We register our backcountry ski plan with the ski patrol at 9am. So that it looks like we know what we’re doing we don’t ask any questions about the route. Then we set off for a couple of warm up runs at 9:30am; it has snowed overnight so the powder is pretty good even on the piste.
At the top of the chair lift we exit the resort through the backcountry gate. We attach our skins to our skis and off we begin to walk through the winter wonderland. I’m thinking how picturesque it looks with the new snowfall. Three guys are ahead of us, so the fact that we’re following another group’s tracks in the backcountry bodes well.
The plan is to ski a bit, put skins on, walk up a bit and repeat. This should be a fairly relaxed tour compared to the falling in the river inaugural touring day. The pitch of the slope is quite steep, but the snow is really deep so this will slow us down as we turn. We make a few turns in the powder and start to navigate our way through the bushes and trees that stand in our way.
Almost two hours after we’ve left the resort we’ve come quite a long way down and any tracks that we were following have since disappeared. Our hope that the tracks would return to the resort have not materialised and we are now lost and a long way from home. We put our skins back on and try to walk up the hill, but in parts it is too steep and there are too many trees. This is not going to work, the only way is to continue on down.
Helena is exhausted and all the time I’m considering what we should do. Inside I am worried, but I keep moving as I know that is the only way we’ll get out of this situation. Even if we sit and hope ski patrol would find us, what would we do then?
‘I’m never touring again’ Helena says, not for the first time this trip, I think she might mean it this time. I now feel like we’ve gone too far down the mountain to hike back up. ‘We have three options’ I say, ‘the first is to try walking up back up this hill. The second is to continue along this river and hope that it takes us out into resort or onto the road. The third is that we call ski patrol.’ I am really hoping it is not the third option; firstly it would be highly embarrassing, and secondly I struggle to see how they could get us out of this valley.
‘I’ll be really annoyed if I haven’t burnt a million calories after this’ Helena says. ‘To be honest, I’ll be happy if we get out of this alive’ and I’m sure Helena senses the seriousness in my voice.
We continue skiing alongside a creek and crossing it every so often when the route becomes impassable on one side. In places the snow has built up enough to create a powdery bridge that makes for a precarious crossing. I say ‘Watch that hole there and the river there’, the last thing we want is one of us falling in and getting wet now.
We come across a cliff section that’s too steep to ski down, so I slide down on my back and manage to make it down, not gracefully, but I dust myself off and stand up. Helena has chosen a different route down and the next time I look there’s a tangled mess of skis, body and bamboo. ‘I can’t move Helena says’, her skis are stuck in the snow, ‘I can’t get out of here’, she’s said this before and this is starting to become a bit like the boy who cried wolf. ‘When you’ve finished larking about there’ I say, ‘it looks like there is a path here and it looks promising’. Thankfully she laughs, and I know that she’s not quite at breaking point.
At about 12pm we start walking along this path; the snow is untouched and each step we take sinks into the deep snow. We figure this must be some kind of hiking trail or road in the summer. Our morale has risen since we found this track and we expect to hit a road pretty soon. ‘I can’t tell you when, but I am sure this path will lead to a road’ I say.
‘Just when I think we can’t get any lower, we do’ says Helena. ‘Are you talking mentally or topographically?’ I ask, ‘All roads lead to the sea as they say’. She is talking topographically.
Given our predicament, we are in surprisingly good spirits with good banter. ‘Is this the most adventurous and possibly most stupid thing we’ve ever done?’ I say. ‘Yes and I’m quite happy for it to continue to be the most adventurous thing we’ve ever done’ Helena says. I think we are agreed on that.
As we walk along the snow-covered path, no other human has left a trace. In fact there are barely any animals either; fingers crossed no bears come out of hibernation early.
We come across a mirror with a sign beneath it, and to raise the spirits I say ‘do you know what that Japanese sign says?’, Helena says ‘No’ and I say ‘It says mirror.’ Helena actually seems to find this quite amusing and so we get a photo for the daily instagram. We’re actually looking a lot more content than we feel at the time.
I am so hot and sweaty from hiking, so I stop for a minute and take of my fleece and jacket and put them in my backpack. Suddenly I feel very cold and I have the realisation that when the sun goes down and we stop, we would get dangerously cold. We continue on. I am genuinely looking around the environment thinking “what would Bear Grylls do?”. He’d probably check into a local hotel via helicopter, but that’s beside the point. I think we would either make a shelter from the bamboo or continue walking through the night to stay warm enough.
Finally after about two and a half hours of walking, we reach a main road coming from Sapporo ski resort. Helena waves frantically at the first car that passes us and the Japanese lady simply smiles and waves back cheerily before driving off. I remind Helena that the correct method to hitch a ride is to stick out your thumb, so we both do this. Another car comes shortly after, sees us and pulls over. I ask him if he speaks English and he shakes his head saying no. Bollocks. He then sees all of our ski kit and bags and I sense he’s considering whether or not to just desert us. Helena says ‘Kiroro’ and the guy looks visibly shocked and shakes his head ‘Kiroro?’; it’s understandable as this is more than an hour’s drive from here. He then utters Otaru station and we nod our heads and say ‘Arigato gosai masu!’. He opens the boot and his car is pristine, with a pair of skis that looked like they’ve never seen snow in their lifetime. I get into the front of the car, a sweaty wreck, feeling embarrassed about our predicament and the fact we can’t speak more Japanese to explain our situation.
We get to Otaru station and our driver says ‘chotto matte’ and runs into the bus station to ask about onward travel for us. We’re left with the car, seemingly in the middle of a taxi rank with taxi drivers giving us stern looks and waving their hands. I’m told that the Japanese love it when you say sorry, so all I do is raise my hands and this seems to ease the problem. We unload all of our ski kit and I offer our driver money, which he point blank refuses. He seems worried that he hasn’t fully arranged our itinerary to return to Hopi Hills. Apparently Japan is one of the best countries to hitch-hike in and now I can see why. Again we say thank you very much, I put my hands together with a small bow and the good samaritan is off on his way.
Yes we made it out alive, but we both agree this was reckless and not a situation we should repeat in future. We were lucky to reach that road and not just end up in a valley. This was the backcountry. This shit was real. Lesson learned.