“I kept thinking of Andrew, who did the climb in 2011 with a brain tumour. Also, my mum, who died when I was very young and my brother, who passed away in the last few years. It was incredible. I felt closer to them, it was quite spiritual”, says Michael Prior, 47, general manager of Eusebi, Glasgow.
Prior, along with his colleague and friend Nico Baird Eusebi, 23, and 20 others in the HIT Scotland Kilimanjaro Team, reached the 5,895 metre summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on October 17.
They were following in the footsteps of the late chef Andrew Fairlie, who, 11 years ago, raised funds for the charity Hospitality Industry Trust (HIT) Scotland after climbing this dormant volcano and hosting the world’s highest Burns Supper at its peak.
This time, the Tanzanian expedition was led by Andrew’s younger brother, Jim.
“His entire goal was touching that board at the top. The one that Andrew touched,” says Prior.
The group’s challenge was to raise funds for HIT, who are custodians of the Andrew Fairlie Scholarship, which provides a career-changing educational opportunity to a male and a female chef annually. The money will also go to the Cornhill Macmillan Hospice, where the chef spent his last days in 2019.
The target for the entire group was to hit £100,000, with family business Eusebi pledging to raise £20,000. At the time of writing, the HIT Glasgow Kilimanjaro group on JustGiving is at £101,000 and the Glasgow venue has also outdone itself with £28,000. Many of the Italian restaurant’s donations have come from their customers, who visit for treats including its sourdough pizza and strawberry tarts.
The trip had originally been planned for 2020, but had been delayed because of lockdown restrictions. That allowed the group to spend longer on preparation.
“I kept doing two, if not three personal training sessions a week. I just worked on getting stronger. I was quite fit anyway, as I work in an environment where you're on your feet for at least 12 hours a day and always moving,” says Prior. “Earlier in the summer, I had started to do some munros again. It was never really my thing but I've got a friend who does mountain climbing so I teamed up with him a few times and also members of the Kilimanjaro group”.
For Baird Eusebi, who is the son of restaurant co-owner Giovanna Eusebi and is at Stirling University studying Sport and Business Management, getting involved was a spontaneous decision.
“Four months before the trip, I got called downstairs to speak with my mum and Michael,” he says. “She said she wasn’t able to do the trip any more, and asked if I wanted to go instead. I thought, why not, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I just went for it”.
He immediately upped his regular training sessions to six times a week. Although he had less time to prepare, he was the youngest member of the group, so had age on his side.
As Michael is Nico’s boss whenever he does shifts in the restaurant, they already had quite a close working relationship. That’s just as well, as after they reached Tanzania, they had to share a tent. For Prior, sleeping outdoors in freezing conditions was one of the challenges he hadn’t prepared for, in his focus on physical fitness.
“The whole eight days on the mountain, living and sleeping in a tent, never having been camping before. That was quite difficult,” he says.
Both say that they kept each other motivated and positive when things got tough.
“I got to know Michael a lot more outside of work and see another side of him,” says Baird Eusebi. “He’s such a laugh and a great guy, we got to make jokes together and keep each other’s spirits up and go through this together, laughing at the situation and how we ended up here. It was great to be able to share this experience with him”.
Towards the end of the trek, the group got up at 11.30pm for the final slog to the top.
“The last 300 meters took its toll, as you’re almost a zombie at that point,” says Baird Eusebi.
Unfortunately, although Prior hadn’t suffered from altitude sickness previously, it hit him on the final night. He had severe nausea and vomiting, and ended up falling behind the rest of the group by about 45 minutes. It was his lowest point of the trip. “I was running on empty,” he says.
Eusebi Baird had to keep going, even though Prior wasn’t able to keep up with him.
“Michael was behind me and even though I knew he would make it, I wanted to make sure one of us made it to the summit to represent Eusebi,” he says. “Once you hit the first peak, you feel like you’re in another world”.
Along with the rest of the group, the duo made it through to the end of their challenge and touched the same “congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak” sign that Andrew Fairlie was at, over a decade ago. Now they’re home, riding high on emotion, and watching the donations rising.
As Baird Eusebi says, “I can’t believe we’ve raised that amount, the support from customers and staff has been absolutely unbelievable”.
This may not be his last challenge.
“Now that I’ve hit the highest mountain in Africa, it’s given me the competitive bug”, he says. “ I want to sign up for a half ironman, an ultra race, and get into Judo training. I want to push the limits and see how far I can go. I used to box before Covid, but now I want to get back to it and get involved. Any other charity challenges, Michael and I are down”.
To donate, see https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/eusebideli