The best run of my life
In January 2020, Nick and Ralph were lucky enough to get away for a trip to Japan, just before the Covid pandemic struck and took a hold on the world. This is Nick's account of their challenging hike up Mount Yotei, a mile-high volcano standing on the outskirts of Niseko, and their thrilling ride down...
Last year was certainly an unusual year, unlike any other so far this century. On 29 January 2020 I was sitting in an ice cream parlour in Sapporo, Japan with my good friend Ralph, killing some time before our flight back to the UK after an epic 2-week trip exploring the mountains of Hokkaido. As we ate our ice creams, we watched the news report on the TV in the corner, which showed that over 100 people had died in China from a new disease that was spreading fast due to its highly contagious nature. Little did we know at that point that in just 6 weeks’ time the virus would have spread all over the world, and that we would be heading into lockdown back home in the UK and contemplating the grim reality of over 1,000 deaths a day in our own country.
Our trip to Japan was a ‘bucket list’ event for me, and something I’d been wanting to do for many years. A friend from Brighton arranges a trip in January every year to visit his brother, who lives just outside Niseko, and he takes a crew of keen snow-heads out there with him each year to indulge in riding some of the best powder snow that the world has to offer. Ralph had been on the trip with John a few years before, and a chance conversation with some mates in the pub one evening lead to us being fortunate enough to bag the last two places on the trip, so at last the planets had aligned.
We arrived in Niseko on 15 January 2020 and found that they were experiencing the worst snow conditions that anyone could remember in the last 40-50 years, but this didn’t dampen our spirits and there was still some good snow to be had, and we were assured that more would arrive whilst we were there. The cold Siberian winds coming off Asia blow across the Sea of Japan, picking up moisture along the way, then the winds hit the mountains along the west coast of Japan and you get the big dumps of snow, or ‘Japow’ as it’s affectionately known. The snow cycle there is fairly constant, so it didn’t take long for some more of the fresh stuff to arrive.
There were 8 of us on the trip and we were staying in a house just outside the main hub of Niseko, all snowboarders except for Ralph, who was carrying the flag for the skiers. I was the only newbie on the trip, as everyone else had been to Japan before and knew the score. A natural desire for regular exercise has always seemed to elude me, but I knew we were going to be doing some hiking out in the backcountry while we were there, so I did make a bit of an effort to improve my fitness in the run-up to the trip – a bit of yoga, some squats and a couple of jogs around the park, but beyond that I just held onto the blind hope that I wouldn’t be the most unfit person in the group.
I’d been told that the end goal of our trip was to conquer Mount Yotei, an active volcano standing proudly on the outskirts of Niseko. Although classed as ‘active’ the last time it actually erupted was around 3,000 years ago, so I didn’t really mind those odds. What I did find a little more daunting was its size, as it stands a mile high, with its base at 300m above sea level and its summit at 1,900m. It’s about as good a volcano shape as you can imagine, with a perfectly round barnacle-shaped cone. It dominates the backdrop of the landscape around Niseko, and so for the 2 weeks beforehand we were riding around the area with incredible views of the volcano, but for those 2 weeks I kept asking myself, “are we really gonna hike up that thing?!”
I’d heard stories from the others in the group who had hiked up Mount Yotei previously and the opinions ranged from ‘it was fine’ to ‘it’s the most knackering thing I’ve ever done’, and there was even talk of madness and deliriousness setting in at some points during the hike up. The opinions on the amount of time to complete the challenge also seemed to vary quite a lot, from around 3-4 hours up to around 5 hours, but either way that was quite a bit of hiking uphill as far as I was concerned! Thankfully, we were able to warm up to it, as the mission was pencilled in for near the end of the trip, and we did a few other hikes of 1-2 hours during the 2 weeks leading up to it, so that helped us prepare by getting physically and mentally ready for the big day.
With the topography being as it is in Japan, the weather can be very changeable and it’s often cloudy and snowy, but to attempt the hike up Mount Yotei we really needed a clear day. Luckily, we were blessed with just that, and the forecast for the last day of our trip was beautiful clear blue skies with very little wind. This combined with the fresh snowfall we’d had over the few days beforehand meant the conditions were just about as good as we could have hoped for.
We planned an early start and set our alarms for 6:30am, and after getting packed and stoked up with some eggs for breakfast, we got on the road at around 7:30am. We drove about half an hour out of Niseko and round to the far side of Mount Yotei, then parked the vans in a small car park just on the edge of the trees at the foot of the volcano. After half an hour of getting ready and sorting out our kit, we set off at 8:30am. There were 11 of us in the group, the 8 of us from the house plus our 3 hosts and guides. 10 of us were using snowshoes with snowboards strapped to our backpacks, whilst Ralph was on his touring skis and skins.
The hike started off nice and easy, with some fairly mellow snowshoeing through the forest at the base of the volcano and a gradual incline. The terrain gets steeper of course as you move onwards, with the shape of the volcano being almost like an exponential curve, ranging from virtually flat at the bottom to incredibly steep at the top. So it breaks you in gently and the first hour or so was very pleasant, moving slowly through the bamboo forest with beautiful trees all laden with snow, serene and tranquil.
Eventually we started to come out of the forest as we moved beyond the tree line, and all the time the pitch was gradually getting steeper. Short stops for water became more frequent, and more layers were removed as we got hotter from hiking. You have to be a bit careful with regulating your temperature, as it’s easy to get hot and sweaty quickly, particularly when you’re carrying a fairly hefty weight on your back with a snowboard, avalanche kit, various snacks and 2 litres of water. If you get too soggy with sweat then you can quickly get in trouble when it starts to get cold, and although it was a beautiful day with bright blue skies, it was still minus 10 in the sun.
As we got higher the views became jaw-dropping, and we eventually started to pass through the line of small puffy clouds, which only a couple of hours ago had seemed to be miles above our heads. We were then looking down onto the clouds, and all the while the pitch was becoming steeper. As the gradient increases, the longer it takes to gain height as you have to traverse further, and your zig-zag path becomes wider. The wind was also starting to pick up, and every now and then a small whirlwind of snow would whip across the face towards me and hit me with an icy chill, so eventually the layers started to go back on.
The last hour of the hike was undoubtedly the hardest and I definitely had to dig deep! After 3.5 hours of hiking through snow with a weight on my back, I was getting close to exhaustion and the altitude wasn’t helping either. The approach to the summit seemed to go on and on, all the while getting steeper and steeper, and I was only managing a few steps at a time before needing another rest. Luckily, I remembered the packet of grapefruit Haribo I had stashed in my backpack, which I opened and gobbled down, and I think it was the sugar hit from that which gave me the extra bit of energy I needed to make it up to the top.
Ralph by that point was having some trouble with his skins, which were icing up on the bottom due to the cold and meant that he couldn’t get enough grip on the snow to keep advancing upwards, so having been towards the front of the pack to begin with he was starting to fall behind and I eventually caught up with him, but thankfully he was able to get his skins cleared of ice to enable him to push on up to the top.
We reached the summit at 1pm, 4.5 hours after we set off, and the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment was huge. We had all managed to stay together fairly well and there was probably only around 20 minutes between the first of our group hitting the summit and the last ones arriving. We all dumped our snowboards and backpacks and made the final scramble up to the peak, where we could actually look down into the crater of the volcano, which was like a huge bowl filled with snow. It felt like we were explorers on another planet, and the views were just mind-blowing.
It was very cold at the top with the extra wind-chill and we were all fully layered up again, so we didn’t hang around too long. After a quick snack break and a few minutes to admire the view and take a few shots, it was time to think about strapping on our snowboards and skis and making the long descent, in spite of our legs feeling like jelly from the hike up.
The run down probably only took us around 20 minutes or so in total and was without doubt some of the best snow I have ever ridden, light and fluffy and turning into puffs of smoke trailing behind me in the icy cold air, and I have never been able to enjoy such a long and clear run of untracked powder with such a perfect incline and hardly anyone else around. We were picking our own routes and were all whooping for joy as we rode down, and it’s probably the closest I’ve been to heaven on earth.
I had imagined we would have to stop and pick our way back down through the forest at the bottom of the volcano, but we managed to weave our way through the trees and find a route which took us all the way back to the spot where the vans were parked, with hardly any pushing needed at all.
The feeling I got when we arrived back at the bottom I can only describe as pure elation – We had all made it to the top and we had all made it back down again, and the ride was simply unreal, with the balance of effort and reward being perfectly in alignment. We all hugged each other, overjoyed at what we had just experienced together, and then we gathered in for a group photo before heading home for a hot shower and a good rest.
It was certainly one of the most physically demanding things I had ever done, and without a doubt, it was the best run of my life……..... (so far)…
Special thanks to John & Owain Bassett for organising the trip, and to Will Hughes for helping us out with the guiding.
Photo credits: Hamish Duncan / Ralph Johnson / Nick Maxwell