Resort Write-Up: Kurodake

Normally in these resort write-ups there’s an attempt to keep a bit of professional distance. We try to be a bit objective and give you an honest assessment of a ski area’s strengths and weaknesses. Is it good in a storm? Do the lifts spin if it’s windy? Should you stay there or commute from somewhere else?

I’m not going to do that with Kurodake. I'll give you the facts as best I can, but since any chance of objectivity is hopelessly compromised by my experiences here, I'm also going to tell what I think about Kurodake and what it means to me as a skier.

The skiing:

Let’s start with the facts: Kurodake is a mountain in the Daisetsuzan Range near the onsen resort town of Sounkyo Gorge. The mountain is a rocky peak with steep skiable slopes on one side and huge bristling cliffs on the other. A ridge runs from the peak back towards town, and there are two lifts that head up this ridge from about 630m up to 1520m. The lower lift is a gondola (or ropeway) that rises from the edge of town above the bluffs that make up the edge of Sounkyo Gorge, and the upper lift is a pretty flat chairlift that’s really only useful to get a bit of extra vert before hiking further up the mountain.

 The side of the peak you ski down. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

The side of the peak you ski down. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

 The side of the peak you do not ski down. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

The side of the peak you do not ski down. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

The place gets a lot of snow. No one really keeps track, but you’re looking at something like a 5 metre base in a normal season at the top of the chairlift. Generally speaking, if somewhere doesn’t even bother to track how much snow they get you can be pretty confident it’s a lot.

You’ve got three and a half options for skiing: You can lap the gondola, you can hike up and ski the open slopes below the peak, you can ski the chairlift (that’s the half option), and finally, you can ski gnarly, scary lines dropping into the Kurodakesawa drainage northwest of the peak.

Lapping the gondola offers steep, technical skiing in tight trees. The terrain and forest provide a bit of shelter from the wind and sun, so it tends to hold pretty good snow. The gondola rises over a set of bluffs and these tend to funnel the skiing into a few areas, so the place tracks out pretty quickly if there are many people about. Fortunately there aren’t usually very many people around, and lots of them hike the peak anyway so they don’t end up tracking out the gondola too badly. Speaking of bluffs – careful routefinding is important here. If you get it wrong you’re either going to have a long, slogging hike to a skiable line, or you’re going to have a fast, direct and terminal ride down some cliffs. It’s probably best to hire a guide to get started. This is not a ski field and the skiing is not easy. If the snow is heavy or crusty, you’ll be struggling to turn in time to avoid trees. If the snow is light and dry, it’s easily steep enough to sluff you out in places, and getting rinsed through the trees here would be a pretty sporty experience.

    
 
 
    Steep, tight trees under the gondola. ©   
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Steep, tight trees under the gondola. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

 

If the snow is good, the terrain below the peak is easier and more accessible for most riders. Yes, you have to hike to it, but the views from the peak are stunning and the run down has sustained pitches at a fun angle with well-spaced trees. You can make up some of the vert on the chairlift. This area is pretty exposed to wind, so it can get slabby pretty easily. Again, if you don’t have your backcountry skills dialled and you’re not willing to spend some time figuring the snowpack out, hire a guide.

Skiing under the chairlift only counts as half an option because it’s really flat. If you like flat pow go to Kiroro where conditions are more reliable and there’s more lift-accessed terrain. At Kurodake you do get the opportunity to ski flat pow with amazing views on the side of a big mountain, which is actually pretty cool. But if you come all the way here to ski the chairlift you should at least know what you’re in for.

All of this is weather dependant. The ropeway won’t run if the winds are too strong. They make their measurements here in metres per second, but typically winds of 10-15m/s are enough to make the staff pretty nervous, so you can expect the ropeway to stop if winds are above 35kph or so. Winds funnel up and down the valley in funny ways: There’s usually some shelter from southerly and westerly winds, but a decent northerly or northwesterly will shut the place down.

What about those gnarly lines I mentioned? From the summit of Kurodake there’s reasonably straightforward access to a huge backcountry area with a range of terrain options from fun to super rad. By super rad I mean extremely dangerous. To be honest, the hiking involved to hit the fun terrain is probably not worth it – there are other areas where you can access equally good terrain with less effort (just skiing back to lifts from the peak would fall into this category). The super rad terrain, on the other hand, is pretty convenient. By convenient I mean you’ll have to traverse some easy ground over hundred metre high cliffs. Strictly speaking, it’s not hard to get to, but I wouldn’t exactly say it’s easy either.

 My buddy skied Niseko once and thought it was flat, so that applies to the whole of Hokkaido, right?   
  
 
 
  
  © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

My buddy skied Niseko once and thought it was flat, so that applies to the whole of Hokkaido, right? © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

And that’s why I’m not going to be objective about Kurodake. I’m just going to say it: I've had one of my best ever days on skis here and reckon Kurodake easily has the best lift accessed skiing in Hokkaido. In fact, in terms of straightforward access, it’s some of the best lift accessed skiing I’ve done anywhere. And by best I mean scariest. If getting scared is your thing and the snow is good there’s a real opportunity to have one of those memorable days that you’re still pumped about years later. If the snow is bad you’ll die, so you’ll want to get that assessment right in advance.

To be honest, I’m not sure how many of the big lines at Kurodake are actually skiable (many lines that look good from some angles have hidden, impassable cliffs at the bottom – you’ll want to do your homework before dropping in). I’m also not sure how often they’re in condition. This is one of those places you could probably ski for years and still be unlocking new secrets. But for those who like their skiing with a little spice, Kurodake offers steep, technical, high consequence terrain with a 15m-of-pow-per-season Hokkaido snowpack. I’ve been lucky enough to ski one big line here so far – it will take lots of exploration from skiers much better than me to really determine whether Kurodake is big line heaven or bluffed-out hell.

 50 degree over-the-shoulder pow. A very good day. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

50 degree over-the-shoulder pow. A very good day. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

It’s not all doom and gloom. For strong riders looking for steep tree lines, the gondola at Kurodake has a lot to offer, especially if it has been warm and the lower ski fields (which covers all the major Hokkaido resorts) have no pow. Pete reckons it’s some of the best trees he’s ever skied, and I’m inclined to agree. The terrain is intricate, so every line feels different, and there’s options from fun-hard right through to hard-hard. This is pretty tough terrain. If you’re used to riding at the major resorts this will be a definite shock to the system. Bring a helmet. There’s no avalanche control or ski patrol under the gondola, so make sure you have the right gear, adequate skill, education and experience, and you’re ready to take care of yourselves.

Of course, the real question for anyone reading this is “Who is and who isn’t a strong rider?” I’ve been with some pretty experienced skiers at Kurodake who didn’t like it. If you’ve skied a full season somewhere with rad skiing (i.e. not Australia. Big White also doesn’t count) you probably have a decent idea of what a good rider is. Fortunately, there are heaps of other great places to ski in Hokkaido, so you can always get started somewhere else and make a pilgrimage here once you’ve got your mojo going.

One more warning: Kurodake closes for a few weeks each winter, usually in Jan and Feb. They say it’s for maintenance, but I skinned up under the chairlift during this period and there was exactly zero work being done. The rumours are that they just don’t get enough customers, which is pretty plausible if you count the number of people skiing. So if you do come and ski at Kurodake and it encourages them to stay open for more of January I’d really appreciate it. Check the dates on their website  (it’s in Japanese). Sometimes they run the gondola without spinning the chairlift. This is fine if you just want to ski laps but at those times they won't sell day-passes, only single ride tickets (¥1,100), so the costs add up pretty quickly.

 This line is pretty easy, but if you don't find the right entrance you'll fall off a cliff. Oh Kurodake, you're such a tease. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

This line is pretty easy, but if you don't find the right entrance you'll fall off a cliff. Oh Kurodake, you're such a tease. © The Powder Project Pty Ltd

The evenings:

Most of the accommodation at Sounkyo is in gigantic hotels that cater to local tourists coming to visit the onsens and do some sightseeing. These are fun in a kooky Japanese way, but also a bit soulless. We stay in a smaller pension a short walk from the lifts run by a local character with a bit more charm than the larger hotels. It’s next to an onsen and clustered together with the few restaurants and shops in town.

Aside from skiing pow, avoiding death, and listening to the stirring muzak in the gondola station, Sounkyo in winter doesn't have a whole lot to do. There are a couple of restaurants, plenty of onsens (in all the major hotels and in the centre of town), and some waterfalls to see (they’re frozen - the sightseeing is more of a summer thing). There is a rather impressive ice festival, which is at its best in February (they have nightly fireworks) but the sculptures stay around for March as well. My hot tip? Get a good night’s sleep – you’re gonna need it.

You also have the option of staying in Asahikawa and driving to Kurodake. It’s about 90 minutes each depending on where you are in town and how much traffic you have to get through. Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second largest city with a pretty happening nightlife area and zillions of restaurants. We normally stay in a ryokan near the main train station – it’s walking distance to plenty of food and fun times, and is run by an incredibly warm and hospitable couple.

Also, a note about the gnarly stuff: This information is just one skier (me) telling another rider (you) about a place I’m really excited about. As a business, The Powder Project won’t guide you through any of that. I doubt you could find anyone who would. If this place was Chamonix and there were climbers crawling all over the place in summer and nonchalant, smoking, French hardarses skiing everything in the winter you might be able to find a guide. But there simply aren’t enough people moving through the terrain to monitor the snowpack or know the routes well enough to ensure clients’ safety. If someone does offer to guide you I’d suggest you very carefully check them out. This isn’t a good place for surprises.