Flying Blind

Japan's Rishiri Island is one giant mountain. The views would be great if you could, you know, actually see.
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Japan's Rishiri Island is one giant mountain. The views would be great if you could, you know, actually see.

The wind blew at 50 miles an hour from the west, but it was consistent, so if I leaned far enough into it I stayed mostly upright. Visibility was a maximum of 30 feet, with an occasional clearing to 50. Stian insisted there was a hut just ahead, but I doubted it existed, let alone that we would see the damn thing in this riming whiteout.

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Despite the weather and skepticism, I was enjoying myself. Our ridge route was obvious and the weather felt real but not threatening. I figured we would go a bit farther, not find the hut, and ski back down. We braced against the wind, one step at a time.

The trip was a gamble from the beginning. Rishiri Island, 12 miles west of the northwest tip of Hokkaido, is a massive 5,600-foot peak, 39 miles around and nearly circular, with notoriously foul weather. Stian Hagen, our de facto trip leader and Norwegian-turned-Chamoniard mountain guide, visited the previous year for two weeks and skied just two half-days. Though hesitant to return, he caved to our overwhelming interest and the area’s incredible potential.

We arrived in late February, incredulous, to a calm, blue day and enjoyed an afternoon of mellow touring in perfect treed powder. The next day the wind cranked up. Stian, Canadians Christina Lustenberger and Austin Ross, photographer Adam Clark, filmer Fred Arne Wergelund, and I hiked and skied every day, searching out pockets of smooth between the wind-hammered sastrugi. Explaining the weather with a shrug, our guide and host Toshi Watanabe told us, “Rishiri, floating mountain. Very windy, because all the rotations are the seas.”

Of Rishiri’s 5,000 inhabitants, Toshi is one of 20 skiers and boarders who regularly venture upslope. He learned to ski on the island’s lone rope tow, soon began touring and using snowmobiles for access, and eventually completed his guide certification. With his wife and sister, he opened the Rera Mosir Pension, a cozy lodge complete with an outdoor mountain-view onsen. Toshi, his lodge, the mountain’s 360-degree ocean views, the stunning spines, and the total out-there-ness of it all rendered the poor snow conditions irrelevant. The skiing was epic. 

On summit day, Stian, Adam, and I found ourselves inching toward the mythical hut. Stian scraped at what looked like a mound of snow, and a door handle emerged. We escaped the wind inside the hut, grinning like idiots at the bounty of stoves, fuel, tea, and sleeping bags. We heated water, removed our boots, and spent close to two hours waiting out the weather. Stian figured the summit wasn’t too much farther, and since we were warm and fed we could give it a go.

Finally, after two more hours lurching into the wind, we topped out by a cairn. A blue hole in the vast gray suddenly appeared and shot across the horizon, and we briefly glimpsed the town and the coastline below. Smiling, we clicked into our skis and navigated the ridges of stiff waves down to the lower mountain, all the way back to Toshi’s for homemade sushi.

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