Question Hokkaido: safety in side-country and backcountry

MickeyE

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At the clear risk of walking into the lion’s den AND not wanting to start anything other than a civil discussion….

I’m heading to Hokkaido in January with 2 sons and 2 friends. I’m party leader (trip instigator) and take on-board safety is a real issue and has to be addressed.

Having read through the numerous and sometimes robust discussion regarding management of risks inherent in back-country skiing I understand the need for :

· Developing own knowledge - preferably via on-snow practical training.

· Expert guidance from a local

· Equipment

· The key points out lined by Damien+others in various forum posts (& repeated below).

· & Knowing what you don’t!

We have booked a guide who has excellent qualifications. He will provide the expert local knowledge, & safety gear (transceiver, probe, shovel) for the guided days (more than half the time)

Also it is understood that while Hokkaido snow pack is more stable than elsewhere in the world and slopes less likely to exceed 30-35 degrees however avalanche dangers still exist. Also the bigger danger is cracks/crevasses.

So at this stage there remain unanswered questions in managing avalanche risk..

· Is it reasonable to turn up in Hokkaido without knowing how a transceiver works & just accept one from the guide ?

· Assume for a moment Airbag packs are FREE (& I mean no cost).
Do they add to safety & would you have your 20 year old son use one in the Hokkiado back-country ?


By the way & this will sound overly harsh so apologies in advance.
Given the history it needs to be said….
”Knowledgeable advice is being sought here from skiers who have spent a season or two in Hokkaido and have practical experience. No opinions looked for from those who have holidayed in Niseko once or twice. “

Cheers & thanks in advance!

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Safety advice from previous Forum posts

https://www.ski.com.au/xf/threads/backcountry-maps-for-niseko-area.63302/

This following information gives some standard (essential) backcountry safety rules. They have been quoted ad nauseum - and for good reasons - in our forums. This may or may not be new information but chances are it will be relevant to some other readers:

· NEVER go into the backcountry alone.

· Tell someone not in your skiing / riding party where you are going and when you will be back.

· Wear (and be familiar with the use of) transceivers, and carry a probe and shovel in your backpack.

· Be educated what to do in an emergency (it's not enough to simply have this equipment). There are CAA (Canadian Avalanche Association) Avalanche Safety courses in Niseko, and many other parts of the world.

· It is likely to be snowing heavily for much of the time you'll be there, so expect disorienting conditions.

· Be aware that snowpacks are generally the most unstable during and just after a blizzard.

· Slackcountry is no different to backcountry- it is unpatrolled and the risks to yours and others' safety are real.

Treat any slope in the backcountry with a gradient exceeding 35 degrees as suspicious, with the potential to slide.

Check your travel insurance for cover outside of resort boundaries - most policies will not cover this.Bookmark this site for a good indication on the day's snowpack conditions - it's updated every morning around 7:45am http://niseko.nadare.info/
 

smackies

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Knowledgeable advice is being sought here from skiers who have spent a season or two in Hokkaido and have practical experience.

Just a thought, the requirement that advice come only from those who have spent a season or two in Hokkaido is likely to have you miss out on a lot of good advice.

I don't think your questions are Hokkaido-specific.
 

telenomore

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PM me MickeyE. Been guiding in central Hokkaido for over thirty years. We can swap phone numbers then. Just one thing. If you have booked a guide already, then part and parcel should be how to use beacons etc. First thing we do anyway, but PM me.

Cheers
John
 

MickeyE

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Just a thought, the requirement that advice come only from those who have spent a season or two in Hokkaido is likely to have you miss out on a lot of good advice.

I don't think your questions are Hokkaido-specific.

Yes - good observation. In this case I'm referring to Hokkaido specifically as we are goinq in Jan 2015 For the season after that it might be back to France or Utah. & true, I wouldn't raise the question for either of those places if venturing into side/back country.
 

telenomore

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Just a thought, the requirement that advice come only from those who have spent a season or two in Hokkaido is likely to have you miss out on a lot of good advice.

I don't think your questions are Hokkaido-specific.
Disagree (here we go). There are not only specific safety, read avalanche issues in different parts of Japan but also in different parts of Hokkaido. For example, Niseko and central Hokkaido have completely different avalanche risk assessments.
 

dawooduck

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Same general Avalanche advice applies in France, Utah and Hokkaido with emphasis in Utah and Hokkaido of powder avalanches and terrain trap burial and in France ... "falling off a mountain and\or crushed to death by glacier fall or falling in a crack".

and then you have the weather and aspect variables.

Have a safe trip.
 

MickeyE

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PM me MickeyE. Been guiding in central Hokkaido for over thirty years. We can swap phone numbers then. Just one thing. If you have booked a guide already, then part and parcel should be how to use beacons etc. First thing we do anyway, but PM me.

Cheers
John


John - thanks & will take up offer. To explain a little about my concern with a briefing on the day...I wanted us trained to be proficient with transceiver in search mode to a point of competence that would enable it to find someone. In a real life situation & the stress that inevitably comes with something going majorly wrong then I think repeated practice will be needed to develop that proficiency.
 

telenomore

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John - thanks & will take up offer. To explain a little about my concern with a briefing on the day...I wanted us trained to be proficient with transceiver in search mode to a point of competence that would enable it to find someone. In a real life situation & the stress that inevitably comes with something going majorly wrong then I think repeated practice will be needed to develop that proficiency.
Mickey, we can help with that as we do sessions near our shop in Furano of an evening. Lot of fun and definitely some stress! But maybe best via PM
Cheers
John
 
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damian

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Hi Micky, I do agree a little with what Smackies said a little... I've only holidays in Niseko once or twice ;) but anyway, here's my opinion:

1) Is it reasonable to turn up in Hokkaido without knowing how a transceiver works & just accept one from the guide ?

2) Assume for a moment Airbag packs are FREE (& I mean no cost).
Do they add to safety & would you have your 20 year old son use one in the Hokkiado back-country ?

1) most guides will give you a basic familiarity session, but in no way will you be even remotely trained on it. As TNM said, training is a different event. For example, it would take me about 1.5 hours of theory and 3 hours of repetitive practice with two simple burial scenarios to get you feeling a little comfortable with using the 3 tools according to a prescribed search and rescue sequence in a controlled setting. Here you go, well worth the click: http://www.avalanche.ca/resources/cac/attachments/rescue-quick-reference

2) They reduce your risk by reducing the consequences of being caught and buried. They do not reduce the risk of slamming into a tree at very high speed in the flow of the avalanche. 25% of people who die in an avalanche are killed by impact trauma. You could use one as an insurance measure. Or, you could agree as a group to avoid slopes over 35 degrees without exception, and to avoid slopes 30-35 degrees at treeline or above if it has snowed more than 30cm and/or been windy in the last 36 hours. That is not a hard and fast rule, but might roughy equate to reducing the the main risk factors in Niseko.

Niseko offers plenty of chances to avoid hazard and still have good riding in great snow. This is an attribute.

Have a great holiday :)
 
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expatgm

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Mickey, if you are staying in controlled terrain( patrolled) avalanche hazard should be a non issue. As your original post sounds like you lack experience in uncontrolled terrain then yes use a guiding service.
 

MickeyE

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oops, I thought you were going to Niseko.... just read again and you did not specify.
Thanks Damian - Actually Niseko-Moiwa & Furano so half right!

In respect of the Airbag Pack "You could use one as an insurance measure."
Insurance measure was my thinking. If there is need to carry a shovel & probe then logically it would equate to the exactly the same need to use other means of reducing risk such as airbag. You need a pack to carry them in so why not go the extra step & make it an airbag.

"Or, you could agree as a group to avoid slopes over 35 degrees without exception, and to avoid slopes 30-35 degrees at treeline or above if it has snowed more than 30cm and/or been windy in the last 36 hours."

This is terriffic advice and is what we will do (did I say was leader? aka Cptn Bligh on my boat). But things don't always go to plan and navigational mistakes can occur despite all the best intentions.
 

skifree

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Having been involved with 2 avalanches at Ashidake and been at Furano when there was an in-bounds avalanche within the roped off avalanche zone (this avi was at 2.00AM so I was asleep in my lodge, but the lesson is do not duck the ropes) they are very very real and will happen.
 

expatgm

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Yes they do happen in controlled boundaries where there will be immediate response from ski patrol or mountain rescue services no matter what the hour. Outside the the boundaries your on your own. If you don't have the skills to be there don't go there.
 

damian

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Thanks Damian - Actually Niseko-Moiwa & Furano so half right!

In respect of the Airbag Pack "You could use one as an insurance measure."
Insurance measure was my thinking. If there is need to carry a shovel & probe then logically it would equate to the exactly the same need to use other means of reducing risk such as airbag. You need a pack to carry them in so why not go the extra step & make it an airbag.


I agree. So long as you don't use the gear to compensate for any lack of knowledge+experience. And don't change your risk appetite at all with safety gear. Ski like you're naked.

I'm one of those people who says an airbag wouldn't change my risk appetite......... and..... then I remember that my risk appetite changes quite dramatically depending on if I'm alone or with a reliable partner. Conclusion: I think with time, we all change our risk appetite based on the risk reduction measures we have in place.

This is threatening to become a philosophical discussion, which is probably not what you were after. :)

 

Endless_Winter

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· Is it reasonable to turn up in Hokkaido without knowing how a transceiver works & just accept one from the guide ?

· Assume for a moment Airbag packs are FREE (& I mean no cost).
Do they add to safety & would you have your 20 year old son use one in the Hokkiado back-country ?

I don't have any guiding qualifications, but I've spent a reasonable time in the (hokkaido) backcountry to help answer your question... my opinion only.

If you don't have any experience and you're heading out with an appropriately qualified guide, they will instruct you in the use of the beacon (and indeed all your safety gear) before you head out, with some beacon finding practice. Having said that, the more proficient (and practised) you are, the easier and quicker it will be in the stress of an avalanche situation to find someone.

My observation is that the majority of people who head out the gates do so without any extra gear and the history of the niseko side country would say this is relatively safe. Not all gates are equal in this regard e.g. Gate 7 is pretty much 'inbounds but off piste' whereas the annupuri back bowl I would equate to backcountry. Personally, I always carry extra gear including avy safety gear, extra layers (down puffy, balaclava, beanie, spare gloves), ski straps, zip ties, foil bivy, tool, duct tape, maybe some hot tea, first aid - if I'm touring I'll add water, food, a snowsaw and possibly rutschblock cord, rope, slings and carabiners.

Regarding airbags, I don't see a massive benefit in having one for most of the terrain in hokkaido (exceptions would include iwaonupuri north face, furanodake, ashibetsudake and some of the steeper gullies on the kyogoku and kutchan sides of yotei i.e. steep alpine terrain), particularly around niseko if you're 'dipping your toes in the water'. Most of the touring you will do (if it's deep winter) will be below the treeline not much above 30 degrees and, as damian points out, there is more risk from being sifted through trees (and the resulting trauma) where an airbag only provides marginal benefit.

Backcountry nous is something that comes slowly. I'm far from an expert :rolleyes: and I learn something every time I head out. Use every opportunity with a guide to learn and ask questions. Think about an avalanche course. Chuck from Hokkaido Powder Guides runs a few AST 1 (canadian avalanche centre syllabus) classes every winter in niseko and there's other providers around as well (maybe black diamond?). Being able to identify and avoid the lee of wind-loaded ridge lines will keep you out of the highest avalanche risk areas around Hokkaido.

When you're ready to cut the umbilical cord to a guide and head in the backcountry out on your own, do it somewhere with low consequence preferably non avalanche terrain (<30 degrees). Spend half-an-hour at the trailhead with your group checking your beacons and practising probing and shovelling.

You seem to have a cautious attitude, that's good! Remember, it's not all about avalanches. Hokkaido mid-winter presents other risks (like you said - limited visibility combined with disorienting terrain, even below the treeline). One grove of birch looks just like another! When descending, the key for me is knowing where the fall line takes you and where do I want to end up with regard to the fall line. The cold temperatures and short day combined with an injury or gear failure deep in the backcountry is also a danger. Glide cracks are another (as you've identified)and lately kill more people than avalanches around niseko.
 
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CarveMan

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You seem to have a cautious attitude, that's good!

That's the best part about this thread and should be applauded. There are plenty of opinions out there on the relative safety of skiing in Niseko, but the OP should be congratulated for at first acknowledging that it's not 100% safe and that he & his group should take precautions.

It's that first step from complete ignorance to realising that there is an issue that's arguably the biggest, and it can only get better from that initial awareness.
 

damian

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There is good spirit here.

I remember my wife and I applying all sorts of roped travel and safety systems on glaciers when we were in fact on ice that did not even really need it. But if we didn't practice as a team then, when were we ever going to learn? In the deep end?

Also: in the absence of, even in addition to, an avalanche bulletin, local info is valuable. So feed off your guide's knowledge and plug into guys like TNM.

(did I say was leader? aka Cptn Bligh on my boat)

Bligh caused the great Irish potato famine. Anyway, this may sound condescending, but that is not the intention at all, not even subconsciously... remember that your job as a leader is to facilitate advance planning and also real-time risk discussions. Leaders facilitate. Reckon you have that worked out already :)
 

sli1

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Please be careful to avoid being completely avy focussed when there are many other factors to consider when BC.
A medical emergency in the BC in a non English speaking country creates serious risks that need mitigation. I experienced the most harrowing day of my life when my wife was involved in a life threatening injury only 30 minutes skiing from Chisenpurri 18 months ago. She was ultimately saved through a helivac to Sapporo. Those that know the area realise that having weather that allows a helicopter lift in Jan was pure fluke. Also consider that if you are the leader, what happens if you need assistance from your group. Are they equipped with the knowledge and skill to find a solution?
 
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damian

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Sli, it's been a while. I was horrified when I saw what your wife, and you, endured. With tree skiing that serious hazard is always so close. And in bad weather and foreign land... as you explained.
 
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Salacious Crumb

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I suggest sifting through YouTube , just type avalanche training. Most of it is common sense. The key is reading the terrain and snowpack, this can take years and only comes with experience.
 

tbnext

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I don't have any guiding qualifications, but I've spent a reasonable time in the (hokkaido) backcountry to help answer your question... my opinion only.

If you don't have any experience and you're heading out with an appropriately qualified guide, they will instruct you in the use of the beacon (and indeed all your safety gear) before you head out, with some beacon finding practice. Having said that, the more proficient (and practised) you are, the easier and quicker it will be in the stress of an avalanche situation to find someone.

My observation is that the majority of people who head out the gates do so without any extra gear and the history of the niseko side country would say this is relatively safe. Not all gates are equal in this regard e.g. Gate 7 is pretty much 'inbounds but off piste' whereas the annupuri back bowl I would equate to backcountry. Personally, I always carry extra gear including avy safety gear, extra layers (down puffy, balaclava, beanie, spare gloves), ski straps, zip ties, foil bivy, tool, duct tape, maybe some hot tea, first aid - if I'm touring I'll add water, food, a snowsaw and possibly rutschblock cord, rope, slings and carabiners.

Regarding airbags, I don't see a massive benefit in having one for most of the terrain in hokkaido (exceptions would include iwaonupuri north face, furanodake, ashibetsudake and some of the steeper gullies on the kyogoku and kutchan sides of yotei i.e. steep alpine terrain), particularly around niseko if you're 'dipping your toes in the water'. Most of the touring you will do (if it's deep winter) will be below the treeline not much above 30 degrees and, as damian points out, there is more risk from being sifted through trees (and the resulting trauma) where an airbag only provides marginal benefit.

Backcountry nous is something that comes slowly. I'm far from an expert :rolleyes: and I learn something every time I head out. Use every opportunity with a guide to learn and ask questions. Think about an avalanche course. Chuck from Hokkaido Powder Guides runs a few AST 1 (canadian avalanche centre syllabus) classes every winter in niseko and there's other providers around as well (maybe black diamond?). Being able to identify and avoid the lee of wind-loaded ridge lines will keep you out of the highest avalanche risk areas around Hokkaido.

When you're ready to cut the umbilical cord to a guide and head in the backcountry out on your own, do it somewhere with low consequence preferably non avalanche terrain (<30 degrees). Spend half-an-hour at the trailhead with your group checking your beacons and practising probing and shovelling.

You seem to have a cautious attitude, that's good! Remember, it's not all about avalanches. Hokkaido mid-winter presents other risks (like you said - limited visibility combined with disorienting terrain, even below the treeline). One grove of birch looks just like another! When descending, the key for me is knowing where the fall line takes you and where do I want to end up with regard to the fall line. The cold temperatures and short day combined with an injury or gear failure deep in the backcountry is also a danger. Glide cracks are another (as you've identified)and lately kill more people than avalanches around niseko.
What a great post
 
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climberman

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Bligh was up against corrupt vested interests in the colony.
He seems to be the kind of guy who was up against it everywhere, and faced courtmarshall three or four times.

No-one rushed to assist him when he was arrested (and absconded to Tassie - where he was basically retained on ship arrest for two years).

I suspect he was a wanker and bastard, who was poor at relationships.
 

CarveMan

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Please be careful to avoid being completely avy focussed when there are many other factors to consider when BC.
A medical emergency in the BC in a non English speaking country creates serious risks that need mitigation. I experienced the most harrowing day of my life when my wife was involved in a life threatening injury only 30 minutes skiing from Chisenpurri 18 months ago. She was ultimately saved through a helivac to Sapporo. Those that know the area realise that having weather that allows a helicopter lift in Jan was pure fluke. Also consider that if you are the leader, what happens if you need assistance from your group. Are they equipped with the knowledge and skill to find a solution?

After my trip to Japan I felt like I was exposed to totally different hazards than in Europe where I do most of my BC skiing - I think terrain traps and tree wells are the scariest part of Japan, in these cases it doesn't take much of a slide, or even just a mis-step to be upside down and not able to breathe.

I realise that large slab avalanches can happen in places like the Happo backside etc but I didn't get to experience that as when i was in Hakuba 2.5m of snow fell on a rain crust!
 

Salacious Crumb

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After my trip to Japan I felt like I was exposed to totally different hazards than in Europe where I do most of my BC skiing - I think terrain traps and tree wells are the scariest part of Japan, in these cases it doesn't take much of a slide, or even just a mis-step to be upside down and not able to breathe.

I realise that large slab avalanches can happen in places like the Happo backside etc but I didn't get to experience that as when i was in Hakuba 2.5m of snow fell on a rain crust!

Agree tree wells are the biggest danger. In Canada I heard of someone falling into one where a bear was hibernating, he got out and the bear didnt flinch - but serously scary stuff right there.
 

travelislife

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Here is a video from last season which is a little scary. . From the annupuri bowl, what most people going out the gates would consider 'safe' without a second thought.
 

telenomore

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Here is a video from last season which is a little scary. . From the annupuri bowl, what most people going out the gates would consider 'safe' without a second thought.
Just from an educational point of view Travelslife, do you know if they had beacons etc? or just got lucky? Clearly had a shovel and a probe. Did they have the gear or get it from someone else? Only if you know.
 

Rush

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On topic - I need some guide recommendations for Niseko in early February next year. Travel insurance won't let me go past the gates without one.

(Not that I wouldn't have used one anyway, at least for the first few days).
 

dawooduck

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Just from an educational point of view Travelslife, do you know if they had beacons etc? or just got lucky? Clearly had a shovel and a probe. Did they have the gear or get it from someone else? Only if you know.

Looks like one person with a shovel and perhaps a probe but doesn't look like any beacons. Looks very much like an atypical recreational side country group so perhaps unlucky got lucky.
 

sli1

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Sli, it's been a while. I was horrified when I saw what your wife, and you, endured. With tree skiing that serious hazard is always so close. And in bad weather and foreign land... as you explained.
Hi Damian, yes have been absent for quite some time!
When I did the avalanche training course with you it really struck me how hard it is to actually move a decent volume of snow with shovels. Those dipping their toe in the BC often do beacon practice and can become quite proficient at it but the practice stops there. How many people actually practice the recovery component ? Two people (let alone one) digging to remove 1 tonne of snow requires excellent physical fitness, ie it is exhausting. Ideally you want your partners to know how to use their equipment, be in excellent physical condition and carry good equipment (serious shovels for a start)
 

travelislife

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Guy who got pulled out definitely wasn't carrying any BC gear. Was only another skier who pulled up with a shovel, etc., just lucky he didn't end up fully under.
 

Angus_McCrory

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Guy who got pulled out definitely wasn't carrying any BC gear. Was only another skier who pulled up with a shovel, etc., just lucky he didn't end up fully under.
You don't think he wasn't fully buried.... : at 2:00 min (approx) "Thank God for a probe, without a probe we would not have found you"
 

telenomore

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Looks like one person with a shovel and perhaps a probe but doesn't look like any beacons. Looks very much like an atypical recreational side country group so perhaps unlucky got lucky.
Im just wondering if they had the shovel or someone who stopped to help.
 

travelislife

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You don't think he wasn't fully buried.... : at 2:00 min (approx) "Thank God for a probe, without a probe we would not have found you"

You might be right, I wasn't there, was a friend of a friend of a friend, so anything I heard was at least 3rd hand, but I am pretty sure his crew weren't carrying gear and it was others in the area who were who helped dig out.
 

MickeyE

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T_ISLIFE thanks for the video. Very sobering. From an educational perspective would you mind giving a few more details about the conditions that lead up to this incident (preceding weather, warnings on day, own observations, Slope +/- 30 deg)?

Thanks CLIMBERMAN's for a truly excellent response to my self professed boat captaincy style.
I will have to soften that leadership style in Japan for fear of a Hokkaido mutiny.

ENDLESSWINTER - really appreciate the extended essay and will take on board the advice. Thank you.

& thanks to all the contributors & the collective wisdom. Just off to buy a transceiver etc & something to put it in....
 
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