JAPAN - Mountain climbers' awareness of potential hazards is changing after the hard lessons learned from a recent volcanic eruption of Mt. Ontake that killed 56 persons, left seven missing and affected many others. More trekkers have been submitting their plans before setting off for mountains in various places.
Mt. Asama, an active volcano straddling Nagano and Gunma prefectures, was packed with climbers on Oct. 11, the first day of a three-day holiday that is a peak period for viewing autumn foliage on the mountain.
"I submitted my climbing plan this time, as I was terrified to think what would've happened if I'd been on Mt. Ontake during that eruption," said a man in his 50s from Tokyo. He did not do so when he climbed Mt. Ontake a week before the disaster, he said.
After the eruption of Mt. Ontake, an increasing number of trekkers have been submitting their plans to the climbing advisory office at the Kamikochi Information Center in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, which is a starting point for ascending the Northern Japanese Alps mountain range.
According to Matsumoto Police Station, 2,342 climbers submitted their plans in advance from Sept. 20 to Sept. 26, the week before the eruption. However, the figure jumped to nearly double at 4,552 from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, the week after the incident.
Mandatory registration eyed
The governments of both Nagano and Gifu prefectures, which Mt. Ontake straddles, have announced their intention this month to consider obliging trekkers to submit their plans before heading into the mountains.
The Gifu prefectural government is especially positive about the plan. Gov. Hajime Furuta expressed his plan of submitting a bill for the ordinance to the prefectural assembly in December. "We have to take the recent damage seriously and set clear rules," he said Tuesday.
In Gifu Prefecture, an ordinance that makes submitting plans mandatory for climbers of the Northern Japanese Alps with punitive clauses is scheduled to come into force in December.
Meanwhile, the Nagano prefectural government has taken a cautious stance on the issue, as there have been persistent voices questioning whether such a rule should be applied uniformly to all climbers, as climbing should be a free leisure activity.
The registration forms require the provision of such information as climbing plans and the names of the members of the party. They can be submitted at drop boxes installed at various locations, including the starting points of mountain paths.
Under such circumstances, the Tokyo-based Japan Mountain Guides Association last year launched "Compass," a climber registration website. It aims at a quick rescue of climbers in the event of an alpine accident by facilitating smooth information sharing with police. According to the association, the site enrollment was about 6,000 people as of Sept. 26, the day before the eruption, but about two weeks later, an additional 700 people had joined.
Making gear checklist
During the eruption of Mt. Ontake, many climbers protected themselves from showering volcanic ash by borrowing helmets provided at a mountain lodge where they took shelter.
On Saturday, three weeks after the eruption, a noticeable number of climbers were spotted bringing a helmet just in case.
On Oct. 11, many climbers on Mt. Asama were hanging helmets on their backpacks.
Takeo Suzuki, 68, from Suginami Ward, Tokyo, visited the mountain with a group of 14 people. "As the eruption of Mt. Ontake came as a shock, all of us brought helmets this time," he said.
According to ICI Ishii Sports Inc.'s head office in Tokyo, helmets and neck warmers have been selling well since the eruption. "A neck warmer can be used to cover your face like a mask," said a male sales clerk. "I think the number of climbers who think they need to be prepared for an eruption is increasing."
Gota Isono, director of the guides association, said: "Registering trekking plans is an effective means of protecting oneself and preventing reckless climbing. If you climb a volcano, don't forget to bring a helmet and a mask."