Niseko of My Dreams

I first came to Niseko over a decade ago as a young hard charging pro skier to shoot for a movie project with Sweetgrass Productions that became the movie, Signatures. That movie is still one of my favorites and this place is as well. Niseko Japan is near and dear to my heart by this point, and I am so grateful to have made some real friendships there as well over all these years in returning every year since. I have built a trip package through my business, Vertical Integration, that has built on all the knowledge and experience that I have gained over the years skiing there. This year I had a really great group of friends buy the package deal to take advantage of all that Niseko has to offer.  

^Driving in Japan is always a bit of an adjustment on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. The road signs are also pretty classic and often rather cartoonish. 

^This is an iconic bridge just outside Niseko that always makes me smile as the mountains come into view just beyond the arches and cables. It is always helpful on the drive in if the weather is favorable to see them too. I tend to get really excited as I roll into he area across it. True golden arches.

^For the last 5 or 6 years I have always stayed at the same place in the rural outskirts of the Niseko area. The YHA Niseko Fujiyama Karimpani is an old school house converted into a hostel that has come to feel like a home away from home for me. I love this spot and the owner, Masayuki(Max) Ito, has become a dear friend of mine throughout the years as well. It is such a clean and well-run lodge that I am hesitant to call it a hostel despite it's price tag and communal nature. It is one of the cheapest beds one can buy in Niseko, but the service and set up is far and away better then any hostel I have stayed at anywhere else in the world. Max is a classic obsessive Japanese local that labors over every little detail to ensure that the place is clean and organized. The food is also well above the standard most of my guests expect when they book the package. Max serves breakfast and dinner each day, and I usually eat there most of the time because not only is it economical, but it really is so damn good too.  


^Often Max is entirely too busy to ski with me, but this year we managed to get out on a backcountry tour together on my first day in town. Another friend of mine hailing from Australia, Ben Eye, that has worked for Max in years passed was also passing through the area. I was pumped that he could also join us. Ben and I have also become good friends over the years as well. I was really excited that he was in town, and I jumped at the chance to have a tour with the two of them. 

^My second day the storm cycle settled in heavy and I took a solo backcountry touring day to get out and access the scene more and poke around in one of my favorite zones on Nitonupuri. This particular zone always has sheltered tree skiing that can be found on nearly every aspect of the compass. 

^Francis Chen is a backcountry ski guide in Niseko that I have been trying to meet up with for the last few years, but such as busy lives go we had not been able to put it together until this year. We finally had our schedules align to be able to met up for a classic Niseko powder day in the trees. 

^So deep. This picture that Francis took of me says it better than any words I could try to put to it.

^Classic Niseko.

^There is a secret zone that I had been eyeing up nearby for years. This year I had the time and weather window to finally get out to it to scout it. As I pulled into the lonely parking area at the end of the road I was surprised to see another vehicle full of Americans. I started chatting them up as I was not really sure if I could park where I was. Before I knew it we were realizing we had a handful of mutual friends and quickly teamed up for a tour into the zone. It was really a blessing to be able to link up with them as they had more knowledge of the spot than I did thus accelerating my ability to get the lay of the land as well as the confidence to park my car there without the fear of it getting towed by the local authorities. It ended up being and incredible day and I made three new friends that I was super stoked to get to ski with as well. My apologies, but I can't tell you about this location. This one I am gonna have to keep close to the vest. 

^After the initial week in Niseko my first buddy arrived. Darrell Finlayson is a ski patrolman at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. Darrell and I go pretty far back by now as we both ran around the Wasatch range on telemark skis in the past in the same circles of ripper telemark friends in our hay day. We worked a couple different zones his first few days to enjoy the tail end of the storm cycle before some high pressure settled in for a bit. 

^Darrell getting some!

^The sun came out and Darrell and I linked up with a Hokkaido guru, Charlie Ziskin. Charlie has a wealth of knowledge and experience on the north island. We have been internet forum friends for a number of years at this point, but had never managed to ski together in the United States. He had recently retired to the island with his Japanese born wife, and I guess we had to travel half way across the world to finally make it happen to ski together. 

^We linked up for a classic tour off Annupuri's backside terrain for a rather stellar day under the blue sky. Bluebird days in Niseko in January are typically a rather rare occasion. The three of us took advantage as best we could touring out of the back of the Niseko United resort terrain into the local backcountry. We followed it up by a nice long soak in a high country onsen hot spring all the while sharing stories and laughs. Charlie has skied an incredible amount of Japan in his many years coming to the area. Darrell and I were gobbling up all the knowledge and stories well into the late afternoon until we got out of the onsen and toured our way back to the Niseko United base area we started from. 

^That night the rest of our group of friends arrived and the following day the high pressure settled in for a couple more days. The snowpack began to cook up pretty hot and we opted to take a sightseeing tour up the giant volcano Mount Yotei. Yotei eclipses the local landscape as a huge volcano on the Niseko skyline. The snow was far from the deep powder standard that the region is known for, but the views did not disappoint. 

^Many years ago by now I first skied Mount Yotei with a group of really good friends of mine from the U.S. and we had one of the greatest powder days with a local guru of Mount Yotei that has a cabin at the base of the volcano. This summer one of those dear friends of mine, Ben Geiger, tragically died of a freak heart attack. Ben was among my best friends in this world and his passing shook me to my core. Ben was my go-to ski and backcountry partner in the Wasatch mountains in Utah for the last twenty years. We were kindred spirits like few friends I have in this world. That day on Mount Yotei with Ben all those years ago along with two other really good friends of ours was among the greatest ski days any of us have ever had, and may ever have. As such, this volcano will always hold a very special place in my heart. After Ben's death his wife gave me some of his ashes to spread atop all of our favorite peaks that we loved so dearly. I brought some of those ashes with me on this trip with the intention of putting him on the wind on Mount Yotei. With blue skies and a heavy heart I took some time to myself from the group to put him up on the wind with a soulful prayer. Soon after I did so some passing clouds began to sprinkle in the sunshine. I felt that was a sign from him that he was there with me. I spoke to him, and cried for over my loss. The memories of that amazing day we shared on that volcano flooded my mind like a tidal wave at every turn in the skin track. Those memories are priceless to me now, and I will forever cherish that day as well as this opportunity to bring a part of him back there to put up on the wind. 

^Mount Yotei, the dream mountain. 

^The hostel owner, Max, is married to a gracious and talented woman, Yuko Ito. Yuko is an incredible Koto player. The Koto is a kind of Japanese harp instrument and each of the last two years I have been lucky to be there when she has had concerts in a local art gallery in the bustling resort town base area below Niseko United, Hirafu. It is always such a highlight to be able to bring my friends to see her and her friends play some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. It is one of those rich cultural experiences that really makes the trip.  

^Of course, nothing caps off a night of culture like some really good sushi. As to be expected, the Japanese do it better than anywhere. These guys are true artisans of their craft. We were the gracious beneficiaries of all that deliciousness. The culture and the food is just as rewarding an experience as any of the super deep powder days we rack up in Niseko in January each year. This year was no different.  

^After a few days in high pressure and rather aggressive winds another storm cycle set back into the region. The deep powder that Niseko is known for returned and we were right back in it on the skin track once again. Ryan Gallagher from Alaska is ascending to reap the rewards in this picture high above a local onsen. 

^This picture that Darrell snapped of me says it all.

^Darrell, Lance Hamblin, and Ryan working their way back up the skin track for another sample of the goods. We were all frothing at the mouth this day gorging on the deep powder. After all the wind we were amped to have a calmer day in the storm to lap this one zone all by ourselves all day long until we could barely take another step. 

^With each lap yielding deepness like Darrell is getting in this picture we were not about to stop until we squeezed every last drop of juice out of our legs. 

^We had this stretch of woods all to ourselves all day long. We did our best to make sure we did not leave any aspect of it untracked. We logged a stack of vertical that day and finished off our day with a gloriously hot soak in the local onsen nearby. This was Ryan's last day of his trip so we made sure to send him out in style!

^Another local guy, Masafumi Obuchi, and I have been talking online with each other for a while and on Darrell and Lance's last day in Niseko Masa came down from his home in Sapporo to share the day with us. He brought along his friend, Masafumi Miyamoto, and we had another amazing day in the storm with the local boys in the woods. Once again we went bell to bell until there was nothing left in any of our legs. 

^Masa and Masa ascending the zone we picked for the day. Once again we made sure to use it all up as best we could touring laps until I nearly dropped. 

^Darrell making the most of his last day in Japan. 

^I was really pleased to send the boys off in classic Niseko style. Then on my last day Max came out with me again to give me a proper send-off ski touring day. As I mentioned, most years Max is so busy that I am lucky to get even one ski day with him, but this year I managed to book-end my trip with him to start and finish. Max has become a true friend to me over the years and I can't think of a better way to end my trip then to have a finalĂ© tour with him. 

^At dinner that last night our friend, Yukihiro Takahashi(left), joined us. Hiro, as we call him, drove through the evening from the airport in Sapporo to have dinner with me and Max. Hiro is a local guide and legend here in Niseko. Hiro and I became friends through Max many years ago by now and even though he might just be the busiest guy I know he always manages to go out of his way to come see me to break bread with me and Max. I thoroughly enjoy soaking up local knowledge and wisdom from Hiro and share ideas about the guiding business and the economics of the world we both work in. Hiro has a wealth of knowledge that I can only hope to aspire to someday and he is always so generous in sharing some of it with me whenever he can. I have learned a lot from Hiro over the years and look forward to our conversations every year. I am so grateful for mentors like him in my life and look forward to the day that he and I can work together on a larger level. 

I went to bed that last night with the prospect of a huge travel day back to the U.S. with a smile on my face for another amazing trip to Niseko, Japan. That night my dear late friend, Ben Geiger, came to me in my dream. We talked like he was there with me and we had not skipped a day. Since his death I have been a broken man. At the end of the dream we hugged and I woke up from the dream breathing heavy with tears streaming down my face, but I was not sad. I was completely invigorated. It felt like the experience was a real as if he were actually there with me. As I tried to calm myself down in my bunkbed and wrap my head around the realism of the dream I thought to myself that I had hoped it was not too early before my alarm to wake me to begin my travel slog back to the U.S. because there was no chance at all that I was going to be able to go back to sleep after that. I looked at my watch and it showed literally three minutes before my alarm was dialed to go off to wake me up. I was completely blown away. I rose from my bed, grabbed my bags, and headed for home. That dream felt so real that I was convinced that he had truly come to me on some kind of spiritual plane. I was so oddly calm and happy with the experience. It was the first time that I had thought of him since he died and not felt the deep sadness of loss. Rather, I was overcome with a strange joy in knowing that he was with me all along. He told me in the dream that he was going to be around. He told me that I could find him in the mountains and that he wanted me to know that he was still here on this earth. He told me that he would be spending his time looking over his wife and his kids in Utah, but that he would make sure to come around to look out for me from time to time as well. It was the most surreal spiritual experience of my life. As I drove to the airport that morning I was for the first time overcome with a sense of calm since the day his big brother, Bob, called me to tell me he was gone. I had a sense of peace with it that I had been so longing for to ease my pain. I will miss him every day of my life for the rest of my own, but I know now for certain that he will be watching out for me and that he will be ready and waiting for me on the other side when my own time comes. I don't know what the future holds, but I do know that this place, these people, and my dear friend Ben are such great gifts in my life. Niseko's Japanese powder snow is a blessing, but everything that has come to my life in pursuit of it and all the magical journeys of my life in these friendships and these experiences is the real true gift. I may never get to ascend Mount Yotei with Ben breaking the trail in front of me again, but I know that he will be smiling down on my turns here and everywhere else until we meet again on the clouds blowing across the top of Mount Yotei.