FOR someone with a fear of heights, climbing Kilimanjaro was always going to be a massive challenge. Not only is it Africa’s highest point, but it is also the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
Two months ago, Cork woman Liz Cullinane half joked that even the escalator in Penneys was too much for her to contend with. Now she can proudly say that she reached the Kilimanjaro summit in what was far more than just a physical climb.
It was also one of huge personal and emotional significance for her.
Liz took herself far out of her comfort zone in memory of her late mother, Kathleen (Kitty) Burke, who passed away from breast cancer in 1996 at the age of 52. She also used the opportunity to raise funds for and create awareness of Cork Cancer Care Centre, at which she is a volunteer ever since her own cancer diagnosis in 2014, from which she has thankfully recovered.
Liz had vowed to hang her mother’s cherished blue scarf — the one she wore while having chemotherapy — at the summit of Kilimanjaro Now safely back home she is reflecting on the experience.
“It was fantastic; absolutely brilliant. But a lot harder than what I thought it would be.”
The high altitude took its toll but, worse still, Liz suffered from a nasty bout of sunstroke. Now she knows she should have been wearing a hat, while she’d also advise prospective climbers to keep a scarf up around their mouths to prevent the inhalation of sand and dirt.
Her sunstroke badly affected her head and eyes and she can’t remember some parts of the climb because she was so sick.
“I slept every time we’d go back to camp. And I don’t even sleep at home, I’m a very bad sleeper! I was out for the count, which was a good thing. I couldn’t eat for a few days. I was on Dioralyte for a few days because I wasn’t drinking enough fluids.”
Bleeding noses and tummy upsets were also par for the course.
Liz recalls the very steep Barranco Wall section as being particularly difficult. “I lost it for about 20 minutes. You have to hold on, there’s a drop behind you. If you let go you’re gone. I was bawling crying. I very nearly gave up then.”
Aren’t there any wires used on the climb?
Liz Cullinane from Dublin Hill climbed up Kilimanjaro in aid of Cork Cancer Care Centre.
“Not at all! That’s what everyone was asking us afterwards!”
Prior to leaving for her trip, Liz had been concerned about the claustrophobic element of sharing a tent with someone, but she ended up sharing with a lovely woman called Catherine and says: “I was so tired from walking I didn’t have time to be claustrophobic!”
Owing to a sore knee, she found herself reversing into the tent each time as she wasn’t able for a conventional crawl.
It is only since she returned home that she discovered she has broken cartilage in that knee, which makes her success on Kilimanjaro all the more remarkable.
“That’s a pure sign there was nothing holding me back”, she says of her determination, despite the pain.
Despite all the determination in the world, Liz admits she struggled to get to the top when they started for the summit just before midnight.
“The porters were even half suggesting, ‘Will we turn back?’ I said, ‘No way, I’m continuing, I’m not giving up’.
The two lads behind me literally caught me by the bum and shoulder. Because of my story, they were all getting me up that mountain.
“Every single one of the team was fantastic, everyone encouraging each other. When I got to the top I fell to the floor.”
It was a huge achievement, but can she say she actually enjoyed the moment?
“No. Just because I was so sick and disoriented. I’d brought my GoPro and my intention was to hang the scarf and take a picture with the GoPro but I hadn’t the energy. I was sad when I got to the top because I wanted to do more. But I do remember saying a few words to her when I was hanging her scarf. My fear was that when walking away I’d go back for the scarf. But I never looked back. It was absolutely the best thing to do.”
Does she miss the scarf now that she is back home?
“No. Although Mum’s wig does seem lonesome without the blue scarf — but I won’t part with that.”
It’s been an emotional but very positive journey for Liz, who still acutely feels the loss of her mother 23 years later.
“I think I’m actually better. I don’t know if it’s mind over matter but I feel like it’s another step of my grieving done. But obviously she’s always in my heart and mind.”
And there are other family members in Liz’s heart and mind too, as the first person she phoned after reaching the summit was her daughter, Lisa.
“My daughter is my rock. She was so proud. She was a bit emotional herself.”
She was also quick to share the good news with her father.
“We were bawling, the two of us. He knew what it meant to me.”