I was looking at my powder skis the other day and realized it has been some time since they have encountered any powder. They looked sad, neglected. Next to them sat my mid-phat Salomon Enduro carving skis. They looked worn out. I have been using them so much that they could probably find their own way to the hill and go ahead and ski without me.
Admittedly, it has been fun getting out on the mountain and arcing turns with the visuals of Ted Ligety in the back of my mind. It reminds me of when I was younger, racing and training with all my Ski Club Vail peers or training at Mt. Hood. We would watch tapes of Ingemar Stenmark and then try to emulate him. Later, it became Alberto Tomba and then, eventually a fascination with the way Bode Miller would attack a course. This has carried on well beyond my alpine racing years.
Carving the perfect arc with huge angles on grippy snow is like driving a Ferrari through a series of "S" turns. I know, random thought in the middle of this story. But just recently, I was given the opportunity to do just that - drive a Ferrari. Ski racers love fast-cornering cars. Actually most guys love cars. Check out Vail Daily's story about the Ferrari at http://bit.ly/VW6Ibj.
Carved turns and Ferraris are comparable, but there is something special about dropping into a steep, uncut powder slope. Its surreal, and I'm starving for it - the kind that, when you turn, you cannot feel the bottom. The kind that makes you feel like you are floating yet bounding down the slope like a deer sprinting through the woods.
Funny thing about powder, though - it not always readily available like groomers are. Sometimes when the powder does not come to you, you must go to the powder. Thus, that became my mission for 2013.
The first trip was unexpectedly blessed upon me. Some friends had to conduct some business in Tokyo, then wanted to travel north and visit Hokkaido - or more specifically, Mount Niseko on the north island of Japan. According to the dialogue in the 2012 release of Warren Miller Entertainment's "Flow State," this part of the world guarantees powder. They had some extra room in the plane, so they asked if I would do a little exploratory mission for them. Like a little kid, my parents drove me from Vail to the Aspen airport and dropped me off at the plane, where we flew to Seattle and onward to Tokyo, and then I continued to Sapporo.
From there, I jumped in a car for a three-hour ride to Niseko. As I closed in on the destination and lost a day in transit, the snow banks grew larger until they hid the town of Niseko from view. Perfect!
The time change is strange, although I find it easier to travel west, since you usually land at night and get a full night of sleep. What is strange is the loss of a day. It's as if you have gone through a time warp. An entire day will pass back home while the same day ends for the traveler. Things can happen in that time for friends and family back home that's hard to wrap your mind around. Think about that.
The ski area of Niseko United is made of three base areas all under different ownership located at the foot of Mount Niseko An'nupuri (1,308 meters). The three areas can be accessed from the top of the mountain and operate under one united ticket. Or, tickets can be purchased individually - which, on days with difficult weather, might be the best call, as you can get pinned down to one base area because the top of the mountain is closed. Ending up on the wrong side of the mountain after lifts close can be a long bus or cab ride back to your home base. I was told it was a 40-minute drive from the two farthest-reaching opposing bases.
I stayed in the village of Niseko Grand Hirafu (Hirafu area). The other two bases resemble resorts, as compared to the town I stayed in. My hotel of choice was a new boutique hotel called the Chalet Ivy. I was amazed by the service the little wonder provided. For example, a full rental program - which, if needed, had everything from equipment to ski gear and lockers.
Hirafu has an amazing view of the dormant volcano Mount Yotie as well as the most variety when it comes to nightlife. I also think it has the best night skiing. Of course, the Hilton looked really fun as well. Hmm. Might have to go back.
But the most important issue was the snow. And from all indications, they get a lot of it. Its close proximity to massive bodies of water in a turbulent weather zone combined with the lone standing volcanoes cause all sorts of opportunities for snow to fall from the heavens. But when it does, it comes with a force of wind and lots of moisture, unlike Colorado Champagne powder. This has some density to it, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The skiing is fun, and they are just starting to embrace the side and backcountry aspect of the sport. The trees are different, so the tree skiing has an entirely different feel to it. They do have access gates into the backcountry with similar rules that we have here in the U.S. It's frustrating that some of the out-of-bounds skiing is closed off, as it is amazing-looking. Hopefully, as time comes, they will learn to control it and open it to limited access.
One of my favorite parts of the skiing is, believe it or not, the night skiing. They have more lights per square meter than anywhere I have ever seen. You actually can see better at night. And the lights are so powerful and extensive that they light up the tree skiing.
Will I go back? Yes - I'm going to add this to my list of programs you can find on my website. Actually, there was a sign I should return. When I recently opened a trail map of the area for writing this entry I found a photo of me shot in 1993 in Vail. Hmm ... cool. Except I have padded stretch pants on.
Longtime Vail resident Chris Anthony is a former Alaskan extreme-skiing champion and veteran of nine World Extreme Skiing Championships and 23 Warren Miller films. Learn more about Anthony and his adventures at chrisanthony.com or on Twitter at @chrisanthonyski.