For the past decade I’ve explored the mountains of Niseko. From the resorts, through the gates and then quickly discovering the backcountry where I find I am drawn with a passion; a passion for exploration, driven by the pursuit of perfect snow in pristine wilderness. Niseko’s mountains are beautiful and expansive. Mt Annupuri salutes Yotei at the head of the range, running from the rice fields of Kutchan all the way to the ocean. It is a vast wilderness of alpine peaks and open expanses, cropped by a waistband of forest that blankets the lower half of the range and spills out onto farmland at the foothills.
I’ve spent many days behind the peaks visible from Annupuri, incrementally exploring the backcountry, but I’d always looked further and craved the time and opportunity to explore the furthest peaks. The wellknown open bowls of Annupuri are just a sample of the terrain and only a fraction of what’s between here and the sea.
I’ve spent years mapping and planning routes from home in Hirafu all the way to the Sea of Japan, marking points of interest for further investigation. What I wanted to do was not possible as a daytrip and required planning and logistics, as well as ample time in the mountains, to thoroughly explore the hardest-to-reach terrain. For me it’s like exploring the back yard that you’ve seen little bits of but never ventured into. The big mountains are visible from the more popular backcountry peaks here – like Nitto and even Chise – but it’s the thrill of walking into the wilderness and leaving these peaks and the resorts behind that I was chasing.
At first, the idea was just a tiny seed; the glimmer of an adventure combining shared passions and a love of wild mountains and oceans. A multi-day, snow camping and hiking traverse of the Annupuri range, finishing at the ocean, then following the waves north to where mountains and ocean are most closely entwined; the island of Rishiri. This story recounts the first part of a month-long trip – the traverse to the ocean.
Hokkaido takes all the unique culture and wonder of Japan and blends it with a pristine wilderness to create a truly special piece of the planet. A remote land of extremes which attracts a special kind of person. And so too did this trip. Long days hiking in the mountains, camping in the snow, enduring the wind and cold – coupled with surfing in water cold enough to break the will of even the most seasoned veterans – takes a certain energy that only a team of truly positive and dedicated adventurers, and friends, can bring.
Our team comprised myself, assigned as trip photographer and running the logistics of the trip with professional skier Lena Stoffel, and snowboarding peer Aline Bock; videographer Mathias Kogel, who had been commissioned to produce a film of the trip; and a support crew made up of Teddy Laycock, our primary backcountry and snow camping expert; Tatsumi Kono, lending local knowledge; and Ben Antoni, providing additional grunt to help us move gear, as well as general comic relief.
Our band of seven spent two days packing, planning and working through logistics before setting out on what would be an adventure on the way to realising a long-held dream.
The first stage was to set out from our lodge in Niseko, hoping to quickly cover the local backcountry and explore some lesser-known terrain, before finishing the day with a camp close to Niimi Onsen, a last candle of civilisation before the wilderness takes over completely.
TEXT: AARON JAMIESON
PHOTOS: AARON JAMIESON
APPEARS IN: POWDERLIFE WINTER 2017 EDITION
“Finishing the day with a camp close to Niimi onsen, a last candle of civilization before the wilderness takes over completely.”
The sun was shining and the first part of our trip went smoothly and without incident. A naive confidence set in and we enjoyed some fresh turns in the morning before slogging on towards our intended campsite.
It was as we approached the bald, rounded peak of Chise that the weather switched. An impenetrably thick cloud condensed on the mountains, bringing with it some of the worst white-out conditions I’d seen. It did not take long for us to understand the magnitude of what we’d set out to achieve. Even with maps, compasses, planning, and Tatsumi and my combined local knowledge, a dense white-out in the high alpine forced us to take a meandering course towards first camp. Twice we walked in a circle as the disorientation of white sought to confuse our instincts and hold us in the mountains.
We moved carefully as a group, into unknown and invisible terrain. The fun of skiing fresh lines was replaced with the fear of being lost in the mountains. A painstaking process ensued, as we navigated using a compass and topographic maps, pinpointing our location when we could get enough visibility to match terrain features with our paper topographic maps. Daylight faded, the cold afternoon arrived, and we trudged on with our packs pulling our spirits downward.
Much later than we had planned, we arrived at Niimi Onsen – an oasis calling to us in a frozen expanse of inhospitable white. We pitched camp, cooked dinner, and after a restorative hike down to the onsen, a long bath, and a walk back up to camp, our spirits lifted. We bunkered down in our tents and sleeping bags for the night, as the fog gave way to flakes and we listened to the snow collect and slide off the nylon of our flys.
“It was day two and already we were tired – the team had managed sporadic sleep but the cold was more than some of us had anticipated and had a sapping effect on our resolve.”
Morning broke and after a much longer day than expected – and a much colder night – we were forced to re-evaluate our situation. It was day two and already we were tired; the team had managed sporadic sleep but the cold was more than some of us had anticipated and had a sapping effect on our resolve.
Faced with questionable weather, we decided to take a conservative approach and this proved to be an excellent decision. We needed to move our camp higher into the mountains but to do this in a snowstorm was asking for trouble. We re-planned our route and potential campsite and went about navigating a way through to our next camp, opting to stay below tree line. This also allowed us plenty of time to ride new lines and get a good helping of powder turns, before settling back into our tents that evening. The skiing was like riding anywhere around the resorts – nicely spaced trees and open bowls, but with no-one else out there. We had the place to ourselves.
“The wind looked bad. Seriously bad. But… there was an opening in the morning with severe wind predicted to hit after lunch.”
Another cold but more comfortable night saw us wake with renewed vigor. The sun was burning the clouds off and the weather appeared stable. We quickly packed and pushed on to the highest campsite we had planned, at around 1000m, on the alpine flanks of Mekunnaidake.
Mekunnai is awesome – it’s huge with two big rolling sides. The back side is lumpy and amazing, the front side has big intermediate ski lines and a plateau, topping some lower altitude steep terrain descending into trees.
Our camp on Mekunnai was a special location. Dug into the side of the mountain, our tents looked back over the range to Annupuri and Yotei in the distance. Out here, you’re really removed from civilisation; the only sounds you hear provided by nature.
Our progress over the first two days hampered by weather, the third day would see us tackle the highest passes and make a long distance mission to the ocean, with fully loaded packs including camping equipment, food and film gear.
The weather report was looking bad for the afternoon and it was difficult to estimate exactly how far we would have to travel, or how long this would take. It was questionable as to how achievable this would be and a group meeting had us vote on whether we would go, or retreat back towards the relative safety of the only building within a day’s ski – Niimi Onsen.
The team was split – the enthusiasm of some overruling the sensibility of others. Tatsumi and I agreed that the wind looked bad. Seriously bad. But… there was an opening in the morning with severe wind predicted to hit after lunch. We agreed to wake early and prepare to depart, with the direction to be decided after another weather check in the morning.
Waking to epic weather – clear skies and no wind – we decided to go for it. Packing down our campsite as quickly as possible, the team set off to conquer the peaks of Mekunnai and Raiden Yama, hoping to be at the van we’d left at the ocean-side just after lunch. Raiden Yama translates to “thunder and lightning mountain”. It’s the biggest and most open mountain expanse in the entire range and, for me, the most foreboding and alluring.
An early morning hike put us on the back side of Raiden for lunch. The weather was immaculate, the wind almost breathless. We joked confidently of arriving at the ocean and needing a swim after a warm day walking in the sun. We set off for the final push, over Raiden and down to the ocean. As we rounded the back of the summit, everything changed. It got windy, really windy. I’m not talking about wind that feels a bit chilly. Or the wind you cower in your jacket hood to escape. This was wind comparable to wind storms I’d experienced on the ice cap of Greenland. It was horrendous. A howling, demonic, ice-fuelled series of continuous whip-strikes.
The situation turned from a fun day walking in the sun, to bad. Hardened ice underfoot and 100kmh headwinds hurling snow with chaotic ferocity in every direction. We were plastered with snow, our gloves had iced up, and visibility was an impenetrable blizzard beyond 3m. With no real option other than to push on into the unknown terrain ahead, we struggled and we suffered. Frozen solid by the wind and, even with crampons, constantly sliding and falling on the ice.
Raiden was not allowing us an easy passage and seemed determined to rip us from the mountain. We continued to suffer for almost three hours, all the while enduring ferocious winds roaring from the ocean, stripping snow from the peaks, and the spirit from our team.
It was our firm resolve as a group that brought us across the top, to find relief in the form of a grove of trees. Still the wind lashed us but we were no longer in immediate danger of frostbite, or worse, sliding off the now stripped and icy mountainside into the rocky valleys below.
In the hours spent battling the wind, we once again had to surrender our planned route and – now in survival mode – aimed to reach the lower altitude and relative safety of the forest as quickly as possible, before the weather or an accident made our situation any worse. We strapped in and picked our way along and down to the trees on the leeward side of the ridge, our only choice being to hide from the wind and make a high traverse as far as possible.
Our persistence and punishment were justified and rewarded, as we traversed several tree-covered ridges and bowls to enjoy a pristine view to the ocean and Iwanai town. The sun was casting a warm afternoon glow and the snow was untouched, spring-flavoured, fun snow and widely spaced pines for hundreds of metres below us. After six hours of hiking – carrying kit and being lashed by wind – it was time to enjoy some turns!
Taking this chance to shoot some images that I’d had in my mind for years, the strenuous effort of the last four days evaporated. Riding lines with views to the ocean and the coming together of mountains and sea. We each enjoyed our own lines down and then, meeting in the forest below, we raced through the pines as a group, like playing ski tag through a zigzagging obstacle course. As the terrain flattened out we found what looked to be the closest road on our maps, a faintly visible logging track, and used what gradient we had left to ski as far along it as possible.
Slowly twisting down along the logging track we crossed a bridge and met up with the uncleared access road where we unstrapped, added our boards and skis to our packs, and started walking with the smell of salt air in our nostrils and satisfied smiles on windburned faces.
The slushy road eventually melted to bitumen and we slumped onto our packs on the roadside snow bank. We’d hiked and camped the length of the Annupuri range, experienced everything the mountains of Niseko had to offer, and finally realised a long-held dream.
Embarking on the next section of our trip, we had a renewed sense of what was possible. Setting off north in two vans loaded with camping gear, surfboards and ski equipment, we followed the ocean – searching for waves through to the most northern tip of Hokkaido.