Friday, July 17, 2009

High Risks

Earlier this week, I wrote my weekly article about the risks associated with climbing Mount Fuji. Just a few hours after I'd submitted it, the TV news began broadcasting the story of climbers trapped by sudden bad weather in the mountains of Hokkaido.

It sounded grim for the party of people, most apparently in their sixties but also mostly experienced mountain trekkers. Initial reports from guides by cell phone and e-mail were very discouraging, and with near-zero (Celsius) temperatures accompanied by 70 to 90 kph winds, that's not surprising.

Reports today when weather cleared enough for rescuers to reach them said a total of 10 people died, nine (including one of the guides) on 2,141-meter Mount Tomuraushi and one on another relatively nearby mountain.

Judging from the video clips, and statements from survivors and rescuers, it seems that the trekkers--even though some had as much as 20 years' experience--were too lightly dressed and insufficiently equipped to deal with unseasonably cold, wet, and windy weather, particularly after having already hiked for several hours. All of the details aren't in yet, and it's pretty pointless to reiterate all the statements of the many experts trotted out by the media every time some disaster takes place ("older people are more susceptible to hypothermia", for example). Older people climb Mount Everest, too, but they do it well prepared and well equipped.

I saw only a couple of small nylon alpine tents deployed in the middle of sweeping high altitude expanses with virtually no natural shelter, and Japan Self Defense Force rescuers mentioned that some of the climbers seem to have tried to stay warm with portable cooking stoves. It appears that the guides may have carried tents--they looked like one of my 4-person alpine tents--but not enough for all of the party, and apparently nobody had sleeping bags or even emergency "space blankets".

One of the survivors has been quoted as saying that the tour should have been cancelled, and he may well be right, but it does seem that the weather--often unpredictable and changeable in the mountains--closed in after they were well on their way. The guides apparently thought it safer to press on than to turn back.

I used to be a guide for mountain trekking tours, although both I and the customers were considerably younger and fitter then than these parties seem to have been. I sympathize with the guides,at least a little bit: it can be a tough call when you're trying to choose among bad alternatives for the most survivable one.

Hindsight's great regarding how one should be equipped, too, I know. They were on a pretty long trek in pretty high country, evidently intending to end up in an onsen (hot spring spa) rather than stuck up near a mountain peak, and carrying sufficient tents and sleeping bags for everyone would have meant risking debilitation of the customers...also not a real good idea on a long mountain trek.

But this still seems to have been a case of badly underestimating the potential risk, and I'm afraid that we're going to see more of this type of accident, since mountain trekking has become very popular, especially for retirees. Tour companies are naturally jumping aboard the trend train, and safety isn't always the first thing on their minds. Maybe this tragedy will cause some reconsideration of details--especially equipment and probably also time & distance planning--for future tours.

Incidentally, I don't mean to imply that the trekkers' age is necessarily the only--or even the main--risk factor involved. The only person I knew personally who died climbing Fuji-san was a young teacher, and the several times that the Grim Reaper's scythe gave me a near miss in the mountains were all when I was in my twenties. I was quite well-equipped, too, although probably insufficiently wary.

In any case, it's a bad idea to underestimate the mountains.

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