Where To Get Started in Hakuba's Backcountry. Part 1.

Hakuba MountainLife Blog

Where To Get Started in Hakuba's Backcountry. Part 1.

I am converting a few of our Hakuba MountainLife Magazine articles into blog posts to make them accessible to a wider audience. This post has the "Where to Get Started" articles from our 2012 and 2013 issues. There are a few more from the series that I'll post later. They are all aimed at helping less experienced people get going in Hakuba's backcountry, however they should not be used like a guide book. Many people use our professional backcountry guiding service in Hakuba to take them into this terrain safely. Others like to adventure themselves. Please remember that our magazine is written for a very wide readership, and the style of our articles vary accordingly.

If you are going into the backcountry you must carry an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe and know how to use them. Always go with a partner and tell someone where you are going.

From Issue #1, 2012:

People starting out in the backcountry usually benefit from terrain that is easy to access and easy to exit. Hakuba has plenty of that. However, much of it has higher risk than many want to acknowledge, or even realise. Nearly all the easy access terrain along the Happo and Goryu ridges require careful planning and a group with a few years of critical decision making in avalanche terrain, and which can communicate well. They are not playgrounds—when things go wrong, they really go wrong. Sure, luck gets most people through most of the time, however every season there are very close calls, serious injuries, and sometimes deaths.

The better option
Tsugaike is the best place to go for an easy to access backcountry zone where there are plenty of options with different aspects, altitudes and terrain styles to work with. Hiyodori is the first place many people head to, and understandably so. It offers lower angle tight conifer skiing as well as gladed hardwoods with steeper options. Access is right outside Tsugaike’s boundary with a short but meaningful hike up to the right. Likewise, returning to the safety of the resort is easy in the event of an accident or change in conditions. Despite this accommodating position, working the area still lets you apply navigation and route selection skills whilst building confidence. So you get the full package, including hiking on the snow that you are going to ski—an important phase in backcountry travel that is lost when walking along bootpack ridges directly from the resort. All dscents to south on Hiyodori will cross the cattrack, so it is hard to get lost.

Closed area
Running from the very summit of Hiyodori is a distinct avalanche path which heads south across the cat track and directly for a cable car building. Skiing in that slide path is not allowed by the resort. Within the Hakuba backcountry community it is seen as poor form and not done by any locals. There is plenty of good terrain just to the skier's right of it. Check the map at the well known backcountry cattrack trailhead and also at the loading area of the top chairlift. It marks the closed areas clearly in red. Please stay out of them!

Going a little further
Still in the same Tsugaike area is Tengupara—a wide open flat area at 2,200m. It requires a longer hike, a good portion of which is unfortunately on that dull cat track, though still some map reading is required. Head west along the Hiyodori cattrack. The forested south facing hill-side of Hiyodori will pass on the right as you head towards a gentle ridge which intersect with the cat track at about 1,800m, just before you reach the top of the cable car (closed all winter). With the small Seijo University hut at its base, this roomy ridge leads up to Tengupara. On the climber's right of the ascent ridge are two open bowls which converge and then run back down to the cat track via a narrowing drainage which is well known for a large deep hole that ends in running water at about 1,850m. The furthest skiers left bowl produces avalanches at times from the convexed and slightly corniced pocket at a top. This explains the long strip of absent trees below the bowl, if you had not already noticed. The terrain on the climber's left of the ascent ridge does not lead directly back to the cat track and is also much more avalanche prone, so make good decisions if you decide to venture over that side.

Hints on how to get good local help
Ask people for advice on terrain, however always double check how often they go there and how well they really know the area. Check avalanche bulletins and perhaps even blogs. Do not be afraid to contact local guides and ask for their advice regarding routes and conditions in the area. One tip—you will likely get a better reply from them if you first research your own route, and then ask them what their opinion is of your route, rather than simply asking them how to find a certain place. •

From Issue #2, 2013:

The internet and movies often show skiers and boarders doing risky things on risky avalanche terrain. That has a time and place, however overall it leads to an unrealistic image of what really happens in the backcountry on most days. Often, the more interesting backcountry people are beginners who make an effort to plan appropriate trips into non-threatening terrain which suits the avalanche conditions and their experience level. It is not what you climb, but how you climb it. It is not what you ski, but how you ski it. Planning and execution are an art form. Well planned trips into the backcountry have style. There is nothing interesting or skillful about a poorly planned and randomly executed trip into high risk avalanche terrain.

The reality in Hakuba is that the easiest terrain to access is steep and seldom appropriate given the constantly changing avalanche conditions. If you want to enjoy terrain suitable for lower experience levels or days with elevated avalanche danger, you have to make the effort to travel to Tsugaike. Once there, you have to hike further, and navigate more. However the effort is worthwhile.

Check out issue #1 of this magazine for a brief description of terrain accessible from Tsugaike. Be humble and make an effort to explore the south aspect of the Hiyodori ridge, especially the western end where you’ll find a low angle conifer forest. It is a good zone when you have fresh snow. However during heavy storms it is easy to get bogged down in those trees. Returning to the Tsugaike resort area on a snowboard via the cat track can be slow, so you don’t really want more than 40cm of new snow.

Also, be aware that if you ski to the north from the Hiyodori ridge that there is no easy way home and you must climb out again—you can’t just follow a river back to the main valley. Following gullies is a bad avalanche habit anyhow. Never ski into anything without having first studied a map very carefully. Skiing to the south from Hiyodori’s east summit near the resort boundary is prohibited by the Tsugaike patrol as you are skiing in a dangerous avalanche path which runs into the ski resort. Locals don’t do it.

The way to feel at home and comfortable in the backcountry is to start out by taking small steps. Big enough to learn, not big enough to threaten your life with avalanches or getting lost. For this purpose, the Tsugaike backcountry is one of the few areas offering suitable terrain easily accessed without the need for a car.


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Previous articles...

Thoughts on Guided Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding in Hakuba

As the local Hakuba backcountry ski season approaches I like to review past experiences and training. This gets my brain back into professional guide mode after being out of the game for the last 2 months in between north/south winters. A great place to start is to remind myself of what is expected of a professional guide, and think about times in the past when I hit the nail on the head, and more importantly, where I did not do well. Don't trust any guide who claims to never do a poor job! Guiding is a fun job with many nuances and challenges.

Guiding in New Zealand

One of the big benefits of pursuing professional guide qualifications under the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) is that it has opened up new working opportunities that before were just not possible. For example, I have been very very fortunate in New Zealand, where I am working for Alpine Guides Limited. They run a number of guiding operations which I thought I'd describe briefly in this blog post.

Operational Risk Management

We are a backcountry guiding operation, and safety comes first, always. In this blog we describe some of our daily risk management routine. This has been daily habit for several years now, whether we are guiding that day or not. This is what we believe to be the minimum required professional standard of care owed to paying guided customers. Do not assume everyone does this.

Gear That Outperforms: Gloves

People often ask me for reviews and opinions. So occasionally I will list a few gear items which I think outperform the others. Pieces of gear which do their job really well, and make my job more fun, more comfortable, or safer. In this blog post, it is a pair of sunglasses, and a pair of gloves. Let's get one thing honest from the start: I do not get any free gear from brands. Typically I try to buy from brands which support the avalanche and guiding industry, but only if their products are good in the first place.

Remote Terrain, Kita Alps, Japan

Take a look at the photos in this blog post. One of these days I will run a guided trip into this section of the Kita Alps. It is, without a shadow of doubt, the best ski touring (and guiding) terrain in all of Japan. It won't be an easy trip, nor cheap. I would anticipate at least a 5 day tour. Depending on the depth of soft snow (ski penetration) it takes 8-12 hour just to reach the fringe of the zone, without one single downhill turn along the way. It would be a shame to take two days just to execute that approach move. Tough first day, ey.

Mount Steele, Yukon, Canada

In early June 2016 we made a trip to Mt Steele in Kluane National Park, Yukon. Due to a large storm and inappropriate avalanche conditions relative to the final 1000m of ascent terrain, we did not bother trying for the summit. There were four of us in the group, of which three were old friends from Canmore and originally Swiss migrants to Canada, past and present Mountain Guides, and very active outdoorsmen. The oldest in the group was 72, I was the youngest, 43. Two in the group had been to the summit of 'nearby' Mount Logan in 1977. It was a privilege for me to be invited to join this great group on an expedition style trip.

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