Niseko’s off-piste and backcountry skiing is fairly safe compared to other resorts around the world. However, as is the case wherever you venture, there is always a danger of avalanches. Before you head out you must be aware of the conditions, check up on warnings sign-posted in the resorts or online and always carry the necessary emergency and safety equipment. It is also recommended that you never ride alone, regardless of your experience.
Although avalanches can occur at any time, in Japan whole-slab avalanches are the most common, occurring in the spring season when temperatures stay above freezing for consecutive days causing free moving water in the snowpack that creates an instability. Examples of spring avalanches from previous years in Niseko are shown below:
Yu No Sawa and Haru No Taki, two areas in Niseko were made strictly off-limits in 2000 due to high avalanche risk that caused many incidents over the years, including a number of deaths. In 1998, before the area was deemed too unsafe to ski, 5 people were buried by an earthquake, one of whom was killed. Most recently, in 2017, Samuel Kerr was killed by an avalanche measuring 200 meters wide and 350 meters long whilst snowboarding in Haru No Taki with his friends.
As a means of deterring skiers from these areas and keep the skiing community safe, a set of Niseko Rules and guidelines have been established. If caught disobeying the rules, you risk having your lift pass confiscated.
- Strictly NO ENTRY at ANY TIME for ANY REASON. Haru no Taki and Yu no Sawa areas are out of bounds.
- Crossing boundary ropes and leaving is strictly prohibited. Use the gates at the ski areas, a total of 11 gates are installed throughout the ski resorts.
- There is no safety control or patrols outside the ski areas. When you are leaving these areas, do so at your own risk.
- Do not attempt to leave the ski area when the gate is closed. If it is thought there is danger, the gates will be closed.
- Daily NISEKO AVALANCHE INFORMATION is OFFICIAL Niseko Rules information. This information is posted on the internet, lift stops, backcountry gates, etc.
- Search and Rescue efforts WILL BE CHARGED for incidents outside resort boundaries. All expenses brought about by search and rescue outside the ski area will be charged – ¥100,000 minimum
- Obey Ski patrol’s instructions at all times. For all users both in and out of the ski resort, please follow the instructions of the Ski Patrol.
- Children under 12 must refrain from going out of bounds unless accompanied by a proficient adult leader. Do not forget the companion system, not only for children but for all.
- Niseko Resorts, and the local community respect the freedom of mountain users and place a strong emphasis on THE SAFETY USAGE of the mountain. We hope that all will be able to enjoy Niseko safely.
There have also been several recorded incidents on Mt Yotei opposite the Niseko resort; in 1995 a Canadian who climbed it on his own was killed by an avalanche. There was even a death this season, on the 10th of February, after a 30-yr old man was caught in an avalanche, again touring on his own.
If you are going to ski the Niseko backcountry, do so through one of the 9 gates that give you access to a range of off-piste terrain and will be open if the resort deems it safe enough to enter; given you have read the daily Avalanche Information and have the necessary working safety equipment.
The image shows the gates and the two strictly off-limit areas: