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CLIMBING MT YOTEI | A STORY FROM AMBASSADOR JAMES WINFIELD

Mt Yotei is undoubtably the most iconic and distinctive mountain in the Niseko area, the subject of countless photos, and a highly sought after descent. Towering 1898 meters above sea level, its prominence is both a blessing and curse. Blessed by its spectacular views and skiing on every aspect, cursed by incessant winds which strip the snow from the summit, or shroud it in impenetrable clouds. In my 12 winters in Niseko, the majority of my most memorable runs have been on its slopes.

Last April, after a spring storm, a crack squad of local ski bums went in search of the last powder of the season. The forecast looked perfect, but in spring the sun affects the snow fast, so we decided to get as early a start as possible – by climbing the day before and staying at the hut located near the summit.

We loaded up with overnight gear and hit the skin track. Our heavy packs and the sticky spring snow made for slow going. At one steep section the snow freezing to our skins, combined with the gradient, made movement almost impossible. Struggling up onto the ridge, morale was low and the clock was ticking. We were relieved to find drier snow that allowed our skins to grip, and we started to get some good vertical under our belt.

The final third of Yotei is the hardest, as the mountain gets steeper, the snow conditions also get worse. Bushes covered in rime ice don’t provide enough grip to skin, but when bootpacking they don’t support your weight, not leaving any easy options. As we approached this altitude the sun began to set, giving us glorious views back towards Hirafu and the Niseko range, bathed in hazy light.

The euphoria of sunset all too quickly turned to the cold of blue hour, and the internal struggle of night. Pushing upwards into the dark juxtaposed the beauty of the surroundings with numbing cold and the pain of exertion. We had hoped to get to the hut around sunset, but in the end we walked in the dark for over an hour; It was a relief to find the hut, and then guide the rest of the team in with my head torch.

We had carried wood with us, so fired up the stove, cooked some noodles, sipped some whiskey and settled in for some sleep before heading to the summit at dawn (which in Hokkaido in spring is around 4am). Getting out of a sleeping bag can be hard, but the first hints of a perfect sunrise drew us out of the hut and up the short skin to the crater rim. I always love a sunrise, even more so on top of my favourite mountain. It was a stunning morning, fantastic light and clear skis, with only a few clouds in the valley. As the sun climbed higher, it cast a triangular shadow of Yotei towards Hirafu.

With the sun up, we found what we were searching for, that elusive spring powder. It wasn’t the superlight blower of January, but it was fresh, all ours and the stoke levels were high. The run down into the crater is short but sweet, a few steep turns which you can dig your edges into, then some mellow ones as you run out into the centre of the bowl. Everyone’s legs were feeling spent after a few crater laps, so we started our descent back to the base. Sticking to the shady aspects we found some great snow, party shredding the lower angle faces, hooting and hollering our way home.

By James Winfield

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