We managed to find a space to leave the car safely by the main road, gathered our gear and trudged a few hundred metres back up the road to the start point. This involved getting ourselves and our heavy packs up a two metre vertical step carved by the snow ploughs but after a few contortions we all managed it. From here on the route was straightforward and mostly along a flattish ridge. Given that our packs were weighed down with sleeping bags, stoves, food and extra clothing we were glad of the gentle gradient despite its lack of promise for skiing back down. The snow, on the other hand, was pristine powder that was intermittently topped up by fresh flurries as we laboured upwards.
Eventually we reached the knoll that looks out over the final summit pyramid of Shiraoi-dake. This is where Leon had decided we should stay. The snow had accumulated nicely on the lee slope of the knoll, not quite a proper cornice, and after probing for a bit Leon selected a spot to begin digging. We assembled our shovels and got stuck in. The snowhole was the classic T-shaped design; after digging a slot straight into the snowbank we excavated two sleeping platforms inside, raised above the entrance passage so that cold air would sink down. Leon was the main architect – it was his cave after all – while Max and I shoveled snow back out in a relay. Tom was our safety guy, stationed at the entrance in case we needed digging out after a collapse.
The amount of work required to dig a comfortable snow hole for four should not be underestimated and it was a good two hours of hard labour before it was nearly done. By this time the sun was setting. Tom and Max took advantage of the golden light for a quick lap of the powder slopes below the cave while Leon and I applied the finishing touches, smoothing off the ceiling to reduce drips and finally poking a ski pole carefully through for a ventilation hole. Then Leon cut out a shelf in one wall for the stoves, rigged a tarp for the door and our cosy accommodation was complete. I popped back outside to set up some marker flags above the hole in case some maniac snowmobilers came yee-hahing over the brow of the hill. When Tom and Max returned we sorted out our sleeping gear while Leon fired up the stoves and after a while produced yet another one of the gourmet backcountry feasts for which he is renowned.
I’d brought two sleeping mats and a thick winter sleeping bag and slept well that night. The temperature inside was surprisingly mild, much more so than if we’d been in a tent. I woke in the predawn light and went outside to watch the first flush of dawn appear behind the summit. It was icy cold and completely still. As it got fully light Max and Tom emerged and immediately set off for a pre-breakfast lap of the slopes opposite. Wrapped in my thick down jacket I sat back and enjoyed the views over the nearby minor peaks, sipping a steaming mug of tea and watching Leon prepare a hearty breakfast of porridge followed by bacon and eggs.
It was turning into a lovely sunny morning and reluctantly we began to pack up for the ski back down. We assembled on top of the knoll to take in the sweeping panorama of mountains to the north, and took a last look back at the cave with the white cone of Shiraoi-dake behind. Then we shouldered our packs and set off down. While our burdens made us not quite as agile as we would have liked, the snow was forgiving and by sticking to the sides of the ridge close to the main gully we avoided the flatter sections and were able to get some good turns in. All too soon we were back at the road and the short walk back to the car. After loading everything in we set off back towards Jozankei and the trailhead for the Hiyamizu Hut and the next stage of the trip.