Scott Bowman has spent the last three seasons in Niseko without strapping a snowboard to his feet. “Once you’ve been snowmobiling you won’t want to go back,” he says with no hint of doubt. Drawn to Niseko eight years ago by the lure of powder, Bowman’s no longer interested in letting gravity dictate the lines he can draw. Instead, behind 150hp of snowmobile he forges his paths wherever he pleases. He’s so hooked he ditched the ski fields altogether, bought a base at Kanbetsu, 15 minutes drive from Niseko, sought permission from three levels of government, and started introducing people to his world – Hokkaido’s alpine wilderness courtesy of a go-anywhere snowmobile. Rather than being constrained by ski resort boundaries with thousands of others, Niseko Snowmobile Adventures takes small groups into rarely seen countryside. The investment in both effort and financial terms has been enormous – as a fleet of high powered machines, snow grooming cat and a dedicated professional staff attest.
“At the moment we’re closer to Sapporo than we are to Hirafu,” our guide Nick Gutry, NSA co-founder, says as we enjoy a hot cup of coffee at the halfway point of our journey. “Sapporo is 30km that way as the crow flies,” he says pointing north. We’re at ‘The Basin’, a football field-sized patch of pristine powder, surrounded by forest and mountain ridges, 18km out from base. We’re truly in the middle of nowhere. Without a snowmobile there would be no hope of making it back to civilization alive as the deep snow would prohibit walking more than several hundred metres an hour.
Nick kicks over the engine and roars off, hitting about 100km an hour in a matter of seconds. He draws a circle out towards the perimeter of The Basin before cutting across field at full pace. The bike wheelies for 20m before the nose of the sled lands and he veers sharply to the left, the whole 200kg sled virtually laying down on its side, almost burying itself in snow. He straightens it up and with another burst of power, lurches out of the cloud of powder, wheelies into line and returns: “Now it’s your turn”.
We take off, cautiously at first, unsure how our steeds will negotiate the deep powder. Swinging the far leg over on the right side gunnel to aid our turns we lean hard, putting all our weight to the front. The nose dips into the powder and slowly resurfaces. With 100m of untouched powder now straight ahead it’s time to give it some. I squeeze the throttle and take off, only topping 50km an hour but feeling like it’s twice that.
It’s time to head back. The 18km trip out took about an hour through an untouched, snow-bound landscape – a revelation for a native of the sub-tropics. It’s one thing to be in a car driving through winter Hokkaido on bitumen roads, but it’s something else to be ploughing through half a metre of snow, over ridges and through gullies, weaving through forests for mile upon mile, without a building, car or power pole in sight.
While it might sound like a thrillseekers-only experience, NSA will tailor tours to individual needs. Our tour included a trio less adventurous customers so NSA provided two guides with each group. All staff are trained in avalanche and backcountry safety and first aid. While the Powderlife crew was eager to get deep into the countryside – and the powder – as we could, the other group was happy to stay seated and cruise along the groomed track while taking in the unique winter scenery at their own relaxed pace.
I can’t call snowmobiling a spiritual experience, but without the roar of the engine I think it would be. While my snowboard’s not for sale just yet, I can’t deny I am thinking about how I can afford to add a snowmobile to collection.
Powderlife was guest on a half-day Niseko Snowmobile Adventures.