by Paddy O’Connell
During our skin up the ridge, crystals hung in the air like dandelion seeds, but now thick flakes swirl around us. The brief kink in the storm’s flow has passed.
Since I arrived on Hokkaido, it’s snowed almost nonstop. My buddies and guides Pete and Lucas tell me to count to 60 before following them into the undulating field of untracked powder. They descend, one after another, disappearing into waves of drying linen. Fifty, 51, 52…I fist bump Benny, Garrett, and the rest of our group before pointing to the fall line.
A quick left turn, then a right on top of a bulbous pillow. But the energy return in the waist-deep snow spits me out, and I am caught off guard, suddenly in the air. I roll the windows down, expecting to auger when I land. Instead, Japan embraces me, and I drift into one face shot, then another, porpoising through a blurring gluttonous powder Orgasmatron.
I glide to a stop next to Pete, who is laughing in hysterics. In the reflection of his goggles I see the reason. Snow packs my mustache, which is frozen to my black hair, which wings from beneath my yellow hat. I look like a character from Fraggle Rock. It’s only my third day in Japan, but I never want to leave Kiroro Ski Resort and its surrounding backcountry. We’ve already skied two runs today, but Pete and I agree that we have to tour back up for at least one more. “Best of the trip so far, huh?” asks Pete. I just laugh harder. In Japan, every line beats the line before.
Japan in January is a thing because of an otherworldly weather phenomenon. Storms sweep across Eurasia, the world’s largest east to west landmass, in an enormous clockwise cyclone of cold air known as the Siberian High. This frigid swirling air mass fattens with moisture as it crosses the Sea of Japan before lifting into the cold mountains on the island of Hokkaido. With consistent 15-degree temps, the orographic result is a vomitorium of superlight snow. Compared to how weather acts where I’m from—well, there’s no comparison.
Back home in Colorado, January is bitter cold, windy, and with snow best described as molar cracking white ice. It often snows less than a foot in the Front Range during drought-stricken January, maybe two feet in Telluride, Steamboat, or Crested Butte. Off trail, the snowpack typically doesn’t yet cover the shark-tooth scree, and eff-you downed trees. The snow usually turns back on by February, but skiing in Colorado during the New Year is more about maintaining your form than milking powder.
Before 2000, Japan’s winter spectacle remained mostly undiscovered by outsiders, except for a few film crews, pro athletes, and scant tourists lucky enough to be in the know. After September 11, 2001, Aussies began flying to Japan for ski holidays rather than the U.S., and the secret got out. Today, nearly three million foreigners visit the hills of Japan every winter, which should choke the slopes and grind powder to packed pulp. But the tourists disperse throughout the country’s 500 resorts. Crossing tracks doesn’t exist. There’s more than enough powder to go around.
Every morning at Kiroro, front-end loaders clear knee-deep white blankets from the parking lots and roads. Snow first flirts with skiers in November; the powder switch hits full blast in December. By January, Kiroro has more snow than most U.S. resorts see in an entire season. Across the American West, 300 to 400 inches is a dream season total. Last winter, more than 45 feet of feathery blower fell at Kiroro, 15 of which came in January. And all of that white means I, at six-foot-five and 240 pounds, no longer feel like the biggest thing for miles. The smallest snow banks tower five feet over my head. I can’t remember when I saw the sun last, maybe five days ago, maybe seven.
The heater cooks our boot liners, base layers, and ski socks every night in the tiny bedroom I share with Pete and Benny, guides for SASS Global Travel—the outfitter I’ve come with from Denver to Hokkaido. We fashion a makeshift clothesline out of orange parachute cord and hang our snow-caked gear above the radiator. I sleep on a bamboo mattress and a buckwheat pillow in the middle of the room. Pete crammed his bed into the closet. And Benny snores by my feet. The room smells like a Midwestern locker room, but the wet gear isn’t the only thing creating the aroma. Every evening concludes with a three-person gastric symphony, an event my undying juvenility finds hilarious. We’ve been eating delicious yet strange food here, including fish and rice, unnamed pickled pink stuff, and seaweed wraps—for breakfast.
Coffee and fish burps are tough to get used to. I stare bleary-eyed out the wall-sized windows. The snow falls slowly and I match its Zen-like cadence while stirring instant coffee into hot water. It’s early evening back in Colorado. Confusion sets in deeply with a 16-hour time difference. The spoon clangs against the inside of my thermos and I roll my head to the metallic song. Then I roll my shoulders, and then my hips, and before I realize how goofy I look, I’m dancing. It’s just me and the snow and the instant coffee, all twisting together. In Japan, things can get weird in a hurry.
Fukai, yuki, SIKO!
I am naked, eyes closed, sitting on a footstool, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about unsolicited hot spring touching, but I’m surrounded by nude, bathing Japanese men. I’m hosing myself down with a handheld spray nozzle when a voice calls out from behind me. I wipe my eyes and look into the mirror on the wall of my bath station. I see Guts, SASS’s local guide and a native of Japan, who says, “PaddyO walk like old man. Uuugghh.”
He’s right. I shuffled toward my bath station with the wobbly stride of a grandfather. Ten days of skiing here has zapped my legs. I tell Guts that if I slipped on the tile floor, I’d have no choice but to lay in a naked puddle of exhaustion. Guts stands, and it is no longer his face I see in the mirror. But that’s not the most surprising thing I encounter at eye level during my trip. I’ve been knocking my melon on every door jam in Japan. I just don’t fit in this country.
Except, that is, when I’m skiing. Guts describes the snow as Paddy-deep. He tells me I am too big for the cities of his homeland, but that my size doesn’t matter in the mountains. When we are skiing he yells, “Fukai, yuki, SIKO!” (which roughly translates to “Super-deep snow, AWESOME!”)
From the main gondola on the seventh day, Pete points to an open triangular swath in an otherwise tree-filled ridge. He tells me it’s hard to get to, but worth the slog—its nickname is “The Steepest Line in Japan.”
It takes us five tries to find it, but the four lead-up runs yield more face shots than I had all last season. Three hours later, we stand above it. Pete and I are the last to drop in. We hop off a cornice into an immediate right turn, leading to a crouched tuck through a doggy door in the trees. I fly through after bruising my ego by hip-checking the landing, but now snow erupts around me and I punch through into the clearing. I bounce from overhead submersion to chest-deep swoops, surfing the line. Waves of powder crash off my chest and face with a sound and feeling the onomatopoetic local phrase best describes, baffu-baffu.
Hours later, the base lodge vibrates with laughing, huddled up skiers remarking on the day’s runs. No one notices that the powder packed into the fissures of their gear and clothing is slowly melting. I, too, am dazed from eight hours of baffu-baffu. I shuffle to Garrett. He’s talking to pro skier Chris Davenport who, I find out, is guiding the inventor of Twitter around Kiroro. They left Niseko due to “dry” slopes—it was only hip deep.
After saying goodbye, Garrett turns to me. “When Chris Davenport is skiing where you’re skiing, you know you’re doing somethin’ right,” he says.
Paddy “Two Meters” Gulliver
“You got a walk in ya?” Pete asks me. I’m sipping a latté, hunched over my knees at the café in the base lodge. My legs scream to spend my last day skiing the lift-served rollers and glades on the resort. But I can’t pass up a final backcountry tour. Kiroro’s off-piste gates access dream lines with steep faces, widely spaced ghostly woods, and bowls filled with neck-deep snow. I have no choice but to say yes to a far-off walk in the woods and a secluded ski.
While I wait to load the chair, I notice the lift operator staring. “Two meetah, two meetah,” he exclaims while pointing at me with one hand and reaching his other above his head. I nod, smile, and say, “Arigatou.” Yes, I am exactly two meters tall my good man.
“Yuki two meetah, you two meetah. A ha-ha! SIKO!” he cries out and we high-five right before the chair scoops me up.
I laugh, but his assessment is way off. The snow is far deeper than I am tall. For the final run, I am on the hunt for Kiroro’s deepest spot.
From the Deep Winter issue.