Rumours of my disappearance or demise have been greatly exaggerated - the fact that I haven't posted on this blog for a month could possibly have led people to wonder what was going on, but the truth is I have been (a) busy, (b) on holiday and (c) busy, in that order!
I won't make this a really long blog post, detailing all the minutiae of my life over the last month, so this will be in the nature of an edited highlights entry!
Holiday was fabulous - Neil and I went to Sicily, a part of Italy we had never been to but were keen to visit, mainly because, as well as having a fascinating history, it has amazing mountains (we do like our mountains!). We flew into Catania and spent two weeks just outside a small hillside town called Francavilla, enjoying the peace and tranquillity and some climbing and walking. It wasn't a touristy place at all, which suits us fine - I've never understood why people want to travel to another country and then try to recreate their usual lifestyle, with diet, drink and tv they would have in the UK. Surely one of the points of going abroad is to experience different lifestyles and cultures? Otherwise it's just like being at home but with better weather and a chance to shout and point at things in a patronising manner because those "Johnny Foreigners" don't understand English....but I digress! Let's return to our holiday.
Our friend Jonathan joined us for 12 days - we do a lot of walking and climbing with him (he was part of our Kilimanjaro group 6 years ago) - and during the time he was with us, we did two preparation climbs and some small walks so that we were as ready as we could be for the Main Event - the ascent of Mount Etna! Etna is an active volcano and was particularly active during March of this year, so we were none too sure before we went to Sicily whether we would be able to get onto the mountain or not. Luckily, it's calmed down, although there are plumes of smoke rising from it every day - a wonderful sight which we could see from our villa every day. There's something so elemental and powerful about this manifestation of nature - not influenced by mankind in any way but controlled by something so much more forceful and unambiguous.
We set out to climb Etna on Neil's birthday - his choice of birthday treat! Up at 5 in the morning, breakfast of pasta, then a drive to the Refugio from where we began our climb. There are tours of Mt Etna, where you get taken up in a 4x4 to the Observatory and can do a short (100 metres or so) walk to a viewpoint, but we wanted to do it the proper way, using our own momentum to get up there. Boy, was it hard work! We walked onto the mountain at 7 a.m and arrived back at our car at 7.10 p.m - just over 12 hours of tough uphill and downhill walking, with a total of about 1 hour in breaks. We started off in lava dust, then struggled in lava shale and finally walked through 3 or 4 metre high banks of snow and ice - a strange experience, seeing smoke and steam rising from the earth, while surrounded by snow! Etna is 3,300 metres high (three times the height of Ben Nevis, I think) and the most ascent I have done in one day - while Kili is considerably higher, at 5895 m, we did it over several days, to acclimatise to the altitude. Tough, tough, tough - two hours into the climb, I honestly thought I was going to have to turn back, but Neil and Jonathan relieved me of a couple of the heavier items in my rucksack and I remembered the recuperative powers of chocolate and was able to carry on! It's amazing how a few squares of hazelnut chocolate can perk you up.
I have to say that climbing Etna is the toughest climb I have ever done (and before you think I am just a girly wuss, Neil and Jonathan agree it is a blimming tough climb!) and I discovered that 12 hours of solid, hard activity is pushing my boundaries a bit too far - during the night, after our climb, I woke up with a thumping headache and was sick, then felt headachey and listless all the next day. I suspect that 12 hours was about 2 or 3 hours too much for me at this stage, but you have to test the limits, don't you?
The remainder of the holiday included plenty rest, relaxation, reading, eating and enjoying Italian history and architecture. There's a lovely unspoiled feel about the part of Sicily we were in - people living a pretty unsophisticated life, working on the land, no airs and graces. We loved it - everyone was really friendly and, because no one really spoke much English, we were able to practise our (very poor) Italian and, in so doing, give them a bit of a laugh! We got mistaken for French or German people quite a lot, so I had some practice conversing in those languages too - good for my lazy brain! We dropped Jonathan off at Catania airport at the end of his stay and then Neil and I had another couple of days at an Agriturismo, during which we visited Siracusa and Noto - both more popular with tourists and therefore busier. There's just such an embarrassment of riches there, with the history, remains of Greek and Roman amphitheatres, wonderful churches and civic buildings, all topped off with wonderfully friendly people. We loved it (well, except for driving into Catania, where we experienced just the worst, most inconsiderate, dangerous driving we have come across - even by Italian standards, it was dreadful!).
Since coming home, I have struggled a bit due to the appalling weather. My mood is always affected by bad weather (that's why I am such a miserable ratbag over the winter months) and this pathetic excuse for a summer is really getting me down. However, I have resorted to my usual remedy of exercise and that seems to be helping.
I can't end this post without remarking on the fact that, while we were away, it was the anniversary of my surgery. Given how I felt this time last year, I am even more in awe of the resilience of the human body and the work of the NHS - just over a year to the day of having pretty intense surgery, with all the subsequent treatments and side-effects, I was standing at the top of Mt Etna. That's pretty good, I think! It's not just the physical stamina and energy, but the fact that I feel much better about how my face looks and was happy having photographs taken and didn't feel at all self-conscious about how I looked. I think that's real progress.
Oh, and I also featured in our local newspaper, which ran an article about my London Marathon exploits :-)