Need a powder fix? Go boarding out of bounds

by Mark Thompson

Anyone who has skied or boarded on a weekend in Japan knows the story: the well-groomed slopes, blanketed with skiers and boarders making their way up and down as loudspeakers blare pop music and shrill announcements. And then there are the cattle-corral cafeterias, the chaotic souvenir stands, the apres-ski video games.

But far from the crowds, just over the ridge of the summit, is another world, a wild kingdom that belongs to lone wolves. Here, thrill-seeking snowboarders and skiers blaze trails of their own through the forest, soaring off sudden precipices to land on forgiving white cushions and gliding triumphantly in waist-high powder, sending up perfectly arched rooster tails in their wake.

Andy Lunt belongs to this world. He is obsessed with the white stuff. His needs — “just snow, lots of pure, ungroomed powder” — might sound simple, but the lengths he has go to satisfy them can be great. In short, he’s a powder junkie.

Lunt can only get his fix by going into the backcountry, which obviously doesn’t offer all the comforts of resort-maintained slopes. He could get stranded, some hiking is usually involved, and there definitely won’t be a heated gondola waiting for him at the end. He has only his snowshoes to get him out to the main road and then his thumb to get him back to the parking lot.

It’s no cakewalk, but as Lunt says, after you’ve savored such unencumbered bliss, there’s no turning back.

It all began with a challenge. After Lunt expressed interest in boarding to a twentysomething boarder friend, he was told “You’re too old.” That was enough to get him onto his first board at age 35.

Lunt eventually went on to “whip [his young friend's] ass,” as well as board at major resorts around the world and befriend many professional boarders passing through Japan. He can, though, still recount his boarding epiphany seven years ago with unjaded glee.

“You finally get to that moment when you can put a turn together for the first time and then you get a little lift . . . and a little powder under your edge . . .,” he says, smiling widely at the memory. “And that was it. Now it’s any chance I get, I go out.”

During the season in Japan, he’s out of Tokyo two weekdays every week (he hates the weekends) plus a couple of four-day jaunts to Niseko in Hokkaido, the Mecca for any serious powder freak.

Every second counts on boarding days. Lunt is a walking database of information and timetables, able to rattle off, from memory, flight departure times, season start dates and morning lift schedules. He has to be the first on the mountain.

But there are complications. The 42-year-old Brit has to oversee his in-laws’ izakaya in Yurakucho as well as his own Clubhouse Sports Bar in Shinjuku. He’s married (his wife hates the cold) and has two young children (fortunately for him, his 11-year-old daughter has got the boarding bug bad). And his large size — 186 cm tall, 87 kg heavy, 31.5-cm feet — doesn’t make him the most agile boarder out there, nor the easiest to equip.

And then, of course there is the danger, the risk of serious injury or death.

Two years ago, three New Zealander boarders were buried in an avalanche on the backside of Happo-One in Nagano. They had ignored warning signs in Japanese and English. “They had no equipment. No beacons, no probes, no shovels. It’s a horrible thing to say, but they f**ked up.”

Lunt is absolutely serious about preparedness. Before trekking out, he’ll choose the right board (out of the nine that he owns) and pack the right emergency gear.

The majority of resorts don’t want backcountry boarders and skiers using their lifts. If the trespassers get injured, their insurance goes up — and their reputations slide.

Many resort operators probably see Lunt as an outlaw (indeed he has been banned from one Nagano resort), but he is understanding of the whistle-blowing patrols. “They’re just doing their jobs — protecting people.” At some resorts, he’s on friendly terms with patrol staff; they share his love of powder. “They respect me and know I won’t go into areas I can’t handle.”

Lunt rarely ventures into unfamiliar territory. In the spring, Lunt hikes into back-country areas, makes notes and then memorizes them. “I look for the dangerous parts, no big cliffs. I’m looking for a general way down and a way out. So then I can go up and aggressively go for it.”

Lunt won’t share his hard-earned data with just anyone, though he will admit to frequenting Tenjindaira in Gunma Prefecture and Niseko in Hokkaido. Beyond that, his lips are sealed. His advice for virgin-powder hunters? “Hang out with the local boys. You share a couple places with them, then they’ll share a few.” He also says that Arai Mountain and Seki Onsen offer access to ungroomed areas. And there’s heli-tours (see sidebar), though he recommends doing them at large-scale resorts abroad.

But before you head north in search of untouched powder havens, behold Lunt’s litany of injuries. He’s dislocated his shoulder five times and has had numerous fractures. Once, while on a favorite route, he went over a ledge. “There’s nothing more exciting than going off a blind ridge,” he explains. “There’s that element of risk.” But Lunt missed the mark and found that element in the form of a tree — and broke three bones in his hand.

After blindly going off another ledge at Niseko’s Strawberry Fields, he met a 4-meter drop onto a flat, hard-pack landing. “My right knee went up and hit my jaw. The teeth went through my lip. Within seconds, I went out like a light.” After coming to, he just got up and kept boarding. He didn’t realize his injury until a friend pointed out that he looked like the Elephant Man.

And once, while zooming through the woods, a tree branch thwacked back and knocked him flat. “My friend said, ‘You’ve got something in your eye,’ ” he recalls. “I pulled out a twig this big,” he says, with a 3-cm gesture, “and the blood just squirted onto my friend’s face.”

Asked if an injury has given him second thoughts about boarding, he gives an emphatic no. “I’m proud of every injury I’ve got,” he says. “It’s not a macho thing. I’m taking my boarding that much further each time. The first time I broke something it was a big step up in my boarding. Up until then I was scared.”

These may sound like the words of a born masochist, but Lunt did play rugby for 20 years. “I quit rugby specifically because I didn’t want to get injured and miss a snowboarding season. And that,” he says with his special smile, “is when snowboarding became more important than anything.”