Hokkaido Winter Search and Rescue Trends (2014-2019)

Posted on Feb 12, 2020
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Posted on Feb 12, 2020

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Reading time: 9 min
In any given winter season in Hokkaido, there are usually at least 70 or so individuals who require some form of mountain search and rescue assistance. While a majority (62% by our calculations) result in no injury, just a few weeks back we heard of the tragic news of two overseas visitors perishing in avalanches in Hokkaido. Just this week a Sapporo resident was killed on Yotei-zan. With burgeoning numbers of backcountry skiers in Hokkaido - both local and from overseas - such incidents can quickly make the news. Here, we dig into the Hokkaido Wilds unofficial online database of Hokkaido Police search and rescue data, to see if there are any noteworthy trends in winter search and rescue callouts in Hokkaido (日本語版はこちら).

All data retrieved from the Hokkaido Police SAR statistics, digitized and made filterable by Hokkaido Wilds.

Preamble

About the authors: Rob Thomson is a social scientist based at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo City. Chris Auld is a data scientist by trade, and both are authors at Hokkaido Wilds. When it comes to group sizes involved in search and rescue incidents, there’s a significant difference in group sizes between Japanese backcountry groups and foreign groups; more Japanese opt to enter the backcountry alone. Whether we use individual-level data or callout-level data, the main conclusions don’t really differ.
*See ‘About the Data‘ section below for methods, data downloads, and definitions.

KEY POINTS

SIDECOUNTRY – We’re seeing 30% more sidecountry search and rescue incidents per year in Hokkaido. More foreigners get into trouble in the sidecountry. Getting lost is the main cause of sidecountry search and rescue callouts. More foreigners get injured in the sidecountry.

BACKCOUNTRY – There are fewer backcountry search and rescue callouts. More Japanese are involved in backcountry search and rescue incidents – bad weather and getting lost cause most Japanese callouts.

OTHER WINTER ALPINE ACTIVITIES – Greater numbers of Japanese tend to get into trouble – getting lost is a major cause. More people die doing non-skiing winter mountaineering than than any other activity.

IMPORTANT – There’s no data about how many people are going into the backcountry/sidecountry. This makes incident rate calculations impossible – that is, it’s impossible to infer who is more at risk.

IN-PAGE QUICK LINKS

SIDECOUNTRY SEARCH AND RESCUE STATISTICS

We loathe the use of the term ‘sidecountry’, but we’ll start out dive into the data with search and rescue incidents involving individuals accessing the backcountry from ski areas in Hokkaido

Side-country search and rescue incidents are increasing by over 30% a year

We’ve only got reliable data for the last five years or so, but regardless of nationality, there does appear to be an upward trend in the number of people getting into trouble in the sidecountry (see Fig.1 below). That is, in terms of absolute numbers, on average there seems to be more and more people getting into situations where they require outside assistance, after accessing the backcountry from ski areas.

Let’s be clear, however: at present, these numbers alone do not tell us if people are getting more complacent or are taking more risks. Because there’s no statistics telling us how many people are actually heading into the backcountry in Hokkaido we cannot currently identify trends in the incident rate (# of incidents/# of users).

Think of it this way: If year-on-year growth in sidecountry user numbers is outstripping the year-on-year-growth in sidecountry search and rescue numbers, then this would point to a downward trend in incidents per user and might indicate positive developments  such as people making safer decisions and being more prepared.

On the other hand, if the opposite is true – if sidecountry search and rescue incident growth is outstripping access numbers growth – then we’ve got a more serious problem on hand that needs addressing. Ideally we’d like to see plenty of people enjoying everything that the winter Hokkaido hills offer, with no one getting into trouble.

About 25% more foreign citizens than Japan citizens are involved in side-country search and rescue incidents

Still, looking at Fig. 1 below, we can see that in absolute callout numbers, there’s more foreign citizens requiring assistance in the sidecountry than Japanese citizens. Once again, however, with no data on how many foreigners or Japanese are actually going into the backcountry/sidecountry, it’s impossible to say who’s more at risk for getting into trouble off piste.

“I don’t know where I am”

Looking at Fig. 2 below, it’s clear the majority of search and rescue callouts – regardless of nationality or residence – in the sidecountry are due to people exiting ski areas and promptly getting lost. In 2018, Rob met with a representative from the Hokkaido Police to ask about current trends in search and rescue callouts. He said “if people knew how to use their smartphones as navigation devices, about 90% of callouts wouldn’t have happened.” As far as sidecountry search and rescue incidents are concerned, this appears to be a case of inexperienced, ill-equipped skiers entering the backcountry without much prior thought or planning. It should be interesting to see how proposed changes to the Niseko Rules – making avalanche beacons and helmets mandatory in order to access the backcountry via the ski areas – might affect these SAR callout numbers

 More foreigners are getting injured in the sidecountry

Looking at Fig. 3 below (using individual-level data), while the majority of search and rescue incidents in the sidecountry end up with no injury, data from the last four years or so suggest that more foreign skiers’ incidents involve injury. This gels with the data in Fig. 2, where a greater number of sidecountry search and rescue incidents involving foreigners are due to tree strike.

BACKCOUNTRY SEARCH AND RESCUE STATISTICS

Next, let’s look at search and rescue incidents involving skiing and snowboarding where the individuals involved did not access the backcountry from a ski area.

There are much fewer backcountry incidents than sidecountry incidents

The first thing we notice in Fig. 4 below is that there are much fewer mountain search and rescue incidents involving individuals engaging in non-ski area accessed backcountry skiing. When Rob brought this up during his meeting with the Hokkaido Police representative, the representative said that they generally find ‘ski mountaineers’, as they call them, more prepared, experienced, and well-informed than many of the sidecountry skiers who come to grief.
As far as foreign skiers are concerned, there also doesn’t seem to be a trend towards and increase in incident numbers. Given widespread anecdotal evidence of the surge in foreign backcountry skiers over the last few years in Hokkaido, this would tend to indicate a positive trend in the in the backcountry.

There are more Japan-citizen backcountry incidents

The elephant in the room of course is 2018’s record for Japan-citizen backcountry search and rescue incidents. While one might be tempted to think there might have been one mass event contributing to the 16 individuals involved, this is not the case. Take a look at the 2018 backcountry Japan-citizen search and rescue events here. Search and rescue events are well distributed around the island, on different dates, and all but three individuals are from Hokkaido. The 2019/2020 winter season should give insight into whether this is a new phenomenon, or simply an unfortunate blip (thankfully there were no Japan-citizen fatalities in the 2018/2019 season).

Bad weather and navigation are the crux for locals

Looking at Fig. 5 below, with relatively fewer backcountry search rescue incidents, it’s difficult to identify statistically significant trends in what causes backcountry search and rescue callouts – make conclusions based on this data at your peril. That said, data with larger N values is likely to be the most robust.  Over the last four years, navigation still appears to be an issue in Japan-citizen search and rescue events (43%, 16 individuals). Bad weather also appears in the Japan-citizen data, with 22% (8 individuals) of callouts citing this as the cause of the callout. This factor does not appear (N=0) in the foreign-citizen data.

Foreigners might be more likely to get injured in the backcountry, too

Once again, it’s next to impossible to identify any trends with such a small amount of data. So regarding Fig. 6 below (outcomes of search and rescue incidents in the backcountry) ,we’ll just leave it at the heading above – foreigners might be more likely to get injured in the backcountry…but quote this flaky result at your peril.

WINTER HIKING SEARCH AND RESCUE STATISTICS

Lastly, let’s look at search and rescue incidents involving winter hiking, trekking, and mountaineering.

More Japanese than foreigners have required search and rescue assistance while engaged in other winter mountain activities

Looking at Fig. 7 below, there are many more Japanese involved in mountain search and rescue incidents in Hokkaido than foreigners. There seems to be, however, a significant downward trend at play. The problem here, once again, is we have no data about actual participant numbers. This could simply be a reflection of the fact that more Japanese than foreigners engage (or engaged) in winter mountaineering activities other than skiing.

Getting lost is a main cause of non-skiing search and rescue callouts for Japanese

Looking at Fig. 8 below, we see the data replicating a pattern we saw with sidecountry and backcountry skiing. For Japanese involved in search and rescue incidents, getting lost is a main factor in calls for assistance.

Outcomes of non-skiing search and rescue incidents are much more grave

Chillingly, Fig 9 below indicates almost a quarter of all non-skiing mountain search and rescue incidents result in death or missing persons. This may reflect the more ‘summit-oriented’ nature of winter mountaineering (regardless of nationality); while many skiers are happy just to find good quality snow and slopes to ski on, mountaineering inherently has summits as a goal, hence leading parties and individuals into more extreme and hazardous environments.

ABOUT THE DATA

We take our hats off to the Hokkaido Prefectural Police for making very detailed search and rescue statistics available to the public. It’s all in Japanese, so here at Hokkaido Wilds we periodically convert the Hokkaido Police PDFs into a database, add English translations, and make that data available in Excel format as well as in our data browser.

Categories of SAR indidents
The Hokkaido police distinguish between two main categories of mountain search and rescue incidents.

  1. Backcountry Ski SAR Incidents (バックカントリースキー遭難)
    These SAR incidents are ones where the individual(s) entered mountains with the intention of skiing or snowboarding or similar. Backcountry Ski Incidents are further split into two more categories.

     

    1. Ski Mountaineering Incidents (スキー登山遭難) – These are a type of Backcountry Ski Search and Rescue Incident whereby the individual(s) entered the backcountry from a trailhead or similar. That is, they did not access the backcountry via an established ski area. For brevity’s sake, we refer to these incidents as Backcountry SAR Incidents.
    2. Ski Search and Rescue Incidents (スキー遭難) – These are a type of Backcountry Ski Search and Rescue Incident whereby the individual(s) accessed the backcountry via a ski area. That is, incidents where the individual(s) were skiing ‘outside of the ropes’ even if the area was sandwiched between two official pistes of a ski area. For sake of brevity, we refer to these incidents as Sidecountry SAR Incidents.
  2. Non-backcountry Ski Mountain Search and Rescue Incidents (バックカントリースキー遭難以外の山岳遭難)  – These encompass all other mountain search and rescue incidents, both summer (hiking, climbing etc) and winter (such as ice-climbing, winter non-ski mountaineering etc). Note that search and rescue incidents related to the common practice of wild edible plant gathering (山菜取り sansaitori) is not included in any of the mountain search and rescue statistics.
NOTE: Aggregate numbers in this post may differ slightly from official Hokkaido Police numbers. This is because while the police monthly reports indicate sidecountry vs. backcountry totals, the individual cases don’t include this as a variable. We’ve analyzed incident descriptions and categorized incidents ourselves to different activity types.

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