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tæt på Ōdaira, Niigata (Japan)
It's not snowshoeing but there's no good icon for ワカン...
The good thing about recently joining a mountaineering club is that there is a lot of experienced people from whom I can learn a lot. That contrasts with the hiking club I belonged to before, there I had more experience than most members. Now no need to search for a guide, that's both expensive and below expectations in terms of difficulty, to learn things. So this time I signed up for winter mountaineering training, the first aspect of it was to wade through deep snow (in Japanese there's a word for that but not in English nor French: ラッセル). The second aspect of the training was for me to discover the joys of camping in the snow. Finally it was also question to go lightweight but I failed that, my pack was 23 kg, but when carrying it I didn't feel any burden.
After some hours spent on the road we got to Uonuma in Niigata and pitched the tents at the Michi no eki. In Niigata even at the bottom of the valleys in towns it's common to have 2m of accumulated snow so people use pierced hoses to flood the parking lots of shops with hot water. It is quite efficient to get rid of the snow but the drawback is that one needs rubber boots to keep their feet dry and naturally it's impossible to camp on the parking lot. We pitched the tent near the vending machines on the sidewalk.
The next day we drove another 1 hour to Oohara ski area. It's so small the 2 lifts are not shown the maps I've seen. We got a ride and at the top of the lift we had a surprisingly good weather for this side of Japan (Japan sea coast). The day before I was told that it usually snows 6 days a week and the rest is cloudy (to be considered as good weather). So when a small portion of the sky was blue and the visibility extended over more than 10km with a temperature warm enough to take off the midlayer I was quite happy.
From the sky lift we put on the wakkan and started breaking the trail in the forest. There is of course absolutely no trace and no sign of human beings from there and one by one we take the lead to make the trace by treading on snow. On flat we'd sink about 30 cm but the wakkan so more than if we'd used snowshoes but on the other hand there is much less snow to lift at each step so I found it was less strenuous. When it got steeper things became more interesting and more exhausting which was something I welcomed with pleasure. At -5 degrees it gets quite hot when moving in deep snow so precautions have to be taken so as not to overheat because sweat is one of the enemies one should be careful about during the winter. So I took off my warm gloves, opened by jacket and got as much ventilation as I could to stay dry and not get cold when I let someone else take the lead and break the path for the rest of the party.
At around 2PM we got to a flat spot and pitched the tents, we dropped most of the gears and decide to go for the summit and return to the tents. The idea was to be back before dark and be sure to have a shelter because the weather had turned to near whiteout. Walking without landmarks in a world where everything is white (snow, sky, even the clothes start to get white due to the frost) is something enriching but that could also be dangerous. Walking too close to the trees could be dangerous because holes form around trees and falling into one is a bad idea. Walking too close to the ridge is even more dangerous because cornices form at the ridges and walking on one can make it collapse and one can go through it and fall on the other side of the mountain.
Someone fell inside a hole, we didn't really understand what happened, maybe a bush growing on the side of a rock had be covered by snow but a huge air pocket remained and walking on top of that made the hole thing collapse under the weight of that person. The problem is that it was impossible to detect. Anyway we made it to the top of Sumondake safely, we never saw what it looked like though.
We then quickly returned to the tent and started melting snow to prepare dinner. Food had been selected by the two leaders and was to be shared about the whole group. I know for a long time already that anything tastes good in the mountain, that's even more so when eating in a tent when it's blowing snow outside. Although everybody had struggled to keep their backpack as light as possible I was surprised to see that everybody had brought some drinks and in such quantity that I could get plenty from them. So we had a good party with good food and good drinks at 1300m high in the middle of nowhere with 2m of snow below us.
The night in tent was yet another experience. The wind grew strong after I fell asleep and within few seconds a substantial amount of powder snow would pile up against the side of the tent above my head, when it got heavy enough the whole thing would bend and snow would touch my face. I had to push back snow more times than I could count and since it was my first experience I was worrying about how we would pack the tent in the morning as from inside the tent it sounded like a very strong wind was blowing relentlessly.
When we got up everything in the tent was naturally frozen. We melted snow and cooked breakfast and then I realized the wind was bearable and people managed to fold the tents without too much trouble, though I didn't really help much about that. The weather gradually became better and it was a relief I could take off my goggles without problem (it had frozen and I couldn't see anything).
On the way down the visibility improved and I could take some pictures and didn't regret adding 2kg to my pack by bringing the camera.
We quickly made it back to the ski slopes but one of us was slow and we went back to the trail to look for him. Finally nothing wrong happened, the guy just needed 50 minutes more than us to go down all the way to the ski slope. When going back to look for him, the traces we had made around 20 minutes earlier had all but disappeared due to the wind. Only the holes from the trekking poles were visible at places exposed to strong wind. I realized that during the winter more advanced navigation skills are required.
Overall it was an enriching experience and I learned a lot on the field. Physically I expected more though.
More pictures here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/sk17a6whuk2ol6x/CKG67vcAFn