Jenny Rayner has trekked five active volcanoes in Central America in memory of her mountaineering-loving father Martin who died when he was just 55. Chris Burn reports.
After two gruelling days of climbing, as Jenny Rayner stood at the peak of the Tajumulco Volcano, Central America’s highest mountain at 13,060ft, she could no longer hold back the emotion as she remembered her late father. It was a journey he would have loved to have undertaken himself prior to his death at a tragically young age following a three-year battle with early-onset dementia.
Surrounded by a group of other brave climbers with their own personal stories of how Alzheimer’s had affected close family and friends – and inspired them to take on an extraordinary charity challenge – Jenny says she was not alone in feeling moved.
“I felt so emotional when I got to the top because you feel very close to your loved ones up there,” she says. “We all burst into tears at the top.”
Jenny, who is from York, was among a group of 19 people who were part of Alzheimer’s Research UK’s first ever overseas trek to Guatemala, which saw them trek five active volcanoes in just seven days in April.
Less than two months after the trip, Guatemala suffered a terrible tragedy when the Fuego volcano erupted, causing the deaths of more than 100 people. Jenny says Fuego had been on the original itinerary for the trip but was taken off due to concerns about its potential instability. The group did see it from a distance and Jenny says that even in April it was ‘puffing’ smoke.
Her efforts on the trip have raised more than £4,000 for the charity – and follow on from a very personal pilgrimage which the 41-year-old has undertaken around the UK in recent years. Jenny’s father Martin was a mountaineering instructor in addition to working as a teacher prior to his death in 2003.
He had a great love of climbing and hiking in the UK and kept a series of journals and photographs of his favourite walks in places like Snowdonia in North Wales, Malham Cove in North Yorkshire and Dovedale in the Peak District.
The latter was an area he first got to know well when he was a student at Matlock Teacher Training College in Derbyshire in the 1960s.
Jenny decided to retrace his footsteps and recreate the pictures of her father by taking them of herself in the very same spots where he had once stood or sat admiring the views of the British countryside years before.
She says while the Guatemala trip was something different, as Martin never left the UK during his life, it was an opportunity she felt she couldn’t turn down after spotting an online advert for the challenge in November 2016.
“It just came up on my Facebook page. It was for Alzheimer’s Research which is obviously close to my heart and contained my dad’s love of climbing. I thought I have got to do it.”
Originally from Shrewsbury in Shropshire, Jenny moved away shortly after her father’s death, which happened when she was just 26. Now living in York and working as an activities co-ordinator in the Amelia House Care Home where she supports residents who have dementia, she says the trek was an amazing and worthwhile experience – while also being an extremely difficult physical challenge.
The group were out in Guatemala for two weeks but the actual trekking was done in just seven days – often in tough and very variable conditions.
“We did one volcano every single day but the largest took two days to get up,” she says. “Most of us had some form of connection with Alzheimer’s or dementia. It was nice to talk to people going through the same things or who had been through the same things.
“There was two sisters doing it for their dad who is still alive and it reminded of me of what it had been like with my dad, who was still quite young as well. It was an emotional experience.
“My dad never went abroad but I am sure he would have loved to have done what I have just done. He was very fond of climbing. Dad was very cheeky. He was a very active man who did a lot of climbing and was a mountaineering instructor and a teacher. But his main thing was he was very cheeky!
“At the time he was alive, I never dreamed of trying hiking but pretty much six months after he died, I took it up. I remember my mum said ‘Since when did you want to go hiking?’ But it was almost like my dad wanting to continue it and had left this gift to me.”
She said one of the biggest challenges while out on the various mountains was dealing with the differing weather conditions.
“The weather was cold in the morning but got very hot by 11am. We often had early mornings to enjoy the coolness because when it got to 11 it was unbearable, really, really hot. But on the largest peak, it was really cold – we were wrapping up to the nines with coats and scarves.”
As Jenny has epilepsy, she says she was pushing her physical limits in the conditions but was utterly determined to complete the challenge in memory of her father, to thank the people who had sponsored her and for her own sense of determination.
“I would never give up, I’m always determined to do stuff and I wanted those five volcanoes because that is what I had set out to do. The only time I really struggled was when we did the highest one at altitude because that was very difficult for me.”
Martin was diagnosed in 2000 with dementia and his condition rapidly declined. He died after contracting pneumonia and becoming too unwell to recover.
“He was diagnosed at 52 and over three years, he just declined every day,” Jenny says. “He got to the point of not being able to talk or do anything.”
She says there had been warning signs that her previously alert and highly-active father was not well.
“He was forgetting things – when he was at work as a teacher, he would forget to hand in exam sheets. It was just little things like that but it was something he had never done before. Sometimes when he went out he would panic, which was not like him. We knew something was wrong.
“Knowing dementia as I do now, it is a lot more common than people realise and sufferers are getting younger.”
Although often thought of as a disease of older people, around four per cent of people with Alzheimer’s disease are under 65. Potential symptoms can include memory problems, becoming confused in unfamiliar situations and having difficulty recognising words and objects, as well as judging speed or distance.
The tens of thousands of pounds that Jenny and the others on the expedition raised from taking on the challenge will now be used by Alzheimer’s Research in its ongoing efforts to fight dementia. The charity’s ambition is to find the first life-changing treatment for dementia by 2025 by funding pioneering research projects.
There are currently an estimated 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, and it is now the leading cause of death.
By 2025, Alzheimer’s Research UK forecasts that there will be over 1 million living with the condition without any new treatments.
Jenny says she hopes her efforts will help other families avoid what hers went through with their father.
“The money raised from this trip will go into the research into the condition. It is important we understand what causes dementia and try to figure out how was can alleviate the symptoms or hopefully in the future develop a cure.”
For more information about the event, or to sponsor Jenny, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jennyraynervolcano.
Ready for next event
Jenny’s next charity challenge will be taking part in the York Dragon Boat Race to raise funds for Dementia UK.
She and a group of her care home colleagues will dress up as old grannies for the event on July 15.
Jenny says: “Our nominated charity is Dementia UK as it covers all dementias which we look after people in the home with.”
The team hope to collectively raise £1,500 for the good cause from the event, which is being organised by The Rotary Club of York.
This year is the 16th occasion of the annual York Dragon Boat Race, during which time it has raised over £1m for charity.
To sponsor the team, visit the Virgin Money Giving website and search for ‘Zimmers and Slippers’.