Report by Jiro Ito
Owner of the Kumonodaira Mountain Hut in the Northern Alps. Born in 1981. From Tokyo. Spent childhood summer times in the Kurobe riverhead. In 2002, becomes the general manager of Kumonodaira Mountain Hut, which was owned by his father Shoichi Ito. In 2010, using conventional building methods in Japan, he led and completed the construction of the current Kumonodaira Mountain Hut.
One day on June, on a day before a scheduled unloading activity in airway company T, we received one call. “All the helicopters are out of order, so we cannot do unloading for a while”. This is when it all began.
Currently in July 2019, many mountain huts face a major threat. Business and daily necessity supplies stopped reaching the mountain huts. Several years ago, two major helicopter companies have lodged an official withdrawal to supply transportation, and there were concerns due to cases of increased prices and denied agreements. The situation turned worse when another helicopter company, which was the last fort, had stopped functioning after a series of accidents, loss of staff as a result of that and a recent machine trouble. The impact of this was unprecedented.
This may seem like an issue between the mountain huts and helicopter companies, however there is a bigger story behind this. It is like the shattering of the whole mountain climbing culture as a result of the lack of economical and cultural backbone. From the historical private nature of the mountain huts to the lack of governmental support for national parks, these issues are not addressed enough.
This will be a very long article where I summarized what I see as the root cause of the issue we are seeing as well as some possible solutions,and I ask you to please continue to read. It would be my utmost delight if you could share this and help raise awareness.
Firstly, I would like to make it clear. This is a problem that I was deeply involved in so I would need to be careful with my wording, however I am motivated to write about it since it could make mountain huts and Japan’s national parks be at a crossroad. I pray any people relevant whether from mountain huts, national parks, and airline companies could walk a constructive future.
Now back to speaking about the withdrawal of helicopters on goods transportation. After 2 weeks from the stop in helicopter functioning, one helicopter had recovered and had started bringing supplies again. However, there is still no concrete plan on how to send supplies stably to more than 10 mountain huts spread over the vast mountain; and the poor weather conditions only make it harder.
As far as I know there are various huts that are impacted. There are mountain huts that cannot provide meals due to inadequate food supplies, huts running out of fuel, huts that don’t get supplies even 6 months after opening, huts that had planned to dismantle in winter and reassemble in summer but had to postpone their reopening due to lack of supplies (I cannot say I take into consideration all information, but it is said that currently in early August the matter has been resolved for most huts). Kumonodaira Mountain Hut is certainly no exception. Out of the unloading supplies planned in 26th June, 10th July, 21st July, only half have reached the hut and the site is forced to navigate through a difficult situation.
The important point is, that even if for a while the supply issue seems resolved in the surface, the main “Mountain Hut helicopter threat” is still not addressed. This issue is likely to continue to grow. If the immediate 1 to 2 months is seen as a short-term threat with yellow signal, the threat level for the longer term of 1 to 10 years would be a red signal. This current incident could become the trigger for the bigger threat where helicopters may stop sending supplies from more huts.
Not only that, this is not just a simple story of “mountain hut business crisis”, “impact of poor weather” or “internal trouble in a helicopter company”; nor a question of whether mountain climbing is possible or not this Summer. We are hit hard by the effects of the “lack of sustainable operating systems for Japanese national parks and mountain climbing culture”, which was already aware to some degree but not dealt with.
In Japan’s national parks, especially in the Northern Alps, mountain huts (and other private organizations) play a public role in many ways and are responsible for maintenance and operation. Even if we list up the very public part of these activities, we can see many varieties whether emergency evacuation facilities, mountain rescue, mountain trail maintenance, establishment of clinics or meal and information supplying to mountain climbers.
On the other hand, administrative agencies such as the ministry of environments have very low budget and is short-staffed (5 official rangers across the whole Northern Alps). Hence they don’t have the process in place to be actively involved in the site (This is because the government was not directly involved in the site with the idea of protecting nature from the time the national park was established, but was rather treated it as a starter and licensing source for their tourism policy. In the Northern Alps, since during the reclamation activities the mountain hut founders and private organizations took the lead and inevitably created the national park mainly for “private businesses”).
However, until now the government has not evaluated the public nature of mountain huts to the point it was part of the system, even when the mountain huts face major crisis there is no support system for the operation of the mountain huts. That is why the crisis of mountain huts are directly linked with the management issues of national parks.
In a nutshell, some issue caused the helicopter companies to withdraw completely from the transportation of supplies, or due to some trouble helicopter operations stop. That leads to the mountain hut business suffering, resulting in major disruption to the operation of national parks and there is no reasonable solution. There is not even law that deals with this issue. The bankruptcy of mountain huts is only seen as personal trouble by private businesses. There is no obligation for helicopter companies to continue supplying goods to the mountain huts and there is no alternative measure where helicopter companies in trouble will get arrangement of other helicopters by the government.
Even if the desolation of mountain trails become too much for the mountain huts to handle themselves, the government has no means of acting. Therefore, government itself lacks publicness. That is why the operation of national parks is ultimately not assured anywhere.
In the early 1960s, helicopters were the lifeline of mountain hut operation. Before that, mountain huts were built within the vicinity where it was possible to carry supplies by human foot, they would secure daily necessities and food, then carried out all building activities using human resources. It was customary for guests to bring some of their own food. However, once the transportation of goods to the mountains by helicopters became practical, all development of mountain huts followed.
The 2-day job of carrying a 60-80kg backpack per person up the mountain to Kumonodaira, was replaced by a helicopter ride which could carry 500-1500kg per trip and only take 15 minutes for a round-trip. Expenses were greatly reduced, mountain hut construction became modernized everywhere, generators, phones, wireless networks, frozen food, beer and juice were all equipped as though it was natural. Needless to say, bio toilets and solar power generation systems were also installed in recent years too.
This high convenience in mountain huts brought the current, widely accepted form of mountain climbing. There are mechanisms to minimize the risk of mountain climbing such as communication networks, abundant food, provision of bedding, setting up clinics and more. This allowed tours, beginners and seniors to climb the mountain too. Employment of staff became more feasible too as the modern living condition were established.
Depending on how you look at it, it may be the Japanese national parks were one of the many things that made mountain climbing feasible for more people, and even though the current mountain climbing style seems like excessive service, helicopters were in fact definitely the what established the mountain climbing environment for this 50 years. Japan’s current “mountain climbing” culture is at the same time a “mountain hut” culture. However, that is like a double-edged sword that would shatter vulnerably if transportation of supplies by helicopters stop completely.
Further, because there are no public support systems for the business environment, mountain huts would need to work on their own survival and development themselves using any possible ways as a private business to secure revenue (*1). Ideas like overuse, large tours and mountain climbing for seniors, which comes from a more public standpoint like nature conservation, are difficult to move towards implementation. While Japanese national parks lack creativity when it comes to nature conservation, they are “mass-tourism-like”. At the same time media and government visits the nature, the transmission of information required to visit the mountain hut and public works are done by “privately run national parks. Public and commercial sectors are mixed, with some contradictions.
I believe the helicopter issue of mountain huts started surfacing around 2010 when Kumonodaira mountain hut had it’s rebuilt. It may be that the great earthquake in east Japan at 2011 had some effects. Before that, airway T (abbreviated) had a large share, however 4 companies co-existed while having a good amount of competition with each other and transported supplies to mountain huts in the Northern Alps. Since 2010 company A, N and S started withdrawing from goods transportation activities at a rapid rate.
At the time, company N who was in partnership with Kumonodaira mountain hut also suddenly accounted their intention to withdraw from the goods transportation, as well as that they would double their transportation costs gradually within the next 3 years. There was no room for negotiation as it was a one-way announcement. The following dialogue, by one representative from company N, tells briefly the next series of occurrence.
“As the time goes, we are seeing large scale private businesses like pesticide spraying and forestry disappearing. As the demand for helicopters are limited, we will have to move away from the traditional wide and shallow revenue streams. We will need to start relying on large scale construction with electric power companies and public businesses where unit prices are high.”
Perhaps this is an inevitable financial decision by the helicopter industry, and a survival strategy. Goods transportation to the mountain hut is a typical high-risk low return job due to the difficulty working smoothly with the severe weather conditions. Since then, Company N, A and S followed the withdrawal, with more mountain huts being denied agreements, resulting in many of the mountain hut goods transportation being heavily dependent on airway company T.
Historically, airway company T has pride in the mountain aviation business. They have been taking on as many mountain hut jobs as possible and have organized training in order to grow their pilots to be capable of the difficult maneuvering required in the mountain. They have also secured several amounts of helicopters that can be deployed to the mountain huts, and Kumonodaira mountain hut too after a long discussion in the end of 2017, have been agreed to have airway T’s partnership with the goods transportation.
It was then the situation got worse. Airway T’s large-scale helicopter crashed, and largely disrupted any business plans. Airway T, as their representative quoted, “had 10 pilots and helicopters to do 10 jobs, but after the loss of the large-scale helicopter, gradually many issues caused loss of pilots until their capabilities dropped to handling 10 jobs with just 5 or 6 pilots.”
The bottom line is that if a helicopter suffers an accident, the Aviation Bureau imposes severe penalties and restrictions, making it difficult for the flow of business. It is already considered a huge risk to have airway T becoming the only company who handles goods transportation for mountain huts.
If that only airway had an accident during the middle of the mountain hut season, the situation would be irreparable. Everyone could easily anticipate this coming and feel the potential risk. In recent years even at the meeting in the mountain huts, there were voices calling for government to take into consideration a chance of intervening with the goods transportation, however without any clues to resolve this problem, time has passed until the situation we have now. (*2)
Due to a series of aircraft troubles, that operate on tight schedules, and poor weather conditions, the overcrowded schedule became unmanageable. Although everything has not fallen apart yet, however a vast majority of mountain huts carry a sense of crisis in the current situation.
Airway company T as well has commented against the reality that, “at this rate we will definitely need to review and terminate some of our agreements with the mountain huts soon. The 3 other airway companies that withdrew from the mountain hut job earlier still has some mountain hut jobs remaining, however they will not add new jobs. If in the future many mountain huts fail to renew their contract with airway company T, or have business operations affected due to largely reduced number of transportation, there is no other viable options to get through the situation. This is exactly the turning point where we must act.
One thing I can say that there is no point in playing the blame game. Basically, the problem is the lack of a reasonable system whereby national parks and Japanese mountain climbing is kept sustainable. The lack of knowledge and manpower within the government to correctly assess the reality of national parks makes the problem unsolvable. It is urgently necessary to assess accurately which element of the mountain hut operation and helicopter’s goods transportation has how much publicness. It is then important to create a sustainable system. As much these are personal opinions, I wish to suggest some solutions to the problem below.
◎Currently, helicopter companies have the freedom to stop transporting goods to mountain huts unconditionally, and there is no obligation for them to maintain the public infrastructure. As this is part of the root of the problem, as part of the system we should add these obligations. To achieve this, several helicopter companies will need to be involved too.
◎At the same time, it is an inevitable business decision for private helicopter companies to avoid high-risk low return jobs including ones at the mountain hut. Hence the government should issue subsidies to helicopter companies to make them sustainable. Also, if the goods transportation cost rises excessively as much to make the survival of mountain huts difficult, we need a system to keep the unit price constant. This should be like the way it is done with ferries on a remote island.(*3)(*3)
◎Further, the government should install helicopters that can be used in an emergency to rectify the situation. This should work the same way as a humanitarian support system during a disaster. In fact, helicopters by the prefectural police, which are purposed mainly for rescue of mountain climbers in national parks, have a large budget. Considering that, even if this is a paid job, wouldn’t it make sense to have helicopters invested to the stabilization of national park operations?
◎As we take permanent measures, probably the most difficult task is to determine the publicness of various parts of the business for the mountain hut and helicopter company. Mountain huts are composed of various segments and in reality, there are situations of disparity too.
For example, popular huts with good access from remote areas have low running costs like helicopter charges and has a longer opening hour. It is easier for mountain climbers to visit, they are blessed with the economic strength to invest in human resource, facilities and PR, and have the manpower and time to do maintenance work for mountain tracks.
Micro huts with harder access are the complete opposite. Running costs including helicopter costs are high and the opening hour is short. It is harder for mountain climbers to visit, they don’t have the economic strength to hire enough staff, no resources available to be invested to the facility and PR, effort and time are used up doing maintenance of mountain tracks.
As a result, the former has great popularity and climbers are willing to pay even if accommodation costs rise. In the latter case, the facilities cannot be renewed, it is difficult to increase accommodation fee for it’s standard in a general service industry and the salary of the staff will increase; leading to the disparity with the former mountain huts.
In a more specific case for helicopter costs, say if the former had their cost increased from 50,000yen per transportation to 100,000yen, if we apply the same increase rate to the remote mountain huts, their cost rises per transportation from 100,000yen to 200,000yen. If we consider the helicopter unit price, publicness of mountain huts, and the causal relationship of the disparity, I believe it would be fair to pay subsidies to the helicopter company and make the transportation costs for mountain huts constant.
◎The immediate threat is for the business to become inoperable, however we can also foresee the risk where the aging mountain hut becomes impossible to be rebuilt. The most important role for a mountain hut is its presence as a building and an evacuation site. However, the construction fee is twice or 3 times that of construction in a town and, although it depends on the location, in most cases most of the revenue made by mountain huts would be gone after rebuilding and large-scale repair jobs.
10 years ago, during the construction of Kumonodaira mountain hut, helicopter goods transportation alone costed 40 million yen. If we were to do the same construction today, the transportation cost alone would easily exceed 100 million yen. Not only that, currently it is unlikely that the helicopters will operate according to schedule, so when we consider the tight schedule of needing to complete the construction during a time when there is no snow, everything starts to look unachievable.
To make the matter even worse, due to the recent rise in construction cost it could take decades for the mountain huts to return their debt. If this happens, the hut construction would become unprofitable, and this private business will fail to stand as a business. The banks will not be willing to listen to them in the first place too.
◎Many put hope on the recent emergency of drones, however I believe this will not become truly practical. Even if in the near future it becomes possible for drones to transport heavy goods, in the end I can only imagine it following the same path as the helicopters.
Currently it is mainstream to have small-size drones, there is no clear licensing and maintenance processes, and legal regulations are still weak. However, once we have large drones that can carry over 100kg, there will likely be strict legal regulations like that of helicopters. As this will involve remote controlling in the mountains where communication is not stable, we can expect a long time for the establishment of a legal system that addresses safety and technology.
The business model of mountain huts has so far been supported by the explosive increase in domestic demand, due to increased population after the war, as well as economic growth and the golden age of helicopter businesses. So, at this current time, when all these conditions are falling apart, we can no longer call this a permanent business model.
If goods transporting with helicopters are not an option anymore, can we go back to transporting goods by foot? (That is, in a time where we lack such type of career, and the more remote mountain huts would be the first to be pressured to make decisions.) All meals will be non-perishable foods, no beer will be sold, lamps will be used, staff’s bath will be prepared using firewood and bio toilets will be downgraded to a pit latrine despite how much subsidies were spent installing them.
How much can the private business bear with the situation as the sales keep dropping? If the mountain huts stop functioning as a private business it will naturally die out, yet as pert of national park management, to what extent should we be tolerating the issues where mountain huts disappear or turn into self-catering huts. Many mountain huts are moving backwards from an advanced hut to a basic hut like in the old time, and as a result there is great impact in the economic benefit that was gained by national parks and mountain climbing culture. Is it reasonable for the society that this is all dependent on the business decision made by the helicopter companies?
Can the Ministry of the Environment, despite being short-staffed, intervene in the management of the hut? Is it possible for the media to continue passively transmit information focused on the theme of “walking the mountain without mountain huts”, or continue working while focusing on the surviving mountain huts? How many climbers can adapt to mountain climbing where food and bedding is not provided, no measures for mountain search and rescue exist, and mountain trails are not maintained.
These are all extreme cases. However, while previously it was possible to let the changing times solve concerns, from here every stakeholder involved in the mountain climbing culture would need to make clear decisions and tradeoffs. We need answers on how we will assess the publicness of mountain huts as we look at the various level of services and responsibility of mountain trail management, and how we reconstruct mountain climbing environments and national parks as sustainable systems.
The urgent task if the helicopter problem we are facing now.
Who will and how will we deliver goods to the mountain huts and climbers?