Get it right, and skiing under the lights, or even better just off-piste under the stars, can be the most visceral, incredible, almost spiritual (especially if the snow’s hammering down and the powder deep underfoot) experience. Here’s how, and where, to join The Dark Side… in an entirely positive way!
They simply call it ‘Nighta’. We say maybe the best two-hour session you can have on snow
The routine is always the same. The lights come on late afternoon and shortly afterwards my phone pings with a Line notification (the Asian equivalent of WhatsApp). ‘Jonny man, is it on?’ says the message. And before I can even think to reply, the dots show me another missive is excitedly being bashed out. Because just a few hundred metres below in his slopeside office, my friend Travis is watching the snow fall yet again (it happens a lot in this part of the world) desperate to leave work behind and start hoovering up freshies like some sort of deranged ski Pac-Man.
“Must get pow!” I’m sure his circuits would show if he were a shred-robot, and as we hustle up the steps to the gondola, no time even for a man-hug (that can be done later when we’re safely speeding up the hill) we share just one aim: get as much snow and joy as possible before the lifts shut at 8.30pm.
Had you told me when first visiting Niseko in 2012 that I’d become as excited by the nights as the ever-so-powdery mornings, I’d have thought you’d been on the saki. Sure I’d read stuff saying as much, with a Chris Moran Ski+board feature that recommended a lunchtime snooze (because of the long ski day) sticking in my mind. But I’d tried night skiing in plenty of places from Europe to Eastern America before and found it, well… universally cold, windy and miserable.
No thank you bullet-hard slopes, chattering teeth and shit visibility was my verdict. But once I was dragged out by some new friends from the lodge I was staying at in Niseko’s main base of Hirafu, the scales fell from my eyes and I thought: Holy sodium lighting Batman, this is… INCREDIBLE!
Shin-deep snow, masses of slopes, fast gondolas and chairlifts, few people about, enough high-powered lamps to illuminate half of Hokkaido – I quickly went from pitying those night skiing to shaking my head at everyone heading home as Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Annupuri (the mountain’s four connected resorts) all lit up for the evening shift.
Many more hours, more exploring, and more local friends over the years mean I’ve now got the sneaks and sidecountry-under-the-stars routes so dialled, there really is nowhere I’d rather be.
And when asked the most common question for any ski journalist: Where is your favourite place to ski? My answer’s simple. Niseko under the lights. Lapping Hirafu gondola and Centre 4, having the time (and usually snow) of my life.
Why so good?
Light Forget the masses of artificial light (hung from so many lift towers and pylons), the sky and stars just seem brighter in this part of Japan. Whether it’s only a thing on the island of Hokkaido (less light pollution maybe?) or to do with the aspect, elevation, or how far east it is, who knows? But it means visibility is usually excellent even in the immediate unlit sidecountry and trees. So good in fact, that I don’t even bother with a clear lens – just carrying on with whatever goggle I’ve been wearing all day.
Warm Niseko (like many Japanese resorts) is close to sea level. So a lot lower than most European or US ski spots. Which ensures less whipping, ferociously cold wind, despite it being close to the coast. Yes, it does still blow, but it’s rarely freeze-your-nuts/game-over for night skiing cold, especially as so often come 5 or 6 o’clock the gusts drop away to be replaced by a calm, almost mild evening. And then it so often begins to snow once more (the average here is around 15m a season) and you know it’s game-on for an incredible couple of hours.
Quiet Niseko is far busier than when I started visiting a decade ago. And for those like me, used to starting our day with a relaxed onigiri while waiting for the Family lift to open, never queueing for more than a minute on our way up and up the hill – it can be a little disconcerting. But Nighta, as the locals call it, seems forever to be like the good old days. Few people, amazing slopes like Super and the sidecountry under Hirafu gondola to charge, and usually a good dose of powder.
Five more of the best places to get under lights
1. Keystone, USA
In the day, neighbouring magnifico-steeps-spot Arapahoe Basin gets our vote, but Keystone makes up for it as dusk falls with Colorado’s best night skiing. ‘Adventure After Dark’ the Vail resorts spot says. Running out of the River Run Village area, with a fast chair and gondola, its rolling slopes with plenty of vert were perfect for a GS-style blast when we tried it a few years ago. Ideal for a beer/food/stay afterwards, and operates until 8pm (weekends/holiday season).
2. Stevens Pass, Canada
The picture on the mountain’s website looks mighty fine. More than a bit reminiscent of best-in-class Niseko in terms of scale, scope and, oh that’s-quite-bright brightness. Operations run Wednesday through Sunday as they say in this part of the world, from 4pm to 10pm. When all six night-lifts (including Kehr’s, Tye Mill, Hogsback, Brooks and Skyline) are open/pumping, you can conquer much of the frontside – rather super.
3. Söll, Austria
Austria must be the world capital of night skiing, with the Tirol alone boasting a whopping 20-plus options. Soll, part of the probably-easier-to-ski-than-say SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser Brixental claims the country’s biggest after-dark operation with 10km of illuminated pistes, and slopes open Wednesday to Saturday inclusive until 10.30pm. Not one but two gondolas and a six-person high-speed too, plus bars/huts and live music on Fridays.
4. Mt Hood Skibowl, USA
Mt Hood’s five resorts offer masses of night skiing. Skibowl is the biggest evening-ski-op in America (36 lit runs) with more soul than a dozen mega-resorts. ‘Get your tail up here’ locals say. ‘Proud to provide you with one of the longest ski days’ confirm the not-far-from-Portland spot, adding they have ‘the most lit black diamond runs in Oregon’. We say rip it to 10pm, then repair to Beer Stube for refreshment.
5. La Clusaz, France
King Candide’s home territory keeps ski slopes on the Crêt Du Merle open until 9pm on Tuesdays. But even if this night-noodling is eaten by the energy-cost crisis (fingers crossed everything mentioned here survives) far more exciting is their long-running monthly full moon shred session. Same high-speed six-person lift, same perfect spot above town, and skiing until… 1am (yes, that’s why it’s in this list!). Fall-Line visits in January and will report back on music, mysticism and, er, moguls.