When Angela Wallace was looking for a new charity challenge, little did she think that it would take her to the other side of the world to climb Africa’s highest peak.
As NHS Forth Valley’s nurse director she already has a packed schedule: involved in the day-to-day management of over 2100 nurses and midwives employed by the health board, coupled with being a leading member of the profession in Scotland and an honorary professor at Stirling University.
But never one to spend her precious free time sitting around, she wanted to put her love for the outdoors to good use.
She said: “I did the Moonwalk in 2012 and was considering tackling the Three Moonwalks in Edinburgh, London and Iceland, but then the opportunity presented itself to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support and I decided to go for it.
“I actually applied over 18 months ago and had hoped to do it last year but it was already fully subscribed. But on a plus point, it gave me longer to prepare.”
At 5895 metres above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. While it may be considered an easy climb in terms of only basic mountaineering skills being required, its greatest challenge is posed by altitude sickness. Many people fail to meet the summit while some attempts have ended in death for those whose bodies fail to cope with the lack of oxygen.
But fortunately for Angela she was one of the lucky ones. “It was a fantastic experience,” she added. “And thankfully I didn’t get mountain sickness – one of only five per cent who don’t experience it. There were people who were younger and fitter than me who didn’t make it to the summit. But I’m so glad that I made it and there was a real sense of achievement.”
Her African adventure began on January 30 when she flew from London to Addis Ababa in Ethopia before travelling to Tanzania and Moshi town at the foot of Kilimanjaro. The night before the seven day climb, they stayed in a modest hotel and sorted their kit for the trek.
The group was made up of 29 UK charity climbers, a team leader, main guide and a doctor, as well as around 70 native porters. Angela admitted they were a vital part of helping people reach the summit.
“We would carry our own rucksack with our water and personal items which weighed about 20lbs, but they carried everything else we needed, including the tents and all the food and cooking equipment.
“They would sing all the time to keep people’s spirits up and if anyone was struggling they would walk either side of them to encourage them along, even carrying their bags for them. If anyone became so unwell they couldn’t continue, they would give a ‘Kili taxi’ – grab them under the arms and carry them as quickly as possible off the mountain. They were incredible.”
Despite being in Africa, the weather conditions left a lot to be desired, all adding to the challenge, Angela said ruefully. “We were told that they had never had a winter where the weather was so bad. It was rainy for the first couple of days then as we climbed higher, it became sleet and snow. Not seasonal at all and definitely challenging.”
Kilimanjaro offers a variety of landscapes, including moorland, forests, glaciers and desolate scree. Every day the group would trek between six and 12 hours and to ensure they had the stamina for the rigorous course would consume anything up to 6000 calories. Meals consisted of porridge, sausage, toast, soup, pasta, rice and popcorn to give them the carbohydrate ‘fuel’ for their exertions.
Despite all this Angela still managed to drop a dress size, although admitted it was a rather drastic way to slim.
Many of the group struggled with the problem of altitude sickness, although Angela said she was fortunate not to experience any of the symptoms, which include nosebleeds and nausea. “With so little oxygen, you would sometimes stop breathing when you were sleeping and it was a bit strange if you woke and the person sharing your tent wasn’t breathing.
“They have a saying on the mountain ‘it’s attitude and not altitude’ and I think that is what helped me make the summit.”
The day before they reached the top, the group trekked for eight hours and then went to bed for a few hours in the evening.
“We rose about 11 p.m. and had more porridge before starting to climb. We reached Stellar Point which is just below the peak about 8 a.m. The doctor checked people before allowing them to trek for another hour to reach the summit.
“I was really worried about not making the top but I kept telling myself that a work colleague had gone through six months of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer and I could spend a week on this mountain.
“It was a fabulous feeling to know that I’d made it. Definitely something I’ll never forget.”
The journey down the mountain was followed by a celebratory party before the flight back to the UK.
Safely home to a relieved partner David Clement, as well as her Great Dane and horse, Angela, who has been the health board’s modern-day matron for the last 10 years, said she has been overwhelmed by the support and congratulatory messages from colleagues.
To date she has raised around £6300 for Macmillan, which includes cakes sales, raffles and a concert organised by her workmates. “I can’t thank them enough,” Angela added.
Now she is wondering what her next challenge can be.