• Staff Report, Kyodo

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The leader of a mountaineering excursion held by a high school in Tochigi Prefecture said Wednesday that instructors thought the conditions were good enough to conduct training before an avalanche killed seven students and a teacher.

“At the time, we thought it was absolutely safe” to practice traversing deep snow that Monday morning, said Shuichi Inose, chairman of the mountaineering committee at the prefecture’s high school athletic federation.

“Currently, I have to reflect on” the fact that the avalanche occurred, Inose told a news conference in Tochigi Prefecture. “I regret deeply the consequences.”

The three-day climbing excursion began Saturday. The group had originally planned to climb a mountain on the final day, but due to heavy snow the plan was revised to practice traversing deep snow.

The seven boys and one teacher who were crushed to death in the avalanche were members of the prefecture’s Otawara High School competitive mountaineering club. Another 40 people were hurt.

Police have opened an investigation into Monday’s accident to determine whether sufficient steps were taken to ensure the safety of the students taking part in the program.

In making the decision to hold the traversing training instead of canceling the trip, Inose said he had consulted with two other teachers who were experienced mountain climbers.

“We were aware that an avalanche could occur, so we decided not to climb the mountain,” Inose said. “Regarding the traversing training, we thought it was safe as we knew places where avalanches tend to occur.”

The leaders of the expedition did not order the participants to carry avalanche beacons that emit radio signals to locate people buried underneath snow as they did not plan to go to risky places, Inose said.

Following the avalanche, the prefectural board of education is considering banning “winter climbing” by high school students and making training excursions, which were not subject to inspections before the incident, subject to advance safety checks.

As mountain climbing during winter poses many risks, the Japan Sports Agency effectively bans the practice by high school students. But Tochigi Prefecture has set the period for the winter season on the mountains from November to February, allowing its screening committee to approve climbing excursions if equipment and schedules are appropriate.

The committee comprises members from the mountaineering committee of the prefecture’s high school athletic federation.

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