Sally Morrison admits she had no idea what she was getting into when she agreed to run Trek Asia, a weeklong hike along the Great Wall of China to raise money for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
“I had three glasses of wine in me and cheerily said ‘yes,'” says Morrison, who is director of the Diamond Information Center for De Beers’ Diamond Trading Company at J. Walter Thompson.
But it turned out to be what another participant, Joan Parker, called the “experience of a lifetime.”
Along with Parker—Morrison’s predecessor at the Diamond Information Center who now handles public relations for the De Beers retail chain—participants included Alastair MacPhail, account director at J. Walter Thompson, and actor Alan Cumming.
Before she left, Morrison “strong-armed everyone in the industry” to give money, and ended up raising $300,000, she says. “That’s a lot of money for a project the first time out. People were tremendously generous to us. I don’t think anyone said ‘no’ when I asked.”
The trek involved hiking ten miles a day for a week-mostly hilly terrain along the Great Wall. Morrison admits “it wasn’t until I actually committed that I realized the physical endurance required. We walked all day every day and it was frigidly cold at night.”
For most of the trip, the crew camped out at night, which Morrison says “was worse than the hiking: no showers, no running water.”
MacPhail says, “The first night, it got down to about 20 degrees and that certainly got people’s attention.… No one seriously injured themselves but there were an awful lot of people who slept pretty soundly and were really sore.”
Parker, a grandmother of four, knew the trek could be rough for her, being older than most of the participants. She even told donors to hold off giving money because she wasn’t sure she could make it. But in the end, the camaraderie of the group pulled her through.
“Someone said ‘you’re gonna bond,’ and I said: ‘I don’t want to bond. I know more people than I can handle.’ But it changes when you’re in this experience together. And people were very patient and they couldn’t have been more wonderful and supportive.”
She agreed the roughest part was the camping: “At the end of the day, a little thing like a bath could have meant a lot.”
Despite the hardship, what they saw and did made it all worth it. The group ate real local food—one night they had goat roasted on the spit. They heard about local AIDS programs and even camped out at a grade school playground.
“That was really strange,” MacPhail says. “If you can imagine an eight-year-old coming to school and seeing a bunch of foreigners sleeping where their jungle gym is.”
For Parker, the most memorable night was when group members spoke about why they participated.
“Two men were already HIV positive and staying alive on the drugs,” she said. “One very macho male spoke about his gay older brother who died from AIDS. Perhaps one of the most tragic stories was from a 29 year old who lost her father to AIDS after a blood transfusion, and then this was followed by her mother dying from AIDS in 2000. A gay actor in the group spoke about wanting to do something different from the celebrity life he led and to help the AIDS cause.”
The trek was also personal for Morrison. She worked for many years for AMFAR and her husband died of AIDS.
Meanwhile, there is talk about doing the trek next year, possibly in Namibia or Thailand. And many want to do it again.
“It was one of those things that you could call once in a lifetime,” says MacPhail. “But I hope it will be more than once in a lifetime.”
For more information, or to donate (and see more pictures) go to http://trekasia.kintera.org.