A Co Down woman has opened up about the long and painful journey from her couch to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for a cause close to her heart.
Gemma Weir, from Donaghadee, has just climbed Africa's highest mountain to raise money for a parental alienation charity, something she deals with every day
The mammoth trek was almost three years in the planning, but culminated with a seven day hike to get to the top of the 5,895 meter mountain and another two days to get back down again.
Read more: Orangemen march up Africa's tallest mountain to raise £269,000 for charity
Her epic climb, in temperatures of as low as -16C at times, took place on Gemma's 40th birthday.
Now safely back on home ground, Gemma told Belfast Live: "I had long planned to be out of the country for my 40th and to bring in the new decade in style. I never imagined I’d wake up under a mosquito net on my 40th birthday but Kilimanjaro was top of my bucket list.
"I booked it two and a half years ago one night when I was sitting on the sofa because I knew I'd have to build up the momentum for such a big challenge.
"It didn't seem as real or intimidating at the time and I had absolutely no sporting background at all and was very unfit so it literally was a case of going from my couch to the top of a mountain!
"It's been a really great journey up to this point as I joined different walking groups in the run-up, met loads of people and discovered that I now have a love-hate relationship with hiking."
But for Gemma, it was about much more than conquering the mountain, it was to raise funds for the Parental Alienation Awareness charity which aims to raise awareness, educate, and campaign against disconnecting children, parents and their extended families.
"I chose this symbolic challenge to raise much needed awareness and funds for parental alienation, something which has touched my family," she explained.
"Any alienated parent, grandparent or other family members who are missing precious pieces of their families through alienation will tell you, it’s a long, painful journey in the valley, with no guarantee of ever reaching the summit.
"But we try and we pray and we never lose hope that one day, our children will come home. In this scenario, you can so easily recoil into yourself, feel worthless and find it difficult to see who you really are.
"So in a way this was my act of defiance and being able to show that I could thrive in the face of alienation rather than be someone that people feel sorry for.
"My family will always be affected by alienation and it's always going to be a big heartache for us but it doesn't mean that those who go through this can't build a better life in case those children ever do come home."
After funding the entire challenge herself including the trek and flights, Gemma and her five fellow climbers - all lads - finally reached the top of the Tanzanian peak last week.
"Kilimanjaro's a dormant volcano that ran out of steam about 150,000 years ago, and her ice fields and glaciers are shrivelling up, so she’s weathering a rough climate storm," Gemma said.
"Fortunately, I still had enough puff for the both of us and didn't feel shrivelled up enough to give up yet! It was a phenomenal experience and at the summit it was really windy and-16C but despite the 50 layers of clothing it felt much colder.
"But then the altitude sickness kicked in so I did end up being sick on the roof of Africa! I’ve had the adventure of a lifetime and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of fellas to share it with."
If you would like to support Gemma's fundraising for Parental Alienation Awareness, you can do so here.
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