I manage to persuade Helena to come ski touring again; in fact she didn’t need much persuading. Today we are skiing with some guests staying at Hopi Hills, Jamie & Sebi, the “Swiss Boys”. They are repeat customers for the Kiroro backcountry and the famous light “Hokkaido powder”.
We travel to the resort in their car and Sebi wheelspins out of the car park with heavy rock music filling the car. If this is how the day starts, then it’s going to be an adrenaline fuelled one I think to myself. At Kiroro resort I register our climbing route with the Mountain Club, who work alongside the ski patrol. Joe from Sheffield working on the desk, ‘You’re not going to end up in Otaru again are you?’ he says smiling . ‘You heard about that?’ I say. Clearly the news of our little adventure has travelled.
Jamie explains the plan for the day; the four of us will hike up the mountain as a group. They have a plane to catch this evening, so they’ll need to return earlier than usual. ‘Once we all get to the top, Sebi and I will ski down and you two can have some smoochie smoochie before heading down yourselves.’ Jamie is a joker and this is the Swiss banter we can expect, we both quite like it. Don’t make the mistake of saying these guys speak German (I did); it is Swiss-German they speak. They are both very polite, always addressing us by our first name. ‘Helena take one large step forward… Simon keep your weight on your wheels (I presume he means heels)… Helena do a big kick on your turn.’
Sebi is breaking the track for us in the fresh powder and we follow the channels that his skis make. Jamie says ‘Look at the goat go!’ looking up at Sebi sliding along gracefully. I ask if he is referring to Sebi as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). ‘Simon, be more like a mountain goat!’ he says, willing me on to keep up with Sebi. We then have a discussion about whether Roger Federer is the GOAT. Being Swiss, unsurprisingly Jamie is a big fan and believes Federer might well be the GOAT ‘He’s a nice guy too’ he says. Helena is not such a fan and says she thinks Rog is just a bit smug. Since we’re somewhat putting our lives in the hands of the Swiss Boys today, I suggest she lets it go.
We’ve now been hiking mostly uphill for 1 ½ hours and Jamie points out it would take the two of them just 50 mins to get to the top on their own. ‘Helena you are with the Swiss men with Strong legs’ he says. I glance back to check no smoochie smoochie is happening. We continue climbing higher and due to the avalanche risk, we’re now moving through the trees rather than across the open snow face. The gradient is now quite steep and it can be tricky to kick turn in amongst the trees. ‘This slope is a tough motherfucker!’ Jamie says. ‘What’s that in Swiss German?’ I say. ‘We would say tough motherfucker’ he says. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. I think what he’s trying to say is the fact that we’re still fairly new to touring, we’re doing OK. ‘We haven’t fallen over once today’ I say to Helena. This is a vast improvement on our first ski tour, when negotiating our way up the mountain and learning to kick turn at times we resembled Bambi on Ice. ‘Why did you say that?!’ Helena says, as she almost falls over doing a kick turn, but manages in the end to salvage it. ‘Oh Simon is skiing switch!’ Jamie says, as I’m sliding backwards down an icy steep section, trying but failing to get my skins gripping the snow. He has quite a good way of telling people what they’re doing wrong, but being funny at the same time.
We reach the summit and prepare our kit for the descent, which is a bit of a faff. I’m sure that pros can do this pretty quickly. I unclip from my bindings and stand in the snow, at which point I sink in it up to my waist; this bodes well for the ski down. The skins get peeled off the skis and thrown into our bags. We switch the boots from hike to ski mode and setup our bindings. Last thing is goggles on and we’re good to go. I ask Helena if it’s now time for the “smoochie smoochie”, ‘not now’ she says, I think Jamie is a bit disappointed, but she is now in the zone and ready to rip. We thank the Swiss Boys and say our farewells, they hang a left to ski the spine of AK face and we’re going to ski the trees until we reach the valley.
We ski down several turns in the deep untracked powder, as I turn I can feel the snow hitting my chest and face, it feels like a cloud. I stop and at the next line of trees and say to Helena ‘I think this is the first time that we’ve actually enjoyed ski touring’ and she was going to say exactly the same thing.
As we reach the bottom of the valley, we realise that we’ve gone too far and will have to hike back up to get back on route. This feels like a pain, but this is ski touring and it comes with the territory. We cross the river running through the valley and I don’t fall in this time. Result. The path ahead is uphill so it’s time to get our skins attached to our skis. One of Helena’s skins has too much snow on it and will not glue to the ski and therefore won’t work. No skins, no going uphill. I suggest she tries moving with just one skin attached. It’s now snowing heavily and we’re tired and ready to be back home. Sensible skiers would probably now be enjoying their afternoon tea and cake, with their feet up back at their catered chalet. Not us though, we are up shit creek without a skin. I should mention at this point, that Helena skied into a tree the other day and fractured a rib, so she’s still in a lot of pain from that. Take a rest day you say? Have you met Helena?
When you ski in California they have signs that say “CAUTION TREES DON’T MOVE”, which seem ridiculous and funny at the time, but one or two here in Hokkaido would not have gone a miss.
I tell Helena to take my skis and I will take hers and try climbing with only one skin. I just need to clip in at the front, so that should work. I manage to make headway on Helena’s skis, with one ski gripping and the other slipping, looking like I am limping up the mountain on crutches. I take a shallower line up the slope and take a fresh line through the powder which gives me more grip on the snow. It’s still difficult though and I’m working hard to keep up with Helena. The enjoyment level by now has dropped somewhat, especially compared to the point of us claiming our love for ski touring, just one hour ago. ‘You’re my hero’ she says, as she’s standing on top of a hill, looking back at me in her new fatter skis. This is normally something she might say in jest, but I actually think she might mean it this time.
We are slowly coming round to the idea of hiking up the mountain to “earn our turns”. It’s a long way up for a few turns down, but those few turns down are pretty sweet. To the Swiss Boys, we owe you a beer.