Remembering Giichi Sawada- on the 55th Anniversary of his death
By Mamoru Shimizu (Translated by Avi Landau)
Lost Forever in the Hidaka Mountains
At the beginning of March 1965, I was a senior at Hokkaido University looking forward to my graduation ceremony which would be held at the end of the month. My friend Giichi Sawada, who sat next to me in a seminar on animal husbandry at the School of Agriculture, had already submitted his final thesis and it had been approved by his professor.
There was a job waiting for him back in Tokyo, his hometown,and he had already packed up all his belongings and had them shipped back to his parents house- using up the better part of the last allowance payment he would be getting from them before he started receiving a salary of his own.
Having finished up with everything he had to do before graduation, Sawada took off for the Northern Hidaka Mountain Range- his favorite trekking destination – for what he planned as an approximately two-week long spring ski trek- his last one as a student. The course he would take, was popular among members of Hokkaido University`s Mountaineering Club, and one that Sawada, as a former club captain, was very familiar with.
He was to be the leader of a party that consisted of a sub-leader, who was in his junior year, and four freshmen (one of them, a woman). I can only imagine how much he looked forward to the trip.
While still working hard to complete my own graduation thesis, I was already fantasizing about finishing it up, submitting it, packing up and also going off for some spring skiing- with other friends, along a different course. After the graduation ceremony, I had a plan to attend the wedding of couple who had both been my classmates in the Animal Husbandry Department. Most of our graduating class would be there.
My thesis was accepted a few days after Sawada`s had been, so I was free to head off to participate in a week-long ski “training camp” in Niseko, central Hokkaido. After that was finished, I joined some other graduating seniors at the Tokatsu Hot Spring Resort, where we planned to enjoy a long anticipated final “student” ski trip .
I imagined, as I gazed out upon the snow covered Hidaka Range far off in the distance, that Sawada and his party were enjoying the same sort of wonderful weather that we were having.
But several days had passed since they had been scheduled to return from the mountains, and they had still not appeared. Sawada did not make it to the graduation ceremony or to our friend`s wedding either. Though it was not unusual for trekkers to return a few days late from such expeditions, concern was expressed – and the Moutaineering club decided that something had to be done- and a search party was formed.
(This was back before the Ground Self-Defence Force of Japan started to perform search and rescue missions involving trekkers. At that time the members of the university mountaineering club were the most qualified – and possibly the only ones capable of carrying out such a mission.)
And though we still hoped for the best, friends of those missing, like myself, began to seriously worry.
The search team retraced the Sawada Party`s scheduled route. Along the way, they came upon a group of skiers who said that they had in fact met the missing trekkers, apparently while they had still been in the very early stages of their expedition.
Continuing their search, the team approached a V-shaped valley at the foot of Mt. Todabetsu. The mountaineering club had regularly set up camp in that area. Even from afar, they noticed with consternation, that almost all the large trees, white birch and pines, which had once stood in abundance on the slopes, and whose presence had attested to the lack of disasters in that area, had been swept away. Then, upon entering the valley, their worst fears were confirmed when they found that the bottom of the V had been completely filled in with snow and debris. In other words, there had been a massive avalanche there.
The members of the search party began digging systematically over a wide area, but the snow and debris were too deep. Their frantic efforts turned up nothing, and it was decided that they would forge on ahead to continue searching along the lost party`s scheduled route. Finding no traces at all further on, however, they returned to the scene of the avalanche, which they realized must have been where Sawada and his party had been lost.
After the graduation ceremony and wedding that Sawada had planned on attending were over, I moved back to my parents house in Tokyo, where my new place of employment- the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries- was also located. With my friend still missing, my mind remained uneasy, but far from Hokkaido it was difficult to get any information on the progress of the case.
Based on what I had heard about the avalanche site from people who had seen it, it seemed doubtful that there could have been any survivors. The snow was so deep that the rescue workers had decided to give up until the thaw set in late-spring or early summer, when they planned to restart the search.
Throughout the months of April and May, Sawada was always on my mind, no matter how busy I was. Soon, however, all those thought were drowned out as I got caught up in the hectic life of a freshman bureaucrat at the Ministry.
Then in mid-June I received a call from a friend in Sapporro, informing me that the bodies had been found. The story was reported in all the national papers. The media especially played up the fact that one of the members, Sawada, had been found with a Last Will and Testament folded neatly in his pocket. He had apparently written this while buried alive under the deep snow and debris.
Some former classmates living in Tokyo were able to confirm all the stories I had read in the press. The bodies were revealed when the snows had melted away, just where the search party had suspected they would, at the foot of Mt. Todabetsu.
As the days passed, there continued to be follow-up stories in the major newspapers- and not only on a national scale. The international press picked up the story as well. I remember the headline of a story about the incident in the Times of London which went something like: “Young Japanese Alpinist Found Dead with Last Will and Testament”.
Although we had all long resigned ourselves to the fact that the members of the lost party had perished, the discovery of the bodies and the confirmation of their deaths must have come as a second round of shock to the parents of those who had died.
And for Sawada`s mother and father, the existence of the Last Will and Testament must have made what was already unbearable, even more painfully so. The next few weeks were very busy- too busy. The outdoor cremation at the avalanche site (which is customary in such cases), a special memorial service at the university, and then the funeral, which was held in Tokyo. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
While the five other members of the party had apparently died instantly, or very soon, Sawada miraculously survived for several days, entombed beneath the snow and debris. Though we all think of snow as something white and bright, for Sawada, the deep snow meant a world of darkness.
He was,however, immediately able to clear a space around himself so that he could breathe and move around a bit. He continued to enlarge this space little by little- and in the process was also able to find his flashlight and other vital supplies. For the next few days, Sawada desperately tried to dig himself out- but disoriented, he was probably moving in a zigzag pattern, instead of straight up. It also must be remembered that he was not dealing only with snow, but also with fallen trees, rocks and other debris.
Trying to tunnel his way up through all this eventually depleted his physical strength- and he never made it to out to the top. Realizing that he would probably never see the light of day again, Sawada began to compose his Last Will and Testament (translated in its entirety below) .
He wrote it out, in stages, on the back of a Geological Survey of Japan 1: 50,000 scale map of the Hidaka Range. He starts out by objectively assessing the situation that he had suddenly found himself in. Next he wrote: “Mother and Father forgive me ! It appears as if I shall soon be taking my leave of this world . Reborn as another life-form– as I certainly shall be, I will do my best to watch over and protect you.”
He then goes on to express his regret at not being able to live up to the dreams his parents had for him, and by thanking them for all they had done for him. Next, as leader of the trekking party, he apologizes to the other members for having chosen that fatefull spot to set up camp, and to their parents, as well. He thanks his landlady, teachers and upper-classmen and gives words of encouragement to his classmates and friends. Finally, and still without losing his cool, he entrusts the future care of his parents to his sisters.
All this, sentences from the deepest recesses of his heart, were set down on the back of his map, in curvy characters which exude a special kind of warmth. His last words were: “And now I`m done for…… just when I had a new suit made for myself. ” My friends and I all have copies of this Last Will, and each one of us has treasured it over the years. To this day, I cannot look at it without shedding tears.
After the funeral, Sawada`s father set himself to the task of putting together and having printed a Memorial Book which opens with the mournful preface of a bereaved parent. Between the covers of this thick tome are photos and memorial essays written by a variety of contributors. I am also mentioned in it. Anyone looking through this book will soon realize how liked and trusted Sawada was by everyone who had gotten to know him. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. When I try to imagine what Sawada`s state of mind was like while buried under the debris- my imagination fails me. No matter how hard I try, it is just too difficult to do. Defeated, not by man, animal or his own hand- but by the very mountains he loved so well. Left alive, as if by miracle-but, alas, only temporarily, he was fated to struggle for days in the darkness, strength disippating until consciousness faded away.
Its a true story, so why can`t I imagine it? It`s what happened to my close friend- someone I sat next to in class, joked with, went out with, played Mah jong with- someone who had a smile so full of life. We both grew up and went to school in Tokyo- though he attended Hibiya High School, while I went to Toyama- and we both shared a common love of the mountains. ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
Twenty years later, I visited the ranch of some old classmates- the Suzukis- the couple whose wedding Sawada never got to attend. Even as students, it had been their dream to run a ranch of their own. They had a big mortgage, it`s true, but they also had their ranch. A pasture, woods, and halfway up a hill, a tastefully designed 2-story wooden house. In one corner of their front yard there was a stone monument with the name Giichi Sawada engraved on it.
The rectangular slab had been positioned so as to face the valley in Hidaka where Sawada had been buried beneath the snow. This stone monument enabled the Suzukis to express, in a tangeable way, their grief over their lost friend. Upon seeing this stone, I, who over the years had been moving around from place to place for my work, burst into tears, overcome by long supressed emotions. I brought my hands together and bowed my head towards the monument in prayer as I wept.
At that time I did not even have a Buddhist altar in my home. Later after my eldest brother, in-laws, and younger sister, all passed away in quick succession, I did get a small one. Along with the photos and other momentos of my relatives that I kept in the altar`s drawer, I kept Sawada`s photo, name-card and a pick-ax from Switzerland- a country he had long dreamed of visiting- decorated with an edelweiss motif.
At that altar, I have regularly offered incense to his spirit and contemplated his life- and death.
In his Last Will and Testament Sawada urged us, his classmates, to always do our best. There have been times in my life when I have had to resort to his words- and even more often- to his story- for encouragement. I often wonder if I have truly been able to live up to his expectations. As a governement official, there have been times of pressure and stress so severe that I almost felt as if I too had been buried beneath the debris- that a cornice of snow that had been growing larger and larger over my head had come crashing down, engulfing me in darkness. On those occassions, it was always Sawada`s exhortations- and thoughts of him under the debris, which have given me the courage, energy and strength to claw my way out of the darkness.
Now that I have reached my seventieth year, I would like to believe that I have been able to live my life that could live up to the standards set by Sawada in the brief one he had lived. Last March, my old friend came to me in a dream.
In it, I was in London. Sawada, looking just as he did before he had gone off on his fatal trek in Hidaka, was alive and well and in one of the tunnels on the London Underground. He called out to me: “YOO HOO !” as if that subway tunnel had been connected to the hole he`d been trapped in when the avalanche struck.
What a strange dream- and the first time Sawada had ever come to me in one! But what significance did it have? What subconscious feelings did it express?
I had it just as I was about to turn seventy, and exactly forty-nine years after Sawada`s death. And then, just after the dream, I found out that I would have to be hospitalized. I would be needing surgery to remove the cancer that had been found in my colon. I was in the hospital for eighty days. Could there have been some connection? I would like to offer these reflections on the life and death of my old friend, and his impact on my own life- which has seemed so long, yet so short, on the 54th anniversary of his passing- this month- March 2014
The Last Will and Testament of Giichi Sawada (discovered along with his body on June 13th 1965)
On March 14th (day of the week ?) at approximately 2:30 AM ( later, after finding my watch I was able to estimate the time) our camp-site was suddenly struck by an avalanche- and we were buried beneath the debris as we slept.
At first, I thought it was merely the roof of the igloo I was sleeping in which had collapsed on me, but as I was able ,little by little, to clear the area immediately around me, I have found that beyond the spot where the entrance to my shelter once had been, there is now only snow and debris.
The others, it seems, died instantly. Fortunately, there was a little breathing space around my head and I have been able to widen it using a pick-ax that I`ve recovered. I have been able to tunnel ahead for about two meters now. Maybe it`s because of all the debris, but I have not seen even the faintest glimmer of sunlight.
I have already resigned myself to the fact that I am going to die here. It is now 1:10 PM on the 14th. I want to somehow dig my way out of here- but it looks like I have been defeated
I will rest a bit and see how I feel later……………
Mother, Father, I am so sorry. It seems that I shall be going ahead and taking my leave of this world before you do. Surely I will reborn in some other form- and when I am, I will do my best to watch over and protect you.
Mrs. Toda- Sorry. It turns out that you were right with all your worrying. Please forgive me.
Tanaka, Sakai, Matsui, Nakagawa, Hashimoto- Sorry about what has happened. There is no making up for the error that I have made- and there are no do-overs.
To all your mothers – Please forgive me. Your worst nightmares have now come true. All your children can do now is watch over you from heaven.
I am all alone here now and death will surely come- so I hope that the peace of eternal slumber comes to me quickly.
1:20 PM on the 14th
Ozaki- Don`t worry. Its alright.
Naito- How was the Amazon?
Sato, Makinouchi- you were good friends to me.
Sato- I still owe you 5,000 yen.
Umiuchi, Hatae and Koizumi- are already waiting for me over there…… so don`t worry- I won`t be lonely.
Sugiyama- I thank you for all the guidance you`ve given me.
Good-bye to you lab-mates. Matsuda, Oritani- please take over for me.
Please excuse me, Professor Kose. Kamiyama-Sensei- It seems that I will be taking my leave of this world before you do.
Suzuki, Shimizu, Ura, Yamashita, Tanaka, Inoue, Hayashi- all of you- do your best!
When all is lost, life itself is everything. I can now feel death`s presence right before me. How utterly miserable it is to bring grief to my parents by dying out of turn like this.
Matsui is an only child. Hashimoto, like me, is an only son. I can imagine the pain that our parents will experience.
March 14, 15, 16, 17- I have been digging and sleeping, digging and sleeping…… I have only the hands on my watch to help me keep track of the days.
I found my trowel. I have two flashlights and a spare battery. I have emergency rations for 2 people.
I dig and dig but can detect no sunlight- it looks hopeless.
I estimate that I have about a 10% chance of survival. 8 in the morning on the 17th.
I am so sorry Mother. I have to be leaving you before having the chance to return all the good things you have done for me.
Right now I feel relatively at peace. This is no doubt due to the fact that my comrades sleep nearby.
I think that I can hold out down here for about one more week in this hole. Around the 25th, people might start getting worried about us- but a search party would not arrive here until at least the 29th. Even then it is debatable whether they would be able to find me or not.
On the 13th we saw a party of skiiers – they would be able to lead the search party to this spot. We should have greeted them. They pretended not to see us, as well.
Dear Yoshie and Tamayo. I am sorry for dying so soon. It is important for you two to get along with each other so you can take care of Mother and Father as they grow old. Always put in an extra share of affection for me.
Masako- I must entrust you with the care of our parents. Thank you.
Mother- I truly regret having to die now like this.
Well….. I`m done for…… and just when I had bought a new suit……………..
(Translated by Avi Landau)