A beginner’s guide to Niseko’s lift-accessed backcountry.
THE JOY OF SKIING in Niseko is rooted in the exhilarating ride with bottomless turns surrounded by pine and birch trees. Niseko gets an average of 14m snowfall annually with a season that stretches from late November to early May, among the longest of any ski resort in Japan. Combine that with light and dry snow and you have yourself a powder hound’s dream. It’s easy to get hooked which is why so many skiers choose Niseko for their annual ski holiday.
Niseko United’s four resorts (Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono) also have a system of gates that further increases the terrain on offer by over 50%. Going through these gates gives skiers access to the backcountry and often, fresh and untracked snow.
Knowing Your Abilities
Niseko’s backcountry is not the place to master the pizza or falling leaf. If you’ve ever fallen over in waist deep powder, you know the struggle is real. Riding in powder requires different turning techniques that people without powder experience are often unfamiliar with. Conditions can change pretty dramatically from clear blue skies one minute to wild winter storms with zero visibility the next.
Only riders confident of their abilities to handle various snow conditions should venture out. GoSnow’s Powder Workshops are one of the best ways to learn and improve riding techniques and get coaching in off-piste terrain. The advanced workshops are limited to a maximum of four people and focus on developing the skills needed to navigate steep tree runs in deep powder so you’ll be guided to some of the best powder runs on the mountain.
Whether you’re out on a guided tour or riding with friends, stay within your limits and speak up if you’re not feeling comfortable. Director of Rising Sun Guides, Andrew Spragg says, “Take a step back in terms of difficulty level, don’t ride right at your limit in the backcountry and leave a margin of error given the increased risk.”
Likewise, peer pressure isn’t cool in the backcountry so riding buddies shouldn’t force anyone else to push their limits. A good rule of thumb to go by is ‘the most conservative voice wins’ – yes, even if it means missing out on that gnarly line.
For those who don’t fancy venturing beyond the gates or just want a soft introduction to off-piste riding, Niseko offers excellent in-bounds off-piste skiing areas such as Hirafu’s Miharashi, Large or Dynamic. A powder workshop is also a good way to explore off-piste terrain under the guidance of a professional.
When asked about what makes Niseko a unique place to ski, Spragg says readily accessible backcountry terrain and tonnes of snow. “The fact that you can get out of a gate and ski untracked, unmanaged terrain is amazing,” he says. And he’s right. Every year, skiers travel from around the world to experience mind-blowing powder so deep that it feels like floating on clouds.
This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in the Winter 2019/20 Edition of the Experience Niseko Magazine.