A GROUP of East Lothian woman have conquered Africa’s tallest mountain in an epic journey “above the clouds”.

The team, named Sea to Summit, consisted of Catherine McKinney, Sarah Gillanders, Jo Holmes, Penny Laurie-Pile, Alison Wilkie and Fee Andrews from North Berwick, and Laura Greig from Dunbar.

They teamed up to take on a seven-day mission to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and raise money for Reverse Rett, a charity close to the heart of the team.

East Lothian Courier: The team at base campThe team at base camp

Rett syndrome is a rare genetic neurological and developmental disorder that affects the way the brain develops. It causes a progressive loss of motor skills and language, and predominantly affects girls, getting worse as they age.

Catherine, whose daughter Eliza, 12, was diagnosed with Rett syndrome when she was three years old, explained the impact this had had on the family.

She said: “She slowly lost the ability to talk, walk, wave, point, use her hands and communicate with us.

“She then developed epilepsy and had up to 10 seizures a day before this was controlled to some extent, but she still suffers from several seizures a week.

“Every year, things get harder for her and we watch her deteriorate a little more.”

East Lothian Courier: The surrounding mountains seen during the climbThe surrounding mountains seen during the climb

Having now returned from the trip, Catherine told the Courier about the “once-in-a-lifetime” adventure.

She said: “It was amazing and feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“It’s really difficult to describe unless you are talking to someone who has done it as well.

“It’s a really unique experience and something that is really enjoyable but was also really tough.

“You’re never going to forget that experience, it’s something you’ll remember forever.”

The team of seven set out at the start of October, ready to take on the gruelling five-day trek to the summit of the mountain in Tanzania.

East Lothian Courier: Catherine and Shedrack (summit porter and Choirmaster of the Tanzanian group)Catherine and Shedrack (summit porter and Choirmaster of the Tanzanian group)

And Catherine admitted that the trip had its tougher moments, getting progressively harder towards the end.

She said: “Everyone had moments where they found it really difficult.

“The hardest bit was definitely getting up to the summit because it took five days to get up the mountain and two days to get down.

“But the last section was at night, so you set off at 11pm and it takes around nine hours to get up to the summit and you are just walking through the night.

“And at that time of night you’re exhausted, you’re suffering a bit from the altitude and you just feel like you’re in a bit of a dream-like state.

“That last push up to the summit was really, really tough.”

East Lothian Courier: Celebrations at the end with the Tanzanian teamCelebrations at the end with the Tanzanian team

However, the team succeeded in their mission, all reaching the summit in what Catherine described as a “really special moment”.

She added: “But we all made it, all of us made it to the top.

“It’s such a great feeling to get to the summit and achieve that all together, especially considering we were doing it for Eliza and Reverse Rett.

“I think everyone felt that it was a really special moment when we made it.”

Some members of the group did not know each other very well before making the trip, but Catherine was delighted to reveal the bond they now all shared.

She said: “We didn’t all know each other that well, some of us are better friends than others and some of them hadn’t met before we decided to all do it together. But we all got to know each other really well and we have shared something now that will bond us for life, I think.”

East Lothian Courier: Anton (local guide) with Penny and Joe (UK guide) behindAnton (local guide) with Penny and Joe (UK guide) behind

Catherine explained the type of terrain the group faced on their trip, recalling the beautiful moment they rose above the clouds as if they were flying in a plane.

She said: “It was such a remote, wild place to be up the mountain. As you went further up the mountain, there was less and less greenery and it became really barren and rocky.

“At one point you are above the clouds, there is just like a blanket of clouds beneath you – it’s like when you are in an aeroplane and you look down at the clouds.

“That’s when we realised exactly how high we’d got up there.”

One of the most memorable things about the trip, Catherine said, was the togetherness that formed from taking on such a tough challenge as a team.

East Lothian Courier: Eliza McKinneyEliza McKinney

She explained: “We all supported each other. Some days, people were having a bad day or not feeling well. But everyone was there to support and encourage you along.

“You never felt you were doing it alone and you always felt like there was a real camaraderie in the team.

“We were in quite a big group, seven of us, but there was a big group of 30 people going up to the summit.”

In particular, she pointed out the local Tanzanians who were part of the trek, stressing that their role helped make the experience as special as it was.

Catherine added: “There was the support crew from Tanzania, the local support group, who were absolutely amazing.

“They had everything from porters to guides, cooks and tent crew. They are just the most incredible people, so welcoming and so proud of their mountain and their country.

“Without them we wouldn’t have been able to do it at all. So they were just really important in the whole thing.

“There were some amazing moments with the crew because they really try and keep you motivated.

“When they arrived at a camp they would be there greeting us, singing and dancing, and really supporting us.

“On the summit night when we were all tired and it was dark in the middle of the night, they’ll just suddenly break out into song to try and motivate you a little bit and get you up the mountain.

“One of the guys actually said at the end, ‘We’ve all done this amazing thing together, we’re more than friends now, we’re family,’ and you do feel a real connection with everybody you’ve done it with.”

As for plans for another adventure, the team were not yet sure but admitted they had “the bug”.

“We haven’t decided yet, but we are meeting up and I think there might be a few ideas in the pipeline,” said Catherine.

“We’ve definitely got the bug for doing something else.”

The team set up a fundraising page before the trek, looking to raise about £15,000, but they have since smashed that target by raising more than £25,000 through a variety of sources.

Catherine was keen to stress her thanks to all who had supported her family and continued to support them in their fight for Eliza’s future.

She said: “I’m just really grateful that people are still willing to support us. I know that people don’t have as much spare money as they maybe did a few years ago.

“And I’m grateful that they are still willing to help with the charity because without Reverse Rett we wouldn’t really have the hope that we do have for Eliza’s future.”

The group are also hoping to host an event recalling the experience for the public to attend, but details have not yet been confirmed.

People can still donate to the fundraiser at justgiving.com/fundraising/catherinemckinney2023