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Climbing to conquer ourselves

Media personality Gerry Elsdon.

Media personality Gerry Elsdon.

Published Aug 9, 2020


Johannesburg - Even though the travel bans necessitated by the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus have rained on many a parade, they have not dampened the spirits of two hikers who should have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last month, on Mandela Day.

Media personalities Gerry Elsdon and Pearl Shongwe have made a vow to do even better next year, the next date of the Trek4Mandela hike done in aid of charity.

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For someone with epilepsy, Elsdon is very fit and is not averse to throwing caution to the wind when it comes to climbing mountains. She's already suffered an episode once after coming down Kilimanjaro, and this was after she’d defied doctor’s orders not to ascend the mountain. But the bug has bitten and she will not stop.

With the peaks of Russia and Everest already in the bag, Elsdon was returning to Kilimanjaro - Africa’s highest mountain - for the third time, had this year’s climb not been affected by Covid-19.

“In 2021, I have to do three mountains,” she vows.

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In January she conquered Aconcagua in Argentina.

Elsdon climbed Kilimanjaro alongside former public protector Professor Thuli Madonsela last year after she was asked by expedition head Sibusiso Vilane to chaperone Madonsela.

“The professor and I spent a lot of time together before the climb and during the expedition. Long before she’d agreed to come, I’d already made a commitment to support her. So when she eventually did, I was asked to be true to my word.”

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Elsdon credits mountaineers Sibusiso Vilane and Richard Mabaso with bringing people of substance to the Tanzania trip each time.

She says that what Madonsela brought to the table was a key ingredient - a strong mind. Other than Madonsela, Elsdon has hiked with fitness trainer Letshego Zulu and her late husband, Gugu, who died in July 2016 after trying to summit Kilimanjaro.

Pearl Shongwe.

Elsdon says she has made lifelong friends on almost every hiking trip she’s been a part of, not just on Kilimanjaro. “These are people I would ordinarily not have met,” she says.

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She’s on WhatsApp groups with many of her fellow hikers.

She is meticulous when it comes to preparing for a hike, often taking two weeks to get supplies. She constantly refers to “a strong body” when talking about preparing. Pictures of her smiling at the summit are just the cherry on top.

A marathon runner, Elsdon, who is also now an ordained pastor, says the serenity of nature drew her to hiking. “I’m a city girl,” she says “but there’s a peacefulness you find in nature.”

Shongwe, a novice with one previous climb to her name, also finds that the bug has bit. She is itching for action, preparing for next year.

“The Westcliff Stairs are very efficient! Being Joburg-based, I used them a lot in my training and will continue to.”

She has read up on mountaineering, including the sad death of racing driver Gugu Zulu.

“I think we all took it hard. Gugu was loved across the board - what was of great comfort to me and others who knew and loved him was that he was doing what he loved. The way he lived his life continues to be an inspiration.

"His legacy and what he stood for, will forever be etched in our minds and I think the #The Trek4Mandela family will continue to be a beacon of hope to his loved ones.”

Shongwe says she has a phobia, but still, she hikes: “I'm terrified of heights and I'm glad the trek to the summit happens overnight. I’d have a very different experience in daylight. That said, it's often said we do not climb mountains to conquer them, rather we climb to conquer ourselves, and I think going back a second time might just get me closer to conquering my fear.”

Her fitness regimen hasn’t changed drastically, though: “With mountain climbing, I think nothing really changes. Maintaining a healthy state of mind is imperative.

Physical preparation includes a lot of walking, hiking, breathing exercises and those Westcliff Stairs.

“I am not a very physically fit person. I do enough to keep healthy so I don’t have a rigid regimen.

"I do this 100% for the girls that we support through the #caring4girls initiative. Of course, the excitement of achieving something great is well worth the time and effort, but it's more my commitment to the girl-child that makes me do this.

“Last year, I summited Kilimanjaro while on my menstrual cycle. It doesn’t get more personal than that, especially given the cause that made me want to climb to begin with.

"I’ve toyed with the idea of Everest plenty of times and perhaps I'll go to base camp. I wonder if I could ever summon enough courage to do it all the way in pursuit of the peak, but who knows. I don't have any medical conditions that would need any emergency treatment. I’d like to keep it this way until my next climb to Africa’s rooftop.

“I draw a lot of inspiration from Professor Madonsela, or 'mom Thuli' as I call her. Her commitment, determination and unbreakable spirit have served as a great inspiration and propeller to keep moving forward, no matter what. I look forward to climbing Kilimanjaro with her once more."

After Kilimanjaro, what’s next?

“I enjoy the spontaneity of life, so who knows what’s next!"

Sunday Independent

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