Tateyama 立山 November 23rd

*NOT for republish.

I heard a sound similar to a low flying plane. By force of habit I looked around to see if anything was happening related to the sound on the mountain. I quickly saw a blur of moving snow to my extreme right. By the time my eyes had really focused on what was happening the sliding snow had lessened. It took my brain more time to process what was happening and how big the happenings actually were.

I immediately changed my skinning direction toward the slide and told my partner I have to look and see what happened. I was a few strides in when a huge cloud of snow started climbing the mountain and over the perpendicular banks between the slide and me. The cloud grew and grew until I finally stopped and again had to recalculate what was happening. I knew I was safe but it was overwhelmingly big and still growing. At this point I took an image on my phone and told my less experienced partner I have to go- if you want to come– come, otherwise I’ll see you later. I am not really sure what she did.

To gain a view point I had too traverse towards the slide. I was already in tour mode and crossed a wide gully and then up a steep embankment until I could gain a good view. When I finally got into a position that I could see as much as possible, my brain was struggling to make sense of the situation. Something wasn’t right. I struggled to understand if anyone was caught in the slide. It was my thinking that the face that went, isn’t a morning run, there is a lot more terrain available for the ‘Tateyama ski crowd’, which leans on the mellower side of backcountry skiing. I know the gulley that went and I recalled it being a little too fun for most backcountry folks that you would find in these parts.

I knew the path ran out over a very popular up track but did not expect the slide to have much power by that point. That was when my brain realized how far the path went. When I saw it, I recall a slow ‘holy shit’ falling out of my mouth.

I was still surveying the slide from my perch. There was nobody actually searching and I figured it took me about 20 minute to get to where I was and for the moment I lightly assumed if no one was searching - it’s possible that everyone was accounted for.

There was a large group of people on the far side of the path. From a distance it looked like they were not doing anything. There were 2 individuals further up the side of the path that were also not moving but also not together. They re-enforced my thought that everyone was accounted for. At this point I am in bit of strange state- not really sure what is happening- my brain could not get a solid reading and I could also see the crown and it didn’t give me a secure feeling of heading into the slide path.

I’d been viewing the scene for about a minute now when I saw a lone skinner stomping his skis up towards the center of the slide path. As he etched closer I could see his tools were out and he was ready to search. At the moment I again let a cursing hard ‘fuck’ as I realized the group that resembled the side lines of a football game had no idea what was going on. I transitioned my split and traversed downwards to the debris.

Even that little transition and traverse took a little bit of time- and by the time I was boot packing up to towards 2 groups of two people probing, a rescuer had found someone with his probe. The digging had started and as I got my shovel set up they had already dug a few feet. The first and lowest body in the slide would end up being about 6 feet deep. She was female and her jacket read CMH Heli-skiing. She was still mostly buried. We called out some broken communication between the 2 search groups (at about 50 feet apart) - it resulted in one of them walking down.

That person turned out to be Tracy who I had met a year ago at the camp site and is friends with some of my friends. Coincidentally I told my trip partner earlier about a heavy night of après with him and other friends at the lodge one year ago. And how people had spoke to me of him being this ‘great guy’ – it seemed awkward until I met him and was – ya that guy is great. So of course he was taking charge of the search efforts. I asked him for his knife and that was the last I saw of him.

I was going to cut off the girls pack as it was tweaking her arm out of place. As I went to cut it, I remember that on my walk up to the search I knew everyone was already dead. It had to have been almost 25 minutes since I first saw the action of the slide. I freed her arm and eventually her pack with my hands and shovel. I cleared her goggles and removed her helmet. She was cold and obviously past.

She looked between 30 to 40 years old. I don’t know what the correct action is at this point I am sure everyone knew she had past- yet we treated her like she still had a chance. We yelled at her, and we held her. We removed her from the hole she was trapped in and tried our best to bring her back. An older lady was now present and tried to resurrect her. I cradled her head with my arm and tried to massage some warmth back into her face. After a short time I asked the ladies friend to take over and I would continue searching.

At this time I had a second to clear my head as I gathered my tools for the search. I looked around and realized that relative to the hundreds of people near by – nothing was happening. There was just a few people searching and nobody was headed up from camp. I heard no signs of helicopters but at the same time I was not sure if they should already be there. As the crow flies on sunny bluebird days- Omachi, Toyama and Kamikochi are not far from here. It was at that point I made a panic Facebook post for someone to call for help. I used Facebook because I knew it had the most power to reach the right people and I didn’t need to wait for someone to pickup. As it would turn out the right people did tune in.

I quickly transitioned my gear back into tour mode, and started searching for signals. My beacon was lighting up in every direction possible. This made me feel like shit and with in a short time we tracked another body. Again we dug out the victim. She was only about 3 feet deep but her legs were twisted and still attached to her skis. It was at this point I realized I wasn’t familiar with how to remove ski bindings in tour mode (as I thought they would be) or further more tele-mark bindings. I quickly asked around how do I pop the bindings. The closet two to me did not know and then someone said just kick the heel. It turned out to be extremely simple. Her leg was very twisted.

Her name was Naoko; it was written on her pack that I removed from her back. And then removed her goggles and helmet. For some reason when I saw her face emotion started hitting me. Maybe it was because both these woman were young people who I could tell loved skiing. Another CMH jacket, tele skis and a well-styled pack told me a quick story. I feel like she was the easiest to free but for some reason it feels like I spent the most time there.

I know I did not spend a lot of time there. Because by this point I knew the plan needed efficiency and I told the group- "you 2 stay with her and us 3 will continue to search". Before I could even grab my probe one of the fellows had a signal and probed another body. This body was with in a few feet and was much deeper.

He ended up being around 6 feet deep. I recall this being the most demanding of the three bodies I helped dig up. There may have been at least 6-7 people rotating in and out of digging. It was here that I saw some new friends I had eaten dinner with the night before. I knew they were good people then and even more so now. Eventually the crew wore down and it was just a few people in tight trying to free up his body parts. Just by luck of ‘my shift’ - another fellow and I were removing bindings, helmet and goggles. This victim was male. His body saw the most damage. I could see 4 vertical bruises running down his forehead. Perhaps hit by some sort of object as the spacing looked equal and the lines appeared to be the same length.

His body was the worst of the people I helped with. It was like his physique had no frame to keep it in place. When we lifted him his body crumbled. He was very much rubber and I had silently hoped his head impact occurred before the body damage.

I feel like a lot of time had passed by now- helicopters could be heard in the distance and there were many more people showing up- including a ski police officer. It also appeared some guides had made there way over and were about to take over the situation. It was a bit strange because at first it just seemed like they slowed every thing down and suddenly everyone stopped working. I remember one of the guys telling everybody over and over again to turn their beacons to search. It wasn’t that it was a bad idea- it was that we had been ‘searching’ for the last 45 minutes. The lady beside me gave me a look and shrug like who is this guy and went back to aiding the person she was caring for.

After that I somewhat tuned out- my Japanese is limited so I started searching the outskirts while the mass mess of professionals, police, rescuers and bodies were below. My beacon had gone from wild behavior to silence as I worked my way up the hill. The silence in signals was strange and I hoped that things might be settling down. I skinned towards a man earlier rescued. He was positioned with his arms crossed on his chest and hood over his eyes. Inside my heart and head I now had a first hand understanding of death in the mountains. I was hesitant but I skinned over to him, looked at his face and prayed for a clear future for him and his family. It made no sense in words but I understood what I wanted to say.

A group of skiers above were searching downward. They looked to be in the know and were performing a sweep of sorts. I slowly turned back and began my skin down the slide path. I took my time and looked around to try and understand what had happened. Not that I am an expert in analysis but after handling the lost lives of the skiers I needed something to occupy my thoughts. I took a few images with my phone and talked to some people. I stopped back at the last mans body and helped him on to a stretcher that he would soon be helicoptered away on.

I took my sweet old time skinning back down to camp. Just before running into my partner, I thought about everything I saw or heard and tried to understand the path of destruction. The best I could understand was that a wind-loaded cornice had released while the victims were standing on top. I could see lines from the top of the crown and below that looked like they could be tracks from falling skiers being pulled down.

I also think that because we just went through 3 days of continuous storming that the cornice might have been a bit of a ‘false’ cornice. I say false because it is early season and cornices are not really built and have no strength. With about 150cm falling over 3 days in a heavily wind hammered horseshoe shaped rim, perhaps that cornice appeared stronger and stuck out longer than it really was- giving the group a false sense of safety and distance from the edge. The temps have been at least -12 for the 3 days leading up to the event and the storm had not cleared until after midnight the morning of. I had walked out side every few hours waiting for a sign the storm was winding down but at midnight it was still storming hard and cold. It wasn’t until around 5am that day I would finally see dark clear skies.

Tonight on the drive home from my son’s place, I realized that the all the people I had dug up were wearing goggles and helmets and none of them had skins on. I had assumed they were ascending the whole time. But it would appear they were ready to ski or had dropped in. The faces I saw did not look like a group that would drop into the area that slid and perhaps they planned to take the gentler, popular and untracked main slope back to camp.

The one thing I keep coming back to is the view from my perch of the football field of snow with the big group on the sidelines. I don’t know the stats but I am guessing at 15 minutes your chances for survival are next to none. With the help of some great people we dug up three bodies all with in 50 meters of the group that stood on the sidelines. As mentioned, Naoko was only 3 feet deep and literally the closest of all the victims to the group standing still.

I am not being harsh on those people or trying to send underlying vibes. I get it that not everyone knows what to do in the mountains even though they're out there. And honestly I am fine with that. I don’t know everything I should, and I can’t expect some one with 20 years less experience to know nearly as much. Backcountry shredding is on an going education built by experience in the mountains. There are new people getting into the lifestyle daily and I genuinely love that hundreds of people show up every year to enjoy the Tateyama experience. It is truly unique, beautiful and I am so grateful when I if can sneak in a few days up there to open or close the season and be a small part of it.

But what I do want to say is that when you wear a beacon on your chest its not there to save you- its there for you to save some one else. With out being too over dramatic- you need to treat the beacon like a badge a fireman wears and understand that when the alarm goes you better be ready to run in to the fire.

7 people lost there lives and one may be still missing.

EDIT Nov 25th: I have been struggling with whether my memory was correct of my assessment of the scene (mostly people) when I arrived. When I woke up today (2 days after the event) I remember I took a photo of the slide.

This full size image link shows the slide and people present after approx. 20minutes had passed. After zooming in and seeing that my memory was fairly accurate it makes me sad how close they really were.

EDIT Nov 27th: After watching some aerial news footage, it looks like there never was a cornice. And much to my surprise seems evident they dropped in on this slope (as seen in attached screen-caps). Hard too understand why (other than stoke), if that is indeed the case. There is only one area the tracks make contact with the slide but it is hard to imagine that the entire group would be in the thick of it at once. Perhaps they had safe zones (that were not safe) to regroup and it went on the last person... who knows.

EDIT Nov 28th: After an online 'investigative' conversation with Bill Glude, we both agreed that the 3 tracks seen in the news cast screen caps are likely the first to enter the slope and a good chance that they are same 3 people I spoke of above. With possibility the slide hit them from above triggered from the others involved in the slide. Bill recognized the tracks as two tele and one alpine which matches what I recall from my experience.

Also my ages were a bit off- but to be expected with healthy Japanese woman. Naoko Ihara was in her 50's.

UPDATE Dec 5th: Tracy wrote an account of his experience here. As it would turn out he was the lone skinner approaching the slide path and first man 'active' on the scene. If you click this image of Tracy's and my image of the slide in action it paints a heavy picture loaded with details. Tracy was the first person to get on the slide path. Look at the all the people between him and the slide path. And as you can see in my image almost 20 minutes later. The scene hadn't changed other than the slide stopping. You can also see me in his image. I am just above the man in the yellow jackets head.

EDIT Dec 18th: Today I was doing beacon practice with a new Pieps and remembered that during the slide the question of 'Does anyone know how to turn off a "insert beacon brand"? came up a few times. So I say ask your buddy to show you his beacon and how to turn it off.

EDIT Dec 20th: I have learned that the group was a guided group. There were 3 guides handling the group. The two leads went to search the slide path and the tail guide took part of the group of 18 back to the camp site. So the people I had questioned above were left to 'to be safe' as they were customers. I am not sure what I think of it all. And I am not sure I saw the leads in the initial search although I did talk to them about 60 minutes after.

One other recall I had from the slide was that BCA Tracker 2 may have a design fault. The Send/Receive switch when dangling by the leash easily switches to Send. This caused a few issues during the search process. And your not aware of it until some one 'locates' you while your digging.

-Lar

* NOT for republish.

ian@modestbike.com

Looks like the entry point.  

Tracks just left of the center.  

 

 

The cloud of snow hitting off a  banked wall.

The elbow of the slide. All my digging was below here.

 

View downward of the elbow.  

Overview from the climb out.  

This is about 30 minutes before the slide.

After the slide.