Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

'Entirely different world': Backcountry of Japan's alpine areas continues to claim lives

Members of the Nagano Prefectural Police's mountain rescue unit and others are seen responding to an avalanche on the Northern Alps mountain of Norikura, in Otari, Nagano Prefecture on Jan. 30, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Nagano Prefectural Police)

TOKYO -- An avalanche that trapped foreign visitors and claimed two lives, including a world champion freestyle skier, in the central Japan village of Otari over the weekend occurred in a backcountry area. While the unmaintained, unmanaged backcountry has been popular among skiers and snowboarders in recent years as a way to enjoy pristine nature, it is also a constant cause of danger.

    What makes the backcountry so appealing? According to the Japan Association for Skiing Safety, lots of people, mainly foreign tourists, want to ski or board down Japan's distinctively soft powder snow rather than the compressed snow found on ski runs. Regions that particularly attract attention are Japan's Northern Alps, including Nagano Prefecture's Hakuba, and Hokkaido, including the Niseko ski resort.

    However, skiing and other activities on natural snow rather than on groomed slopes is an invitation to danger. According to the National Police Agency, the number of people who get involved in accidents in backcountry areas has been rising. There were 115 such people in 2015, when records began to be kept. By 2019, that number had shot up to a record-high of 164. Even with fewer people on the slopes due to the pandemic, there were still 95 and 94 people who needed help in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

    Already since the new year, this season has seen skiers, snowboarders and others getting caught in backcountry avalanches a number of times. On Jan. 13, a group of 10 foreign visitors encountered an avalanche while climbing Hokkaido's Mt. Yotei. A 31-year-old female skier of German nationality died in the incident. Between Jan. 28 and 29, two male snowboarders died in avalanches in Gunma and Nagano prefectures. The Nagano avalanche reportedly claimed the life of U.S. gold-medalist freestyle skier Kyle Smaine.

    Participants in a training session learn about avalanche risks and other information, in the Nagano Prefecture village of Hakuba on Feb. 7, 2015. (Mainichi/Kenji Tatsumi)

    The Japan Avalanche Network is a group of mountaineering guides and others that provides information on avoiding disasters. According to a person connected to the group, the backcountry "is often introduced as 'an off-course area to have fun,' but backcountry skiing and snowboarding is an entirely different world compared to ski runs."

    Yoshikazu Ito works as a guide around Nagano's Mount Norikura. According to the 56-year-old, the accident site in Otari is known to be in an area where avalanches can develop easily. The conditions were right for the one that occurred on Jan. 29. Just before the accident, there was a period in which no snow fell, allowing the snow on the surface to melt during the day, then re-freeze and harden during the night. Snowfall on top of that layer led to what's called a surface avalanche. Because it was snowing that day, many guides, sensing danger, apparently canceled their trips to the backcountry.

    According to Ito, "Ultimately it is everyone's responsibility to judge for themselves, but if one wants to go there (into the backcountry), they should only go along with a knowledgeable guide or while possessing all the necessary gear and skills."

    The Japan Avalanche Network has collected seven steps to avalanche safety with a number of tips and warnings, available as an English PDF file at: .

    (Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, Seiho Akimaru and Atsushi Matsumoto, Tokyo City News Department, and Tadashi Sano, Digital News Center)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media