National | Regional Voices: Hokkaido

After Hokkaido backcountry skiing deaths, experts call for enforcing 'Niseko Rules'

Hokkaido Shimbun

Following two cases of backcountry skiers being killed by avalanches in Hokkaido since the beginning of this year, safety experts in the prefecture are working to fully enforce the so-called Niseko Rules to keep skiers safe.

The recent accidents — one in the village of Shimukappu and another in the town of Nakatonbetsu — involved foreign skiers engaged in backcountry skiing.

To reduce accidents outside of ski slopes, the resort area of Niseko, which is very popular among foreign skiers, adopted a set of rules in 2001 that have for nearly 20 years helped ski resort operators in Niseko protect those who duly abide by them.

Under the Niseko Rules, operators are required to set up backcountry gates, and skiers must go through these each time they go away from ski slopes. Backcountry skiing is prohibited when gates are closed due to bad weather conditions.

The rules also set strictly off-limits areas under any conditions.

The Niseko resorts, which had seen a number of avalanche accidents outside the ski courses before the rules were set, managed to prevent major accidents until February 2017, when three skiers were hit by an avalanche and one of them died.

Given that the accident occurred in one of the off-limits areas, it could have been prevented had the skiers obeyed the rules.

Niseko’s avalanche expert, Akio Shinya, who was among the experts who drafted the Niseko Rules, points out that the situation in Shimukappu and other areas is caused by an increase in foreign skiers choosing other destinations for their ski trips over Niseko.

“The whole of Hokkaido is facing the same challenges Niseko struggled with 20 years ago,” said Shinya, who heads the Niseko Avalanche Research Institute.

“Resort operators and the local community need to revise their rules on slopes so that skiers become more aware of potential hazards,” Shinya said.

Knowing the importance of information on avalanche dangers, some groups have been sharing avalanche data online. Among them is Japan Avalanche Network, based in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, which comprises backcountry ski guides and safety managers.

However, not all backcountry ski guides are cooperative when it comes to sharing information, as they do not want to lose customers due to competition.

Azusa Degawa, the network’s director, said, “To ensure safety, it’s essential for operators to share information” on avalanches.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on Feb. 10.

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