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adventure & travel

Gaijin do Rishiri

Off to the island

by Zach Paley 03/23/2018
Our roving ski-bum reporter Zach loves to spend his winters in Japan. Rishiri, the legendary volcanic island off Hokkaido, has been on his to-ski list for a long time. This year the time had finally come and the Gaijin crew made their tracks in the - would you believe it - fluffy powder on the spectacular Mount Rishiri.

It had been on my radar for a while. Five years I think. Rishiri was first mentioned to me over a whisky induced conversation on a rainy night in Honshu. Plans that year fell through, and since then the arrival of spring in Japan meant my departure for adventure elsewhere. It turns out ski and adventure partners in March can be tough to come by.

Luck, destiny, bad planning, something happened; this year was different. I was fortunate enough to live with one of my main ski partners, and two coworkers expressed interest. A good friend put us in touch with the local guy who rented us a car with no papers whatsoever. It was sketchy, but it would work. With a couple phone calls and lots of neglected loose ends from the winter in Niseko, the traveling junk show left the first day it could. The group consisted of David Ellison, Brandon Hartwig, Matt Wiseman, and myself.

Hokkaido makes up for the hectic crowds of Honshu, being a quiet island that southern Japanese view to be full of rednecks. Despite everyone's enthusiasm to ski, there is very little happening outside of the ski towns until summer. Wakkanai, the port for the ferry to Rishiri was no exception. Most hostels were still under a meter of snow. With little going on, we took the first ferry to Rishiri and were treated to a small sampling of the 'Sea of Japan Sway'.

Rishiri Green Hill Inn was our cozy home for the next ten days while we explored the mountain. It's a smoothly run operation that is very quiet in the winter. Call a day or two before showing up. Despite few restaurants being open during the winter, the kitchen here is fully functional and the grocery stores are reasonably priced.

The first several days consisted of mediocre weather at best, so we explored options of several trailheads around the island. We settled on two trailheads: one from the east side that was plowed with a relatively short approach for casual day skiing, one from the north that provided the easiest climb to the summit.

Amidst exploring and enjoying being done with employment, I managed to catch the infamous Hokkaido Plague that had been going around all winter. I'm not sure exactly what triggered it, but it definitely wasn't a result of the heavy drinking we did during the last two days of employment to celebrate the end of the guiding season. A few down days started bringing me up to speed before the asthmatic cough kicked in the day before good weather promised. Needless to say, the alpine start was painful.

On the summit day, we started hiking from the Rishirifuji Onsen just above sea level at 5:30 am. The weather forecast was calling for things to clear around 10, though steady snow was falling all morning. 'It took a lot of motivation to hike through sickness in that snowstorm' is an understatement. I owe a lot of thanks to Dave, Brandon, and Matt for their patience with me. They were all nothing but tolerant and accepting of my slow hiking and constant hacking. I must have lost two deciliters of fluid just in phlegm along the way up.

As luck would have it the weatherman was surprisingly correct that day. Shortly after we reached the hut at 1240m, the weather began to break. Dramatic views of the sharp terrain contrasting the ocean were just what the doctor ordered and I began to feel a lot better. Snow eventually turned to the classic volcanic ice-rime and proved too difficult for skins just above 1500m, and we used crampons to cover the remaining distance to the 1721m summit.

Winds were light but consistently from the west, so the big face we had initially eyed was scoured and heinous looking. Walking around the summit, we found an east facing line that was loaded but not too fat. Dave led and let us all know just how good it was from his loud shouts until he appeared in the safe spot on an improbable fin most of the way down the crux of the line. Brandon followed and made it clear the snow was still fantastic, Dave hadn't sluffed things out.

Matt had been living an ordeal that day. Having never hiked more than 600m in a day, he was amidst the biggest day of his life. He had popped his crampon cherry only a couple hours before. He rediscovered his fear of heights once the clouds cleared above 1400m. And if that all wasn't enough, the three older guys had donned him with the nickname 'Pancake' since the start of the trip. So when he turned to me and said "I'm scared" at the top of the line, I knew he wasn't fucking around. Rather than call him Pancake and give him shit, I told him that it would be fine, as long as he didn't fall. Matt grinned (or grimaced, I'm not sure), and dropped in to what he later said was the line of his life.

Going last was fitting for me since I had been the anchor of the group all day. I also don't mind crossing tracks when they belong to my friends. Not that crossing tracks mattered in this case. The turns were impossibly good for big line skiing. The top section was right side up velvet, and as the line doglegged to the left, the snow got deep. Really deep. It had been seven years since I first rode conditions like this in a big line in Japan. Thigh deep? How? I would have shouted or whooped or something if it wouldn't have triggered a coughing fit. All I could muster was to silently ski past the group and leapfrog them as far as my legs would take me. On my semi-safe spot, I hammered my legs to prevent cramping and watched the others ski up to me. Looking back at the map, I had skied 720m of consistent pitch, and was still far from the bottom.

Hugs were exchanged before we decided to party ski until the pitch leveled off, another 600m below. At 400m the pitch officially ended and we had one big group hug. I don't think any of us could believe what just happened. There wasn't a care or worry in the world as to how we would get back to the car. And in classic traveling junkshow fashion, it turns out there wasn't a need for it. We had skied out the drainage that was popular for a local guide to access, so there was a well traveled track for us all the way to the road. Despite no success hitchhiking from civilians, the bus driver made an extra stop for us As it turned out, the onsen where we had parked the car in the morning was on his bus route.

If rain had come and a tsunami had wiped the island clean that night I'm not sure if any of us would have woken up, or cared. As it turns out, Rishiri seems to dodge a fair bit of the warmer weather that brings an end to winter through the rest of Japan. The next day was a snow day where we took a short tour to stretch the legs.

Our last full day on Rishiri dawned clear and calm, giving us an attempt at skiing a different aspect. Stronger winds up high made things a fair bit fatter, so we opted to drop in lower along the ridge. The massive west face of the mountain skied well enough for airplane turns, and though the exit wasn't as easy as from the east side, it was still straightforward enough.

Then the rain really did come. The following day dawned with a nasty squall. Incredulous the ferry was running, but not willing to question it, we quickly packed and turned tail. We hammered out the long drive back down to Kutchan that afternoon and into the evening. Tired, dirty, cold, happy.

I still have fire in my throat and lungs as I write this. The cough won't go away for another week at best. But the memories from this early March will stay with me for a long time. Given it's been seven years since I last did it, I may never ski snow like that in such a line again in Japan. Then again, maybe Rishiri in March will be a new tradition.

Oh, and with regard to everyone on Hokkaido being redneck hicks? On the drive back to Kutchan, we observed a man with his car pulled to the side of the road aiming a rifle at something above the road. Before we could get a look at what he was aiming at, we entered a tunnel. We speculated what he could be doing and nearly agreed he couldn't be shooting at anything when we were interrupted by the sound of his rifle echoing down the tunnel. We don't know what he was aiming at from the highway, but it was worth it for him to take the shot. Northern Hokkaido makes Louisiana folk look pretty tame.

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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