Dead alpinists slept in avalanche path

Kyodo

The bodies of four male climbers were airlifted Wednesday off Mount Yarigatake in the Northern Japan Alps, where they were engulfed in an avalanche around midnight New Year’s Eve as they slept in tents, police said.

A heavy snow and avalanche warning had been in effect for the Hida area around the 3,180-meter mountain, which straddles Gifu and Nagano prefectures. Snow accumulations of more than 3 meters were reported at the site.

The men were all unconscious before being confirmed dead by a rescue team sent by police that arrived at the site Tuesday afternoon.

The four are Keiji Ichikawa, 51, an employee of an organization in the town of Matsushige, Tokushima Prefecture; Takeshi Nishii, 31, a university employee from the city of Tokushima; Koichi Echizenya, 60, an interior decorator from Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture; and Shinichi Kanazashi, 45, a company employee from Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, police said.

They were in a party of seven mountaineers from two groups who were engulfed by the avalanche. Another climber alerted the local fire department around 12:15 a.m.

One of the seven escaped without assistance while other climbers managed to pull the remaining six from under the snow, police said.

The seven were taken to a nearby hut in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, but the four who died were already unconscious at that point, they said. The three who survived did not sustain injuries.

On Wednesday, a helicopter flew the four bodies to the police station in Takayama, while rescuers escorted the three survivors down the mountain Wednesday morning.

Four of the seven mountaineers belong to a group from Tokushima Prefecture and three to a group from Tokyo.

Ichikawa and Nishii belonged to the Tokushima group, while Echizenya and Kanazashi were in the Tokyo group. Ichikawa was an experienced climber well-known among local circles, while Echizenya had climbing experience of more than 30 years, club members said.

“I still can’t believe that fellow climbers who were sleeping in the same tent have died,” survivor Motoo Suzuki tearfully told reporters.

The survivors said they were buried under snow after a sudden gust of wind hit that was so strong their tents were on the verge of being blown away.

The two groups had set up their tents near the hut about 2,000 meters up the mountain. They were sleeping when the avalanche struck, police said.

Despite the heavy snow and avalanche warning, 74 mountaineers in 23 groups had converged on Mount Yarigatake when the slide occurred, according to the climbing plans they submitted.

The Tokushima group set out Sunday and planned to descend Wednesday, while the Tokyo group arrived mountain Sunday and planned to stay there through Friday.