Monkey See, Monkey Do

Words & Photos: Andrew Strain

The Japanese Alps are mountains, on mountains, on mountains. Perched atop the deciduous ridges, towers of spines and couloirs extend 1000 metres above treeline, just beyond the upper lifts of the Hakuba Valley’s ski areas. Tantalizingly accessible, frequent storms keep the peaks out of reach to all but those with patience and a little bit of luck.

Last season, I arrived in Hakuba with alpine aspirations and linked up with Whistler-based shred-couple Sara Niblock and Eric Poulin to make an attempt at the backcountry terrain. Despite a clear weather window, snow conditions kept us from the prize, relegating us to the forests and thermal springs of the Hakuba valley – an acceptable consolation.

 Hakuba, Japan

After a day spent sampling lift-accessed stashes, we decide to don our skins and ascend into the fabled semi-forested pillow-spines – you have to see it to believe it. A morning run delivers high quality turns on a northerly aspect, but solar effect and a rapid temperature spike put a halt to our afternoon ambitions.

Snowboarder: Sara Niblock

That night as sheets of rain sweep the streets of Tsugaike, we take welcome refuge in a steaming onsen. The next day, we head out on a scouting mission to assess the damage. A thin layer of new snow adorning the upper lift towers instills enough optimism in the crew to undertake a traverse between two of the ski areas. Five turns down, the creamy surface snow makes an abrupt and unwelcome transition to a vitreous crust that supports gentle edging but shatters under the full force of a hard carve. It’s a strong candidate for the worst snow I have ever ridden.

Defeated, we retreat to the valley and settle into a routine of onsen and ramen while counting down the days until the next storm. After 5 days of drought, the tap turns back on and we don’t see the sun again.

With a fresh coat of snow reapplied after each lap, the mountain retains little evidence of our presence; following tracks is more likely to lead to a kamoshika wallowing through the deep than another human. While we feast on a buffet of powder, the Japanese serows plow back and forth across the slope in search of vegetation to ruminate.

Once coveted for their waterproof hides, some kamoshikas have evolved to utilize technical outerwear to protect themselves from the elements.

Snowboarder: Sara Niblock

The leafless landscape of the Japanese Alps offers no obvious greens for the serows to feed on, but their abundance across the range suggests that there is a bounty available to those with a little patience. Our own patience has been rewarded, though the fruit we originally hoped to harvest will have to wait for another season.

As we imitate the mountain wildlife, so too do they learn from us. This colony of Japanese macaques observed humans bathing in an onsen and moved in. The same colony has occupied the onsen to this day. As the saying goes… monkey see, monkey do.