Backcountry skiing and snowboarding have come under scrutiny after the recent rescue of two groups of skiers stranded in mountains in Nagano and Fukushima prefectures.
Japan’s powder-covered mountains are attracting skiers and snowboarders from overseas, but the risk of being stranded, injured, or killed by an avalanche has prompted safety warnings from experts.
The Japan Times looked into the situation surrounding the increasingly popular winter sports and the precautions needed.
What happened to the skiers who were stranded in Nagano and Fukushima?
Last week, two separate groups of six skiers were stranded while skiing outside regular trails, highlighting the risk of backcountry skiing.
On Jan. 12, a group of six males from Finland were trapped in the mountains of the Nozawa Onsen ski resort in Nagano Prefecture after they were unable to climb back up a steep slope they had skied down, away from marked ski runs.
Later the same afternoon, while the Finns were still missing, news broke about a group of six Australian men and women similarly trapped in snow after they became lost while backcountry skiing outside the Urabandai Nekoma ski resort in the village of Kitashiobara, Fukushima Prefecture.
The Australians were found later that night, while the Finnish group were rescued by helicopter the following morning.
The reports stood out because of their coincidence — two groups of the same number of overseas tourists stranded on the same day — the risks they faced are the same for everyone, said Hiroyuki Ogawa, a Nagano Prefecture tourism promotion official.
“There were about 20 incidents involving backcountry activity at Nozawa Onsen resort alone (last season), and six or seven foreign nationals were among them,” Ogawa said.
Why were they skiing off-piste?
They were backcountry skiing, taking advantage of fresh powder snow, as opposed to the groomed slopes common on marked ski runs.
“In a way, it’s the root of skiing as we know it,” said Toshio Mizutani, a licensed professional skier who operates outdoor adventure company PowerZone Co. in Nagoya, which operates skiing and snowboarding tours, including backcountry outings.
“In the old days, we called it ‘mountain skiing,’ and it has since been enjoyed for a long time ago,” Mizutani said. “Just like in alpine skiing, backcountry skiers go down slopes, but they need to climb back up on foot, because there are no lifts or cable cars like the ones you use at regular skiing trails. That way, it combines elements of both skiing and mountaineering.”
What are the risks of backcountry skiing?
Backcountry skiers seek out untouched mountains, but in doing so they expose themselves to the same risks faced by winter mountaineers.
As the latest incidents indicate, a major risk is getting stranded in snow and being unable to return to the point of departure.
Getting caught up in an avalanche is another danger.
Why is backcountry skiing and snowboarding popular?
Gliding down untamed snow is something skilled skiers and snowboarders crave, said Gota Miura, a professional skier and sports commentator.
“When you have advanced skills, you dream of gliding down untouched powder snow, and there are snowboards and skis designed specifically for such snow,” said Miura.
“You can experience this feeling of floating in the air, which is so much different from the artificially prepared surface of a skiing course.”
“It’s more like you’re on a cloud than snow,” said Miura, who famously accompanied his father, Yuichiro, 80, on a trek to reach the top of Mount Everest where he reclaimed his record of the oldest person to conquer the world’s highest summit.
Mizutani of PowerZone described it as a “feeling of weightlessness,” adding, “It’s like what differentiates mountain climbing from just climbing up a steep road. Nothing can replace the feeling of being exposed to the majesty of nature.”
How are ski resorts and local governments dealing with the surge in backcountry skiing and snowboarding?
“Most skiing course operators separate the designated courses with ropes and discourage skiers and snowboarders from going into areas that are off-limits. But there are many people who go . . . into backcountry areas,” Miura said. “Given this situation, there are still few places that have addressed the risks of backcountry skiing.”
Miura mentioned Mount Hakkoda in Aomori Prefecture and Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture as popular resorts for backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
In Nagano Prefecture, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, measures to discourage backcountry activities vary by municipality, according to prefectural official Ogawa.
“In the Nozawa Onsen resort . . . the village of Nozawa Onsen has introduced an ordinance to ban activities outside of designated courses, and they charge anyone who has used the local rescue squad,” he said.
In Nagano, however, more and more resorts are intentionally encouraging the backcountry powder experience, he said.
Elsewhere, Miura cited Niigata Prefecture’s Kagura resort and Hokkaido’s Niseko resort as two examples of places where backcountry skiing is allowed, but measures have been taken to improve safety for those people.
They typically use a gate to limit people exiting regular courses at times of risky snow conditions or bad weather, and some monitor emergency locator beacons carried by those in backcountry areas.
Recent years have seen an increase in foreign tourists at Japan’s ski resorts, such as the Finns and Australians who were rescued last week, making it necessary to warn non-Japanese of the dangers of backcountry skiing, said Hisato Okabe, a spokesman for travel agency JTB Corp.
Tourists from Australia, in particular, have grown in number as they come to Japan to ski during their summer holidays. Their numbers grew rapidly after Australian Ross Findlay, a pioneer of the outdoor recreation business in Hokkaido, promoted Hokkaido’s Niseko resort back home.
“Municipalities are warning foreign tourists, but we are feeling we also should do something about it,” Okabe said.
What safety preparations should backcountry skiers and snowboarders take?
People venturing outside regular ski slopes, where rescuers are routinely on standby, should carry adequate safety equipment.
Miura recommends a locator beacon, which can transmit its position even if the wearer has been buried in an avalanche, a folding probe to pierce snow when trying to find someone buried, and a shovel to remove snow, as the minimum amount of equipment for backcountry skiers or snowboarders.