Sure, gear, technique & fitness all help, but the first law of powder skiing remains immutable anywhere lift accessed and busy, even Niseko. And even more so this year now that Americans have finally discovered it thanks to all the film crews who dropped in last winter. If you want guaranteed first shot at the goods forget argy-bargy in the pow day lineup at the Ace Quad in Hirafu, instead load with the chairs coming on the cable at Hanazono, an hour ahead of the horde.

The sight of Joe Sugano’s smiling, weather beaten face entering the Niseko Hilton Village lobby instantly made me feel the effort of getting up ready for a 7am pick up was worth it, even down to shaking out last night’s cobwebs (hello all those whingers who reckon the Aussie influx here was a bad thing, go find better aprés options anywhere else in Japan – if you can), and forsaking the Hilton’s spectacular breakfast buffet for snatching a banana and couple of pastries. Joe just looked like the kind of guy it was going to be huge fun to ski with, especially for first tracks.

It didn’t even matter, as Joe apologetically explained, that for once the forecast had overestimated and the snow that looked promising as we headed in from dinner the night before had actually not amounted to much, especially by local standards.

So there were no other clients, which was fine by me, though with group size limited and a two guide policy it wouldn’t make a huge difference. This morning it was just Joe, me and Hanazono Marketing man Rhett Roylance on his board, showing dedication to get out of the office and ensure Snow Action’s experience was worthy of our effort to be there. Given how hard he charges I think he gets out more often than not, and after a quick gear check we were off, snaking onto the bottom quad at Hanazono as the chairs got loaded onto the cable. It’s an ingenious way of maximising what for most resorts is just downtime until they get the cable fully loaded and opening time is called.

“Sometimes the lift has to stop to bring the chairs on, but this is the second year of operation now and we have got it better organised, we talk and discuss with lifties and the patrol, so we have made it a lot smoother this year” Joe explains.

We didn’t have a problem, and inevitably our talk drifted to ‘normal’ First Tracks’ days, never mind the great days, when even over the groomed there would be a foot or more of perfect powder, and waist deep and beyond off trail, which of course is mainly where most clients want to go when it’s on.

A perfect untouched groomer is still an invitation though, so we did a little ski test to show that, yep, you can carve a pair of K2 Hellbents if you have a mind to, and yep, Lib Tec’s ‘Narrow Ass Snowboards’, aka their Pow Nas skis, can more than hold their own against a snowboard for full throttle turns.

But I didn’t get up at sparrows and skip the Hilton big brekkie for that, and soon Joe had us out finding stashes from the dump that had ended late morning the day before. His local knowledge showed its worth as we discovered some nice lines mixing fresh and windblown, especially off the upper Hooded Quad 3.

After a few great laps all too soon the lifts started cranking into normal modus operandi for the day, and we could see the punters loading onto Hooded Quad 1 far below us.

Time for phase two of the First Tracks program to kick in: being among the first on hand when the gate opens to access the peak and west face runs.

We joined near the head of the snaking line to the summit and did the trek easily, reaching the peak only to be hit by a gathering gale wind that sent people scurrying for the only available shelter on the little yellow glacier behind the shrine up the top.

So again not perfect conditions by any means, but not all bad as it meant a nice build up of wind blown snow once you dropped over into the north face with hardly anyone else around.

You can add First Tracks to HPG’s group tour program for just ¥2000 on top of the base ¥12000 cost for that, or get your own group of up to 6 together and do it for ¥48000 for 4.5 hours, which is great value. Two guides go with each group.

“We like to ski as much as possible, so with two guides in a small group a longer pitch is possible so it’s more fun” Joe explains,
“otherwise I have to stop every maybe 10, 12 turns, that’s not fun. Of course skier/snowboarder skill is required, but usually they are good.” Fun is the main goal, and if you can get around in the fresh on one plank or two you’ll have plenty. Check HPG’s multi-day programs to up your skills in that regard. – OP

[the ticket] hpg first tracks

Hanazono Powder Guides offer a great variety of programs, both private and group options, from 3.5 hour morning sessions to multi day programs ideal for anyone wanting to maximise their pow time and skills discovering the best stashes with top guides. First Tracks must be booked by 4pm the day prior, includes pick up from your accommodation ready for 7.30am start at Hanazono. Full details