Photographs by Grant Gunderson
Each January for nearly a decade, photographer Grant Gunderson has left his Bellingham, Washington home for northern Japan where Siberian fronts unload moisture sponged from the Sea of Japan and deliver consistent powder. “The snow quality is unlike anywhere else on the planet,” says Gunderson. “It’s better than Utah for quality, and greater than the Pacific Northwest in quantity.”
Traditionally, ski photographers head to Alaska in March and April to stock up on images of steep, deep, aspirational skiing. But catch the wrong weather pattern, and it’s easy to get skunked. In the Lower 48, meanwhile, January often brings high-pressure systems or thaws that sideline professional crews. “Before going to Japan, I never did a ton of work in January. Now, it’s one of my busiest months,” says Gunderson. “And when I come home, I don’t get the powder panic. I get my fix in Japan.”
Tectonic activity produces Japan’s volcanoes and hot springs, or onsens. They’re ideal for aprés-ski—and snow removal. “There are giant snow banks towering over every road,” says Adam Ü. “If the residents don’t keep up they’ll be buried.” Older men and women shovel the snow into the street, where onsen water running through pipes melts the snow.
As more photographers frequent Japan, black and white images of skiers exploding through the forest have become emblematic. “It’s often snowing so hard that we can’t get up into the alpine,” says Ü. As Gunderson becomes more familiar with conditions, he’s shooting more color.
Avalanche control with explosives is rare in Japan. To protect highways, chair lifts, and infrastructure, the Japanese build avalanche barriers. For skiers like KC Deane, they’re open invitations. “Natural pillows can be tricky because sometimes they collapse,” he says. “An avy barrier pillow line is more straightforward. If you get the speed correct, it’s like bouncing down stairs, but you barely feel it.”
Salomon Freeski TV gave Stan Rey 48 hours notice for his inaugural Japan trip. It snowed 70cm the first day and kept dumping for a week and a half. (Watch the powder fly in the “Moment’s Notice” episode.) “The snow is light, dry, and relentless,” he says. “But you don’t get tired of it.” Regular storms also mean Japan’s backcountry remains largely undocumented. “There’s rugged terrain that resembles Alaska,” says Gunderson. “But people never see it because it’s snowy all the time.”
From the 2015 Gallery issue.