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A Ski Mission to Summit Mount Rishiri

Mary McIntyre has had her eyes on the Japanese island volcano of Rishiri, not far from the country’s epicenter of powder skiing, Hokkaido, for several years. This island, due east of Russia, is exposed to howling winds and severe storms. In The Floating Mountain, from Black Diamond and filmmaker Eliel Hindert, McIntyre and fellow skier Parkin Costain spend two weeks attempting a summit bid and scoring deep turns.

Video Transcript

[BUZZING] [MACHINE WHIRLING] 

SPEAKER 1: OK, so we are heading to Rishiri. I'm expecting-- I don't know. The rest of Japan is just so civilized and built and engineered, and it's like everything is created so that their user experience is very friendly. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

SPEAKER 2: It's been a crazy trip. I can't get over it. I can't believe I'm in Japan. This place is crazy. Every time we would turn a corner in the van, so much snow and so many little things to play on. 

SPEAKER 1: And I'm anticipating that Rishiri will be a little different. 

[MALE SCREAMING] 

First comes the act of getting there. And to do that, we drove north, and north again, and north again still. And where the road ended, the ocean began. And that's when we saw it. Rishirii. Seeing a mountain floating out of the ocean, just hovering above the horizon. It doesn't seem real. 

Of course, we still have to get there. You have to take a ferry to get to it, which was a first for me. But there were only a handful of people on it besides ourselves, and it's really starting to hit me just how isolated and remote island is. We have one objective that we're trying to achieve. The summit. 

On paper, it really looks pretty straightforward. But Mako, our guide, he's kind of making me feel like it might not be as simple as it looks. 

SPEAKER 2: And as we started to work our way there, we got a glimpse of the first lines we might be skiing. 

SPEAKER 1: Arrived in town just before sunset, so we had about an hour to drive around the island, and we're all leaning over and taking photos at every turn in the road. And driving around seeing these little fishing towns under several feet of snow, you realize that they're not just ocean people. They have to deal with the elements of the mountain as well, and everything here just kind of blends into its own unique form of-- I don't know what the right word is. 

God, this side is gnarly. 

SPEAKER 2: We should speed fly it. Definitely. 

SPEAKER 1: So now we're here for the next two weeks, and we'll see what happens. So it's different starting at a trail head that is literally across the street from the ocean. 

[MUSIC - KUINKA - "WOLF & WHISKEY"] Where the woods end, I end faster. Wolf and whiskey, my disaster. burns and turns the midnight oil, I'll sleep when I am fed. I'll sleep when I am fed. All along I break and borrow, all my brothers-- 

SPEAKER 2: The farther we worked our way up this mountain, the more and more possibilities I saw. 

SPEAKER 1: There are these huge cliff faces and couloirs, huge fins of rock sticking straight up with of rime ice coating them. Then, they run 5,000 feet all the way down to the ocean, and that was fine by me. 

[LYRICS] Hey lover, lookin' for a fight, sharpening your claws on the lawless night. Get up, run, get up, run. Grass stains on your hands and your knees, find me a bed in the hollows of the trees. Get up, run, get up, run. 

SPEAKER 2: I couldn't get my eye off the steep couloirs and the jagged cliffs and can't wait to keep going. 

SPEAKER 1: It's really wild terrain. It's much more complex than anywhere else I've seen in Japan. And off of that ridge, there were just so many possibilities of amazing ski lines. 

SPEAKER 2: We kind of got a glimpse of the summit and just decided to make a go for it. 

SPEAKER 1: It seemed like this ridge that we were on connected to it fairly seamlessly. Kind of without saying it, we all just thought, we should probably go for the summit. And that chance did not last. 

Within a few seconds, I went from being able to see Russia to barely being able to see my feet. The clouds came in so thick. We just couldn't see anything. And we're on this kind of knife edge. It's thin. 

So we transitioned in the white out and started really carefully working our way down. 

SPEAKER 2: On the way down, I could not tell where I was going. Really had to stick to where my boot pack was to make sure that I didn't find myself off a cliff. And we got below the cloud deck. We were able to open it up a bit, and the turns just started to kind of remind me what it's all about. 

SPEAKER 1: And realized that that 5,000 foot descent was still ahead of us. Just having a blast in this natural half pipe lava tube that led us all the way back to the ocean. 

[BACKGROUND CHATTER] 

And we poured saki and chatted about life on the island and also about maybe summiting the next day. We were all circling around that and definitely had that in our minds as we were going to bed that night. 

SPEAKER 2: We got word that there was a hut about halfway up the mountain, and we're hoping to base ourselves out of there for the next few days. 

SPEAKER 1: So we were heading up the mountain under pretty gray skies. It's blowing pretty hard and snowing, and the visibility is not great. It's some of the weirdest skinning I've ever done. 

The higher we get, the more ice and snow there is encasing absolutely everything, which makes for these really bizarre, just kind of grotesque shapes. We finally see this little tiny hut emerging out of the clouds in front of us. 

It's not much, and it, too, is absolutely encased in ice. But at this point, all we really need is to get out of this wind, and that's what it'll do for us. It'll provide a little bit of respite from this weather. 

After we settled in, we all stepped outside to watch the sunset. Just being up that high on the mountain as the sun was sinking into the ocean, it was really special but also really cold. I couldn't look at it for more than a few seconds, because my eyes would start freezing in this biting wind. 

SPEAKER 2: Just as the sun dipped down, it was noticeably colder. 

SPEAKER 1: Yeah, we're all just in our own little bubbles. Everyone is just this shadow of themselves. 

SPEAKER 2: We're kind of planning on just punching it for the summer summit tomorrow. Just the weather opportunity is there, and I think it's the right choice. 

SPEAKER 1: Unfortunately, that's not what happened. We're just up in this weird little snow bubble and have no idea what's going on down in the rest of the island. We can't see the wind starting to ripple across the ponds. 

SPEAKER 2: You can't see the waves crashing against the shore. You can't see roofs flying off the houses. 

SPEAKER 1: You can't see the wind whipping across the ridge lines and stripping them of snow. All I can really do in the hut is think about all the things that I want to be doing. I want to be getting ready to head out for the summit. 

It means putting on my harness. It means finding a route up this ridge line. It just means being in the right headspace to make it up there. But the reality is, all I can do is sit in this hut and drink tea. 

It was only after the sun had gone down that we realized it had cleared outside. It was still really cold and so windy, but there was visibility. And that little bit of hope was all we really needed to get our minds spinning in the right direction again. And it seemed like we might actually be able to make a summit bid the next morning. 

But as soon as the first person opened the door, the violence of the wind and just the sheer volume of snow blowing outside-- it was one of the most beautiful moments of the whole trip, but it was also just utterly chaotic. 

[LOUD WIND BLOWING] 

And we'd just sit and wait for the mountains to let you in. And sometimes they don't. 

SUBJECT 3: The waves are splashing. 

SPEAKER 2: Doing things? 

SUBJECT 3: Doing things. 

SPEAKER 1: I think on a trip like this, failure is usually-- I don't know. It's not something you have any control over. We did come here with an objective, but there's so much more to it than just getting to the top. 

SPEAKER 2: We started working our way around the island and found our way into some of the coolest little towns. 

SPEAKER 1: And we met Mr. Jin, who is a third generation boat builder. And Etsuko Eda is making udon and teaching her granddaughter how to do it and carry on their tradition. There's just all these little stories going on in each home that make this place about so much more than getting to the top of the mountain. 

With our one day of good weather left, we decided not to go for the summit and to instead-- 

SPEAKER 2: We followed some locals, and they brought us into this area. 

SPEAKER 1: It's these kind of magical little valleys that there aren't tracks in yet, that no one might have skied all year, because everyone's focused on getting to the summit. 

SPEAKER 2: We worked our way up onto this ridge. We really got a look into the mountain and what it had to offer. 

SPEAKER 1: There was just endless possibilities for skiing, and it was not any of us were expecting. And to have this happen this late in the trip was just-- we have to make the most of this. We have to ski here all day until the sun goes down. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

It was so fun. We had finally put aside this need to get to the top, and we were finally enjoying all these ski runs for what they were, that picking out your next line at the bottom of the current line-- it was just kind of a marathon of how many things we could fit in. 

I looked across and saw Parkin. He was climbing up this random rock fin in the middle of the valley. 

SPEAKER 2: Down in the valley, you looked forward and couloirs on every side. But then right in the middle, there was just this spire that had its own line on it. I couldn't really wrap my head around it, but who needs to do that when you can just go and ski it? 

And on the way up, these sparkles started to fall from the sky. 

SPEAKER 1: It was just-- yeah. I don't know. It was-- it was pretty unreal. 

[WHISTLING] 

SPEAKER 2: That is mighty glorious. Unbelievable. Five, four, three, two, one, drop. 

SPEAKER 1: And before we even knew it, we were back on the ferry, and it seemed like the last two weeks had kind of been a dream. I can see the mountain from the boat, and obviously the cold, bitter wind is still very fresh in my memory. But all I wanted to do was go back. 

[TAPE WINDING] 

Japan