Over the last two decades, Japan’s ski resorts have firmly established themselves as a mecca for skiers and snowboarders seeking the deepest, lightest powder. As the resorts have become more popular, the search for the best snow has naturally seen many take to the Japanese backcountry, where fresh tracks and deep turns are all but guaranteed.
Skiing in the backcountry – wherever you are in the world – comes with inherent risks, and there has been some concern within the Japanese skiing community that tourists are often arriving without the required knowledge and experience to keep themselves safe.
In an effort to understand the kind of experience, ability and equipment required for first timers to get started in the backcountry, we approached Andrew Spragg, Director of Niseko-based Rising Sun Guides with a few questions.
Ski Asia: How much experience do you need to get into backcountry skiing into Japan?
Andrew: Simply put, you need to take an avalanche course before you consider going into the backcountry. Your capabilities travelling downhill at a ski resort are, for the most part, irrelevant. Of course, it would be silly to walk up something you can’t ski down but there is a common misconception that backcountry skiing must be extreme. This is not true – there is plenty of moderate terrain available in the backcountry and intermediate skiers can have a great time.
“There is a common misconception that backcountry skiing must be extreme. That is not true.”
The difference between the backcountry and the resort is that the terrain is not managed and therefore unmarked natural hazards exist, including but not limited to avalanches.
Introductory avalanche courses are designed to give people the knowledge and tools to start exploring the backcountry safely. These first courses are absolutely not the end of the line – understanding avalanches is a lifelong pursuit that depends not only on formal education but personal experience observing how weather and snow affect the snow pack. These courses will, however, provide you with the information to identify avalanche terrain (and avoid it if you are uncertain), pick up on changing conditions, understand how to conduct an effective companion rescue and many other critical skills to begin that journey.
How important is it to go with a guide?
This depends completely on your level of knowledge. If you have avalanche training, a good understanding of mountains, weather and navigation then you may not need a guide. Travelling with a guide allows you to rely on their knowledge to recognise hazards and find great skiing.
Most ski/snowboard guides spend 100+ days a year in the backcountry and have spent many thousands of dollars on courses. Along with their training in risk management and avalanches, they also have a huge amount of knowledge on how to use terrain to your advantage. There is a lot to be said for finding not only a safe but efficient route up a mountain.
Skiing with a guide not only improves your level of safety but it’s almost certain to result in more reward for less effort. It’s often overlooked how much time and training ski guides have, and how much can be learned by spending time in the backcountry with one.
Simple things like maintaining hydration and energy levels with food and water, efficient and effective transitions to keep you moving and your equipment working, moderating your temperature and keeping your goggles fog-free are super important lessons that guides will happily and quickly impart to you on a guided trip.
What kind of international certifications or qualifications should you look for in a guide? Anything else you should look for?
A guide is not a ski/snowboard guide unless they are accredited with an internationally recognised body such as the IFMGA, ACMG, AMGA, NZMGA, JMGA or equivalent bodies in other countries. This does not mean that you can’t ski with an uncertified guide if they are working with an operation that is following the protocols of these organisations.
There does need to be a pathway to learn in the guiding community because the required skills take years to develop and first hand experience is essential to that process. These associations provide guidance on how to directly and indirectly supervise trainee guides as they work their way through the steps to becoming certified. This guidance involves having a strong snow safety program in place to ensure they are provided with an operational forecast everyday, are given terrain restrictions suited to conditions and requirements to contact superiors based on defined factors.
If you are skiing with a solo guide with no outside support then they should absolutely be a full cert ski or snowboard guide.
Look for those abbreviations and logos when booking! It takes a lot of time and money to get these qualifications and anyone that doesn’t is risking your life to make a quick buck.
When’s the best time of year?
January and February are our heaviest snowfall months, so the best time to catch classic Hokkaido pow is during that period. If you’re into the backcountry though, March is the time. Longer days, more stable weather and a deep, consolidated snowpack offer easier backcountry access, higher likelihood of alpine visibility and the opportunity to get deeper into the backcountry to find that hidden gem.
What equipment do I need?
Everyone needs to have the basics – transceiver, shovel and probe to be able to conduct an effective rescue. There are also a tonne of other tools such as airbag packs, first aid kit, headlamp, repair kit, snow study kit, survival kit, extra layers, extra goggles, extra gloves etc that you should have, but you don’t have to have everything on day one. Your plan for the day should dictate how much equipment you need to carry, but any ski guide would have all of the above and more on any given day.
Skiers need to have an AT setup with skins. Tech bindings are lighter and make touring more efficient but as long as you can free your heel, you can go somewhere.
Snowboarders should have splitboards (especially in Hokkaido). Snowshoes will get you into the backcountry and are fine to start, but they are inefficient, particularly in deep snow, and mean added weight and the hassle of having a snowboard on your back. Just try walking through a forest with a three foot telescope above your head and you’ll get the idea.
Splitboard technology has improved significantly in recent years and you really aren’t losing anything on the descent, while gaining the opportunity to get more vert day in and day out.
Is it best to buy my own (and if so, where?) – or can I rent it over there?
If you plan to spend a lot of time in the backcountry then you probably want your own setup, but if you are just getting started, renting is a great way to try out different equipment to see what works best for you. Renting also saves you the hassle of bringing everything on planes, trains and buses. We maintain a fleet of high end AT skis and splitboards and have everything a backcountry powder junkie needs to get their fix.
What about clothes?
Good gear is essential to safe backcountry travel. You can rent this but it is best to bring your own if for no other reason than style. You need a good breathable/waterproof shell, lots of layers, a good base layer and no cotton!
Where in Japan would you start your backcountry journey? Are there some good hikes for first timers?
There is lots of great moderate ski touring here. If you’re just getting started, contact a responsible guiding company and they’ll make sure you enjoy your first day of ski touring as opposed to deciding you’ll never do it again.
Many of us have seen videos of people skiing into the crater of Mt. Yotei. What kind of level and experience would we need to do something like that?
Skiing the crater is an epic experience but its not even close to the hardest part. First you need to summit the mountain and be capable of descending back down. The crater run itself is a moderate pitch that most intermediate skiers/riders would have a blast on (experts too). Getting there and getting home are the challenge.
What’s your favourite backcountry spot in Japan?
Drop us a line at Rising Sun Guides and we’ll show you!
Rising Sun Guides is a professional backcountry guide service based in Niseko, Hokkaido. They are widely regarded as one of Japan’s most competent guiding teams in Japan, and have unmatched experience finding the best lines, deepest snow and most unique terrain on the island.