A Story of Survival and Tragedy
No, this is not about James Kim. It just so happens that at the same time as the Kim story was unfolding, I ran across an article in a newsletter of from the International Adventure Club here in Tokyo. (The IAC is a club for outdoor enthusiasts which I just rejoined after having let my membership lapse for a few years.)
If you are in Japan or read Japan related blogs, you may have heard of the people that died on Mt. Shirouma earlier this year in a snowstorm. From the news reports, the only thing that could be concluded is that they were hiking out there without enough gear to weather a night in the elements. Some of the bodies were found very close to safety, and we are left wondering "how could they have died? Even a little but of preparation should have kept them safe."
Reading this first-hand account (the story begins on page 7 of the pdf) by an IAC member who was trapped in a hut atop Mt. Shirouma during the storm, and actually helped to warm one of the survivors of this tragedy with body heat, as well as watch others die, I am left with a little more perspective into the incident. With the Kim ordeal there seems to be a lot of pointless judgements from people in warm safe cubicles, based on hind-sight, so I don't want to say anything about what the people did wrong or right, but I think anyone that reads this article will find it fascinating, and will be able to come to their own conclusions (or follow the author's) regarding their own outdoor dos and don'ts.
I highly recommend it - perhaps more highly than anything else I have ever linked to on this blog.
Saturday morning was snowing and windy. We decided we would start out along the ridge towards Yari where I have climbed before and if conditions deteriorated we would return. We'd just hoisted our packs and were heading out when one of the staff came in and said the snow would freeze later and we had some severe rock sections to climb which would be icy. He said directly if we went we would die.
After about an hour of feet warming we made the 10 minute climb to the summit - it was bleak up there. I had fleece gloves under Gore-Tex and my fingers froze in that short 10 minutes. Not nice weather.
Then the author tried to go to a nearby hut with a pay-hone...
- but when I got to the ridge which I needed to walk along for 20 mins - I couldn't even stand. I was doubled over holding onto the largest rock I could find and then as I was retreating a big gust lifted me off my feet and shortened my descent.
Later that day...
Around 5.30, already dark, the leader of a group of 6 from Kyushu who had come up from Toyama struggled in and said his 6 members were close but in a very distressed state. He then went out ALONE to try and rescue them.
The hut staff formed a search party and headed out. They returned with one woman - Nomura-san. I took her to the drying room and got her clothes off and put her in my space blanket. She has nearly hypothermic but not too bad. Next Yamaguchi-san was brought in and she was not in a good state at all. I managed to get her overclothes off but she was flailing about screaming "itai, itai, itai" ("it hurts") referring to her thighs. I was desperately trying to get her wet trousers off. She was rolling round the ground though and it was rather like a wrestling match.
her [Nomura-san] temperature began to fall so I took my shirt off and lay for two hours pressing a minute 67 year old's body to my near-naked one! She really is tiny and I had my huge leg over her but when I suggested I remove it she asked me to please keep it on her.
The really hard to believe part....
None of the hut staff seemed to know what to do with Yamaguchi-san so one of our group took over and got her clothes off and into the space blanket. She was not doing well and it really looked as though she was not going to make it. We asked another woman to get into the space blanket with her and slowly she warmed up.
The account goes on to describe how two members of the party died in the hut, and how they made their escape the next day down the snowfield where there had already been two avalanches earlier that weekend.
After reading this report, rather than wondering why the hikers weren't prepared with emergency shelter (it appears that even if they had had a tent they would have died - the real problem was pushing on when they should have called it a day), I am left wondering how and why the people in the hut were not prepared to handle emergency situations such as this. Why didn't they know what to do? And WHY was there a need to warm someones body with the author's own "near-naked" body? I passed by that area two weeks before the incident and was amazed that there was a pay-phone and post-office at 3,000 meters. They have beer and souvenirs to sell the hikers, as well as fuel to cook extremely expensive meals - all encouraging people to come to the mountains unprepared. How could they not have enough fuel and water to heat a tub to warm the hypothermic climbers? What kind of a chutohanpa (Japanese for "half-ass") mountain hut is that?
Of course, I was not there, and when I visit again next year (or perhaps this winter) I will be sure to check out how equipped is "reasonably" equipped for the hut.
The blue line in the google earth screenshot above is from one of my earlier hikes there, but it shows the general area where the people where hiking. The incidents described in the account took place in the top right hand corner, where the blue line turns south. The snowfield she describes is just to the left of that. The direction the hikers from Kyushyu came from would be along the ridge from the bottom of the photo. The winds were coming from the right hand side. You can imagine how exposed anyone would have been on that almost 3,000 meter ridge. The photo below is Tomoe standing where a week later there would be the snow storm described in the account.