Last year in Europe, after a good early snow dump we received no new snow for a while. After a trip to Canada in December, we decided with Lucas Debari and the TimeLine crew to seek exotic terrain that’s pretty famous for big pow and sushi: JAPAN.
We booked our trip with it in mind to visit a place we’ve heard only good things about from local riders. Hakuba was our destination, located in the main highlands. After a long flight from Geneva we landed in Japan on New Year’s day 2011. Tero and Guido were on the same plane and Lucas landed few hours after us, straight from the west coast USA as he lives near Mt. Baker, Washington. After a night spent in Tokyo to get a taste of Japanese big city culture, we jumped on a train to our final destination.
Snowboarding in Japan represented a couple of things to me; at the time I was competing in boarder cross events and riding pillow lines in the trees on mellow terrain in Sapporo, in the North Island. The photos and videos we had seen of Hakuba made us think there would be potential for big lines there. That’s what we were looking for. When we arrived we were instantly pleased by the view of real mountains with great potential.
The issue though was the snow conditions. It hadn’t snowed for the last few weeks and the first days were frustrating as we wanted to ride but we had no options. We came from the Alps with no snow at home and the local forecast announced snow in the coming days. We were optimistic. Lucas saw the situation from a different angle as back home the snow conditions were perfect. He was considering changing his flight ticket after only a couple of days. By chance on day 4, the weather gods listened to us, clouds came in and snowflakes the size of potatoes were hitting the ground at a fast pace. The snow walls on the side of the roads changed from mud to fresh snow and grew a metre in 24 hours. It didn’t seem like we would get blue sky days for the rest of the trip but the snow was now definitely up to our expectations.
The next days were foggy and a bit windy and we weren’t feeling too confident with the fresh snow layer so we aimed at mellower terrain in the lower portion of the mountain between the trees. It felt like a re-birth as I hadn’t scored any good powder yet this season. This definitely was a big help to feel the board control back for the rest of the season. Both Lucas and I brought our split boards for this trip. It allowed us right away to move away from the slopes and find mini bowls and discover terrain that was higher up and steeper. Stuff we wanted to aim at during the rest of the trip.
Whenever I go to Japan I’m always surprised, although I go there often, about how the culture is different on so many levels. The approach Japanese people have to the mountain is no exception. Tree runs are usually forbidden in the resorts and the forest runs or lines located close by the resort are still left virgin of tracks for a couple of days. Japanese tourists don’t have the habit to explore out of bounds terrain, and very few foreigners go up there and start to hike away from the resort.
On day 6, after a few days playing hide and seek with the fog and light conditions, we gradually rode on steeper terrain and got confirmation about the stability of the snowpack. We decided to go for what we really came for.
The split boarding mission was full on and we found steeper lines to ride. A couple of days prior to our departure we decided to go for a further final mission. Our only chance to be able to ride the best line would be the following morning right after sunrise. We had only one option to be dropping with the first rays of sun. The plan was to hike during the early afternoon and get enough time to set up our camp for the night, wake up early and ride as early as possible before the next storm came in.
The further away we went from the resort, the more we felt like going into the wild. We saw at some point those Japanese mountain goats that looked just like bears…it actually took us a while to realize it wasn’t one… dumb tourists!
On top of the mountain, the view around was outstanding and we could see the lights from the resort. We scoped and found a place where we could dig a snow cave into a big cornice to protect ourselves from the extremely cold temperature and the wind. The snow out there is actually really perfect for that… dense powder, really easy to play with. After a few hours we had a snow cave big enough to fit everyone in and sat back to wait for the night with hot soup.
The night wasn’t the best night of sleep you could expect but we didn’t get cold even though the temperatures outside where around -28°C. The snow cave was great except that we didn’t make the roof in a dome shape so when we woke up in the morning, the ceiling had dropped down nearly a metre! Guido got freaked, as he thought it could collapse any time… quite funny to see.
After a 5 am wake up call, we climbed the ridge before the first rays of sun would hit, but at the last moment the light quickly faded out with clouds… but we could still get to ride the lines we went hunting for. This was our last session in the Japanese Alps and after a day spent in Tokyo we went for a big party with the boys. We separated from Lucas to each return to our homes across the world.
Nice trip. It was a pleasure to travel with Lucas and we really rapidly felt like a great family… the Timeline family. We’ll definitely be stoked to do more trips together…. more stuff coming soon!
Athletes: The North Face® Athlete Xavier De Le Rue, Lucas Debari
Photographer: Tero Repo
Location: Hakuba, Japan