Trying to fit a season’s worth of skiing into a month nearly finishes off Fall-Line’s editor at largeSmiling vacantly into the middle distance, our Jonny’s lights are on but no-one’s at home after a ski-fest too far… | Andrew Hellmich
See that huge load of concrete behind me? God knows why I’m smiling (albeit in the fashion of a wistful M&S catalogue model) because I feel like a giant has me gripped by the shoulders and is relentlessly swinging my lower body into the rock-hard grey matter. That’s what 31 days straight of skiing first bell to last lift does to you… your legs are destroyed!
On paper it all sounded so dreamy and, well, exciting. Fed up with middle age and all the usual work/family demands crowding in (and resigned to never getting a full season in the mountains) I was going to show life who was boss, by cramming a winter’s worth of skiing into January.
The aim was simple. Get beyond 240 hours on snow. With the thinking being that the Japanese seasonnaires I’d got friendly with over previous trips to ever-so-snowy Niseko (where I’d also be based) averaged 60 days a winter, favouring leisurely 10am to 2pm sessions to fit around late-afternoon restaurant opening, and possibly a little too much partying.
Just 10 entire days of skiing (if you’re crazy enough to ski through the day and night). It doesn’t sound much. But while eight hours a day (the target I needed to hit) is great for one week, even better for two, and possible for three (as long as you’re in shape, and lay off the booze), boy were weeks four and beyond a struggle.
The nadir came on day 26 (or possibly day 25 or 27 with my diary notes an exhausted shambles by this time). Wind had closed almost everything in Niseko’s four connected resorts, with yet another huge Siberian storm rolling in, but to keep from refunding tickets, just one pathetic two-man lift was chugging away above the main hub of Hirafu.
My legs were shot. Totally gone. Resistant to all fist bangs, amateur massages and Red Bull gee-ups. The light was failing. And all I really, really wanted was to just go to bed and have a nice nap (a fantasy that came over me more and more as the month passed, and energy levels moved from zero to sub-human). Yet here I was, gobbling sweets in the hope of a sugar boost, lapping an almost flat 300m learner slope, skiing terribly as I was so knackered, and all just to make my hours. It really did feel like some sort of self-inflicted madness.
Then there was the championship cough I just couldn’t shake off. So bad it would wake me in the middle of the night (who knew that was even possible?) or force me to leave the room for minutes on end, as I just couldn’t get the bloody thing to stop. And no amount of industrial-strength lozenges, hot water and honey (I know, I was desperate) or cough inhalers marked with impossible to understand kanji would shift the thing.
All rather embarrassing in a country where even a sniffle gets them grabbing for the surgical mask, and it did make me think: possibly my body is trying to tell me four and a half weeks of consecutive skiing, hiking and touring from 8.30am to 4.30pm (or often 9am to 6pm once I discovered a mountain restaurant with tatami mats laid out so exhausted salary men like me could have a lunchtime nap) is a bit much.
Don’t get me wrong. I look back now and grin. I did it, and it was incredible and memorable in so many ways: the dreamy 15-day period at the start of the trip where it just wouldn’t stop snowing, with over 5m of powder falling in a fortnight (double the amount that fell on Europe’s snowiest spot in the same calendar period); the chopstick-defeating but delicious home-cooked little fishies and rice for breakfast (thanks Michiko) in the guesthouse where I stayed; the loos with their baffling buttons (no, not bidet function again!); the perfect blue sky morning on which I finally nailed my lift strategy and was third in the queue for the hike up Niseko’s mighty peak with its endless sidecountry rips in the shadow of volcanic Yotei (Hokkiado’s answer to Mt Fuji).
The people too were wonderful. China Air hostesses Peng and Jamie who lent me a mini leg-massager (only in Asia!) once I started to look like the living dead into week four; Andrew and the Australians for their endless lighthearted abuse and beer buying (both of which stopped my thighs throbbing quite so badly at night); and longtime Nippon ski pal/translator Travis who pioneered the use of energy jellies, evening sumo watching, and “you’re killing it man!” motivational chat (well, he is North American) to keep me going as we hiked what felt like our 487th ridge line.
In fact, I can’t wait to head back this January, but I think three weeks will be plenty thank you very much. As they say, you can have too much of a good thing, even glorious Japanese powder…