THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
February 26, 2023 at 14:57 JST
Ski resorts across Japan are struggling to put an end to accidents involving backcountry skiers now that tourists have returned since Japan relaxed its strict COVID-19 entry restrictions.
After a spate of accidents and stranded skiers, resorts are trying to get the word out that going off-track without a guide is dangerous, costly--and can even be fatal.
In one high-profile case, Kyle Smaine, an American pro skier, uploaded a video to Instagram on Jan. 29 of himself skiing among trees on the Northern Alps in Otari, Nagano Prefecture, in central Japan.
“This is what brings me back to Japan each winter,” Smaine said in his post, raving about the quality of the snow.
Smaine headed for the eastern slopes in the Tenguhara area on Mount Hakuba-Norikuradake at an elevation of 2,100 meters but was killed when he was swept away by an avalanche on a backcountry route.
Visitors to the Northern Alps must submit backcountry plans in advance, but his team did not, nor did it take along any guides, which has raised concerns among ski facilities.
SPIKE IN LOST SKIERS, ACCIDENTS
The Hakuba region of the Northern Alps has become a hot destination for skiers the world over because of its pristine powdery snow.
“Ski slopes in Europe are at high altitudes and characterized by many glaciers and icy surfaces,” said Tatsuya Fujisaki, an associate professor of tourism business studies at Sapporo International University. “Their Japanese counterparts boast relatively low elevations and copious amounts of fresh snow. Another reason for their popularity is that they sit near urban zones and provide easy access to backcountry areas.”
According to Hakuba Valley Tourism, 1.3 million people came to 10 ski facilities in three municipalities there during the 2019-2020 season before the novel coronavirus pandemic struck.
About 375,000 of the visitors were from outside Japan--more than four times compared to a decade ago.
But a growing number of overseas visitors have been going missing while backcountry skiing.
According to National Police Agency data, 61 of 111 sightseers from outside Japan who got lost in the mountains in 2018 were backcountry skiing. The next year it was 50 of 103 and then 31 of 42 in 2020.
Only a part of people who use ski resorts head for the backcountry, but many of them enter the mountains through lifts and gondolas.
Hakuba village created new rules in 2008 that now cover 10 ski facilities across three municipalities and published a communal document to raise awareness about safety risks.
It is now considered mandatory for skiers to pass through designated gates at five ski resorts for backcountry zones, and being accompanied by a guide is also recommended.
English signage and leaflets are also being distributed to raise awareness among skiers from overseas about the potential dangers.
But getting everyone to stick to the safety rules is difficult, and with the virus-related restrictions lifted, more accidents are being reported.
Nagano prefectural police said 22 people went missing in backcountry areas in 2022. That number reached 12 people, including eight visitors from abroad, in January this year alone.
“There are limitations to what we can do as a ski slope operator,” one ski resort staffer said.
TOURISTS FACE COSTLY RESCUE BILLS
Some are taking matters into their own hands to try to prevent skiers from getting lost.
Mount Hakkodasan in Aomori Prefecture, northern Japan, is highlighted as a noted backcountry ski destination on the English website of the Japan National Tourism Organization.
A local association of hotel owners and others put special rules in place in fiscal 2018 for skiing on Hakkodasan.
A poster explaining the rules is being put up at inns and elsewhere around Hakkodasan warning tourists that they can go backcountry skiing but at their “own risk.”
The signs, written in Japanese, English and Korean, state that tourists first need to submit notices that they will enter the mountains.
They say that people who go missing will have to cover their own search-and-rescue costs.
They also warn search-and-rescue fees can cost “30,000 yen ($224) for each rescue official per day” and running the ropeway after hours can rack up 50,000 yen.
“A missing case may require no less than 1 million yen each day,” said Tomoaki Kikuchi, head of the business division of Hakkoda Ropeway Co., which serves as the office for the safety association. “By presenting these expensive estimates beforehand, we want (to encourage) them to make proper preparations.”
The association said visitors can access guides knowledgeable about the local area at ryokan and hotels, but it is concerned that skiers from overseas often do not seek their help.
Naoyuki Kato, chairman of the Association of Japanese Ski Guides, said the word “backcountry” became widely used in Japan around 2010, and after that even more skiers jumped on the bandwagon and the number of accidents grew.
The Association of Japanese Ski Guides was founded 10 or so years earlier in hopes of nurturing guides.
“Winter mountains are not to be blamed,” said Kato. “We will be making it known broadly that those who cannot analyze geographical features and circumstances on their own should not enter the mountains without certified guides, given the risks.”
(This article was written by Ryo Suganuma, Okuto Ko, Hidemasa Yoshizawa and Yusuke Nagano.)
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