Our Heli Skiing Review

For general information on Hokkaido Backcountry Club heli skiing, see the Shiribetsu Heli Skiing page or click here to make a heli ski booking.

Hokkaido Backcountry Heli Skiing Review

The weather gods could not have been kinder to us when we reviewed the Hokkaido Backcountry Club heli skiing. Two days earlier out cat skiing with HBC, it had been absolutely puking with snow, whilst the bluebird day we scored for heli skiing was one out of the bag. We had the most phenomenal day out heli skiing with Hokkaido Backcountry Club. It was the last day of our 2 month Japan skiing research odyssey, and what a finale!!

Despite us having a superb time, it’s our job to review and find any minor little inadequacies in an operation, because no heli 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 heli ski ratings and cat ski ratings to see how Hokkaido Backcountry Club fares against some other mechanized backcountry operations.


Lovely Hokkaido powder...

..amazing terrain...

..Yotei in the background.

Pros

  • This style of (real) heli skiing is very unique for Japan.
  • The proximity of the heli skiing to Niseko and Rusutsu is a huge plus so that your Hokkaido trip can include a mix of resort skiing and heli skiing.
  • The guides are highly experienced and qualified, and the safety protocols are excellent.
  • There is a very low guest to guide ratio.
  • The area is renowned for fabulous snow quality and quantity.
  • Whilst Hokkaido generally has the reputation of being deep not steep, this is not the case with Mt Shiribetsu – it’s definitely pitchy!
  • The 360 degree views on a fine day are pretty impressive across to Rusutsu, Lake Toya, the Sea of Japan, and to the imposing Mt Yotei. It’s just that there might not be that many fine days ….
Cons
  • Akin to Alaskan heli skiing, abundant snowfall and lots of foul weather go hand in hand. Weather windows to fly the helicopter are generally not that frequent or long in the peak of winter. Thankfully unlike Alaska heli skiing, you don’t have to sit around playing cards when the heli can’t fly.
  • The terrain isn’t huge and sometimes it’s shared with a handful of ski tourers. Fortunately powder resets are very common.
  • If you’re into heli skiing from a secluded backcountry lodge in a remote location, you might need to go to BC Canada for that.


Powder Snow
It’s well known that it snows A LOT in this part of Hokkaido. HBC hasn’t been operating enough seasons to have stats on the average snowfall, but let’s just call it massive amounts! It’s also well accepted that Hokkaido has awesome powder, so it’s no surprise that HBC were keen to set up a heli ski outfit in the path of the chilly Siberian weather patterns.

The top elevation at about 1,100 metres isn’t too dissimilar to some of the nearby resorts, and a little lower than some of the Central Hokkaido resorts. However with such cold weather patterns hitting the area, this sort of elevation wouldn’t usually pose a problem with respect to snow quality.

As to be expected, the snow quality varied somewhat between the many different aspects of the 360 degree mountain. The south facing slopes were soft and got a fraction too sunny by lunch time, although this probably wouldn’t be too much of a problem because it’s not sunny that often! Meanwhile over on the north facing slopes, the powder was absolutely delicious. It was amazing to ski such lovely powder and it was also fabulous to watch a snowboarder coming down the mountain leaving jet streams of cold smoke in his wake!
Overall Terrain
Don’t be disheartened by the score, because the volcanic cone terrain of Shiribetsu is mostly fabulous. Steep open spaces, naturally gladed trees – it’s a powder hound’s paradise. The terrain only loses points because it’s not particularly large, especially when you compare it to the hundreds of thousands of hectares that some of the Canadian heli ski outfits have.

The smaller size results in less terrain variation potential if you want to do multiple days of heli skiing, but a greater consideration is the number of freshies on offer. After a handful of days without fresh snow, the slopes could become somewhat tracked and terrain choice more limited. Ski tourers and split-boarders can readily access the area too, so this has the potential to put a few more tracks in the mountain. Of course, the time between snow storms is rarely very long in the Rusutsu/Niseko area, so resets occur frequently.

Another small limitation is the rather long mellow run-outs to the road or heli LZ.

We scored more turns than the advertised vertical, with an average of 800 metres per run (range 640 – 890 m).
Alpine Terrain
The mountain doesn’t really have “alpine” terrain per se, more like sub-alpine. Towards the top are a few trees attempting to become snow ghosts, and a smattering of other trees, leaving some deliciously steep open terrain, tempting cornices and the odd spine-ish ridge. The sub-alpine doesn’t last long before it gives way to the treeline, so it may be short but it’s very sweet.
Tree Skiing
Shiribetsu has amazing terrain for tree skiing. Mostly it consists of well spaced birch trees, with the trees only becoming tighter towards the bottom where it mellows out a lot. It would score full marks it there were some steep tight trees to increase the terrain variety, but really, you could never complain about all those amazing powder turns!

Strong Intermediate Terrain


Strong intermediates with off-piste experience and without a fear of steeps should cope because the higher gradient pitches at the top are wide open and don’t require much technical ability. However for snowboarders in particular, the tight mellow trees at the base require a little skill because you have to keep up a lot of speed on the flats whilst simultaneously avoiding the trees.
Advanced Terrain
Woo hoo! The terrain has lots of amazing ingredients to make it the ideal playground for advanced riders.
Expert & Extreme Terrain
Somewhat unique for Hokkaido (and Japan for that matter), Shiribetsu is rather steep. On one run we hit 46 degrees. There’s nothing super gnarly, but it will keep experts pretty happy. When stability is good, there are some cornices for leaping and the occasional rock feature, but unfortunately (or fortunately) most of the rock features for extreme riders are buried under the deep snowpack. There are generally a few small powder lumps and bumps if you’re keen for some air time.
Guiding
The guides are highly qualified and have extensive experience with heliski guiding in North America (Canada and Alaska) and South America. We felt in incredibly safe hands.

The guest to guide ratio was very low compared to most heli operators (which further enhanced safety), and we sometimes skied with another group so that we had a tail guide. The communication between the guides was well coordinated, and the instructions to guests were very clear and specific. They were fabulous really!
Heli
The use of the helicopter should evolve over time when HBC is able to obtain a permit for a basket on the side of the heli. Most helicopters are rather squishy but this one felt “Japanese-sized”, probably due to the need to put all the skis and snowboards inside the heli along with 4 passengers. The upside was that there was no passenger sitting in the front of the heli so the amazing views were unimpeded (and it kept the guest to guide ratio low).

Use of the helicopter should also improve as HBS obtains permits for more LZs. The helicopter picked us up from the base of some of the northern aspect runs, but we skied down to the road for the south facing lines and were picked up in a van to get back to the restaurant/heli staging area. There was something pretty cool about skiing down to the road, but using the van reduced the efficiency of the day somewhat.
Avalanche Mitigation Strategies
HBC follow HeliCat Canada avalanche safety procedures and this was evident in all aspects of the experience. A snow safety team was sent out in the morning to evaluate the snowpack, and additional snowpits were dug during the day. All guests were provided with a beacon and backpack with shovel and probe.

HBC heli skiing has some additional safety aspects relating to the helicopter, some of which are mandated by Japanese-isms! Firstly the heli landings are incredibly safe because they are completely flat – there are no gnarly knife-edge ridges for the heli to teeter on like you find with most heli skiing outfits. A Japanese guy is required to stand at the top of the mountain (and at the main base) all day to assist in guiding the heli in to land. We were waiting for a little bow from these men in true Japanese style, but it never arrived!
Safety Briefing
A comprehensive briefing (for a day operator) was provided regarding safety in the backcountry, what to do in the event of an avalanche, and use of the safety equipment which included practical application.
Frills
After being transported from our Niseko accommodation to the Mt Potato restaurant (the base of operations), we were provided with a nice coffee (which can be hard to find in Japan) whilst the guides did a good job of outlining what to expect of the day. The restaurant was rather quaint, it felt delightfully Japanese and afforded views so we could salivate over the terrain we’d be skiing that day. One bottle of water and a few snacks were provided for us to put in our backpack.

It was very nice to come back to the restaurant for lunch and sit down in comfort (and use the restrooms). Lunch was a 3-course affair and included soup, a substantial main course of chicken, and cake to top it off. At the end of the day we returned to the restaurant where we could purchase beers.

No other frills were included as part of the package.
Value for Money
You’d expect to pay a lot of yen for what could potentially be one of the best days of your life! In addition to all that quality powder and a decent amount of vertical, you get a very small guest to guide ratio, and you also have to pay for the “privilege” of having the additional staff to fulfill the safety aspects mandated by the local government (!!).

It’s difficult to compare value for money to other Japanese heliski outfits considering this is one-of-a-kind. To rate value on an international scale, it really comes down to the currency exchange at the time. Compared to a similar day heli ski operator in continental USA, HBC heli skiing was 85% of the cost (at the time of writing this review) whilst providing almost double the amount of vertical. Meanwhile HBC cost about 20% more than a comparable Canadian day heli ski operator.


The ultimate ski lift...

..Shiribetsu terrain...

..easy flat landings on top.

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 Powderhounds video 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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