April 2, 2016
Well, this is the big one. Literally. At 2291 meters above sea level, Asahi-dake is the highest mountain in Hokkaido, and an item near the top of every Hokkaido backcountry skier’s to-do list. At least, it was for me.
So when a clear weather forecast came up last Saturday I loaded up the skis and skins and hopped in the car and made my way out to the mountain. The sky was blue and the roads were clear and the sun was out and the big white mountain stood up in front of me like, “Hey friend, it’s a great day for climbing.”
There’s a ropeway, which I guess in some parts of the world would be called a gondola, that runs from the parking lot at the base of the mountain to the top of the ski field. The top of the ski field is called Sugatami (姿見, meaning ‘shape-seeing’ and referencing the small pond nearby in whose reflection you can see the shape of the mountain) and sits on a bit of a plateau below the main part of the mountain above. The ropeway opens at 9 am during the winter season (a more comprehensive list of timetables and fares can be found here); by the time I arrived at 8:45 the parking lot was pretty full and a line had formed to board the first ropeway of the day. Everyone lined up was able to fit into the ropeway car but I suspect that this had to do with how late in the season it was–on a comparable day in January or February I expect that anyone joining the line as late as 8:45 would have to wait for a second car.
At the top of the ropeway, Sugatami Station, I put on my skins and started making my way towards the mountain. It was quite easy going at first–from the ropeway station I climbed across the plateau towards a tall structure with a bell–traditionally you ring the bell when heading up the mountain. There’s also an old stone hut near this bell, but the hut is only for emergencies, so you can’t stay in it overnight without a real tough reason.
Beyond the hut and bell, the climb started in earnest. Big fumaroles in the valley ahead disgorged huge clouds of smoke; the hissing sound was distantly audible. Above them sits the valley of Jigoku-tani (地獄谷, meaning ‘valley of hell’)–created when a volcanic eruption some 2500 years ago triggered a huge landslide, carving the face off the mountain. The trail climbs the south ridge of this valley.
The trail varied in steepness for the first part–if you were only on skins you might have to do a little switchbacking. When I went up, the trail was mostly ice and my skins are sort of old and shitty so I had to take the skis off entirely and go up on foot in some places. If you’ve got ski crampons I can’t recommend them enough. If you don’t, then consider taking off the skis and climbing on foot.
For most of the climb, the trail was smooth, punctuated here and there by cairns or trail marker posts. The dominant winds come out of the southeast, so I had to climb over a low (20 cm) cornice now and again. Frequent climbers seemed to keep the trail relatively well-packed; by April the snowpack was quite thin and beat down by those winds, so I wasn’t worried about avalanche danger. I don’t know about the depths of winter, but by the late part of the season, due to traffic and wind, the climb could easily have been accomplished in warm hiking boots and crampons–no snowshoes needed.
Near the top of the ridge the trail got a little rough, with frequent ice-blown volcanic rock sticking up through the snow. If you were still on skis at this point, you’d want to an eye out you don’t gouge an edge and wreck a skin–the rocks were pretty sharp. At any rate you’d want to remove your skis here–it’s steep enough that they probably won’t do you much good.
Past the rocky spot, the trail cut left up a last round face before the summit. It was quite steep and I had to do some real kick-stepping in my ski boots just below the summit. The summit itself was broad and windswept, but I had a great view over the rest of the Daisetsuzan. It was a clear day all over, it seemed, and I could see from Kuro-dake (黒岳, 1984 m) in the north to Furano-dake (富良野岳, 1912 m) in the south. It was awesome.
From the summit you can cross around to the north side of Jigoku-tani (the huge valley) and cut down into the valley itself for some good skiing. The wind out of the southeast deposits a lot of snow on the lee side of the valley, which makes for great powder skiing in the depths of winter–and also great avalanches, since it’s a natural chute. By April, there was still a lot of snow in the valley; but I was on my own and the descent into the valley is quite steep and the snow had developed a nice icy crust by this point and I didn’t feel like tempting fate. A couple of other groups that morning had skied down the valley, but I was one of only five or six skiers on the mountain–everyone else was hiking with crampons.
In the end I descended by the trail to just below the rocky zone, then stripped my skins, put on my skis, and skied down. There was some good skiing to be had just south of the ridgeline, but as I approached the big plateau at Sugatami, the snow started getting a little melty and crummy. I skied past Sugatami onto the ski field, cut a little ways down a bowl through the top of the tree line, and out onto a trail that took me back down to the parking lot. The whole descent was relatively quick.
Other ways to climb
A lot of folks think the ropeway opens too late and will hike up the ski field to Sugatami before anyone can ride up on the ropeway. The climb from the bottom of the ropeway to the top, up the ski field, usually takes about an hour and a half. The fastest way up is to climb by the southern trails (the ones I came down by)–the only real climb comes just below the top of the ropeway.
Sugatami: 9:22 -> bell & hut: 9:40 -> summit: 11:55 -> Sugatami: 12:51 -> parking lot: 13:07
climbing time : 2 hours, 33 minutes / descending time: 1 hour, 7 minutes