Comic Relief Returns To Kilimanjaro: The Inside Track From The Coach Who Got The Celebs To The Top

Greg Whyte was there from the very first training session to the mountain's summit.

It’s been 10 years since Gary Barlow, Cheryl Tweedy and seven other celebrities made their way up Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief – and what better way to mark the occasion than sending a new batch of stars up there to do it all again?

This time around, Shirley Ballas, Ed Balls, Anita Rani and Dani Dyer were among those who signed up for the challenge, along with BBC Breakfast’s Dan Walker, Pointless host Alexander Armstrong and NFL star Osi Umenyiora.

Chris Jackson/Comic Relief via Getty Images

Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall and Leigh-Anne Pinnock completed the group, but there’s another face you might recognise too.

Former Olympian Greg Whyte (who has helped countless celebs with Comic Relief challenges) was with the gang every step of the way, from their first training session to the 5,895-metre summit – and then back down again.

Ahead of the documentary about their trek, he spoke to HuffPost UK about what the eight-day challenge entailed...

1. It took longer than the 2009 climb

No, not because they were slower, the route was just longer.

This time around, the celebs took the Northern Circuit, which is a lengthier route. This also meant more time at “extreme altitude”, which is when sickness levels can get pretty hairy (more on that later).

2. Anita Rani had just two weeks to prepare

Greg got the first phone call about training a fresh batch of celebs in late 2018, but the presenter was the final one to sign up – leaving him almost zero time to prepare her for the challenge.

Luckily, two weeks is enough time to carry out the necessary medical checks and grab some time in the altitude training chamber. Anita then passed a medical check and was given the go-ahead to take part.

“It would have been better to have longer to prepare but that’s life really,” Greg said. “It’s my job.”

3. The toilet situation is... well, they don’t exist

If you’ve been wondering how the celebs were relieving themselves, we can confirm there were no secret, luxury cabins out of shot.

“At the camp it’s a portaloo or a long drop,” he explained, but when they were on the main part of the trek, it was “a rock or a bush”.

“Day one and two is always a palaver but eventually you basically give up on any sort of credibility you have and you just go for it,” Greg said. “The first time you go everyone’s having a laugh about it, but by day three it’s just normal practice, it’s just what you do.”

4. The “non-stop” days of walking start at 5am

Each day, the celebs had a quick breakfast and got “basically a thimble of water to wash” with before a quick turnaround and setting off.

And once they started for the day, that was pretty much it, as all eating and drinking takes place on the move.

The only stops came when they did live links to radio stations or daytime TV shows.

With stop-off points pre-planned, they had to reach set camps, meaning end times ranged from 3pm to 7pm. “We moved slower than we expected,” Greg admitted. “And then it’s food and bed.”

5. The conditions were seriously tough for Shirley Ballas

Mainly because she’d never known anything like it, having never even been camping before.

“I think it was a very rude awakening to camping,” he laughed. “Particularly for a woman who is incredibly glamourous. There is no glamour in the toilet or washing with a flannel.”

6. But her resilience left him in admiration

Summing up his feelings towards the Strictly head judge, Greg simply said: “Shirley Ballas was amazing.”

Hear, hear.

7. And he loved Ed Balls too

Greg called him “just brilliant”, stating: “A more tenacious, resilient man, I don’t think I’ve ever met.”

8. Let’s talk about altitude sickness

“The thing about altitude mountain sickness is its absolutely non-discriminatory,” Greg explained. “It gets everybody at some stage and everybody, all of them, suffered and some suffered quite profoundly.

“If you watch Dan Walker, for example. It hits very quickly and it hits them hard.”

9. There were times Greg worried they wouldn’t all reach the summit

When asked if there was anyone in particular he was worried about, Greg admitted: “I think there was a point with just about every celeb where we thought they might not make it to the top.

“Everybody was at the point where you do start to question it”.

He continued: “The key to it is that rather it being a physical battle, it’s a battle of the mind. It’s probably one of the most beautiful places on the planet but there are six environments on the earth’s surface and Kilimanjaro has all six of those on a single mountain.”

10. Jade and Leigh-Anne became the mums of the group

When BBC Breakfast’s Dan was struggling, it was the Little Mix ladies who stepped in to raise spirits.

Greg said: “Jade and Leigh-Anne, especially on one particular occasion, with Dan Walker, were absolutely fantastic.

″[The team] does evolve as you go up, people’s roles within the team do change.”

11. The descent takes one day

After a seven-day ascent, it takes just one more day of climbing to get down – but Greg says this is the toughest bit.

“Walking downhill is quite damaging to the legs,” Greg said. “It damages muscle quicker than walking uphill and it’s very steep on Kili, so it damages the feet.

“I think one of the toughest things is you’ve spent all that time properly thinking about getting to the top, what you never think about is getting down.

“You’ve hit your goal, you’re at the top, everyone’s excited and you think, ‘oh my god, I’ve got to walk home’. It’s the one thing nobody wants to do.

“I think the descent is harder than the ascent.”

Kilimanjaro: The Bigger Red Nose Climb airs on BBC One, Wednesday 13 March at 9pm.


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