Travel

Get ready for Japan's backcountry with an avalanche safety course

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

In January 2018, a member of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces was killed and 12 injured after an eruption set off an avalanche in the Kusatsu area in Gunma Prefecture. Later that month, a snowboarder was killed in the Mount Korenge region of Niigata Prefecture after being buried by an avalanche. On Jan. 27, 2019, a snowboarder was lucky to be found alive in the backcountry of Nagano Prefecture’s Hakuba Happo One resort, after being buried there.

Though infrequently talked about and with statistics hard to come by, avalanche (“nadare” in Japanese) is a serious risk to those visiting Japan’s abundant snow country. As Japan becomes better known for its skiing, more and more people are taking to the backcountry in search of untouched snow, exposing themselves to more dangerous terrain.

To better educate riders on the risks of avalanche, as well as Japan specific risks — you’ll hear the words “glide cracks” come up frequently — Black Diamond Tours has been offering Avalanche Skills Training (AST) courses in English since 2009. The courses are certified by Avalanche Canada, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to avalanche safety.

Held in Niseko, the two-day Level 1 course is a crap-your-pants introduction to everything avalanche: what causes them, the most dangerous terrain to be on and, most crucially, how to rescue someone (and improve your chances of being rescued) if caught in one.

Set to search: A transceiver is a vital tool in performing avalanche rescue. | OSCAR BOYD
Set to search: A transceiver is a vital tool in performing avalanche rescue. | OSCAR BOYD

“I think it’s critical to have avalanche safety in Japan,” says course leader Sam Roche, who’s been teaching AST for four years. “Though the conditions in Hokkaido and specifically around Niseko are arguably safer than other parts of the world you can go backcountry skiing in, we have avalanches here all the time. If you have no knowledge or training, you’re totally ignorant to the risks you’re taking. We want people to be aware of the risks and take the mystery and guesswork out of it.”

The first day of the course is largely spent in the classroom and is theory-heavy, focusing on topics such as what kind of weather conditions increase the chances of avalanche and rudimentary forecasting and risk management techniques. Participants also practice simple exercises in how to use avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels, the equipment necessary for rescuing a buried person within the crucial 15-minute window they have before they are likely to asphyxiate.

Things get really interesting on the second day when the theory and techniques are put to the test on to the slopes of Goshiki Onsen, a small backcountry ski area near Niseko. As well as demonstrating how to dig snow pits to better analyze snow conditions, instructors introduce increasingly complex scenarios so that participants experience everything from simple rescues through to the mayhem of a multi-victim group-rescue exercise. Speed is urged to make the scenarios feel as real as possible, even though participants are rescuing backpacks not bodies.

“We like to build up confidence, but then show some chaos,” says Roche. Ultimately, participants aren’t supposed to come away feeling like they’ve mastered avalanche rescue techniques, but instead with a foundation on which they can build their skills.

“Season after season you need to get the rust off, in-season you need to get the rust off. I don’t think any of us would say we don’t need to (practice) any more,” says Roche. “You always have to be practicing, improving your skills and keeping sharp.”

Black Diamond Tours run Avalanche Safety Training in December and March each year. AST Level 1 courses cost ¥25,000, which includes course materials, as well as rental avalanche safety equipment and touring skis/splitboard. For more information, visit blackdiamondtours.com. For localized avalanche forecasts and courses in Japanese, visit the Japan Avalanche Network at nadare.jp. The participation fee was waived for the purpose of this article.