Melanie Smith has big ambitions for mountaineering, but will she make it back?
I want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s been a big ambition of mine for some years now. It’s not the going up that I find most challenging. I know it won’t be easy, but I’m no stranger to overcoming an uphill struggle. It’s the descent that terrifies me. Being able to see so far down, the pull of gravity and the steep, near vertical sides give me vertigo and motion sickness beyond belief.
A friend of mine made it to the summit and back a few years ago. She’s a real outdoorsy type – a member of a rowing club, braving the cold, early morning temperatures to row on London’s River Thames. And the tales of her experience climbing Kili are gruelling – the toilet situation does not appeal, and on the way down, she hallucinated fire and brimstone in the sky. But it also sounds like it was hugely rewarding and liberating.
I started training to get ever closer to my lifelong ambition – joining bootcamp classes and training regularly in the gym – then took my preparations outdoors to climb my first mountain, Croagh Patrick, in Mayo in the west of Ireland. At 764 metres, it was no walk in the park. But with a summit almost eight times lower than that of the 5,895 metres of Kilimanjaro, I felt it was a good starting point.
Summiting the rocky expanse took just over two hours, and despite my training, I reached the top panting and struggling to breathe. Once there, though, the site was breathtaking and I knew I simply had to conquer Kilimanjaro. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. Until I had to make it down. The descent was harrowing. But with hindsight, I admit, I made a mountain out of a molehill. I felt queasy and physically sick, and had to stop at points to overcome the nausea. I couldn’t look down, and every step I gingerly took felt like a giant leap – much to the annoyance of my seasoned Croagh Patrick-climbing friend.
‘Octogenarians,’ he screamed, ‘are skipping down barefoot!’
‘It’s the highest mountain in Mayo!’ I countered, before looking around and sure enough seeing women my grandmother’s age bounding down the mountain, shoes in hands, giggling in groups along the way. It was enough to spark me into moving again, but deep down, I was petrified. That was the last of my mountain climbing expeditions and I put scaling Kili well on the backburner.
But recently, my ambition has been reignited. Our sport leader on page 72 has helped spark my sense of adventure. I’ll put my Bear Grylls face on and sleep in the mountainous wild. And I’ll scale Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, at 4,810 metres – why not? And then I’ll be ready to take on Kili. I’ll be skipping up that mountain in no time. I just hope I don’t spill my guts up on the way down…