Ski-touring Hokkaido's perfect cone
Scrambling on all fours to the summit of the volcano and cursing the high heavens was not exactly how I imagined our long-envisaged ski experience to pan out.
As the cold began to bite and the wind rumbled, we started to question what on earth we were doing.
But climbing the active volcano, Mt Yotei, in search of deep powder was never going to be easy.
Most tourists flock to Hokkaido and the popular Niseko to experience the champagne powder snow that has the ski world talking. But for avid snow enthusiasts who want an journey outside the box, a powder hunt on one of Hokkaido's most magnificent volcanos is a phenomenal experience.
Mt Yotei, or Ezo Fuji (the Mt Fuji of Hokkaido), is an active strata-volcano in the Shikotsu- Toya National Park. From anywhere in Niseko, Yotei towers in the distance like Ngaruahoe from the slopes of Whakapapa usually with small clouds billowing above its crater. It is not a commercial mountain and not many tourists realise it's possible to hike Yotei to ski it. Fewer have experience of skiing its deep, powder-filled crater.
At 1898 metres tall, Mt Yotei is the highest mountain in the region and has the longest vertical ski descent in Hokkaido. As a backcountry day expedition it is challenging, with everything from steep, wind loaded bowls and huge open faces to spectacular tree runs.
Combining this with an average 15 metres of light powder each season, and Yotei becomes one of the most rewarding ski experiences Japan has to offer.
A lot of planning is involved in making an ascent successful. Days of monitoring weather patterns, avalanche reports and careful map reading. Bad weather comes in hard and fast in this region, many turn back on the ascent. We found a well-respected local guide with a lot of experience and spent 10 days waiting for the conditions to oblige.
The morning of our hike was unseasonably warm, and bright February sun glistened on the mountain. An early start at 8am had us putting on snowshoes - our group included snowboarders - and after solid checks of our avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes and food, we set off.
It takes six to eight hours to summit; we left no margin for error and made it to the peak in 5 1/2, stopping only three times to hydrate and refuel. This is not a leisurely day on the slopes - it's a rigorous, steep hike that will test your resolve and your fitness.
With less than a quarter of the way to go, the sugary top layer of snow started to break under our snow shoes, unnerving and frustrating, and we were soon forced to crawl. It must have looked amusing and ridiculous, but it took determination not to ski down from where we were.
Our goal was to ski the deep powder inside Yotei's crater, so we ploughed on.
The weather was deceptive above 1300m - the sun was shining but the wind was biting and dangerously cold. The deep crater inside Mt Yotei is a sight to behold - deep, beautiful, towering walls of soft snow. The crater is 300m to 400m deep and we were just small dots as we skied the long slopes.
New Zealander Sam Kerr and our guide on the day, Paul Craig, assured us this experience was not something easily achieved. Kerr grew up skiing and snowboarding in Central Otago and now runs Niseko Xtreme Tours, a local company specialising in backcountry tours.
He said conditions needed to be near perfect to make a ski mission up Yotei and into the volcano's crater successful. About 100 people attempt the climb each winter; about 20 people manage to ski the crater.
Kerr has lived in Niseko for five years and tries, along with several local Kiwis, to climb Yotei about 10 times a season.
"It is an all-inspiring mountain that makes you want to experience it.
"Once you summit it is a feeling like no other. You feel like nothing else matters. You are now on top of the world."
It took us about 40 minutes to hike out of the crater and again we were rewarded with an awesome sight - a 360-degree view of Mt Niseko Annupuri.
Skiing the north face of Yotei was a challenge - an exciting 50-degree slope and an open, corniced powder bowl. One side of the slope was extremely icy and lumpy, the other side dangerously deep with fresh powder. Being avalanche-averse, we took the icy route which was nerve-racking, but it led us to the best tree runs of the season. We had a half-hour descent through untracked powder and the lightness of it made you feel like you were floating on a soft, bouncy blanket above the snowpack.
When to go
From January on, the days get longer with more sunlight. Tours can vary in price from about NZ$188 to $235 per person. Email Paul Craig - firstname.lastname@example.org. Niseko Xtreme Tours offers tours for NZ$200 per person plus $40 for backcountry gear rental. What ski equipment to bring
Avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes and touring ski bindings/skins or snowshoes and poles. All can be rented locally for NZ$31 for a basic kit to $58 for a complete package.
What to wear
Layering with good merino or polypro base and mid-layers is imperative. Also bring a good spare pair of polarised sunglasses or goggles. Skiing with foggy goggles can be the difference between a mediocre, frustrating experience and an epic tour down the mountain.
What to eat
You will need high-energy, easily edible snacks like energy bars or chocolate; onigiri (large Japanese rice balls usually filled with salmon or tuna) are ideal, and a thermos with warm liquid for when it gets cold at the top. Bring at least one litre of water for the hike; a 3-litre drinking bladder is ideal.
The Dominion Post