Mt Pinneshiri: Ski touring up north


I had just pulled up at the onsen after a day of skiing at Kokusai, an hour or so west of Sapporo, when the message came through from Goro-san: "Pinneshiri is 8:30 set in [with the Google map on the right]... Very far. All right?"

"Very far" was accurate. Pinneshiri was a good five hours from Kokusai, and that included taking the toll roads to skip the Sapporo traffic. To get there by 8:30 the next morning was going to be a mission. But Goro-san's recommendations are not to be take lightly. He's been living and skiing in Hokkaido all his life. Six days a week he's the cool and collected proprietor of Cafe Nomad (カフェ ノマド) in Higashikawa. On the other day he rips. I smashed a quick bowl of yakisoba and hit the road.

At 5:30 the next morning I met Goro-san and T (short for Trygve - a hard charging Norwegian guy who's coaching nordic skiing in Higashikawa) outside Cafe Nomad. We all piled into the into the bus and drove due north. Goro-san had called up a friend from the area to join us for the day. Kougami-san is apparently notorious for his epic road-biking exploits during the summer, and shortly after meeting us at the car park he set about pleasantly destroying us all on the skin track. At least I didn't feel guilty about not breaking trail.

Now, the details are little hazy because of the language barrier, but as I understand it, Kougami-san "found" this mountain just four years ago. Before that, it doesn't sounds like anyone was skiing there. It's 10 minutes from his house and he's been guiding, hiking and dropping lines there ever since. It's basically his mountain, and it was a real privilege to ride there with him for the day. In perfect bluebird weather he showed us the best snow on some sheltered southern aspects. The terrain is fun without being intimidating, the snow was super dry after the clear conditions overnight, and the skiing was awesome. A good crew, in great snow, on a beautiful mountain, with no-one else in sight. Basically the perfect day. To the north we could see the Sea of Okhotsk, and to the west we were looking out towards the Sea of Japan. With the ocean on three sides, Pinneshiri gets a lot of wind, but for us it was perfectly still. They don't call Goro-san "Mr Bluebird" for nothing!

We headed down in the soft light of the late afternoon and grinned at each other like idiots in the car park. Kougami-san headed off, and the rest of us went to the onsen, which was literally just over the road (I've reached the point where this seems completely predictable and normal - it's Hokkaido). Then it was back into the van and a stoked, quiet drive back to Higashikawa. Skiing has plenty of good days, but there are just a few days that are better than good, that stand out in your memory. Pinneshiri was totally worth the drive.

2 is better than 1

OK, I know what you're thinking: Surely John isn't about to make some vapid contribution to the "skiing vs. snowboarding" or even "skiing vs. monoskiing" debate. That argument got stale at about the same time as grunge music.

Don't worry. I really don't care how you get down the hill provided you're having a good time. Instead, this is a story of love, of loss, and of new love.

My first pair of skis were Karhu Kodiaks, 80mm underfoot, traditional camber, and lightweight capped construction. When I bought them in Australia (along with a pair of boots a full two sizes too big) I thought they were the bees knees. "Everyone will be impressed by my wide and powerful skis", I thought to myself as I packed my bags for Chamonix.

Instead, everyone in Chamonix had wider and longer skis than me except the hordes of English tourists who stuck to the groomed runs. There were only two things about me that impressed anyone on that trip: My determination to keep skiing despite my complete lack of ability, and a bruise that I got on my butt after sliding 70m or so down some steep ice into a rock. It was a fine bruise indeed.

And yet I persisted with my Karhus. By the time I made it to Canada a few years later they were held together mostly with Ptex and epoxy resin, and they had developed a miraculous ability to feel chattery and unstable at all speeds in all snow conditions. I was working in a little ski shop named Powderhound in Rossland and my boss suggested I get a pair of 176cm Kastle BMX 108s. We didn't have a pair in the shop and I'd never even seen them, but the Kastle rep was offering a good deal so I nervously ordered some.

Going from 80mm to 108mm underfoot was intimidating, and the skis were much stiffer and heavier than my old Karhus. I mounted them up in the back of the shop one evening in January 2012 and took them to the hill the next day.

And they were awesome.

No adjustment period needed. These things were perfect. Nimble, floaty, stable, predictable. I have never skied anything so forgiving. I went from terrible to mediocre overnight.

Since then I've skied over 200 days on them. From trees in the Kootenays, to rocks in the Craigieburns, these skis soaked up an alarming amount of punishment. I bought other skis but they never got as much use. The BMX 108s did it all. It was like finding the love of your life, only it was a ski, and there were two of them, and they never ever complained about you leaving dirty socks lying around. I thought we would be together forever (or that I'd at least buy another identical pair), but love never seems to last.

It was shaping up to be a good day. I climbed Mt Phillistine near Arthur's Pass with Nick and Tess, two super-strong snowboarders and Broken River regulars. We met up with another group of friends on the way and had made our way to the summit in perfect weather and good time. The other group dropped a sunny line off the ridge and Nick, Tess and I headed down a colouir directly below the peak. One of the guys in the other group told us he had bum-slid down the colouir in summer, which must have been one of the gnarliest bum-sliding descents ever made because this thing was steep. I dropped last, and after a few great turns on firm windslab off the top, I missed a jump turn in punchy snow in the choke and tomahawked a long way. Usually when you tomahawk there's a point where it seems like the worst is over and you're about to slow down. This time, I reached that point and sped up. I briefly considered trying to self-arrest with my newfangled ice-tool/ski-pole-combination-stick, but was forced to abandon that plan once it became clear that I couldn't actually work out where the ground was. There was a good layer of soft snow and the runout was clear, so it was just a matter of keeping my arms and legs tucked in and riding it out.

My friends were all suitably impressed when I came to a halt on the glacier below the chute. I had lost both skis, and although one was just above me the other was nowhere to be seen. My first question was about the missing ski, but the crew were much more concerned about my physical wellbeing. After convincing them that I was fine, and stomping back up the slope to collect my gear, they broke the awful news: The ski had scythed across the glacier and lept exuberantly over the bluffs below. It was gone.

Losing one ski is possibly even worse than losing two. It's every bit as useless, but you're left with the folorn reminder of a happier time.

But the skiing must go on. Like a spurned lover hooking up on the rebound, a few days later I was clipping into a pair of Kingswood SMBs. At 122mm underfoot and 188cm long, these are an awful lot of ski. At first it was strange (as I can only imagine hooking up on the rebound is strange), but after a while things were starting to feel good. It can't have helped that conditions were mostly churned, refrozen crud at the time.

But then it snowed, and the universe smiled upon me again. The SMBs are not quite so nimble and dainty as the BMX 108s. They're more like a steamroller. That goes fast. And handles precisely. A sports steamroller, if you will. After years of promising myself I'd buy another pair of Kastles, I find myself wondering if I might already have a one ski quiver. At Broken River on Wednesday they were admirable on open faces and in technical lines. At Temple Basin over the weekend they were downright awesome in some steep dry powder.

It will take a few more days in some other conditions to be absolutely certainly that these things are versatile enough to be the ski of choice for New Zealand, but one thing is for sure: I can't wait to take them to Japan.

Murchison Glacier Ski Touring

I've finally had a chance to sit down near a power outlet and fire up the laptop. Those of you who are following the instagram feed will have seen some of the pics from a trip I took with my brother James to Kelman Hut at the top of the Tasman Glacier.

It has been a pretty grim season in NZ so far. There was plenty of precipitation early on, but most of that fell as rain on the ski areas. Normally my home field, Broken River, opens in late June. This year they had to wait until mid August. But in the big mountains most of that rain fell as snow, and with Kelman Hut at just over 2400m elevation we were able to find a few great stashes of dry snow on the Murchison and Mannering Glaciers. It just goes to show that even in an ugly season there are always some good turns lurking around.