A First-Hand Look Into Niseko Backcountry Touring

By Alex Callan | Rhythm Japan Editor

When it comes to riding in Niseko, everyone swears that the best powder you’ll get is in the backcountry. For good reason, outside of the resort and gate system, there’s almost countless mountain ranges to explore – all of which are rideable. 

So as you can imagine, since being here, I’ve been wanting to try it out. 

Although in all honesty, I was a bit nervous. I’d never been backcountry or lift-accessed sidecountry touring before; I knew that Hokkaido has a high risk of avalanches, and I’m certainly not the fittest guy in Niseko, so the thought of hiking up a literal mountain created a huge level of doubt about if I could actually do it. 

Still, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see what all the hype was about and I wasn’t going to let my internal trepidation stand in the way of that. 

Having now done the tour, I can say that I’m so proud that I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone and went ahead with it. As a snowboarder, I’m comfortable riding pretty much anywhere on the mountain, but I also realised that I wasn’t going to be a professional over a decade ago, so when I ride, I normally stick to terrain that I know and try to minimise my risk of breaking a bone. 

But that’s really not what snowboarding is about–it’s all about taking risks. So to find myself in a situation where I was actually pushing myself and my abilities was honestly a feeling I hadn’t even noticed I’d missed.

Which would never have happened without the help of the Rhythm Ride’s instructors that took me along for the trek. I was lucky enough to score Josh Kent, the head of Backcountry Touring and Guiding, as the leader of our trip, as well as having Rides’ Instructors Connor and Felicia come along for added support. Not only were they knowledgeable about the mountain and different weather conditions that may cause risk, they were also extremely diligent in assessing everyone’s individual abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and were adaptable as a result. 

Having had avalanches in Hokkaido and Niseko in the days leading up to our tour, we had to reroute our trip accordingly and take each and every safety precaution very seriously.

We started the day with a beacon check to make sure everyones’ were working correctly. If you’re unfamiliar with what a beacon is, it’s the device that’ll make you trackable if you fall into a crevice or get buried in powder. As you can imagine, in Hokkaido’s conditions, they are a pretty essential thing to carry. 

We also brought walkie-talkies and avi packs fitted with a probe and shovel incase we found ourselves stuck in deep pow and had to dig ourselves out, although as with any safety equipment, we were hoping we wouldn’t have to use them. 

We went out for some warm up laps so that Josh could assess everyone’s ability before starting our ascent to the peak through Hirafu’s Gate 3. Within a few metres I was wishing I’d stretched beforehand, but I kept reminding myself of the advice our photographer Isaac had said before we started the trek – “Just enjoy it. We’re out in nature, it’s a sunny day, just take a moment to take it all in.” So that’s what I did. One step after another, I’d take a look around and think ‘how bloody nice is this’. Then, before I knew it, we reached the peak.

It was about a 20 minute hike, which to BC enthusiasts would seem like nothing, but for the inexperienced, it felt like hiking to Everest base camp. If you read our interview with Rides’ BC guide Stefan a few weeks back, you might remember a quote saying, “it’s important that you don’t underestimate the uphill climb.” 

He was right. It’s definitely not as easy as hiking on solid, dry terrain. It’s wet, slippery, icy, slushy, and steep – but it’s manageable. Unlike normal hiking, you’re not taking massive strides, instead almost shuffling uphill with very little motion in your steps to gain more traction on the ground while also preserving energy. Although rest assured, you’ll still be feeling the burn. By the time we made it to the peak, I felt like I’d been hiking for hours, but both physically and mentally – I was stoked.

checking the sights

After taking in the sights and developing our plan of attack, we dropped into the backbowl to Annupuri. To put it lightly, it was insane. Sure, the initial drop was pretty scary, but after the initial steep, icy section, we rode into some of the nicest powder I’ve ever experienced. 

Deep pow, untracked terrain, tree runs, and natural half-pipes, it was honestly an experience I’ll never forget–and it hadn’t even snowed the night before. I can only imagine what it would be like during the peak season the morning after a massive dump. 

After entering the backbowl in Hirafu and finishing our lines in Annupuri, we decided to do a couple of quick laps of Annupuri lift-accessed sidecountry, entering through Gate 2 to drop into Osawa Bowl and then divert in the ‘secret bowl’. By this point in the day the snow was pretty heavy, making it significantly harder to do agile turns, although it was still a lot of fun. 

It did make me realise the importance of getting up early for BC riding. Undoubtedly it could be argued that even with groomers it’s important to get up early so that you’re not riding tracked out lines that are too heavy and clumpy, but in the BC it really did make the world of difference, and made it a lot harder to maintain momentum and carve through the deep terrain. Meaning if you fell, it was pretty hard to stand back up.

While it wasn’t for the inexperienced, touring backcountry and lift-accessed sidecountry is an experience that I’d recommend to anyone who feels comfortable with their skiing and snowboarding skills. Although in saying that, I’d strongly recommend you go out with a guide. 

Before you ask – no, I’m not just saying that because I work for Rhythm. If I was writing this to be a marketing spiel, I wouldn’t have acknowledged that I had fears about my physical fitness—I would have made myself sound like an absolute beast. I genuinely believe that the adventure was successful because of Josh, Connor and Flecia and their guidance, support and expertise throughout. 

If you haven’t experienced the BC before or don’t have the correct safety equipment, it’s important you go out with professionals who will be able to guide you into the best possible experience and make sure you aren’t put in harm’s way.   

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