4th and final day in Niigata. I decided to make it a GALA day.
I was debating whether to drive to GALA or take the lifts up from where I was staying at the base of Ishiuchi Maruyama. Looking into it, I was happy to see that parking at GALA is free (yay!) and plentiful. So driving past the famous phone booth, I made my way to the GALA parking lot near the base station. Which was full, so I got sent to a secondary lot, at quite some remove from the base station. Fortunately the shuttle bus from there back to the base station was frequent and fast, so not too much time lost there. (Though I will note that the return shuttle to the secondary lot at the end of the day is considerably less frequent, which was a bit annoying.)
Anyway, into the base station, the interior of which looks like the train station that it is, and does not really feel ski-area-like at all. Taking the gondola up brings one to the ski area proper. And what a heaving mass of humanity waited there.
GALA in tres partes divisa est: the Central Area, which starts from the top of the gondola; the Northern Area, which links up with Ishiuchi Maruyama; and the renowned Southern Area, which links up with Yuzawa Kogen via ropeway. My first priority was to get to the Southern Area, so I took the Sociable lift up to the Coach (the lifts at GALA are all named after 19th century horse-drawn carriage types) to the very top of the mountain – where I discovered that the 2.6 Million Dollar Course that links to the Southern Area was closed.
So I worked my way around to the Southern Area via the Batman course, a skating-both-ways cat track connecting the Southern and Central Areas. In the Southern Area, only the Eliza course and the lower half of the 2.6 Million Dollar course were open. As busy as the Central Area was, the Southern Area was almost deserted. Interestingly, the Waggonette chair lift there has some kind of rescue device (wire pulley?) attached to the chairs, which I’ve never seen before.
Visibility was not very good there due to fog, so after trying both runs, I headed back to the Central Area, but didn’t stay there long due to the crowds. The beginner slopes were particularly pullulating, but even the intermediate runs in that area had decent crowds on them. Right, time to head for the North Area.
The North Area is a small bowl, with 3 lifts radiating out from it, and it had relatively better visibility and shelter from wind. One lift leads to where GALA and Ishiuchi Maruyama link up, with a second lift to get back from the meeting point. All beginner runs in that area, with a “beginner’s park” set up where one comes back to the bowl. The kicker in the beginner’s park area was just about my size. Much bigger ones are to be had off the Victoria lift across the bowl, but I didn’t bother embarrassing myself there. The Victoria lift also has the only expert course in the North Area, the mogulicious Super Swan course. The Chariot lift takes one up to the start of the Gezan Course back to the train/gondola base station, with a couple of intermediate carving runs heading back to the bowl.
After a while, the wind shifted to hit the Northern Area more directly, so I decided to head back to the Southern Area, where weather and visibility had improved quite a bit. From here could now be seen Yuzawa Kogen ski area, which is at higher elevation than I had expected. Somehow, from maps, I had thought it was below the Southern Area, but it is actually the same or higher in elevation. Will have to check it out some day.
From the chair lift, the reason for the course closures in the Southern Area could be seen: glide cracks all over the place. Ski patrol could be seen digging around on the closed Bronco Course, presumably assessing avalanche danger. Even worse slippage was visible off-course – definitely not a day (season?) for playing around off-course.
The Eliza course was mostly groomed cruising and carving, with slightly icy conditions. Heading down the 2.6 Million Dollar course from the top of the chair, the first bit has some nice untracked powder to the sides, making for floaty turns until one hits the top of the mogul bahn, which is where I ended up spending most of my time – and finally had a bit of an epiphany.
The first 2-3 runs down the mogul bahn were the same kind of roughly manageable experience as the previous day at Hakkaisan. But the center of the course had the deepest-carved moguls, similar to the ones that had defeated me the day before. The backs were shaved off in cliffs, so there was no chance to do the slide-down-the-back-side trick here. One had to go right for the bottoms of the troughs, and as usual, I quickly gained too much speed, and couldn’t keep myself in the track for long. How do people do this?
Then, just as I was about to give up after one last run, a voice came to me as I was standing at the top of the mogul bahn: “Use the poles, Luke.” What? “Use the poles. That’s what they’re for.” Well, if Alec Guinness was going to offer me personal coaching, I’d forgive him for getting my name wrong. So I tried it and… by golly it worked! Plant, turn and jump, plant, turn and jump… hey Ma, I’m mogulling! Got all the way down without stopping or being thrown out. Shoot, that was fun!
So I went back and did it again. And again. And pretty much just kept hitting that run until it was getting time to start moseying over to the Northern Area and the Gezan Course. Got to the point where my thighs were burning so bad that it was actually more painful to carve than do moguls – I guess because the muscle tension is more constant with carving.
Did a few iterations on the Super Swan mogul course in the Northern Area, then took the Gezan Course -- a long, and by-now painful, cruiser – down to the train/gondola station.
As I mentioned before, the shuttle back to the parking lot in the afternoon is not nearly as regular as the one from the lot in the morning, which made me a bit antsy about getting on the Kan-Etsu before too late. And indeed, the Kan-Etsu showed its true colors, with bumper-to-bumper traffic jams starting from Numata. Fortunately, I could bail out at the Kita Kanto Expressway, so didn’t have endure what Tokyoites would have, but at least an hour was added to my trip home by the Kan-Etsu’s jamming ways.
All in all quite a good day, and I will be forever beholden to the mogul course in the Southern Area for providing the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson in mogul technique.
From 30 December, 2014
Snow condition on visit:
Fresh wet flakes falling on slightly icy packed powder
Things I liked:
Lack of crowds in Southern Area and, to lesser extent, in Northern Area
Things I didn't like:
Crowds in Central Area