While most of us are still sleeping off the previous night’s excesses, Akio Shinya is already up working hard to ensure everyone’s safety as chief of the Niseko Annupuri Avalanche Prevention Committee. It’s their hard work that lets us have so much fun.
Snow Action caught up with the legendary Shinya San at Moiwa (Niseko’s ‘other’ ski area, not linked but skiable to/from Niseko Annupuri), where he’s lived for 40 years, in a season marked by a couple of tragic but sadly entirely avoidable deaths of people skiing into cracks.
How many years have you been doing the avalanche safety here?
About 20 years. Before we had many avalanches in this mountain so we start avalanche program to prevent avalanche. Maybe 15 years ago we started making a joint project with the Niseko town and the resorts.
So you monitor the snow pack at every area all season?
All season, every area, every day, every morning. So I am tired.
This season has been difficult hasn’t it?
Wind is very strong and too much snow falling. But not different, maybe nature sometime changing, maybe this is normal.
How long have you lived here for?
I stay 40 years. I have a small mountain lodge here, I came a long time ago and made my lodge home built.
You think maybe now the winters have got warmer than 30 or 40 years ago, and you can get more inconsistent different weather?
Yes, different weather. Especially this winter there is a lot of snow falling and temperature is very cold. Normally in Niseko mountain every year it’s not so cold, this year it’s very cold. Normal, or not normal, I don’t know.
So that makes it more difficult for avalanche because you’re getting different layers?
Yes many avalanche accidents happen during a snow storm and after. Because a big snow storm makes unstable slopes. So many avalanche happens, maybe 100% avalanche in mid-winter is just a wind with snow slopes problem. Of course layer is very important. So every morning I check the snow pack and slopes at different elevations.
I check the data, many guys send information, and we discuss on the phone. Then we judge the risk. Elevation is very important, I think over 1000m it is dangerous but maybe under 800m is not so bad.
Is that because of the wind exposure up higher?
Yes more wind, slabs. And the temperature is low. So maybe today continue avalanche risks.
On Wednesday we went to Goshike and skinned up the back there. It was very crusty at the top. But warm, slabby heavy snow, so we’re thinking, no, this is not good, so we just went around and came back down.
Your judgement is very smart and good. Not cut the nose on these area’s steep slopes.
What’s the main problem you have at the moment, are people just not paying attention to the dangers and ignoring the rules?
Yes, 15 days ago 2 guys are falling in crack and dead.
In different place. One is Higashi One, Jacksons, and one is Mizuno No Sawa, Niseko Village Annapuri gullies. They have many cracks now. That day the wind blows and snow storm still continuing, so maybe no see the cracks. Their gear now is excellent, big ski, so they ski very fast, but technique is not enough. This is very important problem for us.
The gear makes it easy now, but they often don’t have the skill. Also the judgement to think and look on a roll – now they go and jump blind and it’s too late.
Yes, the head is heavy, they go over [he signs a skier flipping head first] and go in the crack. Every day I worry, I pray for no accident.
You decide if the gates will open and what time?
Today number 2 and 3 Peak Gate are closed. Maybe number 1 Gate and number 5 Gate at Hanazono top lift Gate maybe it’s ok to open, but upper side gate I hope closed. Number 6 also, because these areas are blind, just snow coming straight from the Japan Sea. Directly to the ridge and leeward slopes, so avalanche risks grow very quickly. I think today many guests want us to open that gate, but I said before to patrol guys, please, no opening, no ducking ropes. So every day this is our way.
Yes, that’s the point we want to get out there – you’re not doing it to stop people having fun, just to keep them safe.
The most important things are enjoy and safety. It’s a balance.
Arigato, thank you very much.
*Update: Akio Shinya took home an award at the World Ski Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Ski Tourism for his work in Niseko as chief of the Niseko Annupuri Avalanche Prevention Committee.