NAGANO – The leader of the group of South Korean hikers that saw four of their comrades die earlier this week in the Central Alps had stopped to take care of a group member who fell sick, members said.
The group started out with 20 participants ranging in age from their 40s to 70s, with 16 of them making it to safety as of Tuesday, many taking separate routes.
The team leader, a man in his 60s, has experience in Japan’s mountains, they said. He had stayed with a member who couldn’t move due to the cold weather the group encountered.
The four who died are believed to have suffered from hypothermia.
The climbers on Monday left Kisodono lodge near 2,864-meter Mount Utsugi and headed for Hoken lodge near the summit of 2,931-meter Mount Hoken, about 6 km away, team members said.
The weather conditions were bad, with heavy rain, strong winds and low temperatures, and visibility was low due to thick fog.
The group was together until one of the members — a 70-year-old man — couldn’t walk any more just before they were about to reach the top of 2,728-meter Mount Hinokio. The veteran hiker stayed on with him while the other climbers continued heading up.
Soon after, several of the others fell behind or gave up climbing.
Only eight of their party arrived at Hoken lodge as scheduled, while four gave up on the way and took refuge in an empty cabin near the midpoint of their planned route. Two others descended Monday using a different route, while one person returned to Kisodono lodge.
On Tuesday, the veteran hiker who had accompanied the 70-year-old man returned to Kisodono lodge alone.
The abandoned climber and three other men in their 60s to 70s were found collapsed separately on the mountain trail or at the base of a cliff. All four were eventually confirmed dead.
Experts warned that climbers need to be well-prepared for sudden weather changes.
“Hypothermia can result in death, even during the summer,” a mountaineering specialist said. “Preparing rain and wind gear is essential.”
In addition to physical problems, hypothermia can cause confusion and lethargy.
Hypothermia was the cause of death for eight members of an adventure hiking group on Mount Tomuraushi in Hokkaido in July 2009.
According to Yoshio Ogata, executive director of the Japan Mountaineering Association, the route the South Korean hikers this week took was not difficult even though it crossed several ridges.
“If weather conditions change dramatically, climbers may be left on top of a mountain ridge with no shelter in which to seek refuge,” Ogata said. “If climbers are hit by rain and then by strong wind, they lose body temperature very easily.
“Waterproof gear is a must even in the summer, not only to avoid getting wet but also to prevent the body from losing heat, since the gear is also windproof,” he continued.
“People who hike up 3,000-meter-level mountains should also prepare cold weather gear, such as down jackets.”
Meanwhile, Takashi Kawashima, director of the Japan Workers Alpine Federation, pointed out the need for climbers to take a guide with them.
“Since it is difficult to predict the weather, groups should climb with guides who have sufficient skills to judge the conditions,” he said.
“(Climbers) should gather information about the weather and the route before setting out from a mountain cabin, and level-headed decisions such as whether to return or not from the trail, should be made by guides and (experienced) leaders,” he said.