Testimony from survivors of Monday’s deadly avalanche suggests that many used newly learned mountaineering skills to survive the disaster before trying to save others.
Seven male students and one teacher from Otawara High School in the prefecture died after being caught in the torrent of snow. Another 40 were injured.
But many of the students who found themselves out in the extreme conditions that morning near a Nasu ski resort apparently used survival skills they had acquired during training on avalanche safety just before a scheduled climb.
Some covered their mouths with their hands to make air pockets to breathe when overtaken by the avalanche, while others used folding shovels to create snow walls to protect themselves from the elements while awaiting rescue.
On Monday, which was the third day of the group’s outing, the students were supposed to ascend Mount Chausu. But due to heavy snowfall that had inundated the area from the early hours that morning, the teacher who headed the prefectural high school athletic federation’s mountaineering section canceled the climbing lesson and decided to let the students practice deep-snow traversing.
The teacher was heard saying the conditions should be fine enough for traversing the powdery snow.
That morning, the group of about 50 students and teachers departed from a nearby lodge at around 8 a.m. When they crossed the slope, the group split up into five teams where they formed lines to get across the deep snow.
About 30 minutes later, the group made its way to the edge of a forest where they took a rest. Soon after, they began hearing a rumbling sound.
One student recalled hearing someone shout “Avalanche!”
It is believed that a 50-meter-wide monstrous slab of snow slid about 100 to 200 meters from higher up on the mountain slope.
Some students trapped in the avalanche were carried further down the slope. Many of the students ended up buried in snow up to their chests, while others were left unconscious.
Those who managed to extricate themselves from the snow used the shovels to rescue others. Some teachers attended to severely injured team members and other students built a 1-meter-tall snow wall to protect them from the winds and possibly another avalanche.
Trekking through freshly accumulated snow in white-out conditions, it took the rescue team more than three hours to arrive on the scene, where they found some students still buried up to their necks awaiting help. The rescue team used 3-meter-long poles to search for people buried in the deep snow. Some of those they found were buried two meters under.
Fourteen members who did not enter into the woods narrowly escaped being hit by the avalanche.
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