As Longford native Aisling Powell made her way towards the top of Africa's highest mountain, she was freezing, frostbitten and exhausted. But turning back was never an option - not after making it this far...
The sunrise was beautiful as Aisling clambered towards the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. One hand was curled up to her chest, her fingers raw and frostbitten as she struggled onwards and upwards.
The pain was horrendous. But there was no way she was turning back - not now, after everything she'd been through to get this far.
It was in 2016 that Longford town native, Aisling Powell, saw a video by Enda O'Doherty, seeking brave Irish people to join him on the trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro in aid of Pieta House.
Enda had previously walked all the way from Belfast to Waterford with a washing machine on his back to raise funds for the charity - that's more than 300 kilometres, carrying five stone of weight, all in just eight days.
After suffering the loss of two students to suicide, the school teacher's aim was to raise funds to open a Pieta House centre in Waterford city, and his successful expedition saw that dream realised earlier this year.
So when Enda put the call out for people to join him on his next fundraising adventure, there were plenty of people willing to take up the challenge, including Esquires staff member, Aisling.
“I had one year of preparation before leaving and that was used for fundraising and training,” said Aisling when she sat down with the Longford Leader last week.
“We paid our own expenses and we had to raise €4,000 for Pieta House. I never thought I’d manage to raise that much money, but I had bucket collections, bag-packing, I gave talks in schools, and I organised a Cinderella Boutique Day in the Longford Arms. That event alone raised almost €3,000.”
On top of that, Aisling's colleagues in Esquires donated their tips for a week and her kids, Eóin (12) and Avril (7) set out with sponsorship cards to support their mother. Those efforts raised a couple of hundred euros.
“So I actually raised almost double the €4,000 in the end. €7,960 was the total amount I raised. As a group, we raised over €170,000. The initial aim was €120,000,” Aisling explained.
“It costs between €800 and €1,000 for Pieta House to support one person, so that money is very significant.”
In fact, that’s more than 170 people’s lives that will be saved or changed, thanks to the tireless efforts of Aisling and her mountain-climbing comrades.
As well as her fundraising efforts, Aisling had to put a lot of work into training and preparing herself physically and mentally for the challenge ahead.
“So I did a lot of weight training and I wore a weighted vest that weighed the same as the rucksack I’d be carrying,” she said, referring to the weighted vest pictured right.
“I wore that out walking and jogging to get used to the weight, and I did weight training, five days a week and also cardio. I did a lot of hikes around Ireland too.”
The training certainly paid off, because when Aisling set off on her adventure, she felt physically ready to go. But nothing could prepare her mentally for the gruelling challenge she was about to face.
“There were 34 people in the group - three of them were guides, one doctor, and then 30 people doing the trek,” she said.
And, when the group started the trek in Tanzania in early July, they had no idea how much they would need the support of their teammates or how significant the term 'share the load' would become.
“You can’t train for altitude,” said Aisling, adding that a number of her team mates suffered dizziness at the very beginning of the climb.
“Three or four people got nauseous when we got there. We had to go slow and steady - that was drilled into us from the start.
“I was lucky with the girl I shared the tent with. We were very regimental with our tent and filling our water bladders. And we didn’t rush, because you’d get sick if you rushed.
“I suffered a bit of heat stroke around day four, which was a surprise, because we were all wrapped up for the cold, but there was a lot of sunshine and warm weather too,” she said.
The dome-like tents were set up for the group by skilled and experienced porters so that, when they arrived at each campsite, they could focus on preparing for the next day's adventures.
“This was my first time ever to camp - I’d never even slept in a sleeping bag before. I’d gone from never camping my whole life to sleeping in a tent on the side of a mountain,” Aisling laughed.
“That first night was our first taste of altitude. I had a slight episode of dizziness.
“I remember the cold and I put everything on me and the guides were surprised. They thought we’d be able to go at least three days before having to wear all our layers, and there I was wearing everything.
“And at night time, you could just hear people snoring and the snores would echo,” she laughed.
“The Diamox tablets we were taking for the altitude would make you need to go to the loo more, so everyone had to get up in the middle of the night and you’d hear the zips of the tents echoing too.”
The next few days were a challenge, but one faced with great determination and physical strength as the group made its way from camp to camp, supporting each other along the way, and forming friendships that will last a lifetime.
But nothing could prepare them for the difficulty they would face on summit night.
“That was definitely the toughest night. Our bodies were tired,” Aisling recalled.
With the air thinning and the changing weather and terrain, things would only get more and more difficult - especially for Enda who was still carrying his five-stone washing machine.
“We did a six hour trek to get to the camp at the base of summit and we spent a few hours there,” Aisling continued.
“We had a briefing where we were told what to expect - there were briefings like that every morning - and we were told to rest.
“Nobody could sleep, but we were told to lie down in our tents and rest for a few hours.”
The team was then split into two smaller groups. Anyone who had been ill during the week would go first and the rest would follow an hour later.
“I was in the first group because I had suffered the heat exhaustion. We rested and then we left at 11pm. There were eight or nine in my group,” said Aisling.
It was at this point in the expedition that Pieta House and everything it stood for started to weigh on the group's minds.
“I haven’t been directly affected by suicide, but some of the people in the group had been,” Aisling said.
“But it’s one of those issues that is preventable with the right supports and that's why Pieta House is so important.”
We all suffer our own problems throughout life and Aisling is no different.
A number of years ago, she herself struggled with difficult times.
“My whole life changed in a split second and it was difficult, but I had the support of family and friends.
“I went to counselling as well, here in Longford, and with all of that, I found my own way back.”
By getting herself out of her comfort zone, and sharing the load with those close to her, Aisling managed to get her life back on track.
Climbing Kilimanjaro, she said, was a reminder of the difficulties many people go through on a daily basis, and how important it is to have support from others in those times.
“We were such a close-knit group. Everybody supported and looked after each other. It was so symbolic, the support of everybody,” said Aisling.
And the support of others was greatly needed on summit night as the team started the ascent towards the top of the mountain.
“We headed off in the darkness, with head torches, and we had only water, food and clothes in our rucksacks, because that night we had to layer up. I was wearing four bottom layers and seven top layers - and I definitely needed them.”
The pace was very slow as the group made its way in the darkness, watching snakes of light inching up the mountain ahead of them as other groups trudged upwards.
The temperature dropped to minus ten degrees celcius that night and the group certainly felt the cold as the journey started to get more and more difficult.
Enda O'Doherty, with his heavy load, trudged along - a symbol of the mental health difficulties that those who are feeling suicidal have to go through every day.
“He started to get delirious and he didn’t really know where he was or what was happening,” Aisling recalled.
So he had to turn back towards the camp, and he had to quite literally 'share the load' as a number of companions took over the carrying of the washing machine.
“His wife, Maeve, was with me. She kept going. She had never done anything like this without him before, so it was a really big thing for her to continue on without him,” said Aisling, noting that Maeve was a symbol for those who have to continue living when they've lost a loved one.
As the time went by, more and more of the group dropped out, with the doctor running up and down the mountain to help people - “he must've been sick himself”, said Aisling.
“Soon, there were only a few of us left and I remember feeling incredibly lonely,” she continued.
“I had to keep going, but every step was complete agony. It was so cold and I got frostbite in the fingers of one hand and it just got tougher. The pain was horrendous.”
But turning back wasn't an option for Aisling - a resolve that was symbolic of her own struggle all those years ago when her life was turned upside down. She would make it through this.
And, not unlike the friends and family who supported her through the darkness back then, the guide kept telling her “the sun will come; the sun will come”.
“Those hours felt like forever. Each step we took was a baby step and sometimes we had to take bigger steps to climb over a rock. We’d have to lift our legs. We just didn’t have the energy,” Aisling told an enthralled Longford Leader reporter.
“We had to snack every half hour to keep our strength up.
“Not long before the sun came up, I must have been delirious because I started humming nursery rhymes. And shortly before we got to Stellar point, I was nauseous, but I wouldn’t let myself get sick.”
But after darkness comes light and, like it does every day, the sun eventually started to rise, bringing to mind the annual Darkness Into Light walk held in aid of Pieta House all over the country.
“The sunrise was beautiful and we were so relieved and happy to turn our lights off,” said Aisling. But it wasn't quite over yet. The pain and the altitude was still getting to her.
“We had to breathe slowly because the air was so thin and my fingers were in horrific pain,” she said.
“But we trundled on as far as Stellar Point. One girl was up there already - we thought she’d turned back because we hadn’t seen her in a while. And when she saw me, she started to cry and when I saw her, I started to cry.
“The Porter bundled us together and gave us a flask of sweet tea - I don’t know where he got it from but we were so grateful for it.
“The wind was bitter. And he kept telling us we were doing great and it was just one more hour to the summit.
“And when we looked back we could see people were dragging each other up and helping each other.”
The walk was a little bit flatter from then on, and the warmth of the sun was certainly welcomed by the remaining hikers as they edged their way towards the official summit of Kilimanjaro.
“It was a much flatter walk, but there was a lot of snow, ice and gravel.
“It was bizarre because on the right you had the equator, and there were glaciers on the left.
“That walk was slow. We were so weak that every few steps we’d stumble to the right and then we’d stumble to the left and I remember saying we probably looked drunk with exhaustion.
“But about six of us trundled on. We didn’t know where the rest of the group was with the washing machine.”
It was Enda's wife, Maeve, who made it to the summit first, supported and encouraged by the rest of the group who cheered her on as she brought the flag to the end of the journey.
“She wanted us all to go together but we urged her to go ahead. We told her she had to get there for Enda,” Aisling explained.
“When the rest of us got there, we just flaked. We were exhausted. We had to rest. And it was very surreal because there was the washing machine being carried up. And there was someone dressed up as Batman for some reason.
“We were so relieved that we made it, but we still had to go down. In many ways we we were all slightly traumatised,” she said.
“And it didn’t hit us until a few days after what we had achieved.”
After taking in the view from the top, the weary group started their descent back to camp, where their fellow hikers were waiting.
“It took three hours to get from the summit back to camp,” said Aisling.
“We literally ran down as the oxygen started to come back. And it started to get hot so we had to layer down, and the porter had to help us remove the layers.
“By the time we got back, we were sweltering and dehydrated. And we were exhausted.”
But there was a sense of relief when they returned to camp and saw that the rest of the group was present and correct - Enda included.
“Nothing could stop the tears from coming when Enda saw that his wife had made it up. He was so proud of her,” Aisling smiled.
“The next day, everyone got out of their tents and we turned and looked at the summit and then it hit us - ‘wow, that’s where we were; how did we manage to get all the way up there’?”
But they did get up there and, as they made their way back down, they started to feel lighter - partly because they had accomplished something huge, but also because the oxygen was plentiful and things got easier.
“There was a six hour trek downwards as far as the next camp, but some of us ran it and made it down in two,” Aisling recalled.
“Myself and another girl made it in about three and a half hours and we sat down and we had a fizzy drink.” That must have been heaven, the Longford Leader noted, to which Aisling responded with a laugh: “it was, and it was cold too!”
Back on Irish soil now, and back to the reality of every day life, Aisling has reflected on this huge achievement, noting that part of the challenge for her was that it was the longest and furthest she'd been away from her children.
“I was away from them for 12 days in total and the kids wrote me letters. I opened them on the third day and it was very emotive. It was lovely,” she said.
But throughout that challenge, Aisling was supported by her companions.
“We were such a close-knit group and we were so emotional,” she continued.
“Everybody supported and looked after each other. We had put so much time in during the year to get to know each other. I made some friends for life.”
But the support of the people back home has also been something that has weighed on Aisling's mind.
Raising almost €8,000 for charity is no mean feat, and without the people of Longford, Aisling doesn't think she would have done it.
“I just want to say thanks to everyone who dropped a coin in a bucket and who supported me along the way.
“I’d also like to thank local businesses who gave corporate sponsorship for my expenses or who helped out with the Cinderalla Boutique Day and donated spot prizes too. And also anyone who helped out in any way.”
Aisling doesn't know where she'll go next, but intends to continue on her path of personal growth.
“It’s still sinking in that I climbed Kilimanjaro,” she reflected.
“I never had a moment in the year leading up to the trek, or during it, that I regretted signing up.
“If you put your mind to it, you can do it. It really came down to mind over matter at the end of the day, and how strong your mind is.
“I took myself out of my comfort zone all those years ago when my life changed, and again when I took on this challenge.
“But only by taking yourself out of your comfort zone, will you see yourself grow.”
If you have been affected by suicide, or need to talk, find out more about Pieta House at www.pieta.ie.
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