Peak practice: How Sian Lloyd reached the roof of Africa atop Mount Kilimanjaro - with a little help from 15 Welsh rugby captains
Sian Lloyd was writing for Mail On Sunday
What 59-times-capped Welsh rugby international Rob Howley doesn't know about gruelling physical challenges isn't worth knowing - so I could only agree with him when, on our journey up Kilimanjaro, he gasped: 'I would rather play the All Blacks three times in the same day than do this again ...'
The climb to the top of Africa's highest mountain is brutal, exhausting and the toughest thing any of us had ever done. It is, after all, one of the famed Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. It's one of the most magnificent mountains in the world - and it can destroy you.
Sweet success: Sian looks relieved after reaching the summit - finally
We were taking part in the Captains' Climb, and it all came about because of a Mail on Sunday photoshoot. On a wet and windy spring day in mid-Wales, I had been photographed for a feature in the paper about potato growing. The photographer mentioned that the wife of his boss, Huw Evans, had been diagnosed with lung cancer and that Huw was taking 15 ex-Welsh rugby captains up Kilimanjaro to raise money for research into a cure for the disease.
Sue had never smoked in her life and it just seemed terribly unfair and indiscriminate. I kept on thinking about it and knew that I wanted to help in some way. My potato tubers turned out to be tiny and worthless, but my ambitions to climb to the roof of Africa, and raise money for a good cause, started to take root and grow.
I also had a more personal reason for wanting to get to the top of this majestic mountain. Three years ago, in the middle of the plains of Africa, I had experienced one of the most magical moments of my life. I had joined up with my fiance Jonathan on a classic car rally and we had stopped off at the Amboseli Game Park in Kenya.
One evening at sunset, Jonathan took me for a walk up Observation Hill, the highest point in Amboseli, to see if we could get a glimpse of the snowy top of nearby Kilimanjaro. Surrounded by grazing water buffalo, giraffes and elephants, we made our way up the hill, noticing that the bonnet of cloud adorning Kili was slowly melting away. The last wisp disappeared as we reached the summit. And that's when he asked me to marry him. We both cried. And I vowed that one day I would return and climb Kilimanjaro.
With this wonderful memory in mind, I made a few phone calls and established that the Captains' Climb initiative was indeed the brainchild of top sports photographer Huw Evans, and that the support he was receiving from the rugby community was astounding.
Fifteen former Wales rugby captains, along with the current coach Warren Gatland (a Kiwi) and rugby pundit Eddie Butler, were about to embark on an expedition to climb Kilimanjaro as part of a project to raise £1 million for the Stepping Stones Appeal organised by the Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff.
There were also a limited number of places for members of the public, as long as they pledged to raise a minimum of £10,000 for the appeal. I signed up with my friend Novello Noades.
We are veterans of charity treks and try to do one every year. We've walked part of the Great Wall of China for Action for Children and climbed the three Italian volcanoes for The Meningitis Trust.
This was a big call, though, demanding about three times the usual sponsorship sum. But we knew we could do it. We held a hugely successful dinner and auction at the Surrey National Golf Club, updated our vaccinations and started packing our bags.
However, after stepping off the plane in Tanzania with such rugby legends as Ieuan Evans, Rob Jones and Bleddyn Bowen, we hit a snag. We had to hang around for an extra day at the Impala Hotel in Arusha - Tanzania's safari capital - because our kit and medical equipment was in Nairobi, over the border in Kenya. This meant losing that vital acclimatisation day on the mountain that had been built into our itinerary to boost our chances of reaching the summit.
Novello and I were a tad nervous, as were the other late additions to the group, genial ex-Wales captains Michael Owen and Andy Moore. We were already playing catch-up on the fitness front, while the others had been planning and preparing for a whole year. We had four-and-a-half days for the ascent, with one-and-a-half for the return.
The upside was the fact that we had extra time to get to know each other. Banter flowed among our party, which included two doctors, a couple of experienced mountain guides, a TV crew, the 15 former rugby captains and other fundraisers - making us a well-bonded team of 51 men and seven women.
Doctors Joe and Dave warned us about blisters and sunburn, crushing headaches and diarrhoea, sleeping and hygiene difficulties. Altitude sickness is a lottery, they said, with age, sex and fitness levels having nothing to do with it.
Mountain guides Dom and Chris gave us a thorough briefing about the pace and stamina required, the mental attitudes, the role of porters and chefs, the scenery on the slopes, the tiny tents, coping with a rarefied atmosphere, the piercing cold . . . and flatulence. They explained that the constant breaking of wind actually meant you were acclimatising successfully. The rugby boys threatened a competition.
So, a day late, and with the frustrations of the lost luggage forgotten, we boarded three buses for the four-hour journey to Naremoru Gate in Kilimanjaro National Park.
The mineral mining area of Arusha soon gave way to plantations of coffee, papaya and bananas. There were clearly problems with the parched soil and diminishing crops - a sad situation in an already desperately poor region. It hadn't rained since April, meaning there were terribly dusty conditions on the mountain itself.
At Naremoru, we were welcomed by a huge entourage of 200 porters, singing and dancing and waving the Welsh flag. They would be traipsing up the mountain with us, carrying tons of equipment from cookers to chemical loos.
As we set off on the first leg of the Rongai Route - a well-trodden trekkers' path up the mountain - spirits were high. Little did the locals realise what a wealth of rugby talent was passing by. Paul Thorburn and Mark Taylor genuinely thought our gentle pace was a wind-up and that we would soon get into gear.
But a rapid pace, of course, means a lack of time to adapt to the high-altitude conditions. 'Pole pole' is Swahili for 'slowly slowly', and it's the phrase we heard more often than any other on the ascent. That first day we walked for just over four hours, climbing 2,200ft through forests and farmland, arriving dusty and sweaty at Simba campsite at 8,700ft. As Novello and I unpacked our sleeping bags, Scott Gibbs muttered that even though he and a few South African rugby internationals had made it to the summit a couple of years ago, it remained the most terrifying thing he'd ever done. No wonder we hardly slept a wink...
After an early start on the second morning, we climbed in blazing sunshine on a narrow path through moorland, with fine views over Kenya to the north. We also had our first glimpse of the summit of Kilimanjaro, symmetrical and sublime.
As we climbed, the trees became sparser and even the heather disappeared. We devoured a carb laden pasta lunch al fresco after three hours or so, and then pushed on for another three to Kikelewa camp at 12,000ft.
But the mountain was taking its toll, with a number of our group affected by diarrhoea and vomiting. Flanker Emyr Lewis, an international veteran of 41 caps, was really suffering. I have no idea how he was able to climb the 3,200ft we had to do that afternoon. These rugby boys are made of stern stuff.
True to form, Garin Jenkins woke us on our third morning with another energetic burst of song. He used to sing in a male-voice choir and has a voice that many a professional singer would envy. Even though we were cold and aching in our sleeping bags, precariously balanced on a stony slope, Garin's songs at sunrise never failed to put a smile on our faces, likewise his sartorial elegance.
Day three saw him resplendent in genuine military cold-weather clothes given to him by the Royal Welch Fusiliers, complete with camouflaged 'platypus' backpack for carrying his drinking fluid. The only thing missing was the goat mascot.
This was an even steeper day's trekking. It took us about five hours to climb the 1,900ft to Mawenzi Tarn. At 14,000ft, this is a pretty campsite, set in moraines in a glacial valley, with good views of the jagged top of Mawenzi - one of Kilimanjaro's volcanic peaks - above. After lunch, we did a short acclimatisation walk up and down a steep scree.
This proved a testing time for Scott Quinnell's cartilage-less knees. The omens were not good. The push for the summit the following day would involve six hours walking up semi-frozen scree to Gilman's Point. How on earth would Scott's knees get him to the top? Or more to the point, back down again?
So, after another sleepless night and another early start, we slowly trekked six hours across the Saddle to Kibo, at 15,400ft. Somehow Scott made it - but he couldn't go any further. His trek was over.
We saw the debris of a crashed light plane between Mawenzi and Kibo - another of the mountain's volcanic peaks - and hoped that wasn't an omen for what lay ahead for us.
From Kibo, the steep final path to the crater rim rose ominously above the bustling camp. We would be attempting this impossible-looking stretch in just a few hours' time and in the dark to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise. It threw us to learn that a climber had been killed the week before by a loose boulder near the top. We tried, but failed, to grab a little sleep before we set off.
At 11pm we got our 'wake-up call' and Novello and I emerged from our sleeping bags. But I was already off to a bad start. My platypus had leaked, soaking our outer layers and my friend's boots. We ended up rushing. As we tried to line Novello's boots, search for towels to dry our kit and refill my depleted platypus, we missed our meal, and the concept of 'pole pole' was thrown to the winds.
Trunk call: An elephant roams the plains below Kilimanjaro's cloud-shrouded peak
From the word go, the final push to the summit was hell. The trekking up until then had been like a leisurely amble compared to the relentless struggle to the top. Within minutes, we were in a zombie-like-trance. Ahead of us was a line of head torches, snaking up the slope. We tried to find a rhythm, but the combination of exertion and fatigue overwhelmed us.
We almost cried with gratitude when we reached the landmarks of William's Point and Hans Meyer Cave at nearly 17,000ft. Here the temperature was -24C (-11F). It was almost too cold to stop, yet we desperately needed the rest. Our water supplies had frozen, so most of us were dehydrated. One of our group fed me an ice-cold Snickers bar.
On and on we went, up a series of interminable zigzags. Even when the exhausting scree petered out, we found ourselves scrambling over big boulders on a section called Jamaica Rocks. We envied Scott Quinnell and his damaged knees.
We were running on empty. People were vomiting and being taken by stretcher back down to Kibo. I had to muster every bit of enthusiasm and energy to make it to the arctic wastes of the summit - 19,330ft. The sun rose over Africa and I didn't even notice.
It's the toughest thing any of us had done, but I would not have changed places with anyone in the world - not because I found that final ascent rewarding in any way at all, but because I was part of something that could change the course of lung cancer. That feeling - and the craic with 15 ex-rugby captains - was fantastic. To quote Max Boyce, I was there ... and Duw it was hard.
Sian travelled with Ultimate Charity Challenges (020 7386 4673, www.utccharitychallenges.co.uk). Their next climb for fundraisers departs on June 27, 2011. Prices start at £2,245 per person. Individuals can climb Kilimanjaro as part of an East African tour with the Ultimate Travel Company (020 7386 4646, www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk).