Our Review

Our Review

World Nomads Travel Insurance
For general information on Hokkaido Backcountry Club cat skiing, see the Shimamaki Cat Skiing page. Or click here to make an enquiry or to book your cat skiing trip.

Cat Skiing Review

Hanging out in Niseko was fun, but it was so nice to get away from the hubbub with a 2 day adventure to a remote and unique part of Hokkaido. And all that deep powder out cat skiing was a whole different level of fun – our experience was truly amazing and afterwards we were on an amazing powder high (luckily we could feed our powder addiction by reviewing the HBC heli skiing the next day!). If you’re addicted to snorting white powder (the healthy type!), you’ll be in Niseko, and you’ve saved up some yen, then cat skiing with Hokkaido Backcountry Club is a must-do experience.

Despite us having a superb time, it’s our job to review and find any minor little inadequacies in an operation, because no cat skiing company is absolutely perfect for everyone. Our review covers different aspects of the HBC operation and hopefully you can determine if HBC is likely to align with your priorities. As a guide to the ratings below, a 5/5 equates to absolutely outstanding, 4/5 is excellent, whilst 3/5 is still a very good score. You can check out our cat ski ratings to see how Hokkaido Backcountry Club fares against other mechanized backcountry operations.


Snowcat skiing..

..with powder up to your eyeballs...
Portillo
..superb terrain options.

Pros

  • This style of (real) cat skiing is very unique for Japan whereby there is “real” backcountry terrain, not low angle old piste runs at an abandoned has-been ski resort.
  • Whilst the cat skiing is awesome, it’s the addition of the cultural experience of staying in a traditional Japanese pension in an ocean-side location that makes it really special. The drive to Shimamaki along the snow-covered coastline is also rather extraordinary.
  • Trips depart from Niseko, so it’s easy to combine resort skiing/snowboarding with snowcat skiing, and the two experiences provide a complete contrast to each other.
  • The guides are highly experienced and qualified, and the safety protocols are excellent.
  • The Shimamaki region gets absolutely dumped on with snow. Particularly on our first day, the powder was very deep, and we scored face shot after face shot.
Cons
  • Currently the cat skiing terrain isn’t particularly big. Thankfully considering the big snowfalls, the terrain resets frequently so tracked out slopes is not usually a problem. It’s likely that next season, HBC will get a permit to extend the tenure which will increase terrain choice significantly.

Pro or Con Depending On Your Perspective

  • If you love super long runs, you might feel the runs are a little short. The runs are somewhat typical of many USA cat skiing operations, but much shorter than what you’d find with the high profile Canadian cat skiing outfits.
  • A day of cat skiing doesn’t involve a lot of vertical, especially when compared to BC cat skiing, in part due to the travel times required to get up to the first run. Whilst powder hungry experts might be left craving more powder, most will probably be more than satiated by the amount of vertical (or more likely exhausted, fatigued, shattered….!). Once again, the addition of new terrain is likely to change this somewhat.
Powder Snow
Mt Kariba definitely gets coastal snow – you can see the sea from some of the slopes – so the snow was a fraction heavier than what you’d generally get in Central Hokkaido. Of course the upside of the proximity to the sea, is the high snow volumes. HBC haven’t been operating enough seasons to have stats on the average seasonal snowfall, but suffice to say, it snows crap-loads on Mt Kariba. Coastal Hokkaido ski resorts such as Sapporo Kokusai are thought to get about 18-20 metres of snow, which might provide a little bit of an indication of potential snow volumes at Shimamaki. We got to experience the renowned big snowfalls of the region. On our first day, it was unrelentingly puking!

Back onto quality - the snow was a fraction wind affected on the open slopes when we visited. We skied mostly south-facing slopes but they weren’t affected by the sun, probably because there is very little sun during winter, but this could impact snow quality on a rare fine day or during spring. The new terrain that will hopefully open for 2016-17 consists of mostly north-facing lines, which should be absolutely epic!
Overall Terrain
Due to some frustrating Japanese-esque red tape, HBC have not yet been given permission to utilise the full potential of the terrain. When the tenure permissions are extended, the terrain will be absolutely amazing, and the ratings for terrain would definitely increase.

Currently HBC has enough terrain for about 4 days of riding without having to cross old tracks, but thankfully there are pretty regular powder resets. There was no need to “farm” the snow with tight little powder squiggles and we were given full opportunity to spread out on the slope so that everyone got freshies.

On the first day due to the major snow dumpage, the snowcat drop offs were not very high and the average vertical per run was only about 250 metres. We did about 2,000 metres of vertical for the day (6,561 feet). The 2nd day when things fined up a little bit, the runs were longer (375m vertical on average, up to 550m). The highest drop-off was at 1,100 metres; 420 metres short of the elevation of Mt Kariba. Day 2 provided a total of about 3,000 metres (9,800 feet) of vertical. This was probably enough skiing to feed our powder addiction, but this may not be enough for some fit and hungry powder hunters. With respect to comparisons, USA cat skiing operations provide an average of 11,800 feet per day and Canadian cat skiing operations provide 14,600 feet per day, whilst the cat skiing at Weiss (another Hokkaido cat skiing outfit) only offers about 2,500 metres (8,200 feet).

Factors in not getting more vertical included the time required to get up to the 1st run (15 mins from pension to staging area, then 40 minutes to day campground area, and another 20 minutes to the top of the first run), we returned to the campground for lunch (rather than having it in the snowcat on the way to a run), there was very deep snow which would have slowed down the snowcat a little, and we had a slow-ish group who were getting bogged a lot in the super deep powder. Of course if you want to charge at it and score max vertical, you can get together your own group and charter the whole snowcat. (NB The format of the travel day has changed since reviewing the operation).
Alpine Terrain
Much of the current terrain consists of wide open sub-alpine terrain which offers plenty of fun. The slopes we skied weren’t super steep with a maximum gradient of 36 degrees, but pitchy enough to get up speed even in the deep powder.
Tree Skiing
Most of the tree skiing we did was where the slopes started to mellow out a little, and most of the trees were rather widely spaced so there was plenty of room to let it rip. A higher rating would be provided if there were more steeps and some tighter trees to provide greater challenges. When permission is granted, it’s likely that the new north facing terrain will be able to provide this in spades.

Strong Intermediate Terrain


Whilst the Hokkaido Backcountry Club cat skiing terrain is not as mellow as other Japan cat skiing, it’s still reasonably well suited to strong intermediate riders, particularly skiers. Currently the steeper pitches are mostly up in the sub-alpine area where there is space galore to manoeuver (or wipe-out!), and the trees are reasonably mellow and well spaced. However snowboarders will need to have the skills to keep up plenty of speed on the flatter sections near the bottom of runs (whilst concurrently avoiding the trees) considering the likely depth of the powder.

When new terrain is added, it may become a little less ideal for intermediate powder riders.
Advanced Terrain
The terrain is ideal for advanced riders. OK that’s a bit of an understatement because in combination with the bottomless powder, it was incredible fun! With the addition of more terrain variety and more vertical, it would score full marks.
Expert & Extreme Terrain
The current terrain doesn’t provide an abundance of challenge with respect to steeps or tight trees, but that’s not to say that experts won’t have copious fun, especially considering the high likelihood of face shot heaven. We saw a few cornices and pillows to leap off. There may have been more, but it wasn’t something our group (so therefore the lead guide) was really seeking out. It could also be assumed that some of the really interesting terrain features were buried way down deep under the snowpack.
Guiding
As with the HBC heli skiing, the guiding was excellent. The guides were highly qualified and had extensive experience with mechanized backcountry outfits in North America (Canada and Alaska) and South America. We felt in incredibly safe hands. The communication with guests was simple yet very effective, and the interaction and cohesion between the lead and tail guides was very good. The tail guide also ensured that the order of riders was equitable, not that there was really any difficulty in getting freshies when you went last.

English was the first language of all the guides, so unlike some other Japanese cat skiing outfits, you’re not left wondering whether the guide said “wait a tick”, “let it rip” or “cliff”.
Cat
The snowcat and the efficiency of the snowcat roads is also something that is likely to evolve as the company becomes more established. The snowcat was fine, but in comparison to some other snowcat cabins in North America the minor limitations included: side entrance so a little more difficult to get in and out; half the seating was facing backwards so you tended to slip off the seats when going uphill (there was a metal bar in the middle to help but it was slippery with ski boots); no storage so any clothing or drink bottles were just left somewhere on the floor; no ability to open windows (handy to minimise any cat sickness); and no insulation so it limited the conversation a bit. The heater was good and particularly handy for those who’d killed their goggles from all the head plants.
Avalanche Mitigation Strategies
HBC is a member of the Helicat association of Canada and they use the same safety protocols as their BC counterparts. Their attention to safety aspects was really evident during the day, including various methods of snow stability testing. In addition to beacons, HBC provide all guests with a backpack with shovel and probe, unlike some outfits where there might only be one “guest pack”.

As part of some of the strange local regulations placed upon the operator, there is even a Japanese man whose job it is to sit in a warming hut at the campground all day watching the weather (amusing!!).
Safety Briefing
Safety as a priority was also apparent with the comprehensive safety briefing that took 45 minutes. The tutorial included opportunity for guests to practise beacon searches and use their probe and shovel. If the snowcat had better insulation, the guide could have conducted some of the briefing in the snowcat on the way up, which may have resulted in more time for powder!
Frills
This wasn’t luxurious cat skiing, not that anyone cared considering there was awesome powder to be snorted.

On both days we returned down to the campground for lunch, which was a bit cold standing around and it cut into precious powder time, but the upside was that there were porta-loos there no need to visit the “powder room” out in the field. Lunch was nothing particularly fancy but more than adequate: sandwiches; sweet muffins; fresh vegetables; instant powdered soup; instant coffee; trail mix; rock-hard muesli bars; and chocolates. No water or snacks were passed around at other times of the day, but a celebratory beer was provided at the end of the day.

Another included frill was the Niseko accommodation transfers, and the dramatic surf ‘n’ snow landscape along the coastline was not a frill you usually get with cat skiing! Frills not included (that are with some outfits): use of powder skis or snowboards; and photography or video service.
Value for Money
It’s hard to compare value for money on a global scale because firstly it depends on the currency exchange at the time, and because this cat skiing experience is completely inimitable (and it also includes ground transportation).

Nevertheless if we were to try…. the cost of Canadian cat skiing with lodging varies significantly, and HBC cat skiing would sit about middle of the road (with currency at the time of writing), although the amount of vertical is generally less with HBC. HBC costs more than other Japan cat skiing, but then it provides much greater value with respect to the quality of the skiing (not necessarily the quantity).

All in all, it’s hard to put a price on powder happiness – just spend the money!
Accommodation
The accommodation itself was rather simple and the bathrooms shared, but it was delightfully traditional and unique, particularly for those who hadn’t travelled much around rural Japan. We really enjoyed staying there, but if you like luxurious lodgings then you’d better just stay in Niseko (and miss out on all the cat skiing freshies)!

We loved the onsen, with its views of the ocean (if you popped your head up a little bit) and it was definitely unique to have the combined aromas of sulphur and the sea. Dinner was amazing (although I’m never that great at sitting on the floor) and the little courses and dishes just kept coming, many of them with seafood. We washed down the yummy cuisine with beers and sake that we’d bought at the Seicomart. Thankfully breakfast was much more western (and we sat up at tables).


The terrain..

..plenty of powder...
Portillo
..widely spaced trees.

Notes Regarding Review The review is largely based on our experience, but also on discussions with staff, former guests, and information available on their website. Our review has some limitations as it’s not possible to ski every run and in all possible snow and weather conditions. Every guide is somewhat different and we acknowledge that everyone’s experience will be slightly different. The ratings are from our perspective only. The photos and video (coming soon) have not been filmed using professional riders; they aim to show an example of the sort of experience that average people like us would get.

Further Information & Bookings

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