Travel

Heli-skiing in Japan: The joys of big-mountain powder

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

Through the window of the newly purchased Airbus helicopter, Mount Shiribetsu grows steadily larger, rising steeply from the snow-covered fields that surround it. As we climb above its southern slopes, Sandy Miller, an Alaskan native now guiding for Hokkaido Backcountry Club (HBC) peers through the window, scoping out skiable lines. He twirls his finger, signaling for the pilot, Tatsuya Kudo, to circle the mountain.

As the helicopter thunders around a ridge on Shiribetsu’s western flank, Lake Toya emerges to the south, its waters reflecting the pale morning sun. Beyond the lake, southern Hokkaido, Uchiura Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The visibility is excellent; the perspective afforded from the helicopter unparalleled.

Content with his reconnaissance, Miller signals once more, this time for the helicopter to land on Shiribetsu’s peak, a crown of flat land that makes for an ideal landing site. The chopper’s downdraft lifts a great cloud of snow as it touches down, and the five of us carefully maneuver into position, ready to exit. Miller goes first, followed closely by Tatsu Ota, our second guide.

Reconnaissance: Guide Sandy Miller scopes out skiable lines down Mount Shiribetsu. | OSCAR BOYD
Reconnaissance: Guide Sandy Miller scopes out skiable lines down Mount Shiribetsu. | OSCAR BOYD

One by one the remaining passengers — myself (a skier) and two snowboarders — leave the cockpit, crouching low, all too aware of the blades rotating just above our heads, almost too fast for the eye to see. Miller and Ota unload the basket that contains our skis and boards, and with a thumbs up, pilot Kudo nudges the helicopter back into the air.

For a brief moment there is a cacophony of noise, and snow blasts down our necks. Then the blades catch the air and the helicopter accelerates quickly upward, leaving the five of us in silence at the top of the mountain, a playground all to ourselves.

The morning had started early, with a 7:20 a.m. pick up at my accommodation, an Airbnb yurt “experience” near Niseko Village that had miraculously stood up to the minus 17 degree Celsius overnight temperatures.

From Niseko, it is a 20-minute drive to the dedicated heliport, newly built for the 2018/19 season about three kilometers from the base of Mount Shiribetsu. During the drive the focus is on the weather — “excellent” — and the avalanche conditions — “moderate.”

Big mountain: A snowboarder traces a line down the Speedway run on Mount Shiribetsu. | OSCAR BOYD
Big mountain: A snowboarder traces a line down the Speedway run on Mount Shiribetsu. | OSCAR BOYD

Weather is a recurring topic of discussion in the world of heli-skiing. Although the abundance of snow is what brings so many skiers to Japan, and in particular to Hokkaido’s Niseko and Rusutsu resorts, the conditions that afford such abundance — the endless roll of clouds coming in off the Sea of Japan — also limit flights to one in every three days on average; the pilot must be able to see the top of the mountain in order to land.

Even on a good day, heli-skiers can expect to spend a lot of time waiting on the weather, and though the tour is advertised as a six-run package, you’ll be lucky to get that many. In the words of guide Miller, “The whole idea of heli-skiing is hurry up and wait.”

Weather is not the only issue that limits heli-skiing in Japan. Stringent restrictions by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) on which mountains can be used as landing sites mean that HBC is one of a very limited number of operations here. Mount Shiribetsu can be used because it is owned and managed by the towns of Kimobetsu, Makkari and Rusutsu, and not by the MAFF; the company only had to receive permission from Kimobetsu in order to land on Shiribetsu’s summit.

There is also the question — for me, at least — of justifying the carbon footprint of the sport at a time when governments around the world are declaring a climate crisis.

“Our operation may very well be the most efficient in the world thanks to the proximity of our hangar (to the mountain), great pick up access and low elevations,” says Shin Doi, HBC’s operations manager. “Quite simply, we burn less fuel than probably any other operation.”

Ready to ride: Skiers exit the helicopter atop Mount Shiribetsu. | OSCAR BOYD
Ready to ride: Skiers exit the helicopter atop Mount Shiribetsu. | OSCAR BOYD

At the heliport, it is clear we are in for a treat. What cloud does exist is high in the sky, and Mount Shiribetsu stands unencumbered. Still, there is a sense of urgency to make the most of it and the guides move us as quickly as possible through the safety briefings, waiver signing and a crash-course in avalanche safety. Boxes ticked, initials scrawled and transceivers on, we make our way onto the tarmac — more than a little bit excited — for the first lift of the day.

Atop Shiribetsu, we soon see how much terrain there is to ski. Each face is home to a new valley, bowl or forest, all ripe for exploration. Miller leads us first to a fall-line run called Speedway — we meet Great Dane, South Park, Smack Talk and Biggie Smalls before the end of the day. In the morning light, every undulation is lit in perfect contrast.

After a traverse to the top of the open slope, Miller briefs us on what looks like the best snow and what to avoid, and then skis on ahead to mark out a loose boundary line with his tracks and radio up data on the snow conditions from the bottom to guide Ota.

Fresh tracks: The author skis in perfect conditions on Mount Shiribetsu. | TATSU OTA
Fresh tracks: The author skis in perfect conditions on Mount Shiribetsu. | TATSU OTA

Then we have at it, choosing fresh lines through undisturbed snow that’s just fallen. It is steep skiing — gradients run up to around 40 degrees on Shiribetsu — and about as close to feeling like you’re flying while still being in contact with some semblance of the ground.

Each run averages around 650 meters of vertical descent, and the real fun comes in working out how best to use this: You choose your own line, bouncing through trees, off crests, dips and risers, savoring each turn until there is no more to ski and your cheeks start to hurt from grinning too much. A useful tip? Don’t always go first; watch what others do before choosing your own line down the mountain.

With a good half hour of skiing under the legs, Speedway ends with a run-out through a narrow forest of sasa bamboo and densely packed trees to empty farmland. Here, Miller stamps out a quick landing pad in the snow and radios for the helicopter to come and pick us up. Soon we hear its distinctive clop-clop-clop and see Kudo, the pilot, waving at us through the window.

Crouching low, we climb in, and shoot off once more to the top of the mountain.

Hokkaido Backcountry Club runs heli-skiing tours until March 15 on Mount Shiribetsu, located near the Niseko and Rusutsu ski resorts. A six-run package costs ¥160,000 and includes guiding, avalanche safety equipment, lunch and a shuttle service to the heliport. For more information, visit hokkaidobackcountryclub.com. The participation fee was waived for the purpose of this article. The author offset the carbon emissions produced while researching this story through donations.

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