The rising number of deaths and accidents on Japan’s mountains in the winter involving inexperienced alpinists has prompted climbing experts to call for stricter regulations in the traditionally rule-free activity.
According to National Police Agency data, 13 people died or went missing between Dec. 29 and Jan. 3 on mountains across Japan, the highest number for the New Year period in 10 years.
In the Northern Alps range that straddles the border between Nagano and Gifu prefectures, 21 incidents occurred from December to Feb. 4, resulting in 28 people dead, stranded or missing.
On Feb. 3, a 40-year-old man disappeared on a mountain in Gifu Prefecture, raising the number dead or missing in the area to 10, the worst in six years.
Although bad weather was a main cause of the incidents, police say more climbers lacking the proper physical strength, skills and experience are causing mountain accidents.
On the 2,909-meter Mount Nishihodakadake on the border of Gifu and Nagano prefectures, a 50-year-old man died of hypothermia.
Officials said he should have carried four days’ worth of food and fuel, but he only brought enough for one day. He apparently became too exhausted to move through the deep snow in a steep slope.
Two surviving members of his party suffered from frostbitten fingers because they were unable to warm themselves in a tent due to a lack of fuel.
Koji Kojima, head of the Gifu prefectural police department’s Hida district headquarters, which is responsible for the mountain area, said the climbers lacked experience in winter mountain camping and the skills to assess the weather conditions.
“Winds as strong as a typhoon blow in winter,” Kojima said. “They should have withdrawn earlier.”
An increasing number of amateur climbers are ascending mountains in the area, aided by ropeways that can take them to ridges as high as 2,000 meters.
A man and a woman stuck in the snow were rescued on Jan. 4 on the 2,922-meter Mount Otenshodake in the Northern Alps, even though the mountain is considered relatively easy to climb.
“With the craze for mountaineering growing, beginners think they can casually climb mountains in the winter,” Takashi Kawashima, secretary-general at the Japan Workers’ Alpine Federation, said.
In contrast, fewer accidents have been reported in the mountains in Toyama Prefecture, which has introduced tougher rules for climbing in snowy conditions.
Accidents had risen in the 1960s on the 2,999-meter Mount Tsurugidake in the prefecture, prompting the government to adopt an ordinance in 1966 that requires a mountaineer to submit a climbing notification and plan.
If officials find the plan insufficient in terms of winter mountain climbing experience, gear and supplies, they offer suggestions. The ordinance also bans inexperienced climbers from the mountain in the winter.
The subjected area has had no accident in the winter for nine years since fiscal 2001.
There are no unified climbing rules that cover all mountains in Japan.
The only other prefecture with an ordinance on winter climbing is Gunma Prefecture, for Mount Tanigawadake.
The United States limits winter climbing on Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. In Nepal and China, mountain climbers need permission before making an ascent in the Himalayas.
But the Japanese mountaineers’ world has been opposed to the idea of “restricting freedom in climbing by law.”
However, Junzo Naito, vice president of the Japan Mountaineering Association, does acknowledge the effectiveness of regulations.
“Ordinances play an important role,” he said. “They are keeping inexperienced people at bay.”
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