March 12, 2017

Skiing the Volcanic Wonders of Japan’s North Island

Scott Kranz starts the new year off with a bang and tackles volcanic slopes in Japan. Read more about his skiing adventure.

At the turn of each year, I always look both ways. I look back at the past year and reflect on all the trips and travel I’ve had, appreciating how I’ve grown with each new experience. I also look ahead at the new year, enthusiastic about the adventures to come.

In January 2017, I was looking ahead and preparing for one of my biggest adventures yet. The plan was to fly over the Pacific Ocean to Japan to backcountry ski on Hokkaido, Japan’s north island, for two weeks.

2 skiers under mountain in Japan

As a skiing destination, Japan is sometimes seen as the Holy Grail. There, you can find some of the deepest, lightest snow the world has to offer. Needless to say, the level of excitement was at an all-time high during the days leading up to the trip.

The big day arrived. After more than twelve hours of flying, we landed in Sapporo, the largest city and capital of the Hokkaido Prefecture.

We traveled further toward the central Asahikawa area of the island, weighing several backcountry options. After much research, we decided on a mountain called Asahi-dake, the tallest peak on Hokkaido and an active volcano with an iconic half crater, akin to that of Mount St. Helens in Washington State.

We drove from Asahikawa to the Asahi-dake area and parked near the local onsen (a natural hot spring). Because our goal was to explore the backcountry, we made sure to pack up all necessary gear and avalanche equipment, and to bring plenty of layers, including my lightweight Black Diamond Mono Point shell along with several insulated outer layers and base layers.

Completing our pack checks, we took the ropeway (a sort of gondola) up the initial section of the mountain and stepped off onto the snowfield. We set down our touring skis and poles and clicked into our bindings.

It was time to skin the peak.

2 skiers skinning mountain in Japan

The landscape grew otherworldly with traces of ancient eruptions and a west-facing half crater that summoned us forward.

What at first glance appeared to be clouds shrouding our view of the crater were in fact plumes of steam and gas emitted from numerous fumaroles (active volcanic steam vents). We’d each spent much time on the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest in the United States, but none of us had experienced a mountain like this.

As we reached the base, the enormous size of the half crater became evident. We were dwarfed by the height of the caldera and the steam that billowed from its belly.

We slowly and cautiously reached the first set of fumaroles, making sure to leave room between us and the vent openings.

Passing underneath a pair of vents, we detected the smell of sulphur in the air, reminding us of the volcanic nature of the ground beneath our skis.

We skinned further into the crater, passing more steam vents, each one bigger and more impressive than the last. The entire time, our heads were spinning in disbelief – we couldn’t believe our eyes! The mountain was so clearly powerful and alive. We didn’t want the adventure to end.

And so we pressed on. Up soft snow, then icy crust whose grade grew steeper with every step.

Scott Kranz skiing in Japan

Although part of us wished we could explore the crater for many more hours, a weather system was moving in from the west and we knew our time here was coming to an end. We reluctantly decided that we would turn around and begin the descent.

We ripped skins and charged the western slopes, carving down the crater and weaving through screens of smoke. A smile swam from ear to ear.

Scott Kranz skiing down mountain

While other destinations on Hokkaido offered better and deeper snow quality, it was ultimately our day experiencing the volcanic wonders of Asahi-dake that became the most memorable adventure of our trip. What was first seen as a standard backcountry option turned out to be one of the most unique outdoor experiences of my life.

My 2017 travel schedule kicked off with a bang in Japan, and it was this volcanic wonder that raised the bar for all adventures to come.

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