Nagano Pref. Takes Safety Measures After Series of Backcountry Skiing Accidents

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Members of the Nozawa Onsen village rescue council search for a beacon buried in the snow during an avalanche drill off the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort in Nagano Prefecture on Feb. 1.

NAGANO — In response to a recent string of mountaineering accidents in Nagano Prefecture involving backcountry skiing, a mountaineering rescue council that consists of local villagers has decided to update its rescue skills.

Local ski resort operators are also stepping up efforts to educate skiers about venturing off-piste on unprepared slopes, especially keen to prevent more foreign nationals from getting tangled up in such accidents.

In an off-course area of the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort in Nozawa Onsen on Feb 1, members of the village mountaineering rescue council were seen holding an avalanche transceiver while inserting a probe into the snow at intervals of 25 centimeters to search for a beacon buried somewhere in the white powder.

It was the first avalanche drill conducted by the Nagano prefectural police’s mountain rescue team along with the council and the Gakuhoku Fire Department. Under the guidance of the prefectural police, 18 participants learned how to search for people caught in an avalanche and pull them up from the slopes.

Whenever mountaineers are reported to have gone missing in the village, the council, which has the best knowledge of the local mountains, is often the first to respond.

“We’ve seen an increasing number of accidents on snowy mountains these days,” the council’s assistant sergeant said. “We want to quickly find missing people and rescue them safely.”

Accidents involving backcountry skiing have been frequently reported in the prefecture. According to the prefectural police’s mountain safety department, 22 backcountry skiers were reported missing in 2022. This year, however, 13 people had been reported missing as of Thursday, with nine of them being foreigners.

Skiing on pristine mountains involves risks of avalanches and accidents. Many backcountry skiers use lifts to reach higher elevations and then venture beyond the ski resort.

In 2021, the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort installed a warning door called Access Point that leads to outside of the management area at two locations near the top of the mountain. This year, more signs have been installed to inform skiers of the boundary between the ski resort and the off-piste area with a warning not to go further. These warnings on the signs are written in English as well.

Mikio Katagiri, president of the resort’s operating company, said, “We cannot say it’s good or bad to go outside the management area, but it is still necessary to be aware that it is the same thing as climbing a mountain in winter.”

Self-pay burden

In 2010, the village government of Nozawa Onsen enacted an ordinance requiring that the cost of a search and rescue for someone lost off the ski slopes be borne by the person concerned. In one case, the village asked a skier to pay more than ¥2 million for the cost of their rescue.

In 2020, Hakubavalley Tourism, a general incorporated association formed by municipalities of Omachi, Hakuba and Otari along with local ski resorts, compiled safety precautions in Japanese and English. It informs backcountry skiers of a list of nine considerations, including the importance of checking avalanche information and of acting in groups that include experienced skiers.

“We want backcountry skiers to have the knowledge and equipment they need,” a Hakubavalley executive director said.

The Hakuba-based nonprofit Japan Avalanche Network provides avalanche information for Hakuba and Niigata Prefecture’s Myoko areas.

Based on its members’ reports, the network posts information on snow conditions in the morning and points of attention on its website. Since the end of last year, it has partnered with the company that operates Compass — a service that allows users to submit a mountain-climbing registration form via computer or smartphone. Users will receive a notice via e-mail if the route they choose to go is in an avalanche warning area.

“We want mountaineers to check avalanche information in advance and rearrange their plans according to the conditions of the day,” Azusa Degawa, director of the network, said.

Transmit info to foreigners

In response to an increasing number of accidents involving backcountry skiing, Nagano Prefecture held a liaison meeting Friday with relevant municipalities, police and tourism business at the Omachi city government building, where they agreed to improve ways to warn foreigners when they go backcountry skiing in the prefecture.

At the meeting, the results of on-site investigations were presented regarding the Tsugaike Mountain Resort, which was near the Tengu plateau of Mt. Hakuba Norikura in Otari, where bodies of two men were found after an avalanche last month, and the Hakuba Happo-one Snow Resort in Hakuba.

Based on the reports, the meeting members agreed on taking safety measures against backcountry skiing accidents by setting up signboards that warn about the avalanche at the Tsugaike resort, and asking skiers to submit a mountain-climbing registration form at the Hakuba resort.