Snow and Avalanche Center 2008 Avalanche News

Japanese Ski resorts need to stress safety
More detailed information about avalanche risks must be conveyed
(Feb. 19, 2008)

NAGANO--The avalanche earlier this month that claimed the lives of two Aichi University students skiing on a beginners run in Otarimura, Nagano Prefecture, has raised calls for ski resorts to better inform visitors of the risks of snowslides.

The avalanche occurred at Tsugaike Kogen ski resort on Feb. 3 on a six-kilometer-long run with a gentle five-degree slope of an average 5 degrees.

The six-meter-wide run has steep wooded slopes on both sides. The avalanche engulfed two teachers and seven students who were skiing together in a line at the time. The avalanche, which was about 30 meters wide and two meters deep, struck them from the left about 800 meters from the start of the run, according to sources.

The place the accident took place was known to be vulnerable to snowslides, and was designated by the ski resort as a location needing maximum vigilance, meaning safety had to be checked there four times a day. The steep slopes on both sides of the spot accumulate large quantities of snow, which can come lose, starting avalanches, the sources said.

At the time of the accident, the whole of the beginners run was closed after traces of a small-scale snowslide were found at another point on the course.

Ryuzo Wakabayashi, head of the Alpine Research Institute of Avalanche, said it was highly likely the snowslide was a surface avalanche as the conditions for this type of avalanche were all fulfilled: low temperature, windlessness, powder snow and continuous snow fall.

Wakabayashi, formerly a professor at Shinshu University, said: "In the same way any mountain with a lot of snow always has places where snowslides can easily occur, ski resorts do, too. It's obvious that a course surrounded by steep slopes has an avalanche risk."

Avalanches have occurred at ski resorts in the past. At the Naeba ski resort in Yuzawamachi, Niigata Prefecture, three staff members of the resort and nine skiers who were standing near the alighting area of a lift near the top of the slope were caught in an avalanche in January 2006. One male staff member was seriously injured.

In the past 20 years, a total of five people have been killed in five avalanches at ski resorts in Nagano Prefecture, including the victims of the Feb. 3 accident.

Avalanches causing no injuries occur almost every day. On Tsugaike Kogen's beginners course, three snowslides had been confirmed this season before the accident with the course being closed to skiers on each occasion.

To prevent visitors being caught in avalanches, ski resorts use patrols. For example, the Kusatsu Snow and Spa Resort in Gunma Prefecture uses large-scale fireworks to induce snowslides when too much snow accumulates at dangerous spots.

In the accident at the Tsugaike Kogen ski resort, ropes and netting were placed across the run to prevent skiers entering, and a sign was placed nearby to let visitors know the course was closed.

However, the group entered regardless. Naturally, the teacher who led the group was to blame because he made the decision to enter the course area, knowing that it was closed. He later told reporters he believed the course had only been closed temporarily for maintenance.

However, the fact the visitors had not been made sufficiently aware of the avalanche risk, also contributed to the accident.

The ski resort said it warned visitors of the possibility of an avalanche when it made announcements about closing the beginners run. But the teacher said he did not hear about the danger of an avalanche in any of the announcements he heard.

But this is not a case of "he said, she said." Azusa Degawa, head of the Japan Avalanche Network, a nonprofit organization, said ski resorts are required to provide visitors with precise and detailed information on possible risks, such as avalanches or the danger of falling down icy slopes. As Degawa said, the question is whether the ski resort's efforts to convey such information to visitors were sufficient.

After the accident, the Tsugaike Kogen ski resort added a sentence to its Keep Out signs spelling out the danger of avalanches. And now, when all the beginners courses are closed, the ski resort will make announcements instructing beginners to use the ski lifts to go down the mountain.

However, even these measures will not be sufficient. In 2003, two snowboarders were caught in an avalanche while snowboarding on a roped-off course at Shirao ski resort in Gujo, Gifu Prefecture. One of them died. Although the ski resort took the same measures as those now introduced at the Tsugaike Kogen ski resort, there are still people who choose to ignore warnings and enter closed runs.

Some ski resorts are even reluctant to disclose their protection measures against avalanches, out of fear this would damage their images. Haruhiro Maruyama, an instructor of the Nagano Prefecture Alpine Accident Prevention Committee, said such reluctance does not benefit the resorts in the long run.

"Emphasizing the efforts of ski resorts to protect visitors' safety must surely help to raise awareness of those safety issues among visitors," Maruyama said.

Alluring ski slopes decorated in a dazzling silverly white can suddenly reveal their dangerous nature. Both visitors and those running resorts must always keep that fact in mind so that skiing and snowboarding can be enjoyed in safety.

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