New years resolutions can tend to go either one of two ways. It can either start with huge motivation to achieve something and slowly dwindle into another failed conquest OR it can work out to be a truly life changing undertaking.
Thankfully for myself, it became the latter. My new years resolution was initially to raise money for charity. I had no idea what charity or how I was going to go about raising the money but essentially I just wanted to give back and help those less fortunate than myself. Quite a few of my friends had gone about fundraising for charities in past years by doing physical challenges like running marathons or doing long distance bike rides. It had crossed my mind to enter the London marathon and follow suit, however, after discussions with my friends and family, it was deemed too much of an obvious choice. As a personal trainer I was expected to do these kind of physical exploits and so nobody saw it as a real challenge for me: they basically thought I would enjoy it too much and therefore wouldn’t sponsor me to do it. So I had to think a little more outside of the box. I ended up pretty far outside of the box as it happens as it was decided climbing a mountain was the kind of level my friends and family were looking for in order to sponsor me. Climbing a mountain was massively out of my comfort zone. I had never done anything like it before and really had no idea what to expect or how to prepare for it. I was in the process of looking for a company to complete the challenge with around the end of January when, whilst at a Manchester United game flicking through the match day program, I saw an advert announcing the clubs charity (The Manchester United Foundation) would be organizing a trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in October to raise money for its charity partners: ‘The Christie’, ‘Francis House’ and ‘Unicef’, three charities that all offer aid in assisting children in desperate need of help. The advert also affirmed the trip would be headed by non other than the legend himself, ex-Manchester United captain and personal hero of mine, Brian Robson! It was fate, well at least that was what I told myself at the time, and so I signed myself up.
In order to be involved we were given the target of raising £4300. This was incredibly daunting to me. I had never done any fundraising before and asking people for money was a pet peeve of mine. I sent all my friends and family texts, emails, tweets, posts on facebook; pretty much every outlet I could think of, but after 3 months I still only had about £500. It turns out asking people to sponsor you for an event which isn’t taking place for another 8months doesn’t tend to get the wave of support you would hope for, no matter how extraordinary the challenge might be. It wasn’t really until the last few months before the trip did my challenge start to strike a cord with my peers. The truth can be said for my own feelings toward the challenge as well to be fair. Although the whole year had in some ways been building up to the event, I had pushed the reality of actually doing the climb to the back of my mind for the best part. The thing with a challenge like climbing a mountain is that there is relatively little you can do in terms of preparation. Unlike a marathon whereby you might train for a year to physically prepare yourself for the race day, there is not much that can be done to prepare yourself for severe altitude sickness and living in extreme conditions. It was only the last few weeks before the climb that it really sank in what I had let myself in for.
It all became a lot more real in our team meeting at Manchester United’s training ground in Carrington, when our team leader proceeded to warn us of the dangers of the climb. These included risk of death due to two conditions initiated by high altitude; one that causes fluid build up on the brain and another whereby blood fills your lungs. Lovely. Very encouraging. When I proceeded to tell my friends about the dangers I managed to get a few more donations in the bag. However, it was after talking to my incredibly unremitting, legendarily hardworking client David Buonaguidi that things really started to heat up on the fundraising front. I had explained to Dave that due to Brian Robson doing the challenge with us there was going to be quite a lot of media attention on the climb and that it was also going to be filmed for a documentary for Manchester United Television. Dave, who is THE ideas man, thought this was a great opportunity for Karmarama to get involved and help a great cause whilst also getting some exposure for the company. Win win! Word eventually made its way to Charles Watson, group chairman and coincidently a keen mountaineer. It was decided that in return for sponsorship, I would make the journey up the mountain with company mascot Klifford, a small doll that looks like a smiling monk. It was the least I could do. Karmarama offered an incredible donation, which helped me smash my target. I cannot describe how pleased I was to have raised so much money for charity. The first challenge was over. The next step was climbing all 5895m to the summit of the largest freestanding mountain in the world.
So, with Klifford in tow, we met up with the team to make our way to Tanzania. I was greeted straight away with the kind of banter you would expect from an ex-footballer who played alongside the likes of Gazza, “Ah, you brought your childhood doll with you, you soppy git!”. Being called a ‘soppy git’ by one of your all time hero’s is both demoralizing and rewarding at the same time; my hero had acknowledged me. As it happened, ‘Robbo’ and I struck up a pretty good relationship. He was as much of a legend in real life as I had idolized him to be in my head. He also took a fondness to Klifford too once he realized what he represented; a lot of money for charity. Carrying a small, smiling monk doll amongst complete strangers does tend to raise a few eyebrows however. The trek up and down the mountain was to take 6 days. There were 26 of us in our group and we would be camping for the full 6 days without any electricity and no running water. The toilet situation was a shock to the system, as was not being able to wash. Add to that the fact it gets incredibly cold on the mountain (temperatures drop to around -10 at night), and you have the recipe for an incredibly disheartened team and a very grumpy Ray. However, the opposite was true. The lack of sleep, hatred of the icy cold temperatures and tortuousness of having to do a number 2 in hole was shared by the team, but this brought the team together and bonded us. The spirit was kept high and everybody encouraged each other and helped perk each other up in moments of disillusion. Klifford was also instrumental during these times; how can you not look at him and smile.
The summit night was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. We set off at 11pm on the Wednesday evening after a restless 3hour sleep. This was so that we could watch the sunrise if/when we reached the summit. It was pitch black, absolutely freezing and we had an 8hour trek ahead of us. The trek to the summit is the steepest part and is when the altitude can really take its toll. It is arguably the most physically demanding part of the trek too as at around 5400m you are faced with what is referred to as ‘Jamaica Rocks’, a stretch of huge volcanic rocks which you have to climb over in order to reach the crater rim. By this time everybody was feeling the effects of the altitude. Everybody’s water had frozen from the austere temperatures. People were being sick and having horrible headaches. Thankfully I was ok. I could feel the effect of the altitude for sure, the air was thin and my heart was pounding. It felt like the smallest amount of increased intensity like stepping up on to a rock was taking forever to recover from; I knew if I was feeling that way everybody else was probably feeling it a lot worse and so did my best to encourage the rest of the team. Klifford in the meantime was having a great time all snug in my bag; he didn’t stop smiling the whole time. We eventually made it to the crater rim to ‘Gilmans point’, which was 5681m. At this point everybody was pretty shattered, we had been trekking on a steep incline for the best part of 5hours, our lips completely chapped and fingers feeling numb from the cold. It was now -22 degrees. 6 people had dropped out at this point which was incredibly disappointing, especially as we had all become such good friends. There was delight on everybody who made it to this point faces though to have made it to this milestone. We were effectively at the top and we could see the sun starting to rise on the horizon bringing light to a view that was truly mind-blowing. We stopped for a quick tea break to warm up a little and proceeded to the summit. A further hour and half of trekking and further 200m incline took us in view of ‘Uhuru Peak’, the highest point on the African summit. Klifford and I were going to make it!
We arrived at the sign and delirium set in. The most overwhelming feeling I had was relief; relief that I hadn’t let all my friends and family who had shown me so much support down and relief that I had delivered Klifford to the summit for my friends at Karmarama. I was so excited I started to do press-ups under the sign. I immediately regretted that decision as when I stood up my eyes went black and I almost fell over onto the rocks; the altitude was getting to me. Klifford and I shared a few jokes and took some photos on the summit whilst taking in the breath-taking views; a sea of cloud with other mountains poking through and a horizon that looked light-years away. As cliché as it sounds, it felt like you were on top of the world, not a thing above you. I doubt anything in my life will match the sense of achievement of having helped raise so much money for charity and overcoming some of the hardest challenges I have ever faced in my life. Even as an elite athlete I had never felt so contented. I cannot thank Dave enough for inaugurating my relationship with Karmarama, and Charles who offered some fantastic advise leading up to the trip. Last but not least, I want to thank Klifford for being such a great companion throughout the quest. We went through some tough times buddy, thanks for keeping us all smiling.