Spotlight On…Pamela Fenech

Pamela Fenech is a Certified Public Accountant and holds a practising certificate in Auditing. She is a member of the Malta Institute of Accountants and the Malta Institute of Taxation. In 2004 she started practicing with one of the major audit firms, where she was responsible for a portfolio of clients and worked on audits in Malta, London and Luxembourg. In 2009 she moved to the family audit and accountancy practice, EmauelFenechandCo, where she manages and provides consultancy, audit, taxation, and accountancy services to Small and Medium enterprises.

If you ever feel the need to disprove the term ‘boring accountant’ you only need spend an hour with the vibrant Pamela Fenech. Trim and elegant she may be, but don’t be taken in by those spindly heels, for this woman has endured huge personal challenges – and she can climb mountains, literally.

We’ve all experienced those stuck-in-a-rut Monday blues but, when they hit Pamela and her friend Maria Borg, rather than opt for an exotic holiday they set their sights on the Kilimanjaro Challenge. Pamela happily admits that she had no idea what she was letting herself in for.

Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the highest freestanding mountain in the world standing at 5,895m. While climbing it doesn’t require mountaineering skills, the trek is still a daunting feat of human endurance. Furthermore, despite the risk of oedema, hypothermia, altitude sickness and even death, Pamela’s 15 year old son Brad Lee agreed to join them, and thus became the youngest ever participant from Malta.

Pamela explains: “We wanted to do something which would challenge us physically and mentally, change our outlook on the world and, at the same time, help others. The Kilimanjaro Challenge 7 gave us all this and more. It was also a unique opportunity for a mother and son bonding exercise, and for Brad Lee to embrace living life first hand rather than from behind a computer screen. It also gave both of us the chance to discover the rewards of working with others to help people in real need.”

This was no six-day wonder. It was a project that took over a year to realise. First there was fund-raising. The 17 KC7 participants were responsible for their own expenses (their kit alone cost over €500 each), but the main purpose was to raise €60,000 towards Dun Gorg Grima’s project to build a home for children with special needs in Kenya (www.gesufilproxxmu.com).

Kilimanjaro

Fundraising provided an opportunity for them to bond as a team and learn to deal calmly with the unexpected, such as 100 guests turning up when 80 were expected at an event. Apart from a hog roast, a fenkata, a poker tournament, soliciting donations for raffles and an evening with Freddie Portelli, Brad also reached out to his peers with a PlayStation Tournament.

Alongside the fund-raising, the team was building up the endurance needed to cope with long hikes at high altitude in extreme temperatures and oxygen-deprived air. Every night after work Pamela attended circuit training or joined a three-hour walk, and, on weekends, the whole team underwent five-to-eight hour walks round Malta and Gozo. All this helped the mixed group of former strangers to develop an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Kilimanjaro Challenge

The Kilimanjaro Challenge

Packing efficiently provided another lesson for life, with organiser Keith Marshall setting a strict limit of 15kgs per rucksack and 5kg per backpack, despite having to cope with the mountain’s extreme climatic changes through three zones: damp tropical forest, sunny open moorland and icy alpine desert, with temperatures ranging from a high of 15 to minus 5 Celsius.

Finally, in September 2013, following a courtesy visit to the then President, HE George Abela, the group flew to Dar es Salaam. Two days later they travelled to the Kilimanjaro base camp to commence their climb up the longer but more scenic Machame route. Over six days they trekked for seven-to-nine hours a day, occasionally climbing high, then descending to a slightly lower level to sleep in order to accustom the body to the lack of oxygen. Pamela felt this instantly and suffered from shortness of breath but her body adapted until they reached the Lava Tower at 15,100 feet (or 5,000 metres), when the altitude sickness became overpowering. Conditions were grim: the sleeping quarters were tiny, low lean-tos with barely enough room for one person let alone two plus bags. The toilet facilities were stinking holes and the bowl of water provided for washing was covered in a layer of dust.

Pamela found the challenge was more mental than physical. Many days she felt she could not continue, but was spurred on by the porters’ cautious cajoling of ‘Pole Pole’ (slowly, slowly) and her friends’ urging ‘Ejja ha mmorru!!’ and, possibly in a bid to convince themselves, shrugs of ‘Hakuna Matata’.

The last night was the most difficult. Despite hiking for six hours Pamela found it impossible to sleep. Everyone was excited but tense. Pamela’s anxiety was doubled by guilt at placing her son in danger, while he slept more soundly than he ever sleeps in Malta. They started their bid for the summit at midnight, in three groups. The challenge then was to keep the group together as some people were faster than others, but had to show patience and compassion for their weaker members. At this stage even fitness was no defence against sickness. As they climbed slowly upwards breathless, puking and lurching as if inebriated, they were discouraged by passing ailing climbers who had had to abandon their ascent.

After eight hours they reached Stella Point on the edge of the crater in time to enjoy, possibly, the most magnificent sunrise of their lives, before pushing on. The ice-clad summit still had to be conquered, and that was another two long hours away. Pamela’s lungs ached agonisingly with the pressure, but she found the strength to continue as she looked up to see Brad, her son and her hero at the summit.

Working as a group, they had triumphed! Everyone made it to Uhuru Peak, though the exhilaration was short lived as they had to start their descent almost immediately before cold and fatigue set in. The descent was even tougher for now they were exhausted, slithering and sliding through the snow with their knees buckling under them. By the time they reached their overnight camp they’d been on the go for 19 hours. Celebrations were postponed until the next day, when they reached the base camp and were presented with ‘gold’ certificates to mark their achievement. The group then left for a Serengeti safari still hyped up, though their hoped-for relaxing recovery in Zanzibar was marred by the aftereffects as many of the group succumbed to illness.

I was curious. Surely after such a unique experience there must have been a feeling of anti-climax once it was over. “Absolutely not,” protested Pamela, “It was the beginning of a new life. I felt that if I could achieve that then I am capable of anything. I’m far more confident and disciplined now and see things differently. It has helped me so much in my life and work. I no longer panic and can face all manner of difficulties and have experience of what can be achieved by working as a team.”

Sadly Pamela was to be tested when tragedy struck her family within three months of the climb, but she adds that even then the mountain saved her. “It was a Godsend. I had learnt that self-pity is demoralising. I am capable, I can cope with the ups and down of life and persistence pays off.”

She had also made life-long friends. The KC7 group is still close. Brad is now studying Accounts and Marketing, while Pamela is reading for a Masters in Knowledge-Based Entrepreneurship and, this year, she ran the Malta Half-Marathon.

Pamela’s abiding memory of her magical mountain is the wonder of nature mingled with the ingenuity of man. “Once the sun goes down you are surrounded by millions of stars – stars above and below. The stars above are the real stars, dazzling and bright. The stars below are the lights of the villages that shine through the clouds – truly spectacular.”

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