Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A state of confusion, to keep you all Gassan

I really struggled for a title on this occasion.

My computer arrived yesterday, so I am once again in the fast lane of the information superhighway, as people haven't called it since about 1997. Not a moment too soon! Now follows the story of my weekend, which I was going to tell you before got stuck in a rant about driving licences.

Supply and demand are fickle mistresses. From January to March, if one wants to partake in snowsports in Yamagata, one is spoilt for choice. Little ski areas are scattered throughout the mountainous prefecture, and of course the grandaddy of them all is Zao, where 4,800 yen buys you access to 42 lifts, and not a surface lift among them. One would not dream of paying 4,600 yen to go to a resort with a single, slow chairlift. Yet that is exactly what I did yesterday.

I went to Mount Gassan (literally, 'moon mountain'), a resort which claims to have the latest season in Japan. The area collects such a quantity of snow that it is inaccessible until April, and typically remains open until late July. Though it is an underwhelming ski area in every other respect, this temporal offset earns it a certain fame around these parts. Having heard so much about it, I decided I had to experience summer boarding for myself.

Feeling flush, I took the toll road there. Initially, these expressways intimidated me in my little Suzuki, but now I like them. It's a good system - if getting somewhere fast is important to you, you can pay for it; this charge deters all the old farmers that clog up the regular roads in their kei-trucks. I hear that the current (socialist) government plans to abolish the tolls - a plan which, should it come to fruition, would cause me to curse the new Prime Minister Kan's name at the top of my lungs, like this.

My initial impressions of Gassan were not good. For a start, I had to walk almost a kilometer from my car to get to the chairlift. The altitude did little to reduce the heat; I was walking uphill, carrying my board and wearing boarding gear, at a temperature somewhere in the low twenties, and was consequently sweating rivers. Finally reaching my destination, my heart sank to see a lengthy queue snaking back from the lift. When I finally got up, I decided to head for the two drag lifts. At one of these, I was told that I couldn't use it without paying extra, which seemed outrageous considering the over-the-odds amount I'd already handed over. I suspect this may have been the case at the other one too, but that the guy there was just less on the ball about checking tickets.

As the draglifts didn't seem to unlock any particularly juicy terrain, I decided that they could stick their T-bars, and I headed for the run served by the chairlift. I found that snowboarding in summer presents a number of unique challenges, which I shall present in one of my beloved bulleted lists.
  • Moguls. Obviously no fresh snow is falling, and I have my doubts that this two-bit operation even owned any piste bashers. Thus skiers create moguls and they just keep stacking up. While it is possible to ride moguls on a board, it is no fun at all. To be honest, I can't really see how it's fun on skis either. So I had to take some pretty creative lines to avoid these killing fields.
  • Heat. One ends up having to make an uneasy compromise between safety and comfort. After a brief experiment with just a T-shirt (specifically, my bright red School of Informatics T-shirt) on my torso, I gave in and put on my jacket (waterproof outer only, naturally) - snow on bare skin hurts. However, there was no way I was wearing my helmet.
  • Snow. The snow was very soft and melty, as one might expect. Now, I've been known to quite enjoy spring snow, but the stickiness of this stuff in places was getting a little silly. Still, I'll take it over ice any day.
  • Insects. I'm convinced they were more attracted to my gaijin sweat than anyone else's on the mountain.
So all in all, not great. But I persevered and things got a little better. The crowds really thinned out later in the day - maybe other people got sick of the queueing and threw in the towel, or maybe Gassan's limited terrain means people typically just go for a few hours. By the afternoon I had scoped out the best spots and figured out a couple of good lines. From the chairlift one could easily access a steep-sided valley that reminded me quite strongly of the Coire na Ciste / West Wall at Cairngorm, and for some reason most of the skiers were leaving it alone in favour of traversing over to Mogul Hell. Some guys had also built one of the most violently kicky kickers I've ever ridden, but I managed to keep it together and land an indy off it first time, garnering whoops of praise.

So, I'm glad I've now been to the legendary Gassan, but I can't really recommend it. Saying that, when I think of some of the other desperate measures I've taken to get my boarding fix during the summer - riding the hexagons of pain at Hillend, or paying 35 quid for four hours in a cold warehouse outside Glasgow - Gassan doesn't seem quite so insane. Bring on the winter!


  1. The only tune based suggestion for a better title that I can come up with is Classical Gas-son. Dad

  2. Not bad, but not good enough for a rename. Denied!