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Heli Heaven

This was an article I wrote for Niseko.com Magazine Issue 28 | Dec/Jan 2015/16

Heli Heaven

Hokkaido, Japan is one of the most stunning places on the planet. It is stunning not only for its sweeping, elegant winter landscape but also for the peaks, hills and mountains that run from coast to coast. During Winter, Hokkaido’s mountains become a paradise for powder skiing; infinite powder, accessible backcountry, countless resorts… It’s easy to see why Hokkaido gets so much attention. Last season I was able to hitch a tour with Hokkaido Backcountry Club to enjoy one of the most sought after winter experiences; Heli-Skiing.

The day started with a 45 minute drive out of Hirafu towards the base of Shiribetsu-Dake (about 10 minutes from Rusutsu). The weather was perfect; no wind, fresh powder and sunshine. Once I reached the site, I was greeted with a picturesque log cabin – Fukurou restaurant – (which would be the base for the day’s activities), and of course the very impressive helicopter sitting proudly in front of the building.

Once inside the building, I met the 7 other guests and the guides. Our lead guide was Canadian ski veteran Jordy Sheperd. Jordy has been guiding and running heli-ski operations in Canada and abroad for many many years. He’s one of the most experienced guides around and basically wrote the book on avalanche prediction and rescue procedures. Our second lead guide is operations manager Pablo Arsenault; another highly trained and experienced guide. I definitely felt safe with these guys.

Our guides introduced themselves and got started on the safety briefing; a very thorough introduction to avalanche rescue procedures and rescue beacon operation. All guests were provided with rescue gear and beacons and were showed exactly how to use everything. Avalanches are always a risk in the backcountry, but with training and awareness the dangers are greatly minimised. HBC actively promotes mountain safety and I for one certainly don’t mind missing a few minutes of heli/ski time to know that my fellow skiers know what to do if something does go wrong out on the hill.

After the avalanche safety briefing we headed outside to the helicopter and had a safety briefing on that as well. Soon I was on board and the engine started up. We lift off and the view is spectacular; blue skies all around us, snow covered trees as far as the eye can see, and a great view of Shiribetsu-Dake. It did feel like the heli ride was very short; almost too short, but I guess that’s the point of heli-skiing really.

The peak of Shiribestsu-Dake is 1107m (3,632 ft), so you can easily look out directly across to Mt. Yotei and high above the farmland of the Niseko area; a truly awe inspiring sight. Skiers can access runs that vary in length from 550 to 850 vertical meters with some pitches between 40 and 50 degrees. Shiribetsu-Dake is a serious mountain with amazing skiing but has real risks too, so it is recommended for advanced riders only.

After unloading from the heli we assembled our gear, I snapped some photos and headed over to the group. We traversed around to the North facing slope which was out of the sun. I was close behind our guide, Pablo, and we waited a minute for the group to get to the top of the slope where we were. The view below us looked so sick. Scattered birch trees caked in powder snow, a steep pitch and untracked pow that stretched on far below us; heaven.

As I was the photographer, I was allowed to drop in first and get the first turns in that epic snow. The pitch that we were on was fairly steep, so I was easily able to pick up more speed than I normally would in snow that deep and soft. It’s easily among the best terrain that I’ve ridden in Hokkaido. It was a new level of powder riding; I was floating so much more and with much more speed. Every turn felt buttery smooth; it was perfect!

I stopped to get some photos of the other guests riding down towards me, and everyone had a great big smile on their face all the way down. I turned to see where Pablo had gone and he was just dropping into an amazing east facing open face about a hundred meters away. I snapped a few sneaky shots of him through the trees, then packed up my gear and followed the group the rest of the way down.

We made our way through the forest to an open farming field and the guides radioed in our location to the pilot. I was able to see the tip of Mt. Yotei just above the tops of the trees and got some awesome photos right as the helicopter was landing to pick up the first group. It was very very cool.

The other HBC staff and I got the third pick up and were dropped off back at the top of Shiribetsu-Dake one last time. This time we were just going to shred down; no stopping. This is what it’s all about. Pablo took us to a new line he’d been checking out, pointed to the line and then we all sent it. We rode hard and fast, really putting in some big turns down the steep face. It really was some of the best fun I’ve had on a snowboard.

The Niseko area is a great place for skiing and snowboarding, but with backcountry numbers increasing, new areas and slopes need to be explored and experienced. Hokkaido Backcountry Club heli-ski tour gives you exactly that. New terrain, new skills and an amazing experience that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.