DAY BEFORE THE CHALLENGE – Monday 24 February
Despite a slow start to the season, Niseko welcomes us with 20cm of fresh snow. We wander down to Mick’s Wine Bar for a welcome evening, passing many a drunken Aussie slipping in their sandals. Our guides, Piotr and Tomek, chat through weather and snow conditions over pizzas and beers, before jetlag quickly catches up with the group and we call it an early night.
DAY ONE – Tuesday 25 February
Tuesday morning brings blue skies and more snow – every skier’s dream. Joined by videographer Elliott Waring, we spend our morning skiing fresh side-country terrain before hiking Mt. Annupuri (1,308m) – our first volcano in support of POW. We snap some photos and drop down steep ridges into open bowls.
One of the British challengers from Singapore – joker of the group – Ollie, manages to break his binding as we are traversing across. Ex-army officer, Will, is quick to the rescue with his emergency tin in hand, complete with screwdriver, duct tape and a medley of medical supplies. After numerous failed attempts, the binding finally holds, and Ollie decides to put his skis to the ultimate test and ‘send it’. He successfully earns the nickname Ollie the Eagle.
Après ski in Japan is somewhat different to Europe or North America… Tonight we make our way to Toshiro’s for an authentic Japanese whisky tasting with owners Akinori Toshiro and his wife Yoko Toshiro (who is wearing an exquisite kimono). Although the tasting tips may be a little lost in translation, the whiskies and wood-smoked cocktails are going down very well. We then finish the night with a casual feast and giant beers at Jam Bar.
“The impact climate change is having on avalanche risk is quite literally staring us in the face.”
DAY TWO – Wednesday 26 February
We kickstart the morning with more food – lucky dip onigiri (Japanese rice balls filled with some form of seafood) – before driving to the access point for summiting Mt. Chisenupuri (1,134m). We prep our gear, skin over snow-covered roads passing blue road-signs, before we start making our way up through the trees. After a near fall into a river to make yellow snow and demolishing 14 supernatural brownies (we love you Green Farm), we reach the top of our second volcano.
Before starting our descent, Tomek digs a pit with his shovel to show us the different layers of snow that has accumulated over the season – a crazy mix of rainfall and weak, strong, thick and thin snowfall. The impact climate change is having on avalanche risk is quite literally staring us in the face. Piotr briefs us on avalanche safety and explains how the guides are out in the backcountry every day monitoring the snow conditions and any hazards like cornices, cracks and rivers. We suddenly feel very grateful to be in the hands of local guides who could no doubt ski this terrain backwards in a whiteout.
Once we reach the bottom of Mt. Chisenupuri, spirits are high and the team is keen for more, so we skin up our third volcano – Nitonupuri (1,080m). Not quite as soft as the last, a few challengers (myself included) slip on some steep, icy kick turns towards the top. Aching legs and tired bodies are starting to materialise, but we remind ourselves that it’s all for a good cause! The youngest of the group, George – who shows the rest of us up (and later wins ‘skier of the week’) – finds himself with a more serious binding issue when he reaches the top. Thankfully, mother hen is at the ready with duct tape in hand and straps George’s boot to his ski! Whilst George makes it down unscathed, his brother Tom injures his knee towards the top of the run. This is looking to be a bit of a set-back with Yotei now scheduled for tomorrow.
Whilst Tom and Will make their way to Niseko Physio, the rest of us soak our muscles at the nearby Yukichichibu Onsen – one of my favourites in the area. There are multiple rotenburos (outdoor baths), including a mud bath in the ladies’ area, where you can simply lay back and take in the views. Fully rejuvenated we make our way back to Niseko to unload our gear before finishing with an early dinner of gyozas, yakitori and hot pots at Kobito.
DAY THREE – Thursday 27 February
Today is the day! “Schwarzenegger” has been stuffing his avi pack with loo roll for any unforeseen situations (this was prior to the global supermarket sweep), whilst “Heisenberg” is prepping his lungs for the big ascent with his Cobra Lights. We drive 40 minutes towards the base of Mt. Yotei (1,898m) and start gearing up, when Will – ex-Army officer Will – announces he’s left his skins hanging in the bathroom! People are holding their breath. Are we allowed to laugh? The only person who might have packed spares would be Will, so that’s out of the window. Piotr takes one of the vans and drives Will back to Niseko, while the rest of us start making our way along the skin track to the base of Yotei. Will has raced in The Patrouille des Glaciers, so we’re confident he’ll catch us up.
Tom suddenly makes a tough call and decides to pull out of today’s ascent. He’s not one to grumble, so it can’t be good. You just can’t help but feel bad for him as we’ve been chatting nothing but Yotei these past few days. After arranging for Tom to be collected from a random pinpoint on the map, we continue through the trees before ascending the notorious Mt. Yotei.
Will and Piotr aren’t far behind, and we soon reunite for a much-needed snack-break. Ollie – who is itching to update his Tinder profile with a shot on the crater – discloses that this is the hardest thing he’s ever done on a ski “holiday” and is ready to swap these snack-breaks for a long lunch and table dancing. Nevertheless, we keep making progress, stripping layers as we go…
A few hours later and it’s getting too steep for kick turns. We find a slightly sheltered side of the volcano and edge our skis into the snow so we can clip out of our bindings without our skis flying back down to Niseko. Once our skis are strapped to our packs securely it’s time to start bootpacking. We’re told it’s about an hour to the top. It’s a long hour. And a pretty silent one. Just when you think you’re there, there’s a cheat peak, and a whole lot more steep ahead. Hollywood screenwriter Neil is motivating the tail of the group with his American positivity – and it’s working. We’re nearly there!!
Finally, we make it to the summit! Elliott thoughtfully captures our exhausted faces on film as we take our final steps. We all charge to the crater ridge, desperate to get the money shot, only for the guides to strongly urge us to sort our gear before we freeze to death. Gusts of wind start blowing us backwards so we quickly follow orders and add as many layers as we can. The much-anticipated crater photo in our charity challenge t-shirts now seems rather impractical. The cloud clears at the top for a good forty seconds, and we manage to get our selfies and group shots with unbelievable views into the crater behind us. Ollie’s Tinder mission is complete.
Whilst Ollie is now convinced he has frostbite, we start making our first turns down Yotei. The snow is unreal. It’s the lightest and fluffiest snow we’ve had all week, and it’s steep. Deep and steep! Tomek and Piotr set up some shoots on the way down, whilst Elliott gets his follow cam on George. We start to regain feeling in our hands and feet as we ski but the legs are certainly feeling the burn. As soon as we reach the treeline, technique is out the window thanks to sticky snow and birch trees packed like sardines. Not to mention the 6 hours of touring, bootpacking and skiing steep powder beforehand.
We end the day on a massive high and manage to get our charity t-shirt photo in support of Protect Our Winters. Ollie’s quick to get his handwarmers out to thaw his “frostbite” as we make our way back to Niseko. After a quick turnaround we walk (desperate for the burn to continue) to Tsubara Tsubara for Niseko’s famous hot soup curry. There’s a spice chart from 0 to 20. The majority opt for somewhere between 3 and 6. I’ve gone for 6, in the hope that 9 years spent in Singapore will serve me well. Thankfully, I survive – and it is delicious. Soup curry has made its way to the top of my favourite meals this week.
DAY FOUR – Friday 28 February
It’s the final day of the challenge, and we’re all feeling pretty pleased with the fact that we’ve managed to summit 4 volcanoes in 3 days. Tom’s knee is feeling better too, so he’s able to join us for Shiribetsu-dake (1,107m) – our final volcano, offering epic views over yesterday’s conquest. The tour up is relatively relaxed, and we all have our kick turns nailed. Tomek’s been reminiscing about udon noodles at Kyogoku onsen, which has started to shift the focus of the group. It’s somewhat chillier today, and the thought of reclining in an onsen is rather enticing…
The weather closes in when we reach the top so we head back down (leaving Will, George and Piotr to do another lap). Though not as charming as Yukichichibu, there are ice baths for the brave and you can admire the tracks you’ve just skied from Kyogoku’s outdoor baths. This proved quite challenging as the snowflakes continued to double in size and speed. I attempted an ice bath, but only managed to freeze my legs (which surely was the goal of this exercise anyway?). I heard German shrieks from the male side – seems like Flo took the plunge. We reconvened for udon noodles before driving back to Niseko.
After a couple of beers at the Taproom – the preferred watering hole this week – we stroll over to The Alpinist for the last supper. With a challenge predominately full of Europeans, we couldn’t resist finishing the week with fondue and red wine. After devouring the restaurant’s entire cheese supply, alongside shots of sake during the award “ceremony”, we stumble over to Brick Bar for the POW fundraiser. With every beer purchase supporting the amazing work Protect Our Winters UK are doing, we get stuck in and donate hard.
After a sneak preview of the challenge footage, I announce the raffle prizes generously donated by OYUKI, Rhythm and Niseko Photography. Michael MacDonald, a volunteer from POW UK, closes the fundraiser with some inspiring words on how they’re working towards combatting climate change and thanks the challengers for their support. All in all, an epic night to finish the week off!
Our sore heads pay off the next day, as we manage to raise a grand total of £3,840. Thank you to everyone involved!
If you really want to get a taste of what it was like, check out our short challenge video here.