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Editorial: No 'absolutes' in mountaineering

At a ski resort in the Tochigi Prefecture town of Nasu, seven high school students and one teacher were killed in an avalanche during mountaineering training. Is it possible that because training took place every year, instructors conducting the program had let their guard down?

The avalanche occurred on the morning of March 27. Hosted by the Tochigi Prefecture High School Athletic Federation, 55 students from seven high schools in the prefecture had gathered for the training session. Because an avalanche advisory had been issued from the previous day, the mountain climbing portion of the program had been cancelled.

Instead, students were undergoing training on how to wade through deep snow when the avalanche struck. Students from Otawara High School, who were at the head of the group, were hit hardest.

So why did the teachers go ahead with the session?

At a press conference, the program's point man told reporters that the decision to proceed with deep snow training was made upon conferring with two other teachers with abundant mountaineering experience. "From experience, we judged that it was absolutely safe to go ahead," he said.

In mountaineering, in which humans face nature head-on, there are never any "absolutes." A lapse in judgment brought about an irreversible result.

The ski resort where the tragedy occurred had been closed for five days starting in late February due to a heightened risk of avalanches. The teacher in charge of the program said he had not been aware of this fact, but shouldn't he have been?

It took 50 minutes between the time the avalanche hit and a call was placed to emergency services. During this time, the teacher in charge, who was waiting at the accommodations where program participants were staying, had left his walkie-talkie in a car for approximately 10 minutes. It's possible that not being able to get in touch right away during that time caused a delay in the arrival of rescue workers. It also emerged that program participants had not been equipped with radio beacons to help locate them in case of an avalanche. Such revelations raise suspicions that that crisis management had been insufficient.

When the incident took place, the town of Nasu had recorded 30 centimeters of snowfall in one night, which is unheard of in late March. Moreover, the training was being conducted in a snowstorm. In recent years, ski resorts have applied detailed meteorological data to determine avalanche risk. The point man repeatedly spoke about a "rule of thumb" based on "experience," but such rules of thumb are unconvincing when they are not backed by scientific evidence.

However, we cannot place the blame wholly on the teacher in charge. The program was part of training recommended by the Tochigi Prefectural Board of Education, but the board has long left the logistics to teachers on the ground. The board, which is to establish a panel to investigate the incident, must take firm steps to identify this tragedy's cause.

As a result of the disaster, many high school mountaineering clubs are cancelling their training programs or changing their plans. We must return to the basics of mountaineering, which places priority on safety over everything else.

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