The Master

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The Master 1104

We've stopped, midrun, next to a gaping crack running diagonally across the snow. It's about 60 feet long and appears quite a bit deeper than a man is tall. We look at each other, amazed that this seemingly tame slope not 100 yards from a quad lift could harbor such serious danger. Our guide, Akio Shinya, a 57-year-old Japanese man in lace-up alpine touring boots, has a concerned look on his weathered, mustachioed face. He is just about to say something when a snowboarder glides by directly above us. We all start yelling for the rider to stop-photographer Blake Jorgenson and I in English, Shinya-san in Japanese-but she silently disappears into the crevasse.

"Okay you?" Shinya yells down as he drops his pack and clicks out of his skis.

"Perfectly alright," the rider says in a proper British accent, "just seem to be a bit stuck."

Shinya easily lowers his five-foot-six-inch frame into the 15-foot-deep crack and releases the girl's snowboard, which has been partially wedged into the rift's wall, forcing her legs into an unnatural torque. He muscles her around to get her pack off and shows her how to climb out of the fault using her back and feet on opposing walls. Shinya climbs out after her, carrying her gear. Once back aboveground, the Brit laughs nervously.

"Wow," she says to Jorgenson and me. "Now I see why you have a guide."

She turns to Shinya. Any other guide would chew her out for riding irresponsibly, but he just nods, looking grave. "I'm just glad you were here," she says.

This is our first run of our first day in Niseko-Hirafu, Japan. But it won't be long before we learn that scores of people in this part of the world feel similarly grateful to Akio Shinya-guide, sage, master.

Niseko is the largest ski area on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, which lies just a few hundred miles off the coast of Russia. Strong Siberian storms race across the Sea of Japan and smack into Hokkaido's volcanic peaks, producing some of the world's most plentiful snow. The resort's three major ski areas see an average of 13 to 20 feet of packed powder during the season, with over 150 snowy days per winter. And, unlike most of Japan's 600-plus ski areas, Niseko has "Local Rules," which means something like "off-piste skiing okay." It's taken a while for word to get out, but Niseko is fast becoming one of those places like La Grave, France, and Nelson, British Columbia, that attracts the core of powder-skiing counterculture: the Europeans, South Africans, and Americans who will sell the truck, the bed, or otherwise do whatever it takes to ski deep snow in a foreign land.

At the center of all this is Shinya, Japan's legendary guide and mountaineer. "I am just a housekeeper in a mountain lodge," he says, but his daily avalanche forecasts-although not officially sanctioned or even necessarily scientifically accurate-are the only defense skiers have against the area's frequent slides. And Shinya's lodge, The Woodpeckers, has become a gathering place for locals and world travelers alike. Guides, patrollers, race coaches, and dirtbags congregate nightly around the lodge's wood-plank tables to drink, smoke, pet the house dog, Chibi, swap stories, discuss the Dalai Lama, and listen to Shinya's daughters, Yuuchan and Nagisa, play Mozart on the piano-or, if the evening is going well, convince Shinya to get out his violin.

Niseko's consistently heavy snowfall, pounded as it is by strong north winds, creates notoriously unstable layers which often sag downslope under their own weight, creating crevasses or slab avalanches. Japan's unofficial avalanche policy-to close slopes with any slide history or potential-leaves little choice for powderseekers than to cut ropes and take enormous risks. There is no avalanche control per se in Japan-bombing is not allowed-which, according to Ross Findlay, owner of the Niseko Adventure Centre, an outfitter and guide service in the area, makes an odd nd of sense. "In a country with no personal ownership of guns, throwing bombs around is probably never going to happen," he says. Also, skiing in Japan has historically been all about perfecting technique on the groomed slopes. "But with the popularity of snowboarding," Findlay says, "people started to want to explore the powder areas. This has had a lot of ski resorts very troubled."

Since implementing the Local Rules in 2001, along with a new system of opening and closing powder areas that were previously closed, Niseko is the only ski area in Japan that is really confronting the problem.

After he rescues the British snowboarder, Shinya retrieves some bright red netting from ski patrol and rigs up a decent crevasse barrier. "Here, we are off the piste, so skiing is considered 'own risk,'" he says. "Own risk is good, but accidents are bad. So I help." We spend the rest of the day exploring the Niseko La Ponte ski area's north-facing beech glades and following Shinya on crazy, winding traverses that have their own dangers. "Some people go too fast, and end up in the river," Shinya tells us, pointing to a tiny, bamboo-lined brook 20 feet below. Regardless of the terrain, Shinya's skiing technique doesn't change: hulking, wide stance, arms stretched out front-prepared for anything, but without a trace of old-school Japanese grace. This guy is a mountaineer, which also shows in his well-patched shell, crampon-ready boots, and narrow Japanese touring skis.

We find patches of untracked, and there is snow piled on trees and roofs that looks like it's right out of Dr. Seuss. But this isn't the fukai yuki saiko (great, deep powder) anyone who's ever been to Niseko blathers on about. So, after a late lunch, we ski down the street to The Woodpeckers, our home for the next week. As we sit to take off our boots, Shinya hands us each a glass of milk. We look at each other, wanting water, but we're in dairy country.

Inside, the lodge is alive with the smell of food frying, the sound of seven-year-old Yuuchan practicing the piano, and the warmth of a wood stove surrounded by ski boots. Chibi the dog is asleep under a bench. Every inch of space-on the walls, on shelves, over doorways-is crammed with the paraphernalia of a life spent in pursuit of adventure: maps, mountaineering books, sea kayaking photos, climbing permits from the Nepalese government, ski packs, crampons, ski magazines and videos, and stacks of the Japanese National Geographic.

As evening progresses, people come and go. Noriko, Shinya's wife, shoos people out of the industrial-style kitchen while she and Takayoshi, the cook, prepare what will be the first of many delicious meals. Tonight it's sukiyaki, a one-pot dish of thinly sliced beef simmered at the table with vegetables and a soy-ginger broth, but we'll also sample tempura, inch-thick cinnamon toast, and forearm-long salmon fillets from the Russian coast. A group of college ski racers sits in the corner, watching competition videos. Shinya opens a Côtes du Rhône, outfits a pair of skinny Japanese touring skis with his mother's 60-year-old sealskins, and apologizes over and over for his English. "In my young age, my hobby was mountain climbing, and I learn English in Nepal."

Shinya led several Japanese expeditions in the Himalayas, including a new route up 7,319-meter Mount Chamlang in 1986. "I climbed high mountains-in the Nepal Himalayas, Karakoram, Andes, China Taishan-but in my mind, I am an amateur," he says. "I know my experience is not enough. But I understand having experiences is important because people learn modesty."

Shinya grew up in Sapporo and, like many boys in northern Japan, he played baseball in the summer and skied in the winter. His father was an engineer at Hokkaido University and collected books about nature and adventure, which piqued Shinya's interest. He started mountaineering when he was 16 and soon after began climbing Hokkaido's peaks in the winter. "It was hard work with an old-style heavy rucksack, eight-nail crampons, and sealskin with army-binding skis," he says.

Shinya encountered his first avalanche when he was 20 on Zyozankei-Tengu Dake, a peak near Sapporo. "I understood avalanche danger," he says, "I saw many cracks happen quickly around me, and the avalanche started within a few seconds. There was a surface avalanche of two-meters depth. I was in the stream for 200 meters and flew 20 meters over an icefall. I survived, with luck."

The experience humbled him. In the Niseko area, five people died in avalanches between 1980 to 1996. As the leader of the search and rescue team, Shinya loaded the dead bodies of mere boys and girls onto sleds. The accidents drove home the fact that Japan's "close it and ignore it" avalanche policy doesn't work when there is fresh powder so temptingly close to the groomed runs and lifts. "If we only put up a rope and say 'No enter,' young guys will still die," he says. So, Shinya began forecasting slides. It has since become a crusade. "Niseko is good for powder skiing. We have many chairlifts and easy-access powder slopes," he says. "I feel I have responsibility because of my experience."

Every morning Shinya and his "members"-a crew of students and ski patrollers-are out on the mountain surveying the danger before anyone else has sat down to their fried-fish breakfasts. "I look at the weather, dig a pit, and look at the snowpack. Then I think," he says, pointing at his head. He types up his page-long forecast (detailing snowpack, weak layers, wind effects, and where danger is most serious), which is posted at all the lifts at six of Niseko's seven ski areas.

"Now many people read my avalanche information in the lift area every day. When the danger is high, I suggest, 'Don't cross rope.'" Although two more skiers have died since '96, Shinya's efforts seem to be working: "Education and safety information is cheap and gets results," he says. This yielding to personal choice is somewhat alien in a country that so reveres authority. But, as Shinya says, "People like powder, so common sense and knowledge are more important than strict regulation."

Day two is bright and blue, but there's no fukai yuki saiko. Shinya tells us the avalanche danger is low, so we head out to Niseko Hirafu with our guide for the day, a blond-dreadlocked Swedish expat named Par Dahlin. There is no real mountain range here. Rural Hokkaido is mostly rolling farmland with singular Rainier-like peaks jutting up amid the silos. Annpuri, the 4,294-foot dormant volcano that's home to the Niseko ski areas, reaches out with its long ridges and forested gullies like a preacher over the pastureland, but the undisputed ruler of the landscape is 6,211-foot Yotei-san, a perfectly conical live volcano.

Hirafu's lift system is a jumble of old and new, fast and slow. To reach the top, we ride a gondola, a triple, and then a creaky single chair. The 20-minute hike to the summit would be painless if it weren't for the ice shards drilling us at gale-force speeds. As we start down the five-foot-wide ridge, Dahlin yells back, "Stay near the little trees on the edge!" I don't understand why our guide would want us skiing so close to the rocky cliff that drops off the southwest side of the ridge-until Jorgenson's left leg goes into a crusted-over crevasse. Not five minutes later, he goes down again, this time falling into a crack. He's not hurt, and climbs out easily, but we're freaked.

On the way back, Dahlin suggests I not tell Shinya that I skied the terrain without my avalanche transceiver. He doesn't have to worry: I hate to think of Shinya's grave, disappointed look directed at me.

The next morning, Shinya is not happy. "Last night many people came here to talk to me about problems with this mountain, with avalanche problems and questions," he says. "But my problem is no fresh snow for you." He pulls out a weather map printed off the Web. "It's a spring pattern. But low presrk with an old-style heavy rucksack, eight-nail crampons, and sealskin with army-binding skis," he says.

Shinya encountered his first avalanche when he was 20 on Zyozankei-Tengu Dake, a peak near Sapporo. "I understood avalanche danger," he says, "I saw many cracks happen quickly around me, and the avalanche started within a few seconds. There was a surface avalanche of two-meters depth. I was in the stream for 200 meters and flew 20 meters over an icefall. I survived, with luck."

The experience humbled him. In the Niseko area, five people died in avalanches between 1980 to 1996. As the leader of the search and rescue team, Shinya loaded the dead bodies of mere boys and girls onto sleds. The accidents drove home the fact that Japan's "close it and ignore it" avalanche policy doesn't work when there is fresh powder so temptingly close to the groomed runs and lifts. "If we only put up a rope and say 'No enter,' young guys will still die," he says. So, Shinya began forecasting slides. It has since become a crusade. "Niseko is good for powder skiing. We have many chairlifts and easy-access powder slopes," he says. "I feel I have responsibility because of my experience."

Every morning Shinya and his "members"-a crew of students and ski patrollers-are out on the mountain surveying the danger before anyone else has sat down to their fried-fish breakfasts. "I look at the weather, dig a pit, and look at the snowpack. Then I think," he says, pointing at his head. He types up his page-long forecast (detailing snowpack, weak layers, wind effects, and where danger is most serious), which is posted at all the lifts at six of Niseko's seven ski areas.

"Now many people read my avalanche information in the lift area every day. When the danger is high, I suggest, 'Don't cross rope.'" Although two more skiers have died since '96, Shinya's efforts seem to be working: "Education and safety information is cheap and gets results," he says. This yielding to personal choice is somewhat alien in a country that so reveres authority. But, as Shinya says, "People like powder, so common sense and knowledge are more important than strict regulation."

Day two is bright and blue, but there's no fukai yuki saiko. Shinya tells us the avalanche danger is low, so we head out to Niseko Hirafu with our guide for the day, a blond-dreadlocked Swedish expat named Par Dahlin. There is no real mountain range here. Rural Hokkaido is mostly rolling farmland with singular Rainier-like peaks jutting up amid the silos. Annpuri, the 4,294-foot dormant volcano that's home to the Niseko ski areas, reaches out with its long ridges and forested gullies like a preacher over the pastureland, but the undisputed ruler of the landscape is 6,211-foot Yotei-san, a perfectly conical live volcano.

Hirafu's lift system is a jumble of old and new, fast and slow. To reach the top, we ride a gondola, a triple, and then a creaky single chair. The 20-minute hike to the summit would be painless if it weren't for the ice shards drilling us at gale-force speeds. As we start down the five-foot-wide ridge, Dahlin yells back, "Stay near the little trees on the edge!" I don't understand why our guide would want us skiing so close to the rocky cliff that drops off the southwest side of the ridge-until Jorgenson's left leg goes into a crusted-over crevasse. Not five minutes later, he goes down again, this time falling into a crack. He's not hurt, and climbs out easily, but we're freaked.

On the way back, Dahlin suggests I not tell Shinya that I skied the terrain without my avalanche transceiver. He doesn't have to worry: I hate to think of Shinya's grave, disappointed look directed at me.

The next morning, Shinya is not happy. "Last night many people came here to talk to me about problems with this mountain, with avalanche problems and questions," he says. "But my problem is no fresh snow for you." He pulls out a weather map printed off the Web. "It's a spring pattern. But low pressure is coming." Another guest at the lodge, a Tokyo grad student, reads us Shinya's avalanche forecast, as he does every day to practice his English (one morning we had quite a time with "leeward"): "Today big danger is crevasse."

The next couple days, we ski groomers; watch Shinya's team dig deep, perfectly square snow pits; eat noodle lunches; and try not to lose it over the mysterious lack of snow in what we'd been told was "the snowiest place on earth." One night after dinner, Shinya refills our beer glasses, pours himself a healthy dose of Wild Turkey, and gets out his violin. He closes his eyes as he plays everything from Mozart to "Danny Boy" to "Let It Be."

Like Shinya's modesty, his musical talent is surprising. Along with drinking milk in Japan and discussing the merits of Seven Years in Tibet with an agnostic Buddhist, it reflects the whole yin and yang of this place. Later, Shinya raises his glass and says to us, "I pray for good snow for you."

The next day there's two feet of powder. There are maybe 20 people on the mountain, and all but a couple adventurous snowboarders carve perfect S-turns on the groomed swaths under the lifts. I head into the glades. Run after run, the only tracks I see are mine. It's silent, restorative. I remember something Shinya said over dinner and sake: "Sometimes avalanche report says, 'Good snow, nice powder, excellent, unbelievable, and don't hit tree.'"

This is one of those days.

Nov. 2004pressure is coming." Another guest at the lodge, a Tokyo grad student, reads us Shinya's avalanche forecast, as he does every day to practice his English (one morning we had quite a time with "leeward"): "Today big danger is crevasse."

The next couple days, we ski groomers; watch Shinya's team dig deep, perfectly square snow pits; eat noodle lunches; and try not to lose it over the mysterious lack of snow in what we'd been told was "the snowiest place on earth." One night after dinner, Shinya refills our beer glasses, pours himself a healthy dose of Wild Turkey, and gets out his violin. He closes his eyes as he plays everything from Mozart to "Danny Boy" to "Let It Be."

Like Shinya's modesty, his musical talent is surprising. Along with drinking milk in Japan and discussing the merits of Seven Years in Tibet with an agnostic Buddhist, it reflects the whole yin and yang of this place. Later, Shinya raises his glass and says to us, "I pray for good snow for you."

The next day there's two feet of powder. There are maybe 20 people on the mountain, and all but a couple adventurous snowboarders carve perfect S-turns on the groomed swaths under the lifts. I head into the glades. Run after run, the only tracks I see are mine. It's silent, restorative. I remember something Shinya said over dinner and sake: "Sometimes avalanche report says, 'Good snow, nice powder, excellent, unbelievable, and don't hit tree.'"

This is one of those days.

Nov. 2004

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