Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Japanese Winter - First Time

I quickly realised that in many ways, Japan and I were separated at birth.


Enjoyable art and architecture...I never knew it to be possible

The people are polite, impersonal and unassuming. The only loud, crass and obnoxious people I saw there were foreigners (and mostly Australians). Everything is efficient, clean and helpfully arranged to allow navigation around the country (even with a very minimal understanding of the language). Japan is a delight to travel around, especially if you are an introvert like me.

And monkeys - I fucking love monkeys.

 Monkey getting more onsen time than me

As for the skiing...did someone say 'bad season?'

Apparently it didn't snow much this year in Japan (check out the chart at the bottom of this page). The difference between this year and last is about 6 meters of snow around the time I was there. I didn't hear a lot of bitching about conditions, and to be honest I found things to be generally excellent, especially in comparison to Australia.

Nozawa Onsen

Nearing sundown at Nozawa

This place is a serene little village next to a resort. We spent about a week here. Lack of snow did affect this area, as many of the steeper runs were lower down on the mountain and lacked coverage. This also resulted in the higher elevation stuff getting smashed by the big crowds on the weekends.

A related issue to crowds has provided me another reason to question my relationship with ski resorts - rope-ducking. I'm not talking about the safety issues involved; you either made an assessment and chose to do the run, or you have no idea about avalanche safety and are an accident waiting to happen. Either is fine with me - you're another person to help out if the shit goes down, or you're eventually going to be one less person in front of me in the lift line.

For me the issue is a communal management one. Runs get closed for a variety of reasons, and sometimes a run needs a bit of time to recover (as in ungroomed, steeper terrain). After a bit more snow and a rest, the mogul-ridden crap can be good for everyone again.

That is unless you and your homeboys duck the rope and shred that little bit of rad pow that fell last night. Later that night, as your tracks harden, you've just turned that run into chopped up shite with a sprinkling of fresh snow on top. The snow never got a chance to consolidate with a denser layer underneath and then powder on top. You and your mates completely fucked that run for another few days, all because you wanted the illusion of fresh tracks.

I'm not entirely sure why I find this behaviour so contemptible, but there it is. Rather than push these people over / report them / verbally abuse them, it's just another reason to avoid resorts.

Having said that, Nozawa is a great place to ski for intermediate and advanced skiers. With better coverage I could have got on more terrain. Two to three days here would suffice to get into the groove before heading elsewhere. There seemed to be relatively limited BC options here as well (a bowl out the back was about it).

As an aside, I was on a lift and saw a couple of other guys on tech bindings. Later that day, I saw them in a shop and had a brief chat - one of them was a Japanese Dynafit employee, and they were just starting to hire out some of their more recent skis in Nozawa. I got to ski the Denali and Chugach - which were both awesome and better than the DPS skis I was on. If you're there, check out the shop near the gondola - they will be renting Dynafit stuff for future seasons too.


There weren't many clear days in Hakuba valley while I was there. When the cloud relented, the scale of this place left me awestruck. The ski resorts are big, but they barely crawl half way up the mountains beyond. This is a ski mountaineering mecca with something to offer any BC skier.

Putting ski resorts in their place (not my image).

I did some more resort skiing, but the highlight was definitely the area above the Tsugaike ski field. I was reluctant to do so, but I went with a guide (German Rob from Evergreen) for a day out. It was an excellent choice, as it helped me get some local knowledge and some practical experience with avalanche skills.

I've read enough books to know about avalanche danger, but there's nothing like getting out there and digging a pit and discussing it with someone else to really start getting your skills up.

I skied my first ever true powder - and it is a truly transcendental experience. The sensation of floating, the snow thrown off your skis...it's amazing, but also quite different to firmer snow skiing (I found my feet getting separated far too often). I did improve quickly, but I would not call myself an expert powder skier just yet.

I also jumped on an AST1 course while I was there (badly timed - the best day for BC skiing was also a day of the course!) Again, theoretically I was at that level already, but the practical training was what I lacked and appreciated most. I'll do an AST2 soon, and can recommend the course to any BC users.

After that, I got a good couple of days in above Tsugaike. There is an outstanding mix of terrain here, from low-angled trees to wind blasted alpine faces. It was pretty much the main go-to area for many people because you could ski something regardless of the conditions. There are a good variety of aspects and angles to choose from. If the avalanche danger is considerable or above, the low angled tree areas near the cat-tracks are delightful. If conditions are more stable, then you can venture out towards the steeper faces, and even the alpine peak above (Mt. Norikura).

Like any mountainous area, the more time you have there the better. Having a few weeks here would be ideal - there will be days when it's great and you get after it, and others when you might end up in a resort, or just need a rest.

Outside of the skiing, Hakuba is a pain in the arse compared to Nozawa. The place is much more spread out, but this is mitigated by some infrequent (at least I thought) shuttle bus services. I did plenty of walking around town. Not a big issue, but I was probably spoiled in Nozawa!

The other negative aspect of Hakuba is Australians. I know it's a minority, I understand that it's the actions of a few spoiling it for the many. Yes, most of us do the right thing, but it still needs to be said:

Australians are dumb, obnoxious cunts at ski resorts.

This applies in pretty much any ski field I've been to, whether it be in Australia, NZ or Japan...and this is a common impression reinforced through observation. It's a belief formed when you see things like:

- teenage boys doing the 'Aussie' chant as they ski down Happo-One

- bogans buying replica Samurai swords for decorations

- two women spending 25 minutes elaborately splitting the bill for their families' train tickets with the one station attendant, completely oblivious of and unapologetic to those of us who waited while they fucked around

- trashing hotel rooms

- a generalised sense of entitlement and lack of courtesy

- ducking ropes

Yes, these are the actions of a minority. Unfortunately though, the actions of these knobs overshadow the majority of us who quietly and politely go about our activities in places like Hakuba.

I'm still trying to work out what it is about Australian culture that makes some of us this way. Certainly binge drinking is part of it. The contrast is stark between Japan and Australia when it comes to access to alcohol - vending machines everywhere for the Japanese, restrictions on drinking in public and lock-out laws in Australia.

The other aspect might be a pretty juvenile culture where irreverence is combined with some kind of libertarian ethic. Witness the Adam Goodes saga - besides the blatant racism of booing an Indigenous player, many people seemed to participate just because someone (those 'politically-correct' wanker types) said that people shouldn't. As a result, we are left with some Australians not realising that having the right to act like a dickhead becomes a problem when it is overindulged, necessitating the types of laws Australia needs because of its bogan, juvenile culture.

Ok, so how'd we get here again?! Here's a video of some actual skiing before this gets out of hand...

Ski goals for this year

I'm going back to Japan in April for a week. I'm hoping to get some excellent ski mountaineering conditions in Hakuba. There's so much there that I'm pretty hopeful about skiing some monstrously big lines.

I'll be taking the Vectors out for their first use, along with the Beast 14 and Expedition bindings - thoughts on these items to follow.

After that, I'll be training and readying myself for the southern winter - Australia in July and August, then two weeks in NZ in September.

Team Weasel

Friday, 4 March 2016

New Toys and a Growing Quiver

What kind of skier do you want to be?

That's a hard question when you don't get to ski nearly enough. What got me thinking about that was this clip from Dynafit:

Hoji is a boss - everyone knows that. All the high-end Dynafit gear has his fingerprints all over it, and a 4FRNT ski designer worked with Dynafit on the new freeride skis they're now selling. It would seem to be natural for skiers to look up to him as someone worth emulating, even if we can never reach his metaphorical heights. I sure wish I could ski more like him.

In that clip is another dude. His name is Trevor Hunt, and he has his own website (Coast Steep Skier). He hasn't been active lately, but make no mistake, this guy can climb and ski. He is skiing faces where I'd want two tools in hand and to be front-pointing all the way down. Trevor is also refreshingly humble and honest about his achievements - read about some of his descents at your own leisure.

In an interview from some time ago, he discusses the gear he uses (here), and it's pretty much the binary opposite to what Hoji uses...which makes sense, as they are very different skiers.

If I had to pick, I'd say that I'd want to be more Hunt than Hoji...but then again, must they be mutually exclusive?

They don't have to be if you're willing to rip open the billfold compulsively, I guess.

So, this is where I'm at, and where I'm going with gear its relative applications.


DPS skis = overrated

I took a set of DPS RPCs to Japan. To be honest, they were probably mounted too far forward (as in almost +2cm), and that made me feel like the tails stretched almost endlessly behind me. They felt grabby on firm snow, and no better than the other skis I used on the softer stuff. Again, I will say that the mounting position definitely had an effect on their performance, but at the end of the day the cost of this ski isn't worth the performance. These things retailed for about $1500 AUD - I could buy two Voile or Dynafit skis for that price. They cost double, but do not ski twice as well. Hoping to sell them soon.

Looking for a new home

Dynafit Huascaran = underrated

When you first lay eyes on this ski, it looks unsightly. Green monsters and odd symbols adorn it. However, its appearance grows on you in a similar way to your appreciation of its capabilities. This is an awesome BC powder ski. It's light, simple, plenty wide and just works. It has a great early rise tip, and none of that rockered tail bullshit. The 177cm was agile enough to get between trees whilst providing ample float. To top it off, they are on sale everywhere - buy em before they go extinct!

Highly acclaimed and highly attractive

Ultimate Quiver

I'm seeing a quiver of about 4 skis as being ideal. Here's the roles I've identified and what I see filling them:

- Powder ski (110+ underfoot, but not stupidly heavy and not overly rockered)

Huascaran. Probably the best wide ski for human powered skiing. A good alternative could be the Voile V8. I went with Huascaran on price.

Ducking a branch results in a good view of the Huascarans at play

- Freeride-orientated ski (100+ underfoot, heavier, descent focused)

The Dynafit Chugach has been getting favorable reports from the US, even if the Euros seem less enamored with it. The design and weight are spot on for what I'm after. I also had a day on these skis in Japan, and they were both powerful and agile. Yes, I could have got a 4FRNT, K2 or some other ski, but I went with Dynafit (more on why later).

They just arrived in the mail the other day - they look like a beautifully crafted ski. The rocker profile is also very noticeable throughout, but the tails remain reasonably flat. Looking forward to skiing these this southern winter.  

- General BC ski (90ish underfoot, reliable and multi-purpose)

I've got a pair of Voile Vectors (180cm) for this slot. Have yet to ski them, but looking forward to getting on them soon. I thought about the Cho Oyu and Denali, but both have had some less flattering reports (Denali for breaking near the front binding mount, Cho for being slightly grabby), whereas the Vector is spoken of highly in every review I've seen. I would love to try the Cho Oyu though, and could see it having a spot in the quiver.

 Dynafit Denali - seemed great, but are they durable?

- Ski mountaineering (80ish underfoot, shorter, firm snow specialist)

This spot has been the most difficult to figure out. There's a variety of skis that sound good out there: Dynafit has the Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak. Movement has a couple of promising skis (but they have a tendency to snap easily according to reports). Trab are an option too if you feel like you have too much money. In the end, I've decided to wait for Voile to release the Objective ski - sounds like it could be the ideal ski for alpinists (Voile skis for 2016).

I've ended up gravitating towards Dynafit and Voile skis for a reason - they are designed for the backcountry. They aren't skis that a downhill company make to get a slice of the market. With Dynafit especially, their skis are named after mountains that are skied down using that very ski (such as the Broad Peak). Vectors were used for descents on Mt Cook and Mt Aspiring recently. These are skis with BC street cred, Wildsnow Ultimate Quiver endorsement and the descents to back it up

As a BC skier, not only am I dropping serious coin on these purchases, but these skis need to be able to do the job when you have to be completely self-reliant. As a result,  I see no reason to shop elsewhere for skis right now.

 Meet the family

Binding Quiver

From top to bottom: Beast 14, ATK Free Raider 14, Radical toe and Expedition heel / Kreuzspitze heel on Hagan adjustment plates

ATK Free Raider 14 - a great binding for powder skis

ATK have been described as the high-end jewelry store of bindings - super expensive and amazingly crafted. I'd agree with that assessment after using the ATK Free Raider 14. For soft snow, this binding is fantastic. It has everything you need and more; two heel lift positions, fore/aft adjustability at the heel for different boots and outstanding toe retention. Even when I toured, I never locked the toe, which gives a little more reassurance in avalanche terrain.

The whole package comes in at about 700 grams for the pair- which is not obscenely far above many skimo race setups. I did use the spacer that supports the heel, although I'm sure it'd be just fine without it (unless you're doing some serious drops/terrain).

I can thoroughly recommend this binding - just be aware that it has a wide and unusual mounting pattern (60mmx60mm), and that the ski brakes may not be as effective on firmer snow.

Radical toe / Kreuzspitze heel combo

This is the first setup I skied. Will still have a place due to their extremely light weight, simplicity and release in the heel (as in the heel unit does rotate). Will end up being my race bindings when I get into skimo racing.

Dynafit Expedition

Bought these for steep no-fall skiing - just like they say on the box. Will be using these for serious terrain with toes locked...these might not get used for a while until I get some more competence, but they'll be nice to have for alpine descents and skimo objectives. As used by Trev and Benedikt Bohm - enough said.

Dynafit Beast 14

Along with the Chugach, this is me exploring the 'freeride' aspect of ski touring. When I did try the Denali and Chugach, they were both mounted with the Radical 2.0. I did notice that my skiing felt more fluid and forgiving, and I'm keen to see how the Beast goes in terms of elasticity. I went with the Beast rather than the Kingpin because of the lateral toe movement - this might be the biggest game changer for tech bindings (more than making a tech binding look like an alpine binding).

Now for some numbers...

Heaviest setup

Chugach - Beast - Vulcan = 8.7kg

Performance setup

Vector - Beast - Vulcan = 7.9kg

Lighter powder setup

Huascaran - ATK - TLT6 = 7.1kg

Ligher performance setup

Vector - Expedition - Vulcan = 6.8kg

Ski mountaineering setup (assuming about 1.2kg for Objective)

Objective - Expedition - TLT6 = 5.7kg

Absolute lightest setup (assuming about 1.2kg for Objective)

Objective - Expedition - Evo = 4.4kg

Ski backpacks

I've been using my Black Diamond Speed 55 (a few years old now) for skiing. It's a simple, light alpine pack that does the job.

Speed 55 at Bogong

Having acquired the Saga 40, I've decided to try to go so smaller packs for skiing. 55 liters was great for getting all my stuff into the hills, but too big for the reduced loads needed for a day based out of your tent or hut. I'm also interested in having more features (diagonal ski carriage for one).

The plan now is to use a 35-40 liter pack as the central item. I think this is the right size for day tours with the kind of gear I'll be getting around with. I also have two Ortlieb bags (about 10 liters each) that I'll use as external pods to attach to my pack. That should give me the 55 liter capacity that I need for the initial move in, and then a light agile pack for the days working out of the tent/hut.

Black Diamond Saga 40

I exercise conservative BC choices when ski mountaineering. You kind of have to if you solo and you want to be alive to do it next season.

I bought this pack as an added safety measure - if I'm alone and an avalanche takes me, I know I'll need all the help I can get. Staying on or near the surface is pretty much the only way to survive whilst soloing.

Black Diamond Saga 40

This is a good, solid pack with a reasonable capacity. It definitely is not a 40 liter pack with the battery, fan and airbag stowed in various spots throughout. I'd say 35 is about right. Which makes it suitable for day trips or shorter hut based trips. The external options for stowing gear are also limited; the avalanche tool pocket is great, but the airbag itself limits strapping gear to the sides and top of the pack. It would have been nice to at least have the option to attach stuff to the exterior, even if it meant not being able to use the airbag (for long glacial approaches, for example).

Team Weasel