There’s a saying, erroneously attributed to Horace Greeley, that posits the West as the land of all opportunity and good things, a place of beauty and freedom, where wealth comes easily with a bit of gumption and hard work. But while the origins of “head west, young man” are shrouded in mystery and unlikely to have been uttered by Greeley, it’s a piece of advice that Jeff Robertson took to heart.
If you’re going to head west from Maine, it’s likely that at some point you’ll end up in Colorado. And if you keep heading west, you’ll cross the empty, rugged spaces of Nevada and run up against the Pacific. And farther west still, you’ll perhaps find yourself in Japan. And it’s here, in a small ski area near a small town called Furano, that I find myself following Jeff Robertson, a former Boulder resident and University of Colorado grad, through a perfectly spaced forest of white birch as we ski knee-deep powder down an untouched face.
Robertson has fetched up in Japan because he’s been heading west all his life. Colorado was supposed to be the end of the line, a place to put down roots and to raise a family, but it didn’t exactly turn out that way for the CU graduate (class of 2004) and fanatic skier who came to the Centennial State for the snow, but continued on, across the Pacific Ocean to a place he claims has the best snow in the world.
“It was the snow that took me out of Maine,” Robertson admits of the journey that led him to Boulder, but then even farther afield to the Land of the Rising Sun. “I got introduced to skiing from a family member when I was young and something just clicked inside of me.”
Inspired by an advertisement in the back of seminal skiing title Powder Magazine, Robertson made the move west with some skiing buddies. The ad, for Colorado Mountain College (CMC), took them to Steamboat, where he took classes in the school’s ski business management program and chased powder days before transferring to CU to continue his business studies after obtaining an associate degree from CMC.
It was a move that would transform his life.
“It was awesome,” recalls Robertson of his relocation to the Front Range, and his enrollment in CU in the fall of 1999. “It was an incredible learning experience and it opened up the door to a whole new world.”
One key to this was that Boulder at the time was — like today — an epicenter of the ski industry. The town, home to top-tier ski industry media brands such as Warren Miller Productions, Ski and Skiing magazines, also harbored a wide variety of other companies related to the industry, such as Spyder apparel. In addition to these heavyweights, young and innovative action sports startups were thriving.
One of these was Fate Clothing. While Fate is now defunct, at the time it was one of the first outerwear brands to embrace mogul and freestyle skiing and also one of the first to design and market freeride-specific outerwear. Robertson started working for the company and thrived.
“I think a big part [of who I am now] was being around all the athletes, and the industry,” says Robertson of Boulder’s profound influence on his life. “The kids on the freestyle team or on the U.S. Ski Team that I had met in Steamboat were all going to CU and with the industry being as strong as it was in Boulder, and with all the ski magazines being there, it was a great launch platform for me as an athlete and also to get involved in the culture and the action sports industry. The university’s proximity to the mountains is a huge draw for people who have passion for skiing and the outdoors. It’s a great place be in the epicenter of things and also to get a great education.”
But despite his success in Colorado — he was a sponsored pro skier and was getting his photos in the same magazines (including Powder) that inspired his westward trek from Maine, Robertson was restless. He wanted more snow, he wanted better snow and so he kept on heading west, looking for the Holy Grail of deep powder and without people.
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“No one is here,” Robertson smirks as we pull into the empty parking lot of Tomamu ski area on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. “And it’s a Sunday — you won’t find this back in Colorado!” It is indeed empty. It’s also an unusual sunny day. The mountains around Furano, where Robertson will spend five weeks this winter as a transplant, don’t see a lot of sun. But they do see a lot of snow. And it’s snow, particularly the untracked variety coveted by skiers and snowboarders, that we’re looking for.
The ride up Tomamu’s gondola seems promising. The last storm has left a sparkling coating of the precious white stuff across the steeply gladed slopes of the mountain. There are some tracks that dance through the trees, but most of the skiers here, as elsewhere in Japan, are following the groomed runs that drop through the forest below us.
But Robertson, and the rest of the group we’re with — a couple of guys from the Lake Tahoe region and a ski instructor who teaches at Oregon’s Mt. Hood Meadows ski area — aren’t interested in the in-bounds fluff. We climb up over a small ridge at the top of the ski area and are greeted by an empty bowl with perfectly spaced trees and no tracks at all. Here, on the north side of the mountain, the snow is even deeper, cold dry fluff that looks straight from the innards of that snow globe you played with as a kid.
The guys from Tahoe and the Oregonian are Robertson’s clients. His company, Le Grand Adventure Tours, hosts visitors from all over the world in Furano, and these are just the latest to be lured by the rumors of the best snow on the planet.
Le Grand Adventure Tours are suitable for intermediate-to-advanced level skiers and snowboarders. Based out of Furano, Le Grand focuses on backcountry skiing and riding, with the use of splitboards or alpine touring skis to maximize the opportunity to ski powder. Meals and accommodations are organized in traditional Japanese guesthouses and restaurants, most of which are family owned and operated, with a focus on experiencing authentic Japanese culture.
For Robertson, the company is more than a way to fund his Japanese powder addiction. It’s a way to share the nirvana he’s found in Japan, a landscape of surprisingly steep mountains, magical forests and, according to him, the best place in the world to ski and snowboard.
“The quality and the frequency of the storms that come in here make it the best,” Robertson says. “I have been fortunate to ski places like Steamboat and Utah and Europe and places that claim to have abundant and high quality snow. But Japan sets the bar to a whole new level. You have the champagne powder of Steamboat and Utah, but you have amazingly consistent snowfall, sometimes it snows for weeks at a time. Any skier or snowboarder after their first trip to Japan would put this at the top of the list of places to go.”
But while the snow is excellent, and while we’ll rarely cross another track during our runs down the backside of Tomamu, there’s something deeper at work for Robertson. Something that marks the maturation of the kid who headed west to ski, and who kept heading west, seeking deeper snow and less crowds.
“I think for me the attraction to Japan is not only the skiing and the quality and abundance of the snow but also the culture, the history and the people of the country,” he admits. “When I started Le Grand it was a big part of what I wanted to incorporate into our tours. Not just sport, but culture and people and immersing clients into the areas that we travel in. The people here are so open and so kind, that it gives people an opportunity that they don’t have many other places.
“You can go to Colorado or to France or Switzerland and you will meet incredible people, but it’s a different kind of hospitality that you find in Japan. They want you to experience and embrace local traditions and their culture and to explore their mountains.
“Here it is very relaxed,” he adds. “The local people have stepped back and they realize how precious life and their time is and they want to make the most of it, and they try to share that with people who come into the valley. As soon as you come into the valley you feel very comfortable. A weight is lifted.”
In fact, he says, “I can see myself moving here for good.”
For more information about Le Grand Adventure Tours (which also offers trip out of France and Switzerland as well as Japan), visit legrandadventuretours.com