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Limerick student climbs Mount Kilimanjaro for charity

WHEN YOUR brain is shutting down, and you have no thoughts whatsoever, being thousands of feet high above the clouds, everything in you is screaming ‘stop’.

This is the reality of trekking the world’s largest stand-alone mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, and in the words of a 21-year-old woman, ‘zombified’ sums it up in one.

“The sickness, others' eyes rolling back in their head, the vomiting - everybody reacts differently,” Lena Rock recalls.

“I've never actually camped, never mind hiked!” adds the Kildimo native.

“I thought I would need my fake tan and everything else, but the reality is, you don't even have a toilet - it is literally a hole in the ground.”

Lena was one of 31 Irish university students to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in August, and did so while raising money for Meningitis.

The group raised over €25k in total and were tasked with fundraising themselves.

University of Limerick (UL) psychology student, Lena, took the precipitous decision to conquer the Tanzanian landmark on ‘impulse’, having been the ‘last person to sign up’ to the excursion.

“I was on a break from working and when I saw the email from UL in my inbox, I was intrigued - I decided, on impulse, and in a spur of the moment, that I was going to do this.”

Lena’s mother, Ciara, is a secondary school teacher in Salesian’s college, Pallaskenry and upon hearing the news that her only daughter had signed up to take on one of the world’s mammoth mountains, she was in utter disbelief.

“Everyone thought I was crazy, especially because I’m not exactly sporty or into hiking or anything - my parents were like, ‘Lena, slow down, is this a scam?!’

“Afterwards, when I got home, people were asking me questions like ‘are you different now, are you more outdoorsy or into hiking’ and I’m like, ‘no!’

“After saying that, I would definitely climb Mount Kilimanjaro again and would encourage everyone to consider doing it - it is worth it.”

In preparation for going across the world to challenge herself in every way, Lena trained in the gym but says she “probably should have trained more” as breathlessness is a recurring issues for trekkers.

“We took altitude tablets in preparation for the climb and I trained in the gym up to four times a week, which doesn’t seem like a lot” Lena says.

“The one good and surprising thing about it all is the food - you wouldn’t want to be a picky eater but it was bizarre, as we were constantly on the move on a mountain.

“The tour guides take really good care of you, they bring good vibes and play music.

“I had the nicest fruit ever, tropical fresh fruits like mangoes and pineapples, and the guides would cook pasta, soup and also make stuff like popcorn and tea, other treats like that. I was a favourite because I always had really nice snacks at hand!”

Lena says even the weather is polarised, reaching highs of 30 degrees and lows of minus figures, but the human body and mind is resilient and incredible at adapting and staying focused while experiencing such conditions.

“Going from wearing 10 layers of clothes to keep yourself warm to stripping down in the heat is weird - your dignity is left at the bottom of the mountain.

“The dirt and dust covers you, but there is no such thing as a shower.

“At times, it was scary to have to sleep on the edge of a mountain side, especially with a stranger!

“By the time we reached the summit, though, we were all really close - I’ve made friends for life.”

Mount Kilimanjaro overlooks unpolluted grassland and tropical jungle, while looming ominously over untouched wildlife and uninfluenced civilisations.

The mountain itself has three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira and hits Africa’s highest peak at 19,340 feet.

Describing how she “found a lot out about myself as a person” having triumphed over the isolated giant, Lena continues on by mentioning the extremes of the conditions, the glorious highs and the dismal lows.

“I was trying to take mental screenshots while up there - you go through every feeling and yet, most of the time, you feel nothing at all.

“It is amazing how, as humans, our bodies click into fight or flight mode.

“I was, at times, too tired to even cry or to speak.

“Nothing can prepare you mentally or emotionally for it but your mental strength kicks in, and you just do it to reach your goal.

“Climbing down was nearly more difficult than going up - the terrain is loose, and my knee is ‘dodgy’, so I had to be extremely careful not to get injured.”

The journey to Tanzania is, in itself, lengthy and ‘nerve-racking’ requiring two planes, connecting flights, buses, a car journey and even on the return home, a boat.

But, when asked if she would like to do it all again in her lifetime, Lena’s departing word is: “absolutely!”