ODT team rider KC Deane checks in with a story from the trip to Japan that landed him on the cover of Skiing Magazine’s annual photo issue:
Arriving in Japan is an interesting experience. Groggy from the red eye flight you roll off the plane to symbols and no comprehension of what is being said. I feel it’s different than any other place that I’ve travelled to ski before. Making your way to custom, mandarin symbols grace most of the signage and some of the last english that you will hear is people about to embark on their own journeys, just as we were about to begin ours. We grabbed our bags and the crew that consisted of myself, Grant Gunderson, Adam U, Sven Brunso and Carston Oliver headed out of the airport headed by bus to catch a train from the outskirts of tokyo into the central train station. Dragging more gear than should ever be packed by one person we navigate through hundreds of thousands of people in the subway. Within 3 hours you can be in the bustling center of Tokyo, then in the middle of the mountains in a small town. After much pointing smiling, and a seemingly short game of charades, we are pointed in the right direction and make our first train to the Nagano Prefecture which is roughly 3 hours outside of Tokyo. As Sven Brunso put it, “The train station was a sea of humanity. I felt like a Salmon swimming upstream. Everyone seemed to be going in the opposite direction of where I needed to go. You eventually have to just walk against the flow and people eventually move at the last minute. ”
We stepped off at the small station of Myokokogen to cold clear skies, and the smile of local Bill Ross. After years of coming to Myoko it was the first time we had showed up and not been instantly covered in snow upon our arrival. Loading Bill’s van we pack in like sardines and make a short drive to Hotel Korakuso which would be our home for the next 9 days. Bill gave us a quick briefing of the conditions and to our surprise they were expecting day or two of clear skies to welcome us and for Sven to get a lay of the land. He also mentioned that it hadn’t snowed in almost week, which is quite uncharacteristic for Japan. Arriving at our hotel, half a world away, we had arrived at our destination tucked in the Kubiki Alps, Myoko.
4 am, jet lag has taken full effect and everyone is beginning to rouse. As the sun peaks over the mountains and into the Myoko Valley we head to the lobby we find Gunderson and Brunso already suited and ready. Sven is clearly anxious and buzzing with excitement to get out on the hill. “No need to rush. The snow isn’t going anywhere. Even the lift served terrain here never gets tracked out, so soak it up and take your time.”, reminds Adam as we pull our boots on.
The bottom of the ski hill is just a quick five minute walk through the one main street in Myoko, and you are at the base of Akakura Kanko which lays in the shadow of Mt Myoko. The resort is a small area with 4 lifts that access 2,600 vertical feet of the most amazing trees you’ve ever skied, and with a quick 30-40 minute tour you find yourself perched above Akakura and the Myoko Valley open with spotted Dakekanda trees, or in america known as Erman’s Beech. As we ascend Sven is blown away by what he sees, and for me as well I am happy to find that even though it hasn’t’ snowed in nearly a week, the trees are nearly void of tracks and our own seemingly private ski area is just as we had left it. Dropping in I heard Sven ask, “Why there aren’t any tracks? Has it been closed? Can we ski here?.” I just laughed and said welcome to skiing in japan as I dropped in. With the sun out we took advantage of the visibility and set a skin track from the top of the resort. Even if the snow is not deep it is good to take advantage of seeing the sun. In Myoko, and the Nagano prefecture they average only 8 days of sun a year, which is good for skiing deep snow but tough to do long tour missions up high above the valley, and for us shoot bluebird powder photos. Typically touring consists of smaller adventures with short 30 minutes skins to access the large amount of terrain above the ski area as well as the terrain above the small town of Tsubame which sits just to the north of the ski hill in a small valley. Laps from the top of the ski hill drop you down 2000 feet into the town, followed by a quick 15 minutes traverse back to Akakura onsen resort. From the top lift of Akakura Kanko, or Akakan we made our way to the peak of Maecyama which is a sub peak below Mt Myoko. As we gain elevation Mt Myoko comes into view and you can see the steep and rugged mountain, with giant sulfur gas vents protruding from it’s flanks. With our first day coming to a close, Gunderson tucks his camera away to log some turns of his own. Before the rest of the crew knows it, Grant is laughing and throwing plumes of snow as he disappears into the trees. Arriving at the hotel, Gunderson is there, beard caked full of snow grinning at Sven, “Welcome to Japan buddy! Oh and did I mention that this isn’t even good yet?”
The following morning the clouds hung low in the valley as we slowly made our way through town. After 3 days of skiing our crew had hit so many of the features we were in need of a reset, usually it snows so much that it isn’t and issue. By mid day snow flurries came and the light snow had arrived. With the faint smell of sea salt the flakes came down and began to blanket the hill. Snow flakes began to get bigger and bigger and within a few hours it looked as if white leaves were falling from the sky. As the day came to an end there was almost half a meter of new. Sven said,” I looked at the forecast the day before we left and it showed scattered snow showers for ten days. I was pretty bummed out. The first day was totally bluebird and I was confident that there wasn’t going to be the deep powder I came to Japan in search of. Three days later clouds were socked in and by morning we had a meter.” This went on for 4 days before we saw the sun again. Finally we awoke to the clear skies, meter upon meter of fresh snow and the mountains basking in the early morning light. We had all pretty much lost track of time at this point. The days melted together in a haze of deep snow and jet lag. Free from the race to the powder that you experience at home, you begin to relax an settle into a different pace and as we walked to the hill, sun shining, fresh snow, no one raced to get the first chair. As we headed up the now familiar lifts it seemed as though you feel as if Akakan has become your second home.
4:30 am, wide awake to the drum of heavy equipment. It was only sunny the day before. Pulling myself out of bed I peaked out the window to see it dumping yet again. A great part about Japan is with the frequent snowfall it doesn’t give much time for the snow to sit in the sun creating a very solid snowpack. Digging a 3 meter pit to the dirt we found no hard layers. It was as if you were brushing down the side of cement wall. The stability is great because it gives you confidence to work into some of the more exposed lines. In Japan it is really easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when there is a ton of snow and you’re skiing hot laps in a ski resort. Sometimes pulling off the groomer into that gully with all the rad pillows in the wrong place, even just 20 meters uphill or downhill of where you thought you were going, can be the difference between a mellow pow lap and realizing halfway down a pillow line that it doesn’t go, and then having to scratch around to find the one place that doesn’t air 50 feet into an uphill gully wall landing. Every year it feels like with the deep snow it gives you confidence that you can jump anything, and with the stability, ski anything. With at least 4 meters of snow that had fallen Carston Oliver and I wanted to ski some of the more rowdy lines we had looked at when it was clear. Within the ski resort there is a narrow canyon that although it is only about 300 vertical feet is steep and has all sorts of lines with spines, mandatory cliff drops at the end. Confident that I had our line picked out I dropped in and skied to a safe point to wait for Carston. Ripping steep pow turns we were hooting and hollering, Carston made it down and as I took a few turns I quickly realized that we were off our lines. Holding onto a small tree stuck into a 50 degree spine I realized that we had dropped in too early and were cliffed out on top of a 60 foot drop that Carston had hit the previous year. Considering our position there was no way we were backing out and getting up 50 degree slope in this deep of snow. Confident in the depth of the snow and the fact that Carston had hit this before we both made the drop for our exit. Although we came out unscathed it was a quick reminder of how fast you can find yourself in a serious situation.
As the trip comes to a close I find myself bathed in sunshine and skiing deep snow yet again. Seems like ages ago that we were in the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo subway as we stand over the valley watching the sun dip low in the winter sky. As I watch the crew drop one after another I find myself standing solo contemplating my last turns here in Japan. The air is crisp and cold as I tip into my run, my first turn I drive my skis deep into the snow and cover my face in an ice blast. The sound of my breathing, and the rustle of my jacket is the only thing that finds my ears. This is skiing in Japan.