John Frostell - Niseko 2016

Late January 2016 saw me take (admittedly) not my first trip to ski in Hokkaido, Japan. With a fortunate confluence of business opportunities and my love of snow sports, I have travelled to a number of stellar locations around this large island to click into telemark bindings and free-heel my way through some of the best snow and mountain conditions provided by this good planet of ours – mostly on-piste, but with some back/side country thrown in as well. This time, the popular setting of Niseko was doing the calling!

I have travelled to ski solo plenty of times, but on this occasion a gang of boys was formed with my friend James and two of his sons, along with my own two. And between the six of us we had plenty of time to try on and test an array of Wilderness Wear outdoor clothing product. Yep, that’s part of the ‘opportunities’ I mentioned – being a consultant designer for the company and sitting close to the action in terms of product development and marketing, it only makes sense to take it all into the field.

First up, it has to be said that the clothing set-up for snow activity in Niseko and elsewhere in Hokkaido is critical – for comfort in-bounds, and for survival out-of-bounds. Most days in ‘powder’ season are cold, overcast and precipitating – that’s what brings on the treasured white stuff. Often the temps are at or well south of -15˚C and any flaws in the clothing set-up can be devastating. And sometimes it takes a few shots at matching wardrobe with location to get it right – but after a few seasons there I have developed a decent feel for it all, I think, even given my wont for low-bulk layers with non-thermal shell outers.

Prompted by the accidental omission of my usual 170 Merino base-layer crew neck top, I ran with a Compression Merino 200 as my next-to-skin layer instead. This turned out a great way to go – quick to warm, ready to disburse moisture and giving a contained feeling against the body without the sense of restriction that other sports compression clothing can often give. Seven days straight with this one, with a hand-wash and overnight dry in the middle of it.

Next over was an updated version of an old favourite: 195 Merino Mid zip-neck top (in black, to keep up the Johnny Cash look). This one has thumb holes, which I actually never use, and a better zip than previous. Other than that, it’s as good as it ever was, even with some slight improvements to the shape and profile.

My controlling layer was alternated day-by-day between an old light-weight fleece from Black Diamond and the new Wilderness Wear MerinoFusion 190 crew neck top. The latter, being a 50/50 woven mix of pure Australian Merino wool and ultra-fine Schoeller polypropylene, was a true winner in the layering configuration due to its thermal qualities and low bulk – perfect for the start-stop nature of inbound skiing in general, and the free mobility needed for telemark in particular. And the kicker with this garment is the smart look of the high-tech fibre and the design of shaping and stitching – it’s quite ok to head straight off the mountain and into a bar, restaurant or meeting – yes, I was working! – and not come across as ‘dirt bag’ when it counted!

The exception to the three layer plus shell upper body set-up was the last day. It was a blue bird day and the peak was calling, so the next-to-outer layer was stripped. Access to the peak of Mt An’nupuri is only given when conditions are optimum, so when those gates are announced as ‘open’ there’s nothing to do but gain the altitude. A single chair (‘parrot’) is the last lift to the gate and from there a 20-minute hike straight up opens to a 360˚ panorama of options downward – some ending up at lift bases while others earn a hefty walk out to terra firma. The combination of aerobic activity and sunshine meant that jacket zippers were down as we too stock at the launch point on the peak, but pretty soon it was back to business as we ran down in a NE direction towards Hanazono. The first 800m was above trees and contained fabulous lines of untracked cover – perfect for long carving turns with knees lowering. Then we met the trees and gullies which actually contained deeper snow due to the effects of wind, gravity and general snow settling, before coming out on a cat track that provided an 800m walk back up to the resort boundaries. We were pretty much steaming by the time that was finished, though! And here comes the plug for my Black Diamond backcountry pack – just the right volume for day outings; pockets and pouches where you need them for water, skins, shovel etc.; and well-designed side straps for hitching skis when hoofing is the best to negotiate the terrain.

Lower half body cover each day was provided by a pair of 260 Merino Max leggings that have been in service for many years now – almost only ever taken out of the kit bag for Japan trips. And beneath these a pair of Wilderness Wear 195 short leggings masquerading as underpants. Pretty indulgent, really, but hey …

The secret weapon in amongst this set-up is the (supposedly) very last pair of dedicated ski socks that Wilderness Wear produced some years back. Plush, sturdy, warming, supportive, contoured, well-formed and stable – these babies tick all the boxes, to the point that they should be reintroduced to the product line-up. Hint, hint.

Outer layers are a Marmot soft-shell jacket and pants set along with a pair of Marmot ‘Randonee’ gloves. Bomber gear.

16-year old Jasper boarded with a pair of Wilderness Wear ‘camo’ designed Razorback socks and an early prototype for the Compression Merino 200 garments that is slightly long in the body – perfect for boarding – and features a very smart looking and snug feeling honeycomb texture. Seven days straight for that one, without a wash, and there were no alerts given by the Customs’ sniffer dogs back in Australia. Then he sported a set of Merino Mid base layers, top and leggings, in 195 weight to complete that cover.

James was a mobile advertisement for the first edition Merino full-zip jacket – he has had one since they were released some years ago. Originally named the Neptune jacket weighted at 390 gsm, and now going by the name Middo, he was wearing his on the plane, out and about in Tokyo, travelling on the coaches between Niseko and Chitose, or otherwise just around the village and apartment.

He also wore it most days as the ‘business’ layer while skiing, right under his parka, even though the weight of the garment would otherwise say that’s not what it was designed for. James clearly did too much gym work leading into the trip and could easily carry the additional grammage!

Young Lukas, 14-year old skier and snow play expert, had it going on with two new pairs of children’s sized Kosciusko Hiker socks. Upon slipping them on for the first time he exclaimed, ‘These feel fantastic’ and they became a key part of his outfit for the 13 days away – pretty much only coming off for showering and sleeping.

And there was plenty of other miscellaneous Wilderness Wear gear in all of our kit bags, including the new Black Merino Fleece ™ socks which provided the perfect ‘après’ experience for our feet. But it was the humble PolyPro+ balaclava that deserves special mention. These items are simple – and they have to be – but the fact that the material is so perfect allows them to work well: They are light, snug fitted, warming, and sufficiently stable that there is no pilling to bring unwanted material into the mouth.

The overriding factor with all of these clothing items, which are purposely designed for technical use, is their quality. This quality becomes completely apparent in the selection of fibres and fabric, the way the items are designed for outdoor activity in diverse climates and weather, and shows a technological underpinning that really completes the product offering. And if you like your gear coming from an Australian owned company and completely manufactured in Australia as well, then it’s the complete package.

John Frostell