Mountain skiing dangers cited
Wednesday's avalanche in the Hakkoda mountain range in Aomori Prefecture in which two people died and eight were injured, highlighted the fact that off-piste mountain skiing is not without considerable risk.
Recently, mountain skiing has become more popular while fans of conventional on-piste skiing are on the decline. In conventional skiing, skiers spend up to an entire day on predetermined runs. However, in full-blown mountain skiing, participants climb up and down slopes while carrying full-scale winter mountaineering equipment.
Inn operators who have suffered from the decrease in tourist numbers are promoting mountain skiing as a new attraction.
Those killed and injured in the latest accident were part of a tour organized by Sukayu Onsen, a hot spring resort hotel.
The tour has proved popular--as shown by the fact that it attracts more than 100 tourists at weekends--partly because of the relatively low price of 3,500 yen a day.
Such tourists are able to ski freely in the mountains in areas where the snow is not compacted like on-piste runs. Participants can ski on mountain slopes without barriers, but this poses risks.
Osamu Abe, a senior research fellow at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, and Prof. Kunio Rikiishi of Hirosaki University conducted on-site inspections Thursday at two spots near the accident site--Dozo Chaya resthouse, situated about 2-1/2 kilometers from the site; and an area near the hotel, about five kilometers from the site.
They found that a new layer of snow was lying on top of a layer of soft snow, thus making it susceptible to collapse.
Abe said: "It wasn't strange that an avalanche occurred [around the accident site]. Given that people entered the area, it was only a matter of course."
Rikiishi added: "The speed of an avalanche is about 100 kilometers per hour on average. Once an avalanche occurs, there is nothing people can do."
Tadayoshi Sonoda, 55, chief guide of the ill-fated group, said at a press conference, "The avalanche was moving extremely quickly."
Ryuzo Wakabayashi, president of the Alpine Research Institute of Avalanche and a former professor at Shinshu University, pointed out the possibility of the avalanche being triggered by the skiers while the surface layer of snow was susceptible to collapse
"Weather forecasts nationwide warned of bad conditions with strong winds, making it was too risky for mountain skiing," Wakabayashi said. "They didn't understand that weather conditions on a winter mountain can become extremely dangerous."
Speaking at the press conference, Sonoda said, "I don't think we pushed them too hard."
But signs of an avalanche had been found on an upper slope of the mountain two days before the accident. Sonoda implemented the tour unaware of this information.
However, some of the guides who accompanied the tour later said they knew about the information.
It is doubtful whether the guides held adequate discussions. Sukayu Onsen hotel did not arrange any kind of meeting for the guides to exchange such information.
A member of the Hakkodasan Guide Club, a local group of mountain guides, said, "We only exchange information [about the risk of avalanches] when we happen to meet at a ropeway or other places."
There were no systematic measures in place to prepare for a possible avalanche, and the final decision whether to set out on a tour was left to individual guides.
The Aomori prefectural police have questioned the five guides who accompanied the tour.
According to National Police Agency statistics, 56 people died in avalanches between 2001 and 2005. In March 1990, a skier was killed by an avalanche near Mt. Maedake close to the site of Wednesday's accident.
In April last year, several avalanches occurred in succession in the Northern Japanese Alps, resulting in deaths and injuries.
One of the main attractions of mountain skiing is that participants can enjoy skiing freely in a natural environment. But skiers should be fully cognizant of the risks involved with mountain skiing in winter.
Tomio Katsumine, editor in chief of Yama-to-Keikoku, a magazine for mountain climbers, warned "Mountain skiers need to carry winter mountaineering equipment."
He also said such skiers should carry three essential tools--a beacon to send out radio signals when the holder is buried under snow; a shovel to rescue a buried person; and special probe to search for people buried under the snow.
The guides in charge of Wednesday's tour carried the three tools. But each skier should bear a sense of self-responsibility in combating the risks of skiing in a mountain environment.