famous peaks there – first I did Mt Chamlang, Mt Batura and my last expedition was Mt Rakapushi in 1992. That was my most challenging climb.”
Shinya-san started avalanche testing and promoting avalanche awareness in Niseko at a time when he was one of the only people in the area with a sound knowledge of avalanche risk assessment and prevention. Over many years selflessly passing on his knowledge, he’s come to play an important role in the greater Niseko community of mountain users, essentially becoming a self-appointed guardian to the area.
During the winter, everyday for four months after finishing the daily house keeping chores in his lodge, Shinya tests for and writes an avalanche report for the ski areas around Niseko – “Last winter I wrote 103 reports,” he says with an obvious sense of satisfaction. He writes the report based on a combination of meteorological data, standard snow pack/avalanche analysis, and from his own vast knowledge of the area and its local characteristics.
Every morning he takes the first gondola to the top of Annupuri and stays at one of the designated backcountry access gates from about 9am until noon. He also has a protégé, Ohta-san, who helps with the daily operation by digging pits – a pit is a term given to an approximately metre by metre cavity dug into the snow to reveal the cross section of the snow pack. This is a standard technique used to gather information about avalanche likelihood for the day. Ohta-san does this in other areas such as Hirafu, Harunotaki and Mizunosawa, assessing the gathered information and relaying it to Shinya-san.
If you do venture into the Niseko backcountry you may well meet Shinya at one of the entry gates. He’ll advise you in Japanese or English of the day’s problematic or dangerous areas, and may even give you advice as to where the best powder is to be found. Shinya laughs that sometimes he still has to chase people who duck ropes where they shouldn’t. He does all this off his own bat. He is amazingly dedicated to the safety and enjoyment of skiers and boarders. If you are lucky enough to meet Shinya-san throw out an ‘otsukare sama desu’ (thanks for your hard work) as everyone who enjoys the backcountry should be truly thankful for his efforts. This is a man with a big heart who really cares for Niseko’s skiers’ well being.
An exciting point to note for the future is that among many others, Shinya-san would like to see some of the areas that are permanently closed under the current local rules, opened. Any skier or boarder with a lust for the extreme who has been to Niseko has gazed longingly up at the infamous Harunotaki, or out over the wide, untracked fields under the Higashiyama Gondola. As is, these are very real avalanche risks. Despite its tame appearance, under the gondola is a convex slope putting it at high risk of slab avalanche. But with management, there is a possibility these areas could be opened safely. In the meantime, don’t push your luck by riding there or you risk pushing their opening further back.
With or without the aforementioned terrain Niseko is now a phenomenal place to ski and snowboard. For some who don’t know the history of the Local Rules, they may seem limiting and restrictive but they are in fact there for everyone’s safety and are a huge improvement on previous mountain policy. International resorts such as Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley, Treble Cone, Chamonix, and hundreds of others safely open potentially dangerous terrain through careful management and a ski at your own risk policy. If history is anything to go by, it’s likely Niseko will follow their lead and open up even more exciting new terrain for riders to enjoy… safely.
Ross Carty’s back country survival tips:
Avalanche and back country travel comes down to common sense – don’t be gung ho and think you know everything. A lot of people get into trouble because of arrogance and inexperience.
Don’t be pushed by others. Always be wary. Always ski from a safe place to a safe place. Ski to a place where you wouldn’t expect an avalanche to happen.
If you are going back country go with buddy. If you’re not sure, don’t ski down the same slope at the same time – if it slides who’s going to come and dig you out?
There are a lot of companies around and a lot of experienced locals. Talk to people and find out which places you shouldn’t go. Look at the maps – the areas that are off limits are that way for a reason – they are avalanche prone and people have died there.
If the gates aren’t open then jump on a backcountry tour – go cat skiing, go to Moiwa, go to Chisenopuri and get an onsen and a lift ticket thrown in. Go to Iwanai and ski down slopes overlooking the ocean.
You always want to stay away from south facing slopes in the northern hemisphere because they get the most sun. If they are loaded and they get wet, that’s when they’re going to slide. If you’re on the mountain and you’re looking at Yotei, that’s east. Harunotaki is south facing. If you’re skiing on a south face at 11 or 12 then exercise caution. Don’t go into steep areas around that time. Avoid areas where if something happens you can’t get out.
Have the right equipment – an avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel and know how to use them correctly. Companies here can teach you how.
Wanna go backcountry?
NSA Niseko Snow Adventures
0909 757 4083
NOASC 0136 23 1688
Black Diamond Tours 090 2054 TOUR
NAC 0136 23 2093
Hokkaido Powder Guides (Furano)
0167 22 5655
Shinya’s daily avalanche report Nadare website http://niseko.nadare.info
Canadian Avalanche Association website www.avalanche.ca