Skiing Into a Volcano: Mt. Yotei, Japan
Mt. Yotei is easily recognizable on a clear day from almost anywhere on Japan’s northern island. This perfectly symmetrical volcano is an iconic landmark that is too noticeable, and too difficult, to ignore. With over 6000 feet of vertical, it can take anywhere from three to eight hours to ascend.
Although this wasn’t my first ascent, it was my first trip taking clients up Yotei as a ski guide. It was a sunny January day, and it had just snowed a few feet, which is pretty typical of Hokkaido. It was to be one of the rare two or three bluebird days we get in a winter. We woke up before sunrise because of the limited daylight in January. I picked up the guests, who had very tired looks on their faces. I recommended that we stop at the local Seico Mart, a type of convenience store that has heated canned coffee; this was a warmly welcomed suggestion. Stocking up on food for the day, we paraded through the waves of octopus jerky, inappropriate comic books, and bizarre combinations of breaded treats.
Mt. Yotei, seen on an early morning while working for Black Diamond Tours.
We went over a quick avalanche gear check, and I explained the route we were going to take: a southern approach and western descent. Going up the south face is generally the mellowest gradient, but it is subject to sun baking. This can result in safety issues with snow layers and can also make the snow heavier, which is less fun to ski than the reputed Hokkaido dry powder. Luckily, the weather report wasn’t quite accurate, as per usual. Clouds had formed since the orange-rising sun had come up. After motivating everyone with caffeine and route details, we drove to the trailhead, put on our skis and skins, and started up. When you’re careening through the silver birch forests, it’s hard to keep your head down. There are unique formations of snow on trees in every direction. If there’s an imaginable snowy fantasyland, this would be it.
Mt. Kombudake from afar.
The alpine section of the mountain is extremely windblown and requires boot packing or crampons. At this point, it can be very difficult to fight the frequent high winds. Fortunately, today was not a very high wind day and the hike was almost pleasant. There was a cloud layer about two-thirds of the way up which restricted vision for a portion of the hike. As we broke out of the cloud layer and into the unfiltered blue sky, we got an unmatched 360-degree view of the island. Everyone took a moment to appreciate the natural beauty of the volcano we were currently standing on the rim of. The crater was an uninterrupted blanket of white with speckled bits of brown rock. Since the wind blows snow consistently into the crater, fresh tracks are never an issue. We dropped in, and the familiar hooting and hollering that accompanies fresh powder echoed throughout the crater. The quick but amazing run had brought a smile to everyone’s face.
Fresh tracks inside the crater.
Reaching the top for a second time reminded us that the effort to get up was more than worth it. As we took off the skins and prepared for the main descent, I could see that the run we had just done was only a tease to this group, which was good, because we were about to make our way to the longer run down the main face. We spent the first bit survival skiing into the bad visibility layer. After a few minutes of skiing wind-blasted ridges, we dropped into a bowl for one of the best runs I have ever taken in my skiing career. A perfect 35-degree angle of dry, blower powder was the only thing we focused on for the next few minutes. Finishing it off with an untracked tree run, we all made it to the car and high-fived. I brought out a pack of Japan’s finest brewed beer, and most agreed that there was no better way to end an adventure.
Braving the winds on the summit of Mt. Yotei.
Interested in skiing Mt. Yotei? Check out Black Diamond Tours’ Yotei Summit Tour for a list of required gear and to make a reservation.
Follow Mitch Potter to stay up to date with his gear reviews, expert advice, and adventures.