Aaron Rolph´s Fire and Ice - Skiing Japan’s Active Volcanoes

Climbing and skiing volcanoes has always felt very special to me, it offers a deeply physical interaction with mountains that protrude right out of nothing and their very existence tells a story

from over one-hundred thousand years ago. In Japan, many of these volcanoes are still alive, expelling huge plumes of volcanic gasses and there is always a very small chance of an

unexpected eruption. These mountains are still writing their story and we had a chance to see this up close while putting down tracks on their steep faces.

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island, world famous for bottomless powder skiing and slopeside ramen that will keep you warm in the consistently freezing temperatures. Away from

the popular ski resorts that bring countless international tourists flocking, there are also 31 active volcanoes and the opportunity to explore remote areas far away from the crowds with

some spectacular ski terrain. Disclaimer however, these standalone peaks offering alpine style terrain come with a serious weather warning. High winds and temperatures well below -25 are

the norm, conditions can be notoriously fickle and getting great snow once you’ve climbed the mountain can be a challenge in and of itself.

So with this in mind, we headed to the highest peak on the island which stands above the forested off-piste mecca that shares its name - Asahi-dake. After a few days of avid weather

watching, we saw a chance for a window so we headed to the hut for an overnight, meaning we could get an early start in the morning. One of the coldest night’s sleep I’ve had but we were in

good spirits setting off the clouds rolling in and out, eventually revealing a vast crater that looked sheltered enough to hold good snow. After a few hours of hard work, we reach the summit in

brutal conditions reportedly -34 with wind chill, but only to find the clouds rolling in and not out again. We’re forced to circumnavigate the volcano crater in a complete white-out that offered

only a few meters of visibility, the sort of conditions where telling which way was up or down became difficult. We’re dealt our first hand and hard lesson of volcano skiing in Hokkaido and

our dreams of pow slashing turns becomes survival skiing on steep and icy slopes navigating to the trees which finally add some protection. The take home? You have to roll the dice a few

times before you hit a 6 but we’re back in one piece and successfully skied the highest peak. Hoping for a little more success, we headed to Daisetsuzan National Park, a long chain of

volcanoes with plenty of aspects to work with. We finally got a decent weather window as it appeared these mountains offered a distinctly different microclimate from the surrounding area.

The following days it all came together and we skied multiple lines off Mount Tokachi and Mount Furano scoring all you can eat powder and the terrain was truly awesome. There were steep

couloirs, powdery spines and the skiing through numerous fumaroles where the sulfur rich gas pours into the atmosphere was an awe-inspiring reminder of how cool skiing in this place really

was. One big day after another, we skied until the last rays of sunshine disappeared behind the vast peaks, enjoying endless alpenglow in the evenings with the must-do onsen experience

(traditional japanese hot springs).

With an isolated storm rolling in towards the west, we packed up and headed towards Mount Yotei, a mega-classic that strong skiers living in the nearby Niseko resort aspire to. I was

skeptical as this stratovolcano has little protection but the prevailing winds were coming in hard only from one side, so headed up the 1500m ascent route up the south east side of this iconic

mountain that boasts the most archetypal volcano cone shape you could imagine. We make good progress up the face and unusually, the weather is following the forecast, starting to clear

early afternoon revealing incredible views all the way to the ocean. Switching to an physsical boot pack, the snow seems predictably variable but after a quick summit snap, we’re amazed by

how good the skiing is. We rip almost non-stop right down the face of the volcano which feels never ending and with some careful line choices, manage to find soft snow all the way back

down. What a way to finish an incredible trip exploring these beautiful remote volcanoes. Japan has some incredible culturally rich experiences on offer and with never ending top-ups of cold

blower pow, I can’t recommend it highly enough. For the adventurous traveler however, be sure to get away from the crowds and ski in some of these wild and remote places.


Peaks ski toured include:

Asahi-dake (2291m)

Mount Biei (2,052m)

Mount Furano (1912m)

Mount Tokachi (2077m)

Mount Yōtei (1898m)

Aaron Rolph is a HEAD skier and photographer based in the Alps. He founded the British Adventure Collective and specialises in human-powered ski expeditions all over the world.




Words by @aaronrolph

Images shot by @aaronrolph & @mauri_marassi