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Overconfidence proved deadly in avalanche

  • JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

    Investigators prepare to use a drone to probe the site of an avalanche at Nasu Onsen Family Ski Resort. Eight people were killed.

The price paid for slighting the risks involved in students from Tochigi prefecture climbing a snow-covered mountain was too great.

An investigative committee set up by the prefecture’s board of education has released an interim report on the accident, in which eight people died in a snow avalanche that hit high school students and others in the town of Nasu in March.

The measures the panel took to question those concerned and inspect the accident location have almost clarified the circumstances that arose on the day. Those involved are urged to learn from the disaster.

The accident took place during a safety training program for early-spring mountaineering that was organized by the prefectural high school athletic federation. Due to persistent snowfall from the night before, mountain- climbing activities planned for the day were canceled, and training for plowing through snow was brought forward. The decision was made by the three teachers leading the students.

The report criticized the change in the plan, saying, “There were no perceived signs that the decision had been made after fully recognizing the danger of climbing a snow-covered mountain.” Two of the teachers are said to have been unaware of the weather information released about possible heavy snowfall.

The students were split into five groups to train on the snow. The purpose of the drill and the geographical scope of the activities had not been made clear, with each team left to choose the route it would take in the training. All these actions were taken on a patchwork basis.

The report recounted the activities immediately before the accident with the first group, eight members of which fell victim to the accident, based on the testimony of the surviving teacher who led the group.

According to the teacher, the party climbed a forest zone, passed through it and then waded onto the surface of the snow. In front of a slightly steep slope, the teacher said, “It’s dangerous here so let’s turn back.” However, he said he accepted the wishes of the students to climb up farther. The party was hit by the avalanche about three minutes later.

Given the purpose of the training program, the teacher should have fulfilled his duty as a leader to talk the students into acting on a safety-first basis, despite their eagerness to climb. The report had good reason to state that he should have taken “a resolute attitude” in that respect.

In the report, the teachers’ “lack of sufficient knowledge about a snow avalanche” was regarded as a problem.

At a press conference after the accident, a teacher in charge of on-site activities for the drill said, “Judging from my experiences, I thought (the training for plowing through snow) would be absolutely safe.” Making an empirical judgment without correct knowledge is extremely dangerous. This is a grave lesson to be learned from the disaster.

The report also referred to an avalanche that occurred during a similar training program seven years earlier. Although no one was injured, teachers and students were swept as far as 50 to 60 meters away.

This fact was not reported to the prefectural board of education and the prefectural high school athletic federation. Questions should be raised about the stances taken by the high school athletic federation and other bodies that left the task of taking safety measures in the hands of those actually involved in the training activities.

According to the Japan Sports Agency, as many as 400 high schools and technical junior colleges carried out mountaineering and other activities on snow-covered mountains last fiscal year. The question is whether adequate preparations for possible unforeseen events are being made with knowledge of the dangers accompanying such activities.

Everywhere in this country, leaders in this field should raise this question for themselves.

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