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The elusive Mount Asahi, Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan
20 February 2018


As part of our two-month visit to Japan, we have been staying at the Bearmonte Hotel; nestled at the foot of Mount Asahi on Hokkaido, 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 Asahi-dake (Source: japansnowaccommodation.com)

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. There's been just two occasions when we've been able to see the summit of Mt Asahi, but most of the time it has been shrouded in thick, dense cloud. But cloud that has brought snow, so we are not complaining!

As well as enjoying the ski routes down, we have also embraced the opportunity for ski touring; 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 Asahi-dake summit, being that it’s the highest volcano of this island at 2290m.

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 
Asahi-dake because it’s usually snowing!

It’s only possible to see the level of visibility to the summit once at the top Sugatami 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 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 pics of us, 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 below the rocky area for 50m before we stripped our skins off and skied some turns

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


Lovely gladed area as we skinned out in the sunshine

The next day, we spoke to Frances, a kiwi who worked at the Alpine Backcountry Rental equipment centre at the Bearmonte, and we 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. They have 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 for use later, we took the ropeway again and, as we reached the top, we saw that the visibility was better than the previous day 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, Ishimuro, which is further up from the fumaroles, to take stock of how the wind felt further up.


Steam and gases from fumaroles visible behind me and Hut Ishimuro. The previous day the gases and vapour were spewing straight into the air (shown behind Drew in the pic above).
On this day, you can see how the wind was affecting the vapour (from left to right of this image)

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 warmed our hands and tummies with some green tea from our trusty thermos and took a quick look around the hut. Ishimuro is an emergency refuge, where the second-level (accessible by the black ladder behind me) 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 bite of galbo chocolate, we attached our skis onto our rucksacks, carefully put on our snow-shoes and headed back outside to test them out.

It was slow going, with the wind gusting from 'lookers left'. The wind pushed against my skis secured behind me and unbalanced me as I took every awkward snow-shoed step, even as I used 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 would be risky to proceed. Others were going ahead of us, but we spoke to two Europeans on their way down and they had backed out of summiting. That was advice enough for us, being Mr & Mrs 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 the elusive and mighty Mount Asahi without making it to the top ... this time!