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The elusive Mount Asahidake
20 February 2018


As part of our two-month visit to Japan this winter season (northern hemisphere), we have been staying at the Bearmonte Hotel, nestled at the foot of Mount Asahidake in Hokkaido on the most northern island of Japan. We chose this location for its abundance of snow, as the area sees an average of 14 metres per season. According to Powderhounds.com it is "...the crème de la crème of powder that Hokkaido skiing is renowned for”. And it hasn’t disappointed!

             Bearmonte Hotel, with the summit of Asahidake

We have skied our hearts out here. There have been some sublime days where we just looped back several times to the same ridge line and took the powder stashes there, as no-one else had discovered the deep untracked snow among the trees. On only two occasions we were able to see the summit of Mt Asahidake, but most of the time it has been shrouded in thick, dense cloud.

As well as enjoying the ski routes down, we have also embraced the opportunity to skin up; getting much needed cardio exercise and giving us the chance to "be at one” with nature. While on the ascents, we agreed that we should attempt to climb to the Asahidake summit, as it’s the highest volcano here in Hokkaido.

As we were staying for a good while here, we felt we had time on our hands and so we began the planning with a recce. There’s only one way up to the main station at 1650m; it’s called ‘the ropeway’, which is a short walk from the Bearmonte Hotel.


             This is the ropeway on a clear day…there aren’t many chances to see blue skies at
             Asahidake because it’s usually snowing!

It’s only possible to see the level of visibility once at the top lift station, so on the recce day we arrived and found that the cloud was dense but the wind was minimal. We’d need to take things slowly and carefully.

We decided to head to the fumaroles - at around 1700m – to (try and) see them and make a plan for the next steps from there. We stuck our G3 skins to the bottom of our skis and we began to walk (or 'skin up') towards the fumaroles, which were barely visible in the flat, white light of the clouds.

 

According to a quick search for facts, Fumaroles release a mixture containing steam, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. (Hydrogen sulphide is what causes the rotten egg smell and, boy, did we smell it!) All of the gases are forced out when small amounts of cool water seep from above ground and hit hot rock. The water will then flash to steam. When this occurs, the steam takes up thousands of times more space than water does, and thus forces the gases up the vent. Above ground this is a continuous release of steam as it hits the air and cools.

 

Alas, the bad light means you can only just see the fumarole behind Drew

While standing at the fumaroles, a young, fit French chap very kindly took some video footage of us (which I've been unsuccessful in loading here), and after that we all set off. The French chap made better progress than us, and was ahead on the ascent as we skinned up the beginning of the steep southern ridge. We reached a rocky icy area, and looked up ahead 250m to see the French chap on his knees and, once upright, he quickly fell again. The slope ahead was so icy, that he was having trouble digging in with his ski edges, and this lack of grip was causing some problems. With that in our minds, and with the visibility worsening, we decided that was enough for the recce, and we turned around and boot-packed down the rocky area for 50m before we stripped our skins off the skis and went for some turns. 

As we descended below the cloud and the eggy fumarole vapour, the visibility quickly improved. We headed for ‘Bob’s Ridge’ and found some untouched pristine snow. We skied it, taking some nice turns before stopping in an open meadow and then transitioned back onto skins, sticking them onto the bottom of our skis. By now we were enjoying some beautiful blue skies and warming sunshine. It took us around 30 minutes to skin to the flatter pisted area, through some gladed forest, where we transitioned again, into alpine mode, and skied back to the ropeway station for some well-earned lunch!

[pic of the trees]

The next day, we spoke to Frances, a kiwi who worked at the Alpine Backcountry equipment centre at the Bearmonte, and rented snow-shoes to overcome the grip issue on the steeper sections of the southern ridge. Snow-shoes are rigid pieces of plastic that you strap to your boots, with metal teeth or spikes to provide reliable grip…so long as you don’t topple over, as they can be quite cumbersome!

With the snow-shoes tightly strapped to our rucksacks, we alighted at the top of the ropeway and saw that the visibility was much improved on the day before, but the wind was much stronger. This was likely to be a problem, but we started skinning up anyway. We headed straight into wind, and we were beaten back quite dramatically. We decided to head to the stone hut, Asahidake Ishimuro, which is further up from the fumaroles, to take stock of how the wind felt a little further up.


We took off our skis and dropped down the snow bank into the stone hut and out of the wind. It was a relief to find a haven there. A Japanese chap, snowboarder, was having a snack and packing his things away as we entered. 


He soon braved the elements and set off with snow-shoes on his feet and his board strapped to his back. We watched him through the window of the hut, as he stomped off into the wind.


We stopped for some green tea from our trusty thermos and took a quick look around the hut. Ishimuro is an emergency refuge, where a ladder up to a second-level would allow for a large group of climbers to sleep on a basic wooden floor safely out of the weather, if required.


After a quick hit of chocolate, we attached our skis onto our rucksacks slowly, and carefully put on our snow-shoes. We then headed back outside to test them out.

It was slow going, with the wind gusting from the left. The skis on my back were being caught by the wind and were unbalancing me as I tried to walk up, using my ski poles for stability. We only made it one-third of the way up to the summit, before we agreed the wind was too strong and it was too dangerous to go any further. Others were going ahead of us, but we are Mr & Mrs V Safety, so we traversed around a contour and tried to find some protection from the wind, to take off our snow-shoes.

Once our skis were back on our feet, we skied down through very smelly fumarole vapour and back on to Bob’s Ridge.

We waited another 6 days – with the hope of the weather breaking again – but it didn’t. And we left Asahidake without making it to the top of the mountain.

There’s always next year!