Acting at One’s Own Risk Puts Other Lives in Danger

At ski resorts, accidents continue to occur involving people who are skiing not on a course, but on snowy mountain terrain not developed for skiing. The dangers of the mountains in winter must be widely disseminated to prevent such accidents.

In late January, a group of foreign skiers was caught in an avalanche on Mt. Hakuba Norikura, which is part of the Northern Japanese Alps, in Otari, Nagano Prefecture. Two men, an American and an Austrian, died.

The avalanche occurred at an altitude of about 2,100 meters, a point that is about a two-hour trek from a ski resort gondola. This area away from the ski slopes is known as the backcountry, which attracts an increasing number of ski enthusiasts who want to enjoy pristine nature.

These skiers, however, need to keep in mind that once they venture outside a ski resort’s managed area, they are at risk of being lost, as is the case with hiking a mountain in winter.

In particular, slopes with uncompacted snow are prone to so-called surface avalanches, in which the layer of fresh snow slides down old snow.

One of the two people who were killed in Otari was a former world champion freestyle skier. Even with excellent skiing technique, there are times when one cannot win against the threat of nature.

From the start of this year, there have been a number of accidents involving avalanches in the backcountry. A man died while snowboarding in Nozawa Onsen, Nagano Prefecture, and a German woman died while skiing on Mt. Yotei in Kutchan, Hokkaido.

With the easing of COVID-19 entry restrictions, even more foreign ski enthusiasts might visit Japan for this nation’s good powder snow. It is concerning that more accidents might occur.

It is said that skiers are aware that they enjoy backcountry skiing at their own risk. However, once an accident occurs, many people will be mobilized for search and rescue operations. Search operations in bad weather could result in another accident.

A large part of this cannot just be swept aside as acting at one’s own risk. People should not enter the backcountry casually, just as they would ski at a resort. If they go into the backcountry, they need to carefully check the weather conditions and courses, as well as make sure they have sufficient preparations, such as winter clothes and food.

It is important for skiers and snowboarders to submit a mountaineering report when entering a mountain area and bring a small transmitter to help others know their location in case they get lost.

In the Niseko area of Hokkaido, skiers and snowboarders can go outside a resort only through gates, which are closed in bad weather. In some areas, people in distress are charged with the cost of search and rescue.

It is hoped that local governments and ski resort operators will also refer to these rules when considering safety measures.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 5, 2023)