Our headlights ignite a furious vortex of snowflakes that races toward the windshield of our little Toyota HI eight-passenger van as we speed into the night and the thickening storm ahead. The road beyond the falling snow is barely distinguishable from the massive banks of white on either side of it, carved from the landscape by the massive snow-removal vehicles that came before, leading us deeper into the mountains of central Hokkaido.
I’m here with six friends on the northernmost of Japan’s islands to chase one of the last bastions of pristine powder in this world of shifting climates and warming winters—and to explore the beauty and ecstasy most all skiers chase amid the depths of bottomless powder in the land of the rising sun.
After what seems like hours of driving through the endless contrast of darkness and falling snow, we turn up one last road and are greeted by a glowing edifice of warmth and light. A single, massive A-frame building that resembles a mystical castle, flanked in steam and the infinite depth of winter’s night beyond, sits as a stronghold against the onslaught of snow that has piled up ten feet high around it.
This remote backcountry lodge will be our home and base for the first ten days of our stay in Hokkaido. The steam that slowly fights back against the falling snow from beyond the lodge is one of the reasons that my friend Nick Waggoner, founder of Sweetgrass Productions and our trip leader, chose this as our team’s first place of respite: The superheated water that bubbles up from the earth is piped through the building and into a massive and aged bathhouse crafted of wood and volcanic stone, then distributed into pools of varying temperatures that compliment the long days of skiing with a pure cleansing of body and soul.
We settle into dormitory-style rooms and head out for a quick ski up the hill beyond the lodge, just to get the blood moving in our legs after two days of traveling from North America to remote northern Japan. Our headlamps pierce a winter landscape like I’ve never experienced as we skin up into the darkness. Sparse thickets of bamboo, tamped down by the heavy snow, are interspersed with massive and ancient birch trees that hold out snow-covered limbs like the arms of tranquil giants cloaked in raiments of pure white. We strip our skins and point our headlamps downhill and back toward the lodge, which shines like a radiant coal in the soft night below. Whooping and shouting to each other as we bump down through the supple and rolling landscape, we ski back toward the mystical bathhouse and bed.
The breakfast buffet the following morning consists of some familiar items and some that might weaken a non-Japanese diner’s appetite for breakfast, including salted fish guts and fermented soybeans. Nick makes me try a bite of salted fish guts as my induction into the cult of Ja-Pow, and then I opt for eggs, toast, and miso soup before heading out to gear up for the day’s ski.
A ten-minute drive down the road, at an empty intersection, is something of a trailhead, where skin tracks lead off in different directions and up toward a distant ridgeline hidden in thick clouds and still thickly falling snow. We’re the first ones along the skin track for the day, and we break trail through a foot of fresh snow that has fallen overnight. As we walk through a world of almost flawless white, fragmented only by the black limbs of the birch trees, the insulation of winter muffles all but our heavy breathing and the swoosh of skins on snow.
Brief moments of visibility reveal the massive peaks above us and, below, the rolling valleys that lead out toward tiny, quiet towns, lost in the infinite white landscape beyond. Here in the more remote central district of Hokkaido, outside Furano, we’re one group of only a few foreigners who venture into the backcountry. But in the southwest region of the island, near Niseko, skiers from across the globe have begun traveling in much higher density than ever before. They come to indulge in a magical infusion: moisture coming off the Sea of Japan colliding with the frigid cold fronts that blast across the tundra of northeast Siberia, creating, through the months of January and February, unprecedented amounts of fluffy powder snow. (See our picks for the world’s 25 best ski towns, including Niseko, Japan.)
As of late it’s become a hot route for powder pilgrims, as winters have become warmer and warmer in North America and Europe—and powder skiing a tighter commodity. The convoluted idea of flying across the globe burning fossil fuels to chase a winter that we’re losing to global warming isn’t lost on me as we skin silently through this snow-covered wonderland, thousands of miles from my home in Montana, where I learned to ski. I was raised with a love and hunger to explore the wilds, and the impact that we have on the natural world when we travel abroad to open and expand our knowledge and perspective of this amazing planet is a hard thing to swallow.
A storm hits as we’re on the skin track and surges into a full-on whiteout. I’m suddenly alone in this world of white, even though I’m no more than 50 yards behind my friend Karl as we continue uphill and into the blizzard. The tips of my skis come in and out of view as they emerge one after the other through the deepening snow in the track ahead. The wind finds every crack in the armor of my outwear, chilling me to the bone, as I have to reach up and free my eyelashes of building frost.
To most anyone this would seem to be a moment of trepidation and despair, caught in a blizzard on the side of a mountain, with the cold working its way into your soul, but we have chosen this; it’s our chase and love in this life to face the wild and drink it in. The storm calms as quickly as it flared, and the clouds rapidly part to reveal the massive summit of Mount Tokachi high above us, wind trailing a plume of crystalline snow off its broad peak like a great white scarf.
The group gathers at the top of our run, and we strip our skins for the decent. An entire mountain flank, topped with three feet of fresh snow, lies between us and the day’s end, and we drop in turn into our first turns, watching each skier before us paint graceful, arcing lines down this impeccable canvas of white. This is why we have come to the remote mountains of this distant and mysterious country, to ski powder snow, of course, but more so to push the edges of our understanding of this world and add to it in our own regard.
If you have a hard time remembering to make sure you have all your gear to get out for a day of skiing at your home mountain, just imagine what packing for a monthlong ski trip is like. Before our departure to Japan, I think I double-checked my kit 20 times to make sure I wasn’t missing a glove or an extra set of goggles.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
During our ski-venture here, there were a few things I found indispensable that I thought I’d share for your benefit in future ski trips.
Trew Gear Wander Jacket and Pant: Trew is a smaller U.S.-based company out of Hood River, Oregon, that makes some incredible high-tech winter wear. Their new backcountry jacket and bib was a godsend. Super lightweight and stretchy for touring, yet durable and more waterproof than any other jacket I’ve come across, it’s the ultimate in up-down outerwear.
Truck M1 Glove: These gloves from Truck, started this past year out of Salt Lake City, Utah, by adventure photographer Jay Beyer, are the most simple solution to cold hands I’ve found. It’s modeled off of a simple leather work glove but with added insulation, a micro-fleece lining, and an impeccably soft fit. I didn’t use any other glove this season.
Voke Tabs: I never leave the house for skiing without a tin of Voke Tabs—chewable green-tea caffeine tablets with vitamin C and Guarana berry that come seven to a tin. They’re the best thing to have on hand when you’re pushing it up that backcountry skin track for another lap.
Salomon MTN Lab Boot: My challenge in picking a backcountry ski boot has forever been finding the right balance: a light enough weight that’s comfortable for walking long distances while still being comparable to a big-mountain ski boot when it comes to the downhill. The MNT Lab fits the bill to a T. If you’re looking for a boot to get off-piste as well as ride resort, this is your jam.