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Japan avalanche tragedy a painful reminder for mother who advocates for snow safety

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A avalanche that has claimed the lives of two New Zealand skiers in Japan has stirred emotions for a mother who lost her son there 24 years ago.

Japanese authorities are continuing to investigate after an avalanche at Mt Yotei on the island of Hokkaido claimed two lives.

One of those killed was 21-year-old Christchurch woman Isabella Bolton. The second New Zealander who died has been named by local media as guide Joshua Sellens.

A third New Zealander was injured.

Robyn Gordon of Waihi Beach lost her 18-year-old son James after he was hit by an avalanche while snowboarding at a Japanese skifield in the Hakuba mountains in 2000.

Two of his friends were also killed.

She has devoted much of the 20 years since to teaching avalanche safety in schools, becoming known as the “avalanche lady” as she travelled around the country.

Gordon said when she first heard the news of the latest tragedy her emotions were stirred up and she felt “horror” made worse by the fact that her nephew had left recently for a skiing holiday in the Hokkaido region in Japan.

“That initial feeling was another fear of that happening again to her family.”

She was relieved to find out her nephew was not involved but expressed her sorrow for the families that have been affected.

Joshua Sellens and Isabella Bolton were killed in an avalanche on Mt Yotei in Hokkaido.
Joshua Sellens and Isabella Bolton were killed in an avalanche on Mt Yotei in Hokkaido.

When her son died, the former teacher decided to learn all she could about snow and avalanches and joined the Mountain Safety Council – inspired by the ‘Cycle Lady’ who used to visit schools to help children with bike safety.

“I targeted 18-year-old boys because James was 18 at the time [of his death] and I know how full of living but not so full of sensibility they are.”

Teachers would request that she “scare” the students and then told her her advice had scared them too.

“People don’t realise that when snow moves it has a friction and then when it sets, it sets like concrete – you can’t breathe under there.”

When her son first disappeared she was told he might survive by building a small cave.

“There’s no building a little snow cave. That stuff goes in your nose and in your ears and in your mouth and you can’t breathe.”

The first 15 minutes in the rescue process were crucial, she said.

People should focus on three things before heading into the mountains: do some training to know what to look for and understand what snow does; learn the basics about weather forecasting; and have the right equipment which means a transceiver, a shovel and a probe.

Gordon took backpacks around schools, and showed students how to use the equipment and talked about how snow worked and “just opened their eyes to there’s all this knowledge to gain before you go out there”.

She also encouraged skiers and snowboarders to be part of a group with one person designated as a leader but with everyone playing a part in safety.

“It was to encourage everybody to be in charge of what was happening in the snow.”

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