How his dream became a reality

29th August 2008 at 01:00
On his 50th birthday, Peter Provan made a mobile phone call to his wife from above the clouds on Africa's eastern plains. "I've done it," he said. "I'm there."

Six months earlier, as the college lecturer was wheeled into the operating theatre, his chances of achieving a lifetime's ambition and standing on the summit of the highest mountain in Africa, looked remote. But a new initiative from Central College's fitness, health and exercise department helped him rehabilitate, after the knee cartilage surgery, and got him in to the best condition of his life, he says.

"I couldn't have climbed Kilimanjaro without it. At 19,500 feet, there's only half the oxygen your body is used to. Your chest and lungs are desperately trying to suck in more air. Every breath is a struggle. Days later, I still felt like somebody had kicked me in the ribs."

Eighty staff volunteered for the programme from across the Glasgow college's departments. These were whittled down to 28, who were each given a personal trainer from among the second-year HND students. "My trainer, Aidan, got a huge amount out of it because it wasn't just theory," says Mr Provan.

"He learned about working with a real person, getting along with him, being in the gym with him three times a week. You can't get that in a classroom. It was motivating for him. He's now gone on to university to do a sport and fitness degree."

This was the first time the programme had been run at the college, but its success means that a new batch of volunteers is currently being recruited, says Mr Provan. "The whole thing was the brainchild of course leader Iain Houston. He realised these second-year students knew a lot about training and fitness, but were missing real-time experience with a client."

The benefits of having a clued-up personal trainer were immense, says Mr Provan - despite the fact that he was a cyclist and hill-walker already. "Besides Kilimanjaro, my other aim in my 50th year is to complete the Munros. I have six to go. But my weight had crept up over the years and I was nowhere near fit enough for Kilimanjaro."

Increased motivation was a huge benefit of the programme, both to the student trainers and the staff trained, says Mr Provan. But the knowledge transfer that went on was every bit as important.

Athletes and sportspeople aren't aiming for bodybuilder's bulk but for varying combinations, depending on their sport, of muscle strength, power and endurance. "If you go to the gym to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you're building muscle, but it won't make you physically fit," says Mr Provan.

"What I needed was upper-body strength to get me up the mountain. Aidan told me that meant smaller weights and more repetitions. He devised a programme to get me there."

Before taking first steps to fitness, trainers and trained both need to know the starting-point. So the student trainers assessed their clients' capabilities on a wide range of equipment.

"I learned a lot," says Mr Provan. "Aidan had all the theory, and putting it into practice worked out well. He showed me how to use the different types of training equipment to reach my fitness goals. That's important because you can easily damage yourself. I now know enough to work in the gym on my own and maintain my fitness levels.

"Of course sometimes, if I was getting tired, he would just shout at me - that worked too."

Besides physical training, the other key element in a fitness programme is diet, and here again the student's learning proved invaluable, says Mr Provan. "I knew some of it, like eating plenty of fresh fruit. But there were things I didn't know too, such as getting the balance of different types of food right. I lost a stone and a half on the programme - and another half-stone on Kilimanjaro."

When the training was done and the fitness goals achieved, the time came to tackle the Tanzanian trek. Organised and led by Jagged Globe, the expedition acclimatised to altitude for five days on nearby Mount Meru, then ascended snow-capped Kilimanjaro in six days, taking the toughest route, the Western Breach. This had been shut down for two years after a rockfall killed two American climbers and an unknown number of porters.

As the first party to take this route after it was re-opened, the climbers had to sign an indemnity, the night before setting out for the summit, which released the National Park from responsibility if they killed themselves.

"We started at half-past-midnight, wearing head torches. You do the rockface in pitch-darkness, so you're near the summit for sunrise - and because at night the rock is frozen hard. Sunshine makes it loose and dangerous.

"It was an exposed scramble but you couldn't see the exposure. We weren't roped. If you shone your torch down, all you could see was a black abyss. Summit day was the hardest, mentally and physically. It lasted 14 hours, and once on the Western Breach, you couldn't turn back. You were committed. Sunrise on that last day was breathtaking.

"That's when I knew for sure I was going to make it. Physically it was tough, but I felt good all the way. That's why I had got fit. That's why I'd done four months with the student trainer."

The three-man Kilimanjaro expedition costs pound;2,500 each for 11 days:


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