Japan’s First Heli and Cat Op Takes Flight

The HBC heli landing on Shiribetsu-Dake with Mt. Yotei in the background.

UPDATE: The Hokkaido Backcountry Club has been awarded “World’s Best Heli Ski Operator” at the 2016 World Ski Awards in Kitzbuhel, Austria, Nov. 19, 2016

Deep inside a secret government facility in Tokyo is a master list of things that shouldn’t happen in the pristine wilderness of Japan. Things like being excessively loud and boisterous, ignoring venerated local customs, and disrupting the ancient ideal of “wa,” or group harmony.

That’s why the sport of heli skiing – or paying a crap load of money to ride in a loud, cantankerous machine to the top of a mountain before skiing down – is so absurd, because it basically ticks all those boxes.

You see, Japan is a place of ancient traditions and sure bets. Young people must defer to their elders. Businessmen spend months getting acquainted over cheap drinks and karaoke before inking a deal. Individual honor takes a lifetime to build. Rapid change is never welcome.

Beyond the cultural challenges, Hokkaido’s weather and politics are problems for heli ski operators too. Storm clouds bring constant blizzards and bad visibility, the conservative government presses forth omnipresent regulation, and the townsfolk shoot laser beams of unrelenting scrutiny at anything and everything noisy and gaijin (foreign).

And while foreigners have obviously changed the Niseko bubble, they’ve also brought a a constant stream of tourists eager to pay for Japan’s untouched powder snow.

Enter Dragon Helicopter and Hokkaido Backcountry Club.  Just three seasons ago, the startup companies partnered to bring heli skiing to the nearby Shiribetsu-Dake volcano. That’s also when I partnered with HBC owner/operator Clayton Kernaghan to promote the business and create a Kickstarter project.

HBC lead guide Peter Leh making powder turns on the east face of Shiribetsu-Dake

6,227′ Mt. Yotei as seen from the Shiribetsu-Dake volcano.

Guide Jakub Doubic rips a big, spring turn on soft snow while heli skiing on Shiribetsu – Photo: Matt Standal

The Dragon heli flies over beautiful Japanese blue skies – Photo: Matt Standal

What happened next was a period meant to prove to the Japanese ministry of forests that heli skiing coould happen safely in Hokkaido. Two seasons of accident-free operation have now passed, and a third is underway.

February 20, 2016 marked the first day of HBC’s third heli ski season. The day was significant in four major ways.

First, the company can now officially use the term “heli skiing” without ambiguity due to obtaining a commercial aviation license. All helicopter accessed skiing before this point was legally undertaken as a “club” activity.

Second, HBC now has two helicopters, a smaller Robinson R44 and a larger Eurocopter AStar B, meant to bring up to 10 heli skiers to the mountain per day.

Third, the Hokkaido Backcountry Club now operates Japan’s first government-approved snowcat program on big mountain terrain. There is no other company in Japan that operates both snowcats and helicopters for backcountry skiing. You can see video documenting the first steps of these programs below.

It’s certainly possible the Japanese government doesn’t want more skiers and snowboarders in the backcountry. It’s entirely probable that backcountry purists, stalwart environmental activists, and locals who fear change don’t want mechanized skiing to happen here.

However, fed by growing markets in southeast Asia, Europe, and Oceania, the price of backcountry access is rapidly increasing in northern Japan, and the payout for those able to deliver powder snow is growing ever higher as well.