Mizuno-no-Sawa is the bowl under the Hilton Niseko Gondola that has long tantalised powder-hungry riders viewing it while going up the gondola. This has been a “no-go-zone” and closed to the public since an avalanche saw three people lose their lives there over ten years ago. Niseko Village, skiers, and riders have been pushing to open this zone for quite some time now. This bowl has some of the steepest and most challenging terrain on the mountain with several open walls, tight tree runs, pillow lines, and cliffs to huck. In January 2010 this area was finally opened to the public, under strict regulations.
The monitored and regulated opening of the Mizuno-no-Sawa ‘Avalanche Control Operation Area’ is a big step forward for Niseko and other Japanese ski resorts, which traditionally do not allow any access to off-piste terrain. Niseko Village have worked for some time and have taken many steps to receive government approval for the opening of this former “no-go-zone”.
A Canadian avalanche expert named Chris Steffen was hired in 2007 to come and assist in the research and planning of the avalanche control zone. Shortly after Chris went back to Canada, Niseko Village ski-patrol started practice-bombing in the avalanche-prone areas in the bowl – they are the first to implement this strategy in Japan. Finally, Niseko Village had to present its case to the Shiribetsu government, and had to wait for the approval before they could open the zone.
To be able to ride in there, you must first attend a 20-minute safety and awareness lecture, sign a waiver and pay ¥2000 for a season pass card. You then exchange the pass card for a numbered bib that you must wear while in there. This allows Ski Patrol to be able to keep track of the number of people going in and out of the zone. Finally, there are strict entry and exit points, and if you are caught ducking ropes and entering without having attended the lecture you will have your Niseko all-mountain pass taken away.
Last season, people complained that when in the restricted area they had to follow ski patrol, which frustrated skiers and riders, and somewhat dampened the success of the project. This season ski patrol are allowing more freedom – once you are in the terrain it is yours to ski freely.
Powder hungry eyes are watching the developments in Niseko carefully, hoping that it will expand access to the amazing backcountry terrain available in mountains of Japan.
To book your place for a safety training seminar that will allow you to access Mizuno no Sawa, call Niseko Village on 136-441111, as the course run sporadically.