Pensioner, 81, scales over a thousand meters up Scots mountain to raise cash in memory of late father

A pensioner has scaled a Scots mountain to raise cash in memory of her late father who died of a debilitating brain disorder.

Laila Kjellström, 81, completed the near 1,500 meter round trip to the summit of Suilven and back to the base in the west of Sutherland in the Highlands on Wednesday, May 11.

The inspirational OAP decided to take on the challenge in a bid to raise money in aid of Parkinson’s disease research at the University of Edinburgh.

Laila’s father Björn Kjellström died in 1995 aged 84 after being diagnosed with the disease and the Edinburgh pensioner says she used the memory of her dad’s experience with the illness as motivation to reach the top.

Last year Laila celebrated her 81st birthday with a charity climb up Ben Vrackie in Pitlochry in aid of Vascular Dementia research, but this time she wanted to “do something totally crazy” as she took on Suilven.

Laila Kjellström at the University of Edinburgh

Speaking to the Record, Laila said: “Life during lockdown was a little bit boring – and I love hillwalking – so I decided to climb Ben Vrackie, which was a fairly easy one. I’ve already climbed all the munros already anyway when I was younger – so I thought, why don’t we do something totally crazy.

“My father, who died years ago, had Parkinson’s disease and I have friends who also have the illness at the moment too.

“It’s a very horrible illness to get. My dad was very fit and active and I saw how he declined – it made him very weak. It’s pretty harrowing, to tell the truth.

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Laila scales Suilven
Laila scales Suilven

“So my motivation was to raise funds for research into Parkinson’s disease – and I just thought, I’ll do something totally crazy and climb this hill.”

Laila, a retired psychotherapist who worked at the Wellspring therapy center in Edinburgh for 24 years before becoming a tutor at the University of Edinburgh, was picked up at around 8am as she prepared to take on the 731 meter mountain.

She was completing the hike with an active younger friend as well as a mountain guide – so she felt confident she was well looked after if there were any problems.

“It was a really good path to start off with, but the path up the valley was quite tricky with very big stones – so that was really hard work,” said Laila.

“Then we were walking down a very narrowly ledge, which was fine that didn’t bother me – but then as we kept going up I was just looking up at the last hump thinking to myself, ‘oh my God what am I doing? !’

“I started thinking to myself, ‘I’m old enough, I don’t need to do this’. But I’m really grateful to my friend and the mountain guide who stayed so positive and so supportive – so I knew I was well protected if something happened.

Laila's view as she scaled Suilven
Laila’s view as she scaled Suilven

“Then we reached the top and it was just beautiful, it was such a relief.”

Laila took in the beautiful views at the summit – but the worst, she says, was yet to come.

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Laila said: “The most difficult thing was walking down because it’s very steep and not a particularly good path.

“It was very funny, though, as I met an American woman walking up and she asked if I was Laila and she took a photo of me.

The view from the top of Suilven
The view from the top of Suilven

“She’d heard about my challenge, so word had obviously got around that this crazy old woman was climbing the mountain!”

Following the grueling 10 hour hike, Laila arrived back at the bottom at around 6.30pm.

Her legs were tired the following day – but she says the sense of achievement made it all worthwhile.

“It was a great relief when we got down,” Laila laughed.

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“I was just so relieved that I had managed to do it. I didn’t want to let people down who had supported me – and of course for my own pride too.

“It took quite a lot of hours – we had plenty of stops on the way down as I was so thirsty – but oh my God, I was elated. It was so worth it.

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“The front of my legs hurt a little bit but in a few days I’ll be back to normal – that doesn’t bother me at all, I’m used to that.

“In July 1, 2007, I completed my final munro to complete the full set and was awarded a certificate – but that was years ago.”

Laila, who is originally from Sweden but moved to Scotland in 1980, raised £3,400 in aid of Vascular Dementia research when she completed her hike up Ben Vrackie in Pitlochry – but she’s hoping she can surpass that feat during her fundraising drive for Parkinson’s this year .

Laila during the Ben Vrackie hike
Laila during the Ben Vrackie hike

She said: “Ultimately I hope the money raised can help people who have this particular illness, because it is very debilitating and not very easy to live with.

“My emotional motivation was so get support for Parkinson’s because my father had it. I knew he was a very fit man who loved skiing and orienteering and he was one of the champions with his brothers in the 1930s in Sweden.

“He was very physically active until he was diagnosed with the disease. I know he would be very pleased if he knew I was doing this.

“I would really appreciate if people are able to donate to support the research.”

The JustGiving page launched for Laila’s mountain challenge has reached almost £1,500 of a £3,500 target. To donate, click here.

The mountain guide who traveled with Laila, Charlie Burrow, runs the Climb Ride Explore group, who organizes outdoor activities in the north-west of Scotland. To visit their Facebook page, click here.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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