Foregoing ski resorts for perfect powder
Chuck Olbery, Backcountry Powder Tracks
Why just ogle powder on far-off slopes from a lift wondering, "what if ... ?" If off piste is where you want to be, consider the backcountry. A higher demand for the aerobic ascent and fresh-powder descent it offers is bringing more backcountry guides to the forefront of Japan's ski and snowboard scene.
While backcountry skiing and snowboarding took off in North America and Europe long ago, Japan has been slow to catch on. Insiders say it's due largely to liability concerns and a lack of trained guides. But that's changing thanks to progressive resort owners bent on drawing more customers and an influx of snow-loving Aussie tourists - and guides such as Chuck Olbery.
Olbery, 33, has been an avid skier since he was 14. He is a former ski and snowboard instructor and seasoned ski and heli-ski guide. He has worked the slopes in Japan as well as New Zealand where, like Canada and Antarctica, he has toured extensively. Olbery started Backcountry Powder Tracks in Niigata last winter before relocating this season to Furano - the "bellybutton of Hokkaido." He says the quality of the snow was the main draw and he's hoping a burgeoning number of backcountry enthusiasts will agree.
"It's getting really popular in Japan, where people like to do the in thing," he says. "Since the (asset-inflated economic) bubble burst, less people are skiing; but backcountry skiing and snowboarding are growing, although only a small percentage of people do it." The draw for fitness- as well as fun-seekers is understandable.
Compared to the ski-lift and groomed-sloped routine, the cardiovascular system will pump harder scaling mountains and cruising powder. Core and leg muscles will meet new challenges. And un-manicured snow will put agility and balance to the test - all while taking in nature's beauty hiking and getting the ultimate downhill rush. Some additional gear - snowshoes and telescopic polls for boarders, special binding and traction "skins" for skis - safety training and equipment are all it takes.
"Basically, backcountry skiing and snowboarding is hiking up a mountain and skiing or snowboarding down - you can see it as hiking to ski or snowboard or skiing or snowboarding to hike," Olbery says. "Essentially, it's getting the best quality snow. If you go to a ski resort it's all fairly well groomed, especially in Japan. But when you're in the backcountry it's like sailing through the clouds."
Backcountry Powder Tracks
Of course, it calls for extra preparation. There are no ski lifts, ski patrols or nearby hot-cocoa-peddling pensions in the backcountry. It means hauling everything needed for a day or more up, as well as down, the slopes. For those new to the backcountry, being reasonably fit is as essential as a competent guide.
"It definitely helps to have good aerobic fitness," says Olbery, who cycles, hits the gym for squats and runs twice a week during the off-season. "My clients who are into hiking do well because you spend half your time going up. It's not a stressful workout but aerobic exercise helps. Stamina is important; often we're out for the whole day." Working out is not the only training that's required.
The untouched terrain makes avalanches a serious concern. Basic avalanche training is essential. Olbery, who is trained in stage-2 avalanche for ski operations and offers a Canadian Avalanche Association course for beginners, says good courses are at least two days long. Among other essentials, they teach how to use a transceiver (beacon) to let partners home in on each other if one is buried, a probe to find the victim, and a shovel to dig her or him out. Many guides say the local availability of such courses in recent years have helped plow a path to Japan's backcountry. They also say far too many people make the mistake of skipping this essential step before heading out.
"If you go out with your buddy and you don't have a clue it's like the blind leading the blind," Olbery says. "I see a lot of people at resorts and it's obvious that they're planning to do a bit of out-of-bounds. They have some equipment; but a transceiver is useless without a shovel and a shovel is useless without a probe. A lot of people go out with a transceiver but don't know how to use it."
Backcountry newbies must also get used to the un-groomed snow: "It can be affected by the sun or wind," Olbery explains. "You can have 30 inches (76.2 cm) of powder under a wind-crust - a hard surface. That's when knee injuries can occur to the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and MCL (medial collateral ligament)." Avoiding them is a matter technique, which comes with experience.
With adequate safety and equipment, the backcountry promises ideal winter adventures that will leave you more fit and fit to be tied over nature's pristine beauty. It's especially true in Japan where the ski-resort industry has waxed and waned without fully tapping the backcountry. That may not last for long.
"Japan has got to be one of best places in world to ski," Olbery says. "It's just a matter of time before more North Americans and Europeans start coming here for backcountry skiing as well."
For details about Backcountry Powder Tracks' ski tours, clinics, avalanche courses and multi-day tours see: http://www.b-powdertracks.com. For info on similar services in Nagano try: http://www.evergreen-outdoors.com. A comprehensive resource for winter activities in Japan can be found at: http://www.snowjapan.com.