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23 August 2023

National Horseracing College Operations Director completes life-changing challenge

 Joanne Ellis, Operations Director at the National Horseracing College took up the life-changing challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, along with her son Harry and husband Richard.  We hear from Joanne about her inspiration, as well as the challenges she faced.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a life-changing experience; however we didn’t just want the challenge to change our lives but the lives of others, too. We chose two causes close to our hearts and set about raising funds for the retired racehorses at the National Horseracing College where I have worked for over 23 years and Isle Touch Rugby Club where Harry plays. 

Some way to celebrate a big birthday

We arrived in Kilimanjaro in the dark, it wasn’t until the following morning that I saw the mountain in real life and in all its glory, for the first time.  I had been telling myself, or should that be, kidding myself, for months, it is just a little hill!  That certainly wasn’t the case, an overwhelming feeling of: what have I signed up for, came over me.

This trip has been on my bucket list for several years.  I thought it would be the perfect way to celebrate my big birthday year along with my son Harry’s 16th birthday.  I also managed to rope in my husband Andrew.

Power of our horses

The National Horseracing College is a registered charity that relies on former racehorses to teach the next generation of racing talent.  The four-legged team does a sterling job and although they’re not aware, they do so much more than teach learners how to ride and care for horses. They provide a safe environment for learners who have had a difficult start in life. Who hasn’t cuddled a horse and felt the weight of the world melt away?

Isle Touch Rugby also has a sentimental attachment. For the past three years the club has equipped Harry with so much more than rugby skills; he has developed as a person as well as a player. Harry absolutely loves all the club stands for and the opportunities it provides.

As a family we wanted to do something special to demonstrate our appreciation. So far, we have raised over £1,200 which has exceeded our expectations. To say I am grateful for everyone’s support is an understatement. I am immensely proud to be able to donate to two very worthy causes.  

Relentless training paid off

As well as being Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, standing 19,341 feet above sea level. The biggest obstacle when climbing Kilimanjaro is the extreme altitude. At high elevation, there is less oxygen in the atmosphere which can lead to altitude sickness if the body fails to adapt. Serious cases of altitude sickness can be fatal.

The preparation had been arduous; seven months of running, day-in-day-out without missing a single day and weekends scaling mountains and peaks throughout the UK.

I have never done anything so physically and mental draining in my whole life, but I am still buzzing; I’m not even sure if the reality of what we have completed has sunk in yet.  What an experience.  If it wasn’t for the guides and porters, I would not have made it.  They made sure we all kept safe, well and motivated.  They tested our oxygen levels in our blood and heart rate daily.  And they produced the most fabulous, nutritious meals. How they produced the quality of food they did in those circumstances, I will never know.

One question I have been asked over and over since my return, is what made it so tough?  There is not definitive answer, but several including the terrain; it was more like mountain climbing than hiking and the camping; I don’t do camping. I felt like I had wrestled a bear every time I unpacked, packed up or got in/out of the tent.  And then there was the dust and, of course, the altitude.  Over the eight days we averaged 1 mile per hour and we were classed as an average group! Summit night we were up at 11pm, we hiked through the night and got to Stella Point for sunrise, which is around half a mile from the actual summit.  It was so windy and cold at the top and that was wearing four pairs of trousers. 

There was a massive sigh of relief once we actually reached the summit.  The ascent was brutally hard and the terrain relentless, however it was awesome at the same time and the views were phenomenal!  We then hiked back down to base camp for lunch before hiking a further 10K, to get halfway back down the little hill; in total nearly 20 hours of hiking and a missed night of sleep. 

Harry hit hard

There were two people in our group who really struggled with the altitude, one being my Harry.  Although he wasn’t sick or dizzy and didn’t have a headache, the fatigue that hit him around two hours from summit was unbelievable – I didn’t think he was going to make it and he is by far the fittest out of us three.  He had a guide each side and one behind dragging him up; I am so grateful for what they did. I am so proud of Harry; his resilience and determination were incredible. 

Unfortunately, one of the group members didn’t make it up and had to go back down on day four. 

Chance meetign of a colleague so far from home

The other 11 members of our group made the journey; we were all very likeminded people.  Although a very diverse group; three young ones (15, 23 and 34), most late 40s or early 50s and two that were older.  One a life coach, another a football coach from Kansas, another a chap who does mountain rescue in the UK who had so many stories to tell and made us listen to the lyrics of ‘Wear Sunscreen’ and another an equine nutritionist who actually delivers on one of National Horseracing College Trainer Module Courses – what’s the probability of that? They were a fab group with a great sense of humour. Friendships and a lifetime of memories were made on that, ‘small hill.’ Would I do it all again? You bet I would, however my bucket list is extensive and plans are already afoot for our next expedition…

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