The charity challenge

The views from Kilimanjaro or Everest Base Camp were once the reward of the hardened adventurer. But now, they're within the reach of the average traveller.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:19 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 09:49 BST

Ever since Fearne Cotton and Cheryl Cole swapped their glad rags for hiking boots in 2009 for a trek up Kilimanjaro in aid of Comic Relief, the popularity of charity challenges has continued to rise. Such is the power of celebrity.

But these kinds of wild trips, ranging from extended desert expeditions to one-week wanders along China's Great Wall, with everything from biking, boating and three-legged races in between, also give 'ordinary' people the chance to do something extraordinary. Take part in one of these challenges and you'll not only get the chance to raise money for your chosen charity but get into shape as you do it. And you'll get to enjoy what for many starts as a once-in-a-lifetime experience but becomes a lifelong passion.

A great resource for researching what's out there is the website, which lists thousands of UK and international charities that organise or encourage charity challenge fundraising.

In most cases, charities will employ an independent tour operator or adventure activity specialist to run the challenge. And if it isn't brochured as a challenge, travellers can often join a regular tour as a fundraiser — anything from a hiking holiday in the Grand Canyon to mountain biking the Alps.

There are usually guidelines for fundraisers — some allow you to raise the cost of your trip itself; others state this must come from your own funds. For events organised by a charity directly, many impose a minimum fundraising target for challengers. And while costs vary enormously, a typical trip up Kili' or to Everest Base Camp, for example, requires a sponsorship level of around £4,000.

Although there's no real industry standard applied when choosing your challenge, it's a good idea to study a charity or tour company's success rate — do most of its clients get to the top of Kili' or the end of the Great Wall? And in good health? The charity should have some record of this, while the media coverage generated by each trip should give further insight into success rates. Similar challenges are offered by countless organisations, so you can compare key factors like trip duration, guide-to-traveller ratio and success rates.

Key among your first considerations when picking a challenge should be your fitness level and interests. Trekking is by far the most popular charity challenge activity, as it's accessible; most people can get to a standard where a walk or trek is manageable, and, with the right coaching, can attain a level of fitness they'd never imagined possible.

If you've not done much exercise over the years, it takes around four months to train for a 5km (3.1 mile) run or trek, while something more demanding, like a desert bike ride, would involve six months of regular training. This is not something to be taken on last-minute, and many charities provide timelines and comprehensive advice to help you train, raise money and prepare yourself mentally for your chosen challenge.

Raising money

Along with training, fundraising demands serious commitment, so you should be truly wedded to your cause — many of the experienced challenge-organising charities have good support material to help you pick a trip that suits your interests and abilities. In this economic climate, fundraising is tougher than ever. Potential donors are both less able and less willing to part with their pennies; many may also be reluctant to fork out for what they see as someone else's 'holiday'. Others see the rise of the charity challenge as unsustainable. "There are just too many people out there," said a keen trekker friend of mine. "They give nothing back to the local communities — it's like massive cruise ships docking at tiny islands and swamping the place, overtaxing the resources and then leaving the mess behind them."

Without the right guidance, charity challengers can do more harm than good, but overall the picture is very positive. The charity challenger may be getting a 'free trip' out of it but he or she is also doing something inspirational, raising the profile of the charity and a good deal of money to boot — and in the best cases, the operator will be sensitive to the group's impact on local communities and the environment.

Many of the seasoned adventure companies highlight the importance of travelling with both local and British guides, and to ensure, where possible, that porters and local guides have decent kit and pay, as well as living conditions comparable with yours.

"On our trips, we have both local and UK guides, and the British leader has overall responsibly," says Tom Briggs, director of adventure tour operator Jagged Globe. "Some of our trekkers have never camped before. They need lots of reassurance. Local guides are great but language and cultural differences mean they're unlikely to be able to help people along in the same way. A local sherpa, for example, won't go into the room of a single woman trekker to check if she's all right."

For many charities, the challenge is a good way to grow funds, and as the market gets flooded with trips, the quality and safety of these challenges can't always be guaranteed. A stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap mentality is not uncommon. "Kilimanjaro is a classic example," says Briggs. "It's one of the most popular charity challenges but some people follow itineraries that are too short and become ill as they don't acclimatise properly. You pay for each day you're in the park, so the cheaper trips are shorter, but ideally you want to do a 10-day trip with around seven days on the mountain."

From fundraising and training through to tackling the physical challenge itself, these charity trips are not to be taken up on a whim but are something that is, for many people, one of the most rewarding, invigorating, even life-changing things they've ever undertaken, as these following inspirational stories show…

The summitteer

Rhys Jones, 26: tour leader and managing director of RJSeven; in 2006, became the youngest person to complete the Seven Summits Challenge

I've been climbing since I was a Scout, where I first heard a talk about Everest. At 19, I climbed the world's seven highest peaks and when I got back I thought: what next? So I started leading and organising trips; many for charity.

The most popular charity challenge by far is Kilimanjaro. Kili' has good and bad press but if you pick the right route and go with the right company, you'll be looked after and not see too many people on route. The most difficult has to be Everest, but this sort of extreme challenge is not really the point of most charity trips, which are cause driven. People are mostly motivated by a cause they believe in — then they choose an objective that suits them to raise money.

On a typical Kili' day, I'm one of the first up. I get ready and see how people are doing, while at breakfast I refresh the itinerary, down to making sure they've got the right clothes and sun cream on. My job on the trail varies from entertainer to helping people if they fall over and giving them extra motivation. At camp, I check on the porters, arrange dinner and sit with the group before making sure sleeping bags are out and dry. Then it's bed time.

People think it's an easy job leading a group, but I have responsibility for big groups of people who are in an alien environment — and they all rely on you for everything. Some have never peed outside before or camped. I have to drip-feed them information for 18 hours a day. Blisters? Nerves? It's up to me to manage and liaise with the in-country team if problems arise. It's amazing; you meet people at the airport, then see them change throughout the trip. People may not say much the first couple of days, as they're aghast — never having been to a developing country before — but afterwards they're best friends with guides and leaving kit behind for porters.

Lots of these charity treks take place in the developing world, so it's important porters are paid properly and have the right equipment. You can check with the KPAP [Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project], which monitors fair wages and conditions — things that should be standard but sadly often aren't, even when selling to charities. But any time we sell a trip, it's a win-win: local porters and full-time staff get more work, and there's more investment in the destination. In the UK, there's a group of people with big money for charity who are empowered with local information; they've seen the other side of the coin.


The medical volunteer

Matt Wiltshire, 43: self-employed gardener from Berkshire; participant in the Caudwell Xtreme Everest challenge.

In 2001, I was in intensive care with pancreatitis. I'd always wanted to go to Nepal and I'd read about the Caudwell Xtreme Everest challenge, a research project coordinated by the UCL Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (CASE) that investigates medicine and physiology in extreme environments, often using volunteers with medical conditions, such as myself. I was too late to get on the list but in 2009 the chance came up again. It meant I could help raise money for ICU patients and be of use to the Caudwell research.

There aren't any hilly areas near where I live in Reading, so to prepare I went on lots of walks and kept general fitness up. I'm a gardener by trade, so working outdoors helps, but you never know until you get there if you'll deal with the altitude. Everything was all right until around 3,500m up — then I felt the altitude: I got very lethargic and weak. Just about everyone suffered nausea or vomiting, but in a group you encourage each other and get over it. I had a couple of days with the porter carrying my rucksack, which helped a lot. I adapted after that and learnt to go at my own pace rather than trying to keep up with the younger and fitter members of the group.

Everything was structured around rest days and knowing precisely how far each stage should be. This really helped, mentally. One girl was flown out because of a kidney infection but everyone else got to the top. A lot of it boils down to who's leading you and the group you're with. I didn't know anyone going out there,
but it's amazing how like-minded everyone was — everyone just wanted to get to the top.

I never thought, 'bad idea' with the Everest trip but I've done treks since, on Kilimanjaro, where I've felt really weak and wondered, 'what am I doing?' Because Everest was stretched over three weeks and we were staying in lodges as well as camping, you had a much better chance to recover. And as soon as I got back, I checked to see what other summits there were.

Training gives me peace of mind. I like knowing that after being in hospital for seven-and-a-half months, my body can do these challenges. Hopefully, it shows people with serious illnesses that your life isn't over — you can still do things you'd have done before, and some you'd never imagined. It's a great way of getting a message across. These challenges have an important, positive effect.


The charity crusader

Ann Brady, 63: Marie Curie nurse from Worcestershire; snowshoeing in Lapland.

When Marie Curie Cancer Care celebrated its 60th birthday, so did I, and I decided to celebrate both by spending the year fundraising for the charity and taking on a challenge.

I wasn't sure about going away with people I didn't know, so I picked a short trip: a sponsored snowshoeing weekend in Lapland. There were 17 of us from all over the UK and I quickly realised that although we were from all walks of life, we had the same aims to fundraise. In the end we had quite a bit in common. There were lots of stories told and I made friends I've kept in contact with since.

There were two main days of trekking, so I was glad I'd been to the gym three or four times a week beforehand. I definitely had more energy than normal — more than some of the younger ones who imagined it would be a walk in the park. We had beautiful weather on the first day, with sunshine and temperatures of -12C, only partly kept out by our snow boots and snowshoes.

We spent most of the day heading uphill, and once there, had the option to abseil back down. The drop was only 30ft and I wondered why we couldn't just jump into the soft snow, but apparently that was the problem — they'd need a crane to pull us out. After a bit of fear and trepidation, I did the abseil. After all, when would I have the chance again?

The next day, we had blizzards and real Arctic conditions, and there was a lot less fun and laughter. You'd get hot while trekking, then open the ventilation ports on your clothes, and in a few minutes you'd be closing everything up again! It made me realise how easy it would be to get hyperthermia, but no one suffered a great deal. We fell over lots, up to our shoulders in deep snow, and there was lots of laughter and people helping you — and pulling you over.

The two youngest girls on the trek had come along for the experience — they'd got involved with Marie Curie without knowing anything previously. One of them has continued to be a really good fundraiser — she's got the bug. It's a great chance to travel, and the charity gives a lot of guidance — I was surprised how quickly I managed to get the money together. Nowadays, people use Facebook and such to help fundraise and manage sponsorship; I used Just Giving. It was very doable. I've since done a Great Wall trek and hope one day to do the Grand Canyon.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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