Monday, February 24, 2020

Powder Cowboy - Family Day

 The first annual Powder Cowboy family day weekend extravaganza was a huge success. We used 2 sleds to shuttle our gear and friends up to the hut for the weekend and spent the weekend enjoying the amazing ski terrain around the hut (both sled and tour accessed). It was awesome to have such a big group of friends together in the mountains and we had plenty of space in the well equipped hut. The weekend highlights included giant bonfires, ridiculous games, overcooked pasta, backflips, sunset laps, alien lights in the forest, stargazing and some skiing too!
Powder Cowboy
Cuba wants to go skiing
The faffing began on Friday when we realized we weren't going to be able to fit Jordan's sled in Andrew's truck. A quick adjustment to the plan had Kyle and Andrew driving out with Kyle's dads trailer which ended up working fine. We met in the staging area on Saturday morning after most of the crew spent the night in Fernie. Chaos ensued as we tried to plan shuttles up the road to the hut for all the people and gear with the 2 sleds and one little toboggan. Jordan and Heather rolled in a bit later than anticipated after their new truck went into limp mode on the drive from Castlegar. Nonetheless, we all made it to the hut.
Collecting firewood
Another group was on their way out as we arrived but we had to wait for the owner to roll up in his snow cat to do some cleaning and restocking before we could move in. We spent the afternoon collecting firewood with the sleds and catching up with friends we hadn't seen in ages. We had a massive bonfire to celebrate the start to the weekend.
Sunday morning dawned and we geared up to ski. With 2 sleds, it didn't make sense to do sled laps so we set out on foot up to the ridge above the hut. We dropped down the back side to ski Deep Throat Ridge. The snow was good but touchy and we triggered some small avalanches on the convex slopes. Playing it safe, we stuck to the trees on Sunnyside for the afternoon. After a few laps, the keeners kept skiing with some sled assistance, while others chilled at the hut in the sun. 
At the ridgetop
Looking for lines
The "powder cowboy"
Going up
Magical snow ghosts
The clouds lift
Very cool terrain
The backflip booter
Brap brap
Sled life
Sunset laps
Epic alpine glow
Ready to drop in
For our second night at the hut, we ran out of firewood early so played games and watched the stars, talking late into the night. The next morning we went for a lap on Cabin Side before shuttling our gear back down the road to the trucks.
Touring laps
It was an ambitious weekend with 2 sleds for the 9 of us, especially with Kyle and I being very jet-lagged after returning from Japan only days before. Nonetheless it was great to get out in the backcountry with our friends.

Friday, February 21, 2020

2 Weeks of Van Life in Japow

It doesn't seem that long ago that I attended the World Premier of MSP's "Push." My friends and I watched the teaser endlessly until we knew it by heart. When we saw each other in the halls of our high school, we would shout "push!" and give each other a shove. By the time it finally came time to load the Whistler Gondola for the movie screening at the Roundhouse (pretty awesome for a free show!), we were so excited we couldn't talk about anything else. As the lights dimmed and the roar of the igniting matchstick filled our ears, the crowd erupted into cheers and didn't stop until the final scene. 

That was 14 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. On that screen, I saw my ski idols shredding powder through snow-laden birch trees in Japan. I was captivated and couldn't get that image out of my mind. To this day, thinking about Japan conjures up visions of skiing bottomless powder through deciduous forests, soaking in hot springs and views of snowy mountains over steaming bowls of ramen.
The things dreams are made of
Needless to say, it felt pretty surreal when we touched down in Tokyo at the end of January. Disoriented and exhausted, we met David and Tyler at an Izakaya for some greasy food and beer before collapsing into our "large twin" bed. A few hours later, we were wrestling ski bags through train stations and the Tokyo airport, en-route to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido where we would be exploring "Japow" with a rental RV for two weeks.
A tip for those traveling to Japan - give yourself time between transfers/flights to allow for luggage delays. We met lots of people who had their skis show up 1-2 days after they did
We picked up our rental RV without much trouble. With the help of GoogleTranslate, the staff at FujiCars were able to get the important messages across ("DIESEL ONLY!"). We unpacked and repacked our mountains of gear into the cute little RV which had been advertised to sleep 6 (Japanese size). Four of us North Americans would be a cozy fit. With our friends Alanna and Claire in tow, we hit the road for Niseko, well after some conveyor belt sushi of course!
The Cresson B was to be our home for the next two weeks
Sampling some of the local "fast food", delivered on little bullet trains directly to your table
Kyle takes the first shift driving the RV
We had booked the van online a few months before departure. It was a less expensive option for accommodation, and allowed us to be flexible and follow the snow. It turned out to be a great idea because we had picked the worst ski season in over a decade! The base and total yearly snowfall was less than half the seasonal average, and it had been raining. 

Camping in the RV was easy. Japan has tonnes of "michi-no-eki" rest stops with 24-hour bathrooms and overnight parking. Many of the michi-no-eki were right in town and filled with other van-life foreigners on a budget. We brought all our own dishes, pots, cooking supplies and sleeping bags from home, but these items could have been rented from the van company. The RV came with a one-burner butane stove, solar panel, accessory battery and had a furnace that ran off the vehicle's fuel tank to keep us warm on those -15 nights.
Welcome to Niseko
The lack of snow was off-set by the amazing views - Niseko and Mt. Yotei
Views of Mt. Yotei from above the Grand Hirafu Village
Bamboo and birch trees
Kyle in the bamboo jungle
The novelty of skiing in Japan was fun, but the hard pack and bamboo wasn't what we came for. To add injury to insult, David got wiped out by a kid in the village and broke a rib (confirmed on xray after getting home), and Tyler had come down with a GI illness. One day at Niseko was enough. It was time to move on.
Okonomoyaki - "the things you like, fried"
RV life in the Niseko parking lot
Pouring over snowforecast.com, we saw a promising storm that was heading for the centre of the island. We cut our losses and took a travel day, leaving rainy Niseko behind.
When its raining in Niseko, go to Haru Bakery instead!
It didn't take long before disaster struck again. This time, it was the RV that broke. The accelerator cable snapped, leaving us stranded at the side of the highway. Kyle managed to jimmy-rig a temporary fix that allowed us to get to the Toyota Dealership in Chitose. FujiCar was very responsive and had replacement vehicles driven from Sapporo to meet us within hours. It ended up being an upgrade, since all they had available in their rental fleet were two luxury vans. Suddenly we had more space, privacy, and soft mattresses (the RV bed was basically just a piece of plywood). We kept one van for cooking and hanging out, while the other was used to store and dry our gear. It was a much more comfortable arrangement.
Broken down outside of Chitose
Kyle improvises. He is a "very good hand"
Goodbye RV
With our fleet of vans (3 including Jordan and Heather who traveled with us most of the trip), we made our way to Tomamu. This tiny ski hill sports four massive towers, a club med and a wave pool. They had received some new snow, but due to high winds the upper lifts were closed. After a few runs with the ski school hoards, we swapped out our resort gear for skins and toured up to ski the steeper slopes on the other part of the mountain. The snow was heavy and not particularly inspiring.
Van convoy
Cooking van
Gear van
It started to snow!
The towers of Tomamu.
Eager to move on, we made our way to Furano where we ran into some friends from Bozeman on the tram! They were on the same sort of itinerary as us, which seemed to be more focused on eating and soaking in onsens than skiing, thanks to the conditions.
Ramen night
Furano "romance lift" aka double chair
Reconnecting with old friends in far-away places
Each night after skiing, we would find a local onsen (hot spring) and spend at least an hour soaking in the healing waters. The onsens are often separate gender and there is a strict no clothing policy. 
Fukiagi Onsen, one of the rare mixed gender onsens, near Tokachidaki and Furanodaki ski touring areas
Snow was finally in the forecast, but it wasn't expected for another 3 days. To kill time until it snowed, we decided to save some money and go ski touring instead. We drove into Daisetsuzan National Park and took a 1-way trip up the Asahidake Ropeway. Mt. Asahidake is the tallest mountain on Hokkaido (2291m) and the tram takes you up to about 1600m. From there, you can ski tour and bootpack to the summit. Typically, the mountain is very cold, with high winds and no visibility. We managed to time it perfectly and were rewarded with calm bluebird skies and a balmy -5. We boot-packed for ninety minutes up the wind-scoured ridge to top out on the "roof of Hokkaido." From there, we were able to drop in off the peak and ski boiler-plate and sastrugi down into the crater, past steaming vents that gave the whole experience an otherworldly feel. It was a highlight of the trip for sure!
Welcome to the roof of Hokkaido
Loading the ropeway
Mt. Asahidake. Can you spot the steam vents?
Ridge boot-pack
Summit photo
Epic line down the crater with less than epic snow
Skiing past the steam vents
We celebrated the epic day with a late night onsen and a few Strong Zeros, and were entertained a Japanese man we dubbed the onsen master for his ability to soak for hours on end in a scalding tub that none of us could tolerate. Mega hotto! The next moring, we started the day right with a sunrise onsen followed by a tour up Giant Ridge on Furanodaki. The snow was terrible.
Van life!
Fukiage Onsen, my favourite onsen
Onsen time!
Giant Ridge ski touring
A walk in the woods
After 2 short laps, we regrouped at the vans to determine the next move. Kyle, David, Tyler and I took off for Rusutsu, while Jordan and Heather split off for Kiroro. As soon as Jordan left, it started to snow.
Parting ways
Snowing hard in Furano. Jordan must have left town
This guy knows whats up
Powder day at Rusutsu
Katheryn and Andy arrived at a good time
Here comes trouble
We spent two days skiing powder at Rusutsu, followed by three days at Niseko. We joined once again by Jordan and Heather as well as Katheryn and Andy who were just starting their trip. Although the forecast was calling for about 4 cm each night, every morning we woke up to about 20 cm of fresh. After taking it easy with his broken rib in the bad conditions, David was feeling well enough to ski for the second half of the trip (despite breaking a binding at Rusutsu). Skiing powder is a lot easier than smashing through ice and crust. We took advantage of some sunny breaks to explore the lift-accessed side country from the Niseko backcountry gates and found deep stashes in the trees. Now this was more like it!
Faceshots and amusement parks at Rusutsu
Niseko's G11 was the place to be
Single chair on Annupuri at Niseko
Exploring the Niseko backcountry (no skins required)
Dropping in!
Finding some fresh tracks just outside the gates
Rusutsu delivers
Too much fun?
Kyle in his happy place
Its deep out there!
Happiness is a gondola full of friends
Our last ski day was spent at Kiroro where we had some of the deepest, lightest snow I have ever skied. We couldn't have picked a better way to finish the trip.
We love Kiroro
Getting cozy on the double bubble chair
Bluebird powder day
Kyle trenching 
Should have brought the snorkel
Face-shots!
Playing in the birch trees
What a day!
So deep 
The rest of the trip was spent exploring Sapporo and Tokyo, and eating as many noodles as possible. It was a great way to round out the trip and experience a bit more Japanese culture before flying home. The people we met were so friendly and welcoming, the food was delicious and the country was impeccably clean and orderly. There is so much to learn about Japan and after two weeks I was left with more questions than answers. I love this about traveling. It is interesting, exciting and confusing. New experiences force you out of your comfort zone and challenge your understanding of the world. They also create powerful memories and strengthen friendships especially when things don't always go to plan. Although we didn't get the days of endless powder that we had hoped for, we got to explore some amazing parts of Hokkaido. We even got our powder fix, which goes to show that even a bad season can have some epic days! Japan, arigatou gozaimasu! My 16 year old self is so happy right now.
Sunset over Mt. Fuji from the observatory in the government building
Yakitori alley in Shinjuku
Kyle gets a free sample outside the robot restaurant. We gave it a miss as it was very expensive, but sounds like we may have missed out...it sounds like quite the experience
Exploring Tokyo
Mesmerizing lanterns at TeamLab Borderless (digital art museum)
Interactive exhibits at TeamLab Borderless
Toyota concept cars
Shibuya scramble crossing
Getting our pokemon fix
Hitting all the historic sites
In the garden at Minji Jingu shinto shrine, near Harajuku neighbourhood and Yoyogi Park
Exploring the Gado-Shita (restaurants under the tracks) near Ginza