Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Death March on Mount Hakkōda

Timeless lessons on mountain leadership from a master of documentary fiction

Such was the prestige of the Imperial Army that civilians were once prohibited from owning books about the disaster. But thanks to a film made in 1977, almost everybody in Japan today knows the story - that, just over a century ago, almost 200 soldiers perished in a blizzard on Hakkōda, a mountain in northern Japan. The film took its cue from a deeply researched novel published in 1971 by the meteorologist-turned-writer Nitta Jirō.

The historical facts underlying Nitta's novel are simple. In preparation for the coming war against Russia, the Japanese army embarked on a series of winter exercises designed to train units for combat in Siberia or Japan's northern territories.

Two platoons, one each from the 31st of Hirosaki and the 5th Regiments, set out to traverse the Hakkōda massif in January 1902. The platoon from the 3lst completed the exercise as planned but a ferocious blizzard, probably the worst in the century, caught the men of the 5th out on the open mountain. Of the 210-strong platoon, 199 soldiers froze to death.

Men of the 31st Regiment
on winter manoeuvres
In Death March on Mount Hakkōda, these facts are woven into a story of epic quality. Epic here may be taken in both its mountaineering sense of a miserable time and its literary meaning of a narrative with universal significance.

Partly because the authorities did their best to suppress the facts at the time of the disaster, the author has taken certain liberties with history. The two exercises were, in fact, unrelated, on different dates and followed different routes. But for the purposes of the novel, the platoons are vying for the honour of the first winter crossing of the mountain and it is their rivalry that leads to the disaster.

So, on one level, the book is a study of The Platoon that Got It Right versus The Platoon that Got it Wrong. On one hand, we have good planning, competent leadership, adaptability, proper equipment, careful navigation.

On the other, there is a confused chain of command, inadequate preparation, inflexibility in the face of impossible conditions and the inevitable outcome. The lessons are trenchant and universal. So much so, that, when the novel was first published, one Japanese company bought fifty copies to distribute to their management to impress on them the danger of failing to communicate with their staff.

But there is more than a dry analysis of an accident to this book. Born in 1912 in Nagano, trained as a meteorologist and having survived the war in Manchuria, Nitta Jirō knew his army, weather and mountains. So his account of the 5th and the 31st has the force of personal experience behind it. The feeling of threat as the blizzard approaches, the growing confusion and personality clashes as the 5th's platoon loses its way - these are moments that will be familiar to many a mountaineering leader. Here is Lieutenant Kanda of the ill-fated 5th as he loses control of the situation:

When Kanda turned to Shindo to explain to him, map in hand, why he thought he had been mistaken, Yamada grabbed Shindo's lantern and shone its light on the stump of the branch. "Look, someone cut a branch off this beech to mark the road to Tashiro. Now, go quick and tell the platoon leaders that we've found the way there. That ought to cheer up the men." Kanda had been unable to get a word in. He stood still. A wave of despair washed over him.

The 5th and the 31st are history but the mountain is still there, the winter skies still loom menacingly dark over the snowy ridge, and the panda grass still flutters in the north wind where the gusts have stripped the snow from the crest (Nitta's eye for detail bespeaks long acquaintance with the winter mountains).

And the same mistakes are still made in the mountains, with consequences from which modern Gore-Tex and fibre-pile are sometimes not enough to save us. For these lessons too, Death March on Mount Hakkōda is recommended reading for all summer, winter or armchair mountaineers.


Nitta Jirō, Death March on Mount Hakkoda, translated by James Westerhoven, The Stone Bridge Press, California.

Black-and-white photos are from Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社)

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