Two ski tourers under a rd sign
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Mt Chisenpuri – Out Of My Element

Although this blog has few readers at this stage, it has still been a great networking tool. Back in NZ I was contacted by an aspiring (now qualified) Sydney ski guide, Joel. So when Luke was planning a ski trip in Japan and was looking for back country partners he was referred to me via Joel. We chatted on Facebook for a while before his arrival, discussing plans and conditions. Our initial plan was to attempt Eniwadake but the whether was foul and unpredictable so in the end we settled for something a bit closer to home. Luke was providing the car and I suggested we invite a third person in case we got in trouble to make self rescue a bit easier. That’s where Jack comes in. He wrote a bit about the experience so I’ll let him take it from here.

Twas two nights before Christmas when I got the text: “Hey mate, what are you doing on Boxing Day? I’m planning to go for a back country tour with someone else, and there is room if you want to come along.”

My first thought: Yeah, I’m in!

Second thought: When the f&#* is Boxing Day?

Third: S#!@ I have to get someone to take my shift at work, wrangle together an Avalanche Safety Kit, track the weather, and not be too hungover after our Christmas Party (By now I had figured out when Boxing Day was).

The text came from Sam, an Aussie skier/climber/biker who I’d met on the mountain, maybe my 3rd day in Japan. After slashing some frothy pillow laps under the Hanazono 3 chair, I’d made the always awkward request for another male’s number.

Two ski tourers under a rd sign
This is a classic Niseko touring area. This sign would have been photographed a lot. Photo: Luke Frisken

I’m glad we connected because, although there’s always someone to ski with at the resort, touring takes some planning. Anyway I immediately responded to Sam with ‘thought 1’ and got to work on ‘thought 3’. First, I had to get someone to pick up my shifts at the cruisey office gig I have at a private ski school. I am living in Hirafu for free on a workaway. This means I do some work for the “Host” in exchange for a place to live and meals. It’s a pretty good deal usually, until you realize your host has a couple screws loose, you live in an attic with 10 other people, and instead of getting meals, you get 800 yen a day (USD$7). Nevertheless life is grand, due to the glorious amounts of light fluffy dendrites. Moreover the Costanza in me managed to get work in Scott’s ski school, instead of shoveling snow all day. Most days in the office are spent answering a few emails, making sure lessons have teachers, working on my rendition of Rocky Raccoon on the office Yamaha, and having a cuppa tea with Olly (a former volunteer of Scott’s, who has taken to hanging out in our office, in between his pretend job as a parking attendant). Cruisey indeed.

But I digress- someone still needs to take my shift and the group text I sent is getting crickets.

Undeterred, I now set my sights on getting that Avalanche kit (I figured if nobody wanted my shift I’d call in sick to my unpaid job- I’m here to ski dammit!). An Avalanche Rescue Package consists of a beacon (essentially a transceiver), probe (collapsible stick), and small shovel which retails for the WTF sum of $400. If someone gets buried in an avalanche, their partner searches for them with the beacon, sticks the probe in to feel their body, and then shovels them out. I should already have these necessary tools since I toured in Tahoe last year, but I was being really frugal (or resourceful) and luckily my former boss just so happened to have perfect AVI gear gathering dust in his garage. Now however I’m faced with the decision to buy new gear, that I’ll either have to sell or ship home at the end of the season, (as I intend to continue traveling) or rent/borrow temporarily. After kicking the tires on the latter, I decided to shell out the 40,000 yens for a new kit, rationalizing that it will last my whole life. A little Christmas present to Jack… from Jack.

Touring along the road is easy but it doesn’t gain you much elevation. Photo: Luke Frisken

After confirming the weather with Sam, it was officially “a go” for Boxing Day. Then somewhere between the Danish custom of dancing around the Christmas tree and my family’s custom of a charades-ish game called Garbage Pal, Olivia texted that she could cover my shift. I was all set.

We met at the Seicomart the next morning, gathering last second Snickers bars, donuts, and rice triangles. Driving the Honda hatchback was Luke, another Aussie skier/mountaineer who’d only just met Sam by contacting this blog. Luke was just vacationing in Japan for 2 weeks and had come mainly to backcountry ski- he clearly knew what he was doing. I promptly took a physical and metaphorical backseat for this journey.

Luke and Sam discussing route options during a very brief break in the weather. Photo: Jack Creed.

But what a journey it was. Just from the car ride we could already tell it would be a hectic day. The visibility was so poor that we had to stop multiple times to make sure we weren’t running into the snowbank. Finally we made it to ‘the spot’, which was merely a dead end, where the snowplow stopped and the road ahead was only passable with skis or snowshoes. Located on the backside of a smaller resort called Chisenpuri, Sam had scouted this spot previously during his Avalanche Safety Training course (A course which I am enrolled to take later in the month) but he didn’t know much about it past the first 500 meters. Either way, we knew from word-of-mouth that there were some good, low-risk lines here.

I slapped on the skins in the cold blustery wind and snow- total rookie move- and started following Sam and Luke up the completely untouched road. My goal for this trip into the backcountry was mainly to get some deep, milky turns in the untracked powder (pretty much the reason to ski anytime, hey?). But I also wanted to learn how to navigate the backcountry better and safer. I can hold my own when it comes to the actual skiing down the mountain (although I’ll admit Sam can out ski me any day, and twice on Sunday), but the whole knowing-where-the-hell-we’re-going-and-not-getting-buried part was where I was a bit out of my element. As mentioned, I had toured once before, but that was on a bluebird day at Jake’s Peak in Tahoe and the skin track had already been put in by previous skiers. Here in Chisenpuri we had to find a clear route up the mountain, make sure the snow was stable, and pick some fun lines down that would take us back to the road and not into a gully or creek – all in the cold swirling winds and snow. For the first time in my life, I was dependent on just a compass to get around. Even Sam and Luke couldn’t tell which way was north in the grey sky and swirling wind.

Fresh turns and empty slopes is what its all about. Photo: Luke Frisken

We trudged onwards and upwards- these challenges were expected, but dealing with the conditions certainly made it more interesting. As the slope started to get steeper, Luke and Sam started mentioning a snow pit. Being the village idiot, I blurted “what’s a snow pit?” (which I’m sure put them at ease). Turns out, building a snow pit is Touring 101. Its a simple and essential way to test snow quality and avalanche risk. But being a good sport and engineer, Luke meticulously walked me through the steps of digging out a 1.5 meter face of snow, then cutting a 30 centimeter slab out, analyzing the layers of snow, and pressure testing for slides. Luckily, the snow performed well and after comparing results with Sam, who had taken a separate sample, we continued hiking.

There were a lot of pillows in this zone but landings were hard to spot in the flat light. Photo: Luke Frisken

From this point on, we gave each other a bit of space in between hiking. This is standard practice to prevent all 3 of us being taken out together should there be a slide. Sam took the lead, the toughest position because he had to break the trail into the light, yet very deep snow. Luke and I followed, happily exerting less energy. Several switchbacks later, we lifted our heads and realized we were near the summit, something we hadn’t even planned on doing. Summits aren’t always necessary when touring- you merely need to find a good section to ski and preferably take laps on that section (i.e. ski down, hike back up, rinse and repeat). In our case and considering the high winds, we actually wanted to stay off the summit. So we traversed a little further, found some relative shelter from the wind, and smashed some snacks and water. Finally it was time to ski.

The pow was blower. Photo: Luke Frisken

If there’s a cool way to describe sliding down snow on 2 wooden planks, I haven’t heard it yet. All I can say is that it was f*#&$)* deep, above the nether region and into the nipple region. Blower. Pow. Bouncing from turn to turn, floating really- literally swallowing snow. This was the reason I was on the other side of the world. I couldn’t see a thing but it didn’t matter. Letting out a huge yewwww, I ended the lap by slamming into the wall of a gully that I misjudged for a slight incline and double ejected, laughing so hard I was coughing up snow.

Let’s do that again. (Written by Jack Creed).

After another lap we were pretty sick of the driving wind and the daylight was running out so we headed home. It was a good day. Its always nice to get out even in bad weather. Although its even nicer to get home to a hot shower. Big props to Luke for driving and Jack for writing this post.

Sam
Avid outdoors man, aspiring mountain guide and author of 'For love of the Mountains'

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