Discovering humility and the wonders of Ja-pow

David Lim shares life and leadership lessons from his stint on the mountain ranges around Furano in central Hokkaido, Japan.

If there is one huge lesson I'd like to share, it would be this: Find a mentor in your field or industry. Pay them if you need to. The progression of your skills and outcomes will be massive and often worth the investment.

It’s not often you get a round of Facebook laughs when someone posts a picture of a sign at a Japanese ski resort apologising profusely for the ‘low’ snow base of a ‘mere’ four metres of snow. Obviously, the thicker the base, the more consistent the skiing experience will be versus having twigs and bushes sticking through on a ski run in a resort. It was laughable because many European winter resorts are happy to get just two metres of a snow base.

And so it’s not just a tiny peek at the general humility and politeness favoured in Japanese culture, it’s also a clue that Japan, especially Hokkaido, gets some of the biggest snow dumps annually. This makes it truly a magnet for skiers wanting to experience the unusually light, dry and fluffy powder snow dubbed “Ja-pow”. Unfortunately, for those wanting to experience this in the backcountry, away from the groomed slopes, a whole plethora of different skiing techniques, not to mention safety skills and equipment need to be mastered, and thus began my journey as a neophyte in the realm of ski touring or ski mountaineering as it is sometimes called.

The life and leadership lessons from my stint on the mountain ranges around Furano, in central Hokkaido, were not only humbling, but encouraging – so here’s what I learnt the hard way.

1) What looks seemingly easy is rarely the case: The elegance of skiing downhill on a firm, groomed slope of a resort often falls to pieces when skis are buried under a foot of fresh snow. Skiing downhill in backcountry demands you think in three dimensions, understanding how speed can help ‘float’ your skis, turning skis under snow requires fine, dynamic balance, and commitment to some speed.

2) Acquiring new skills is a humbling process and only possible when you unlearn old stuff: After several face plants in deep Ja-pow, the humbling lesson wasn’t so much the humiliation of doing so badly as a ‘beginner’; but rather the awareness that 25 years of technical mountaineering experience can’t help you much. Certainly, a skilled mountaineer goes into ski mountaineering already equipped with more then a basic knowledge of slope and avalanche risk assessment, the physics of falling bodies, rigging snow anchors and so on. But the very thing that makes ski mountaineering exciting, i.e., ripping down slopes thick with powder is the opposite of what most mountaineering training teaches you. In the latter you want to actually avoid such risky slopes, when in fact ski mountaineering embraces such slopes but with the added focus on much more avalanche risk awareness than most mountaineers have.

3) Mastery often demands application of new and unfamiliar tools and processes.

In ski mountaineering, this involved getting used to using an avalanche transceiver and one of the first things I learnt from Nick, my “master’ was to locate his transceiver (switched to transmit), using my transceiver (switched to receive mode); and moving quickly though the process of coarse searching and them slowing down at the ‘fine search’ mode. Thrusting an avalanche probe down to ascertain the location of the device (or buried skier), and then digging that out was another process. Other processes included getting better at transitions. Like mountaineering, the skier with the more efficient transitions would be moving faster and more safely on a route. 

To go uphill, sticky ‘skins’ would be laid onto the base of skis. The skins have fine carpet like hair that slide smoothly in one direction, and resist in the opposite. By sliding your skis against the snow uphill, weighting them and then pushing off, you gain vertical ground - thus explaining the mystery to new skiers as how ‘those people’ can ski uphill. When going downhill, the skins are stripped and packed away, and the ski binding that connect your boots to the skis get switched back to fixed-heel mode to allow for downhill skiing. Doing all of these, in a proper, and efficient sequence in minus 15ºC temperatures took a while. 

But this is how mountaineers perfect their skills – they keep practicing them in less demanding situations and work up to the point that even when the crap is hitting the fan halfway up a Himalayan mountain, all that muscle memories and habits kick in making them keep working effectively.

4) Practice does NOT make perfect; correct practice makes perfect

One of the great things in ski instruction is that the you get someone much better than you to observe all the bad habits you might be using that may get you down a slope, but do not contribute much to improved skill, efficiency or technique. In short, a lot of my technique, irrespective of my disabled lower legs, was aimed at ‘hacking’ the run, i.e., getting the down, even if in an inelegant style. By watching videos (even more humbling) of myself, I could see how a few days of correct application and mentoring had helped immensely. Nick himself explained how he started ski mountaineering wearing a heavy backpack to the extent that his posture was all ‘wrong’ for a long time.

5) Coaching and mentoring is invaluable and worthwhile investment

In the past few years, I have been coaching and mentoring more and more upcoming professional speakers; some who are stuck at a specific stage of their career and want to move to a higher level, or develop a new revenue platform. One of the first things I say to them is that I respect the vulnerability that is required to want to be mentored or coached. In fact, I believe some of the hardest people to coach or mentor are those who are already successful to a degree. Their ego prevents them from being open to new things and to being coached. But before all these good things can happen, they need to refer back to point #1 above – if you can’t humble yourself, you will never learn new things, discover amazing things you can or can’t do. Mentoring is also the key when you realise every person’s challenges, resources, access to tools is different, and there can rarely be a one size fits all approach. 

So, if there is one huge lesson I'd like to share – it would be this: Find a mentor in your field or industry. Pay them if you need to. The progression of your skills and outcomes will be massive and often worth the investment. I know I’ll be  looking forward to more Ja-pow next year!

David Lim is Asia’s Motivational Mentor, and best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has given over 700 motivational and leadership presentations. Engage him with questions at


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