Climbing Mount Fuji for NMMU

On Friday 7th August, the Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), Professor Derrick Swartz, climbed Mount Fuji in Japan to raise funds for academically deserving students in financial need. To date, his climb initiative has raised R800 000.

Straight after completing the climb Prof Swartz wrote about his experience, and emailed it from Japan:

On Friday, 7 August, 2015, I left my hotel in central Tokyo for the bus terminal at Shinjuku station at 5am, dozy and packing a bag that felt too heavy. I reasoned to myself that since it was mostly food, I would eat it down to size along the way.

Disaster nearly struck at the outset as the bus almost left without me, due to being lost in translation. Happily this was averted and we departed at 6am, driving through an impressive mega-metropolis, with its 14 million people, most still asleep.

At 7.40am we reached the foothills of the slumbering giant, and the bus dropped me off at Fuji-san station, alone, and hauling my big bag. From here I caught a taxi to a drop-off point called Umagaeshi. It was the same location where monks in the 5th century dismounted from horseback to climb the mountain, known as Fuji San, and regarded as sacred by the Japanese.

From here, a steep, labyrinth-like, forested pathway leads some distance to the start of the Yoshida Trail – the main hiking trail up Mount Fuji.

As the taxi driver drove away, I was instantly alone in a strange forest, surrounded by nature’s sound; crickets and a chorus of other calls in the searing heat. My heart was beating faster, a combination of anxiety and excitement as I told myself: this is it, what I have been waiting for!

After strapping on my backpack, and taking a photo, I started my journey along the pathway at 8.18am, through the Tori gate, guarded by a granite monkey statue. A wooden signpost tells you its 10.4kms to the summit. It was humid, but fortunately the forest canopy offered some relief from the heat.

I was immediately struck by the steepness of the ascent, up carefully laid stones, and I soon felt my leg muscles straining as I climbed. I wondered if this tough start was a way of warning off chancers; those who do not respect the pilgrimage.

Thirty minutes into the climb, I was already breathing heavily. Although I am in good shape, and had trained hard for it, my bag felt just too heavy so early into the climb.

I pressed on and grinned as images of Charlie Sheen’s character in the jungles of Vietnam from the movie ‘Platoon’ flashed through my mind – but there was no Sergeant Elias in sight!

It was two to three hours to the 5th base camp. I gritted my teeth, reminded myself of grueling climbs I had completed with mates over the past few months in Tsitsikamma and Norway, and grinded down.

Lush, green and filtering sunlight, the forest had an amazing spirit, and I imagined ancient monks, warriors and travellers passing the same way, aeons ago.

I passed several abandoned wooden huts along the uphill climb, occasionally coming across wooden signposts marking the Yoshida Trail. I was eerily alone, only hearing the sounds of birds and animals that I could not see. I held a whistle and pepper spray, in case of wild bears, but the only thing eating into me was the backpack on my back.

After two hours of hard climbing, I came across the first human. Like an apparition, an elderly man emerged from the forest, dressed in the most exquisite traditional Japanese outfit – straw hat, yukuta-top, Ikitabi Ninja-slippers and a bamboo walking stick – beaming with a smile I will always remember, and moving lightly. If he was amused at this heavily dressed Gaijin (foreigner), his gentle nature did not reveal it.

After exchanging greetings in my broken Japanese, taking a photo of him and saying sayonara (goodbye), I set off, thinking he reminded me of my late father.

After some time I reached Miharashi-Chaya, the remains of a once thriving but now decrepit teahouse from the Edo period, circa 1801. I still could not see the mountain I was climbing but kept hearing rumblings under the earth. Reassuring myself that it was distant thunder, I learnt afterwards that it was the rumblings of the volcanic pressures deep inside the mountain!

Finally, I reached a road and signs of life, on the outskirts of the 5th base camp, the starting point for most climbers. The 5th base camp is a buzzing hub, with hundreds of day-hikers,  and amateur and seasoned climbers arriving by the busload.

Here, I had a chance to rest, eat and offload excess luggage. I resumed my climb at 1pm.

The Yoshida Trail is the busiest of four trails that lead up Mount Fuji, traversed by a sea of colorfully dressed hikers, young and elderly.

By this time, my ears had popped due to the higher altitude at 2,305m, and the heat had turned to cold.

The lush green forests opened up to reveal Mount Fuji for the first time. Black volcanic sand with fragile patches of green covered the cone-shaped mountain that I had first seen on a postcard as a child.

The ascent from 5th to sixth base was relatively easy, but seventh to eight was a different story. As I climbed to higher levels, mostly at a 45-degree angle, the air became thin and I felt the pressure exacting on my lungs that are used to sea level in far away Port Elizabeth.

My breathing became heavier, heart pumping harder to feed oxygen to my muscles. It felt like a journey without end. I longed to reach the 8th base camp as I passed one after another resting spot where scores of climbers were sitting down to rest, many suffering from mountain sickness.

As my blood absorbed less oxygen, my legs felt heavier, and it took almost twice the usual effort to lift them, and although a strong climber, it literally felt like I was lugging a sack of potatoes.

At 4.20pm, I eventually reached my resting spot at 8th base; sheer relief! Mercifully, I suffered no noticeable altitude sickness.

I ate a drab looking but nourishing curry and rice in a communal wooden shack built into the mountain. Here, each person rests alongside the next in sleeping bags. I had made good time, and decided to sleep until 2am, then climb further. As luck would have it, I rested next to a man with the most awful, loud warthog-like snore that kept me awake, despite ear muffles.

At the stroke of midnight, I arose, incredibly, not at all tired, and decided to attempt the summit. Pitch dark and bitterly cold, to my surprise I found many other climbers were also already up.

Donning thick body wear, and wolfing down a pre-packed meal, the climb up to the next level was a tough, bite-the-bullet affair, fingers digging into cold rock to get proper grip and lift, each lunge requiring huge breathe-ins. It was here that I was most grateful for the training I’d put in before attempting Mount Fuji.

After the 9th base camp, the next phase was, for me, the most frustrating. I got caught in a mountain traffic jam at some 3500m with hundreds of climbers, bums to cheeks in the pitch dark and bitter cold. It was painfully slow, at times halting completely, but I decided not to overtake, to be mindful of not putting pressure on fellow climbers. Some turned back, others had stopped to rest, others were battling with altitude sickness. I could briefly catch glimpses below, of a sea of headlamps glowing like fireflies in the dark.

The terrain here was rocky and steep but, in my view, not technically difficult. I had climbing poles, but never used them.

Then, as elusive as it had been for so many hours, there, suddenly, was the summit!

I inhaled gulps of fresh air, gritted my teeth, and climbed to the top, joining other euphoric climbers, hugging strangers, not least because of the adrenaline rush and sheer relief.

As I watched the sun rise (Goraiko in Japanese), with people spontaneously singling the Japanese anthem, I thought of NMMU, humbled by the privilege of serving it, and being part of such a great university with such a huge heart and amazing colleagues.

I felt grateful for the opportunity to climb for our students, and meet the pledge challenge. I also thought of my family, and their warm support, as well as my lifelong friends and comrades; of national Women’s Day, of Sister Ethel sending her prayers and messages of support, and those who dug into their pockets to lend a hand to students in need. Like them, I cherish the hope that gifted students from financially poor families will some day soon be able to study at university free from the burden of worrying about fees.

As I watched the magnificent sunrise from Mount Fuji, and I thought back to that postcard I had as a child and recalled the saying: “You are wise to climb Mount Fuji, but a fool to do it twice”.


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