Myoko resident Mark Ryan is the owner of Thunderbird Guides, a backcountry cat skiing operation in one of the snowiest regions in Japan. He first arrived at the resort in the midst of Japan’s skiing boom, studying snow science at the Ministry of Japanese Science and Education, back when Myoko was home to “proper sushi counters and dark discotheques”. His experiences leading up to that point, and beyond it, make for a fascinating read; Mark has heli-skied with industry legends like the late Jake Burton and “Godfather of Freeriding” Craig Kelly, and his resume tells the unconventional story of a globe-trotting, devoted, and highly educated “ski bum” (self-described).
Ski Asia sat down with Mark to hear his story and to find out more about the area in which he plans to open a new cat skiing product this season.
Ski Asia: Where did it all start?
Mark: By age seventeen, five out of six family members had their ski instructor certification and taught at 3,000 feet. At 18, I left traditional education and with $700 in my pocket, drove 1,384 km in a beater Datsun 2×4 pick-up truck to work in the snow like so many lemmings running off a cliff. From there it was all downhill. Ski bum (poverty) is a thing, to which my answer was crab fishing.
One morning I got a chance to go on an “avy” bombing run at “the Bird” (Snowbird, Utah) from which time my fate was sealed. With a backpack full of stinky nitro-glycerine charges and a set of hand-pull detonators, it’s the most fun you can have without joining the Marines. “Clear!” “Boom!” If the avy-prone slope was released, it wasn’t safe, if it didn’t, it was, and whatever didn’t slide was my next set of face shots. Snowboards are still not allowed at Alta, so hiking was a prerequisite.
Mountain resort employment lead to shoulder seasons with free time. I alpine toured the Haute-Route at age 20 in terrible conditions. I narrowly escaped live burial by slogging uphill in a windy, white, deep powder hell to a closed teleferique station called the Jungfrau just before dusk, all the time wondering if I was dreaming. My partner was a glacier guide on Mt. Rainer, but so much for an accurate weather assessment.
I chased around avalanche study – initially for recreational purposes – in the Pacific Northwest of America, where Craig Kelly was leaving his tracks all over the record books. It’s a long story, but I then also started studying in Japan and later got to heli-guide in New Zealand and Alaska. I was invited to events like the King of the Hill (Valdez, AK) to work on the Safety Team, where I met Australian photography legend Harro. That guy busts ass getting his vantage point.
In New Zealand, I sat avalanche Level One right around when a friend invested in a heli-skiing operation. I got my foot in the front door and still poach the back door when there is an empty seat.
Elsewhere, I had kept in touch with a seasonal long-stay Utah powder junkie from New Zealand and he hooked me a gig at Southern Lakes Heli which led only to more heli, World Heli-Challenge (Wanaka), etc. and heliskiing in Japan before it almost became extinct.
Once, back in Washington State, we took Craig out heli-riding for a few days, but that guy didn’t need a guide, rest his soul. He threw down as a matter of course, but for him it was second nature and just another day in the office. His very big office.
Yet another day in Vermont I went riding with Jake Burton, rest his soul too. He spoke informally yet eloquently about product and rider development and I remember being wide-eyed and feeling like such a puppy. Jake Burton might have been characterized as an innovator, but the term “Sensei” is not inapplicable. Think: “4th level black belt”.
Through all this, I’ve found I score more points with the family or girlfriend, at work, and in life if you strive to avoid injury and liability for accidents and by staying out of the ditch when driving your people to the resort on black ice in a blizzard to catch first chair. Moreover, it is the real old-fashioned human relationships plus Your work ethic that is gonna score you your dream job, not a bunch of “likes” on a social media platform.
What was it that drew you to Myoko?
Pre social media, Myoko Kogen was its own township, where as now it’s a part of a larger city. A local founding father for off-piste guiding had previously employed my neighbors from Alaska to work in Myoko Kogen as part of a sister city deal. I scored a scholarship to enter a Master’s program in Shinshu (Nagano Prefecture) to study snow ice and snow at the Japanese Ministry of Science and Education. For my thesis I blew up snow at Norikura. The scholarship still exists in the cultural pages of the Embassy of Japan’s website.
I was given a “gold pass” to all of Myoko Kogen from this “Myoko father of skiing”. The same old boy had the historic lodge at 2,000m behind Myoko, with a heli to get there on occasion. In exchange for a fun-ticket, however, I had to be the ski school employee and token Gaijin [foreigner].
How has the resort changed in the time you’ve been there?
I saw the end of the [economic] bubble, and it was not pretty. The ski school groups weren’t just handling 400 kids at a time, they were doing three groups of 400 kids at the same time on the same day, all in the same numbered bibs, all first timers, and all told to wear goggles even when sunny.
It was so hard to tell which kid I had lost during a ski lesson. Hopefully I got through to some of them and communicated my passion for the sport.
During this era, proper sushi counters, dark discotheques and legal yet clandestine ladies bars all came and went. The Japanese ski industry burned right out and, to this date, many lifts and gondolas badly need an upgrade or removal.
Low snow years happen, but Snowmageddon [last season’s huge snowfalls] were pretty much standard back then. The snow police have become better at catching off-trail riders.
Are there any experiences running tours that have stood out above all others?
I had a hiatus from Japan for a few years, but came back to stay. The local ‘Don’ on gave me this snow cat for a thousand bucks.
The common name of an endangered species here is written with the kanji characters for “thunder” (雷) and bird (鳥), so that’s what I call my guide company: Thunderbird. That bird is my nemesis because its protection effectively prevents helicopter and cat use in the high country. Perhaps the mechanized skier is the endangered species.
During the Thunderbird development phase, snowcat use was not possible. I did, however, have the keys to a forementioned lodge at 2000 metres. We’d skin up mid-winter. I can tell you that it is humbling to burrow five meters straight down only to find the top of the front door of the hut. Luckily, customers did not want to sleep outside in the snow either and lent a hand with the full burial search (for the front door). Guiding works best when the group members have common goals.
Through consulting old maps, old guys and through operation of overnight backcountry tours with newer Japanese guides – some whom I met in Alaska or New Zealand – I got a pretty good grasp on availability of suitable terrain here on Honshu, where terrain can get pretty sick pretty quick.
Geologically, Japan is a pretty young, with ample moisture, so when the water heads back towards the ocean in liquid form it carves out deep ravines and gullies. It is not cool to “gully up.”
How has the pandemic affected your business, and how have you kept yourself busy?
The recent Covid situation has been a time to rethink and reset. It was both a reprieve and an opportunity. It became a chance to do further recon, and I got to work my oversnow equipment (cats and sleds) on environmental and infrastructure jobs in support of renewable power projects. Finally Japanese street cred was mine.
During the same period I was able to ink new cat ski land use deal location (TBA). I am now borderline legit!
What are some of the challenges in running a business in Japan?
If you want a paperwork headache, open a business in Japan. For a total snafu, try it without a full time native Japanese language speaker or partner on staff. Or bite the bullet and hit the books for a couple of years, learn as much as you can about customary business practices.
After about two and a half years of language and culture immersion programs and practicing inadequate Japanese on unsuspecting ski and water ski club buddies, I eventually started having dreams in Japanese. What took longer to understand the statement: “what you propose shall be difficult” is, in Japanese, really the polite version of the saying “when hell freezes over, buddy.”
Here, if you want to do anything other than making a turd, it usually requires consensus. Reminds me of a conformist Japanese colloquialism which says: “The nail that pops up gets hammered back in its place.” Don’t be a nail.
In Japan, conversations about land, water or airspace using permission are more like a Mexican standoff than a chat. Someone other than you likely has a corner on whatever you are trying to do, and, providing legal cat-access to the deep backcountry is challenging. When we do manage it, your cat ride might end at the bottom end of your next hike. You’ll hike a lot past powder to get to a lot of powder.
We hear you’re planning to open cat tours in a new area in Myoko. What can you tell us about this new product
The local resorts’ average in-bounds difficulty rating is intermediate at best. the location of our beta-tested cat skiing product is between Akakura and Madarao and tops out at around 42-degrees, per historic data. You’ll need all of that some days to keep on top of the deepness. Repeat cat-accessed runs occur primarily on one wide slope at your pace. This location is close, yet basic, and is called Panorama for the view.
Panorama Cat Ski Tour is a tidy morning session but it ain’t the Canadian Rockies. We hope to guide you and your three to five of your favorite people for minimum five private, chill runs. We include a ticket to Akakura hot springs and a night skiing pass. It’s our shout to round out your day – both are same-day only and non-transferable.
Panorama is by no means a huge place so we only take a couple of groups per week and try to be flexible so as to be able to provide freshies around natural powder resets. In Japanese they say, “slide” your reservation, which means pushing it to a later date. We look good if you look good, and you look better if you’re riding untracked.
We also sometimes help with inbound travel arrangements or bulk ski tickets purchase but prefer to stick to the operations side of the coin because it’s way more fun.
A snowmobile-safari tour is also in the works at Thunderbird. This activity has also been developed around our Panorama location, mostly utilizing ungroomed forest trails. When your guide says ‘don’t get sucked in by the wicked view of the Kubiki Massif and ride over the edge’, he’s not kidding.
The Ministry of Tourism has now twice supported the development of Thunderbird cat-supported introductory backcountry ski/ride experiences and snowmobile tour products at Panorama, so rest assured I’m not the only believer!
To find out ore about cat skiing or snowboarding in Myoko, Japan or to get in touch with Mark, visit the Thunderbird Guides website.
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