Real Adventure Starts Here
I looked at the icy slope leading downhill away from me and shuddered. I knew I could go no further unless I tackled my terrors right here. The snow was hard-packed, shiny and hardened into ice. I could see the imprint of the boots that had passed before me and wondered if my feet would hold as well. Smothering all thought of what lay ahead, I took a deep breath, forcing the thin air into my lungs. I reached forward and gratefully took our leader Pat Falvey’s hand, and like a child I slowly and cautiously followed him inch- by-inch down the slope. Terrified of the drop to my right and concentrating firmly on Pat’s orange down jacket, glowing like a beacon ahead, step by step, until we finally reach a makeshift platform. Pat leaves me here with a grin, and thankfully I hug him, assuring him I can take it from here. I step forward on my own into the dark of the drop-house and breathe a sigh of relief as the smell of human waste engulfs me, finally, I can go to the loo…
Why Climb Every Mountain?
I don’t know why people climb mountains. I don’t know why I do myself; and frequently when I’m climbing them, I promise I will never climb them again. Then I see clouds drift across a lofty peak or a movie with the hero stepping confidently in crampons across the rock and ice and suddenly my breath catches in my chest and I think ‘that’s me’. The reality is somewhat different. I stumble and slip in my massive insulated boots, I move awkwardly across the snow in massive down jackets, with freezing fingers squeezed into multiple pairs of gloves, trying to hold onto an axe and make it work in a way that will save your life. It’s not pretty, it’s not an average holiday, and yet we spend weeks of our lives to seek out high, frosty, deadly places to climb. Why? Perhaps in a world which is both easier and harder, the immovable presence of a mountain gives you a benchmark to pit yourself against, to measure yourself against the forces of nature and find out who you are and what you can achieve. As one of the lads said in the safety of basecamp last night “If I can do what I did, and go through what I went through up there and come out smiling, what am I capable of back down below in the real world?” Perhaps it’s that simple, mountains make me feel alive.
Sleeping My Way To The Top
We all spent months preparing for this trip, all in our various ways. Hiking at home, cycling, running, swimming, gym work. All trying to be fit enough to justify our place in the team. You don’t just sign up for a couple of weeks on a mountain, you sign up for a six month campaign of attrition. My own preparation was a nightmare. I travelled to Scotland in January to practice ice skills, shot off to Norway in February to get a taste for how to dress against the bitter cold, I ran, swam, cycled, and then I fell, badly. I needed 14 stitches in my knee, two month’s rehab and then 6 weeks frantic activity to try and get my weight down and my fitness back. In doing that, I pulled a lateral Meniscus in my ‘good’ knee. I’d blown it – I was heading off to the mountain overweight and with both knees in braces. I was feeling weak and feeble as we went through our
acclimatisation walks and ice-drills on Elbrus, waiting for the moment of truth. I had massive doubts. But I knew others had concerns too; there were worries about altitude sickness from the light air, lack of energy, reaction to food, concerns over gear, how cold or warm would we be on the mountain. We all had our niggles and worries, and the team pulled together and reassured each other as best we could. Finally summit day approached with Pat our expedition leader and Artem our Russian guide locking heads over weather patterns and forecasts for the days ahead. The weather was difficult and local knowledge vital for interpreting conditions on the mountain. But we had worked hard as a team and acclimatised well, with walks up to 5,100m, and sessions practicing ice skills and ice-axe arrest techniques on the surrounding slopes. We were strong and we were ready. Despite a storm blowing with thunder and lightening just minutes apart and wind shaking our flimsy hut, we finally got the word that we’d go the following morning. Maybe.
We checked our gear and then prepared for an easy day. I slept. I ate breakfast, prepared my pack and clothes for the summit, and went back to bed. We had lunch in the communal hut and discussed the weather and the chances of going and then I went back to bed and slept again. We had our ‘last supper’ together as a team and I went back to bed, rolling into the row of mattresses that I was sharing with 7 other people, and slept again. I knew I had trained all I could, eaten all I could, hydrated all I could, doubted all I could, prepared all I could, now all I had left to do was rest all I could. In my mind, I was ‘sleeping my way to the top’.
“At 4am with temperatures of -20 and 35k winds, when the cold punches through your ‘top of the range’ down-jacket like a bullet through paper – you know just how fragile you are.”
2am had come and gone and the team thought the trip was off. But two hours later the call went up. With remarkable skill and daring, Pat and his local experts had spotted a weather window and the game was on.
Tumbling out of the heavy sleeping bag and silk liner, pulling on my extra layers, my ice-breaker vest, and favourite Columbia Teflon top and leggings, I add another precautionary Blisteze patch to my heel, before powdering my feet and double socking. Next my heavy double-boots go on, with gaiters to keep the snow out, Gortex waterproof layers, down jacket, balaclava, hat, gloves with liners under mitts, goggles, head torch, hiking poles, ice-axe. Moving heavily I tie on my 12-spike crampons and finally swing my rucksack onto my back, with food and nearly 2 litres of water. I’m ready to follow the team out into the darkness, into the weak, golden pools of light from our head torches, as we leave our camp behind.
Magic Peaks Around the Traverse
At 5,100m the air is light and my lungs screaming for oxygen as we begin the long traverse under the East Summit of Elbrus. I wonder if my mind has been playing tricks because I’m sure someone said this was a gradual slope. Nothing felt gradual about the incline pushing up against my feet. But in the cold, against the wind, and with the effort of each step, I’m suddenly reminded of another reason I love mountains. The life giving sun begins to dawn, casting pink fingers across the waves of frozen landscape, merging with mountain and clouds and me. The incredible beauty of nature. Off in the distance across the deadly slope I’ve been trying to avoid noticing; the shadow of Elbrus is cast pyramid-like against the surrounding mountains. It’s like a scene from the movie ‘The Summit’ when the awe-inspiring and deadly K2 casts it’s shadow across into China. I thought views like that were only for the silver screen and now I’m seeing the same effect here, with my own eyes. The sweeping beauty all around embraces me and warms my soul as the team push slowly forwards against the spindrift as the 35k winds throw surface snow against our faces, driving temperatures as low as -20.
We reach the ‘saddle’ between Elbrus’ iconic twin peaks and the game changes again. The sun’s up and blasting us with her fiery UV rays as the cold winds continue to hammer us, trying to steal fingers and toes. We rest briefly, then rope up in groups of 4, before tackling the next steep incline. The hardest part of this gruelling challenge is before us. The grail lies ahead and nothing between us, save this icy slope. “It’s a hill” I tell myself, as I push my shoulders forward into the wind. Ice axe in one hand, walking pole in the other, inching forward. I ignore the cold, the wind, the sun. I’m telling myself I’m in the Galtee Mountains back in Ireland with my training buddies Tony Nation and Karen Hill. It’s my pace and we’re pushing up Temple Hill. One foot in front of the other.
Falling Off The Edge Of The World
I’m kicking into the snow and ice with my crampons. I’m
thinking of technique, thinking of efficiency. I feel like dragging my feet forward but know if I don’t use the spikes to connect, my foot will slide and I’ll have an energy sapping jerk, pulling at my sore knee and forcing me to take the step again. So it’s slow, steady, and precise. The familiar mountaineer’s step. One clear stride, resting on your straight leg before kicking forward again with the alternate foot. One of our guides, Sasha, had been talking to me about pressure breathing. Forcing air into your lungs at altitude, without shallow breathing or hyperventilating. So again I concentrated. One step, one breath. Although I felt I was double-timing. Breathing two deep breaths per step. But I wasn’t stopping. I was still moving forward and that was the key. You eat these mountains bite by bite and step by step. I was up front in a line of 4, and occasionally, I’d shout back down the line “lads we have this, lads this is ours , we’re not going back now” and the shouts of encouragement coming back up the line gave me new energy to push harder.
Finally the slope evens out to one last platform before the final summit up ahead. So close I feel I can reach out and touch it. The rest of the team are already there, spread out in bunches of four. Either back in the dip or just dropping down from the summit. There’s breathless congratulations and high fives and reassurances that the summit is just 10 minutes away. The ropes are off, rucksacks abandoned, and we four are on our own again for one last pull. I’m last, but I don’t care, I’m exhausted but I don’t care, I’m sore but I don’t care. I’m having this. I’m taking this. There is no way I’m not going to reach out and grasp this now. Crampons in, 12 points in, push and breath, breath and push. Step after step, lungs screaming, legs screaming, soul soaring. I’m steps away from the summit and I hear some of the team shouting encouragement across the wind. I find new energy and double-time my steps as I pull myself up to stand at the top of Europe. Against clear blue skies, in bright sunlight, I turn around 360 degrees to take in the view, and with a catch in my throat, I slowly realise that TeamElbrus have made it. I’ve made it. 5,642m (18,510ft) the summit of Mount Elbrus.
Never Say ‘Never Again’
Later, much later. We’re eating lamb kebabs, drinking local beer and reminding ourselves of the journey we’ve made, both alone and as a team. I’m making my new buddies promise to remind me, never to do this again. So hard, so tough, so demanding and time-consuming. I’ve had it with mountains. I’m no adrenalin junkie, I know when I’ve had more than enough. I’m off trekking in Spain in October with Travel Department but that’s not about endurance, that’s a holiday. Gorgeous 10k walks in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains before heading back to a lovely rural hotel to cool off in the pool. Now that’s civilised. I’m looking forward to walking in Spain. I’ve never done that before. Of course I’ve been walking in other hot climates so I know what to expect and what to wear. I loved hiking in Africa. I climbed Mount Elgon in Uganda before cycling a couple of hundred kilometres over to the Nile to kayak down some white-water rapids. Phyll and Joe from TeamElbrus, they love Africa too. They’ve climbed Kilimanjaro – an amazing mountain they tell me. You know, after Elbrus, and Spain in October, I’d be well fit by next year. Kilimanjaro huh? well maybe just one more mountain….
William ‘Wildfire’ Shorthall
Mick ‘The BIC’ Byrne
Brian ‘Lazarus’ Gallogly
Joe ‘The Snapper’ Byrne
‘Doc’ Phyll Blake Byrne – (My Little Star)
Paddy ‘The Hat’ Lonergan
Noel ‘The Beard’ Garrahan
John Paul ‘Glow in the Dark’ Murphy
Shane ‘I can’t breathe but I’m still coming’ O’Toole
Teena ‘Never Again, Maybe” Gates
Guide; Irish & Worldwide Adventures’ Pat Falvey
Chief Russian guide; Artem Rostovtsev
“Ya know, we’re not walking at your pace – we’re walking at the team’s pace”. That’s what Greg Mulligan said to me, as we were coming down the mountain today. He was talking about our latest day’s training in preparation for climbing Mount Elbrus. He’d read my recent blog about my ‘Walk of Shame’ when I got pulled up to the front of the line, because I was slow. Now he was putting me at ease about the pace, and I just thought what a lovely thing to do and way to do it. I’m definitely going to put my back into it even more now. I don’t want to let the team down. That’s what we are you see, we’re TeamElbrus and we’re going all the way.
All the way today, was up in two cable cars and one chair lift, all the way to the snow line, high on Elbrus. The target was to get up into that thin air and accelerate our altitude training, while getting used to all the high-altitude gear. For some, it was a new experience to walk in the heavy, rigid-soled boots. These will protect us from the cold on the ice further up, but take a bit of getting used too. TeamElbrus coped well, walking from the last cable chair lift, up past the Barrels, and towards the huts where we will be staying tomorrow night. The Barrels is the name for a series of barrel-shaped huts, that high altitude climbers use as a base camp for climbing to the summit. There a series of hut-type bases along the mountain’s south side, that offer shelter to mountaineers looking towards Elbrus’ volcanic twin peaks.
We reached just under 4,000 metres today, moving up through the snow at a steady expedition rate. Kicking in and moving upwards, one step at a time. I assumed my now usual position up the top of the line, but I didn’t feel stressed today. My breathing was regular and I reckoned I could have kept that pace up for hours. That’s a really good thing – because on summit night, that’s what we’ll have to do. We could be 13 hours out on the ice. But that’s another day’s work.
The pictures here are: the girlies (me & Phyll), a Greg & me ‘selfie’ in the cable car, and me & Will walking through the snow. The shots are again by Joe, who’s rapidly becoming the ‘team snapper’.
The team handled the altitude well today and even had a dance with a bunch of Russian climbers, out on the ice. For anyone who’s travelled before with Pat Falvey Irish and Worldwide Adventures; you probably have an ‘Aroo-chi-cha’ idea of what went on. The all-girl Russian team were suitably impressed with our musical skill and our lovely strong men with ‘size 12 boots’. I thought the ice all around us would melt and run off the mountain right there and then. But the girls were swept away by a man in a snow plough and our lads had to settle for cheese sandwiches and a baby cucumber before turning back downhill.
Tonight at dinner we’re expecting a major briefing to determine the next few days. It’s time to leave our low mountain base and pack up all our gear. Tomorrow night, we’ll be sleeping on Elbrus.
Tomorrow we get serious.
I’m pretty much in the ‘lost and found’ category at the moment. When I decided to climb one of the Seven Summits, I was fighting fit and looking forward to training hard for six-months of mountain prep. The year started well, heading off to practice walking on snow and ice in Scotland in January, heading to Norway in February to play in the snow and check out my gear in some really freezing temperatures. I had a year-planner and Excel chart, all colour-coded, with gym, yoga, swimming, cycling, mountains… it was all going brilliantly and then I fell.
I cut my leg badly when I slipped on a rock, out running on Spinc in Wicklow. I got it stitched and thought I’d be back in a flash, but people wiser than me were proved right when I couldn’t really use my knee for the next 6 weeks. Even then it was a full two months before I could train properly.
In the meantime I was starting my own business which was great, but stressful and strangely lonely, because I am used to working in a big office environment and now I am based at home. They don’t tell you about that in ‘entrepreneur school!’ I was sitting at home; bored, sore, stressed and a bit scared – with a fridge sitting behind me and I’m sorry to say that I put on a couple of stone in as much time as it takes to pick up a sandwich! So with six weeks to go, I had to face loss of fitness coupled with carrying more weight.
I hope I’ve done enough. I kept practising my yoga while sitting on a chair and working out in the gym with my leg isolated from the routines, and I finally got back into the sea to start swimming again. I have worked really hard in the last month, balancing training against protecting my injured knee and losing weight. I also got a huge amount of help and advice from friends, colleagues and online through Facebook and Twitter. Not to mention Tony Nation from Pat Falvey Irish & Worldwide Adventures – who literally ‘walked the legs off me’ over the gorgeous Galtee Mountains in the last few weeks.
I’ve lost a stone, but I’m still overweight for my height. Training after an injury was a difficult dilemma to find myself in, with a whole range of advice, which came down to the same thing: “be patient and don’t overdo it”. It was deeply frustrating, and again, I hope I’ve done enough. I just do not know if there is enough in the tank to get me up that cold, icy, incline that will bring me to the top of Europe. I’ve lost fitness, my size 14 shape, and a bit of confidence. I’ve found friends, knowledge, insight, technique, and a new business.
The countdown is almost over. We fly from Dublin to London on Thursday, then fly to Moscow – and the big adventure kicks off on July 11th. I’ll be blogging whenever I have signal and power and I have a friend who has agreed to pass on messages if I don’t get to update Facebook or Twitter for a few days. I’ll report in full by July 25th.
This is the last time I am going to be thinking about fears or failure. Like Pandora’s box, I know I need to put doubt back under cover and lock down the lid. I am as good as I can be and that’s as good as it gets. I am off to climb Elbrus…. x
Swinging off the M8, we park ‘Blondie’ my dad’s car on the ‘Black Road’ near the village of Skeheenarinky. This is the starting point for the normal route up Galtymore. In Irish, Cnoc Mor a nGaibhlte is the appropriately named ‘Big Hill of the Galtys’. This is Ireland’s 14th highest peak, the tallest inland mountain in Ireland and the only inland peak to exceed 3,000ft (919m).
Slamming the car door and grabbing my kit and boots, I turn my back on Galtymore and jumping into my climbing buddy Tony Nation’s car, we drive away in the opposite direction. My heart is a missing a few beats as I wonder just how tough this day is going to be. We are not heading up the Black Road to climb Galtymore, instead we’re going to climb 4 other mountains first, hiking our way around in a sweeping crescent, to finish on the ‘big hill’ and reclaim our 1st car.
Tony, my long-time friend and climbing guide is chuckling a little as we drive towards a glen nestled beneath Temple Hill. As we leave his car and start to boot up, tie on gaiters and check our packs, he comments again that we have a long, day ahead. I don’t really need the reminder. I’ve climbed Galtymore several times before. It’s not difficult, but it’s steep and a good hike. I can see the length of the ridge ahead of us, and I can hardly comprehend that we will be covering all that ground on foot before the day is out. I remind myself that biting off too large a chunk is the easiest way for my mind to give up. So I break it down and put the knowledge of what lies ahead on hold. Being in denial can have its advantages!
On our approach to Temple Hill, we drop down through a small patch of woodland, into a lush, long-grassed pasture. Within minutes of leaving the road, I’m walking through a hidden copse, stepping into a snapshot of lives gone before. A stone-wall cottage, long abandoned, and sunken deep into the earth, buried in memories and pine needles. I stand in the sunken portal where the doorway once welcomed guests and I feel like a giant, dwarfed beside the disappearing house. The light is green and still, the air sharp with pine and moss, and in the distance the crystal noise of falling water. Here stories are made, and written. I want to return with a pad and pen and dream about who lived here and how their lives played out.
We take a few pictures and wander downhill to meet a small river that marks a start to the climb up Temple Hill. The climb ahead is grassy but steep, to reach 785m. We start off slowly, ‘expedition pace’ comments Tony as we start to ascend. It’s a truly beautiful day and I know I’m blessed, imagining how different this would be in the mist and rain. The views are already gorgeous and climbing here is no penance, every step takes me higher and shows me better views. I feel alive and strong and happy and grateful to be out on the hill.
We topped out and then followed a gentle moorland sweep towards a stony area and the summit cairn and trig pillar. Sheltering at the cairn, Tony pointed out something I’ve never seen before on an Irish Hill. From the rocks, he pulled out a ‘visitors’ book and pen, wrapped carefully in plastic, inviting hikers to leave a note and date their climb. I wrote down my thoughts and returned the book to Tony who careful replaced it for the next walkers to sign.
We pushed down into the saddle and turned our sights on our next target, Lyracappul. Careful not to lose too much ground we ducked the dive-bombing Swifts, who were clearly unimpressed to have their silence disturbed. They puzzled me a little, I don’t know a lot about them, but I know they spend much of their life in the air and don’t like nesting on the ground, so where are they basing themselves? In the cairns?
We began to climb again, and Tony reminded me about taking small steps and keeping my centre of gravity as neutral as possible. I’m training for climbing Elbrus with Irish adventurer, Pat Falvey, later this year; and these steep grassy slopes are ideal for mimicking the gradient of the long climb up the twin-peaked volcanic domes in Russia. I imagine climbing through the heather also gives me an idea of how it will feel to climb for hours, lifting my feet to push through several feet of snow.
We summit Lyracappul and take a breather at another stone cairn, higher than Temple Hill, at 825m. We’re sitting in the sun, munching on energy bars, when another party of climbers arrive. There was conversation, craic, and discussion about expeditions and foreign trips, before we all said our goodbyes and pushed off in different directions, leaving the Swifts behind.
We head along the ridge, dropping down and up between Carraig na Binne 822m and Slieve Chois na Binne 766m. The views of the valley below are stunning and we pick up the 4km Galty Wall as we head up again towards ‘The Big Hill of the Galtys’ for our final ascent to 919m. I know I’m blessed with these views and I drink in the green sloping valley on our right; while soaking in the corry lakes and cliffs on our left, pondering on the potential danger of stumbling around up here in the mist. You could easily get yourself into difficulty if you strayed too close to some of those sharp edges.
It is a long walk, but it is very beautiful and I slug into the final stretch, tired but confident. I know we are nearly at the final summit and I’m familiar with the long trek ahead down the Black Road; and every step is worth it. I want everyone to see what I see, but no picture or photograph can recreate this view, you just have to get your boots on and come and discover it for yourself. 360 degrees, with mountains and counties in all directions; on this clear day it is simply stunning. Tony points out the Glen of Aherlow to the north, the Knockmealdowns to the south, and he claims the faint blue line in the distance is my beloved Kerry Reeks.
With a burst of energy, I gallop up the final few steps to the iron cross that marks the summit of Galtymore. We are not alone. I meet a fellow Dub who has just finished his own personal pilgrimage to climb the highest peak in every county. He did it for himself, to get fit, to stop getting old and just for the sheer hell of it. He’s here eating a sandwich, enjoying a lonely celebration and totally at peace with himself and his world. We chat for ages and wish him well before we all prepare to say goodbye to our day’s final challenge.
The county boundary for Limerick and Tipperary runs across this summit. I’m not exactly sure where the line is – but I fancifully step astride where I imagine it might be. I am here, standing on the border, with one foot on each of the highest points in two counties. It’s enough for one day. I take a final sweep around at the view, before following Tony down the ‘big hill’ to the Black Road and home to Dublin. (7.5hrs)
I’ve been asked a lot about my boots lately; what I like to walk and hike in and what boots I wear for expeditions. I’m not a gear expert, but I am an expert in feeling comfortable when I’m out on the trail, so I’ll happily share what works for me.
I started out walking in Wicklow 5 years ago with a pair of Meindl trail boots, on the recommendation of the lads at Great Outdoors in Chatham Street in Dublin. I went back about 4 months later because the boots were looking a bit rough and the guys asked me did I condition and waterproof them? I stared blankly and probably said something sensible like “what’s that then?” The boys replaced the boots, gave me a lecture on how to care for them, and I’ve been wearing them ever since, in fact, my trusty Meindl’s took me up and down the Galtee Montains just last week.
I clean my boots after every hike and condition them and spray them with waterproofing and it really does make a difference to their longevity and the comfort of my feet. My Meindl’s are Nubuck leather and have several seams running through them. Regardless of how well the boots are made and how well you look after them, stitchwork will eventually start to rot when you’re trekking relentlessly through peaty Irish bogland. The stitching is breaking down pretty badly on mine after 5 years of hard work, and yet with the boot’s waterproof Goretex lining – combined with a good spray of waterproofing on the outside, my feet are still warm and dry; even in heavy rain and even after forging through streams (with gaiters). They really are quite remarkable and comfy as a glove. As my mum would have said: “They don’t owe me a penny”.
I’m still not ready to throw away my Meindl’s, but I was beginning to look around for another boot for hiking at home here in Ireland. I had a hankering for a ‘single skin’ boot. In other words, I was looking for a pair of boots that were made from one piece of leather, which didn’t have many stitched seams. I overheard a couple of ‘old-timers’ discussing boots over a pint of Guinness and I heard them say that stitching will always rot when you’re hiking in Ireland because of the effect of the bog on the threads. I don’t know if that’s true, but I was willing to test the theory. So enter my new generation of heels; a pair of Zamberlan Vibram Gortex boots. All deep glossy chestnut and thick, deep sole – I spotted them in Pat Falvey’s Adventure Store in the Gap of Dunloe in Kerry, and it was love at first sight. The boots have a rigid sole and can hold an automatic crampon, which I’ll talk about later. I was a bit concerned the hard sole could be inflexible for walking on long trails; but they felt really supportive and being able to wear them with crampons has it’s own attraction, so I decided to take the chance. On the downside they weigh over 4lb which is a little bit weighty for me for general hiking. On the up, they fit really well, they’re comfortable, and they’re nicely padded around the high ankle support. I wore them for the first time last weekend when I was climbing Mount Errigal in Donegal. I had intended to wear them for a few short walks first, but when I thought of the scree-slope on Errigal, and the very worn soles on my old boots, I decided I’d chance the support of the new ones. I was glad. They were comfy, solid, edged nicely through the scree and caused me no problems. A day later I went for an eight-hour-hike in blistering heat in Wicklow, and wore them again. They should have punished me with blisters, but I got away with a single hot-spot on one of my big toes. That’s a really good result.
Enter the big boys. My pride and joy are my Boreal’s. I have two pairs, both with rigid soles and both for using on ice with snap-on or ‘automatic’ crampons. They were both sourced through Con Moriarty of Hidden Ireland Adventures.
My Boreal Super Latok ice-climbers have brought me to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, Grand Paradiso in the Alps and Mount Elgon in Uganda. They have a fully rigid sole and can take all crampons. They weigh just over 4lb and have a triple thermal insulation and dry-lining. The manufacturers recommend them for ‘very cold conditions. Himalayan and Alpine climbing. Technical ice and mixed climbing.’ I love these boots. They served me well in Nepal and the Alps, but were overkill in Africa. They’re suitable for cold-weather mixed climbing, but wearing them in the heat was silly. My feet sweated on the inside and got soft. I didn’t get blisters, but I just didn’t need this class of boot in the heat.
My Boreal G1 Lites brought me through a technical climb on Island Peak (20,305ft) and I’ll be wearing them again this year when I head to Elbrus in Russia. Another super boot, these are the equivalent of the old ‘plastic boot’. Suitable for extreme cold, they are a double boot, with an outer Neoprene and Carbon Glass boot, and an inner removable dry-line ‘bootie’. For the amount of insulation, they’re a real lightweight, at 4lb 12 ounces. As a girl, I can tell you, weight really does matter!
I’ve had my cold-weather boots since 2010 and I’m sure there are a lot more light-weight, warmer, super efficient, ‘go-faster’ materials on the market since then. A straw poll of female climbing buddies recommended Scarpa, Asolo and Keen, which apparently has a lightweight day-hiking boot that comes in at just 1.8lb for the pair.
Probably the best place to start is knowing what you want when you go shopping. Do your research and shop around. You need a cold-weather boot if you’re going to snow and ice at altitude. If you are going to travel all that way, spending lots of cash on the trip and spending months training to make a summit, it’s awful to think of failing because of a shortfall in gear. You need to check the manufacturers’ insulation claims and believe them. In other words, if you’re borderline on whether you should step up a level with gear – step it up. Don’t arrive somewhere and discover you’ve got it wrong. You can rent, but I’d be terrified of finding the boots felt uncomfortable when I arrived, I’d prefer to borrow from a friend at home and get a chance to try them out before I left. I found the Latoks were fine for the Alps, but I was super-glad of the G1 double-boots when I arrived on Island Peak. If I’m going to need crampons I would definitely go for something with a rigid sole and have the ability to use snap-on crampons, saving time and energy fiddling with ‘tie-ons’ out on a glacier. Good gear is especially important for me, because I’m a ‘newbie’ and I lack the skills of other seasoned climbers, so I’ll take every bit of help I can get. If you’re not sure about something – ask. There are plenty of great sports stores that will give you advice and who know better than most, what works and what doesn’t. If you’re already an expert, go for it. But when I need a bit of help, I prefer to skip buying online and go and find someone local who can give me advice and support me in my purchase.
I was recently asked about what to wear on Kilimanjaro. I haven’t been there so I have no personal experience, but from what I understand, you certainly wouldn’t need a killer, rigid, Alpine boot. The final day is the toughest and it’s mainly scree with some icy patches. I’ve heard of people wearing trail shoes the whole way up, others wearing boots, others wearing runners but switching to boots on the final day. If I was heading off to Africa tomorrow I’d bring a lightweight boot that would support my ankle and grip well on the scree, but wouldn’t be too warm that my feet would sweat and soften – and I’d wear them as soon as the ground got rough, for fear I’d twist an ankle.
When I first bought my gear I got a really good grounding on the benefits of wearing supportive boots, that would protect my feet and my ankles in rough terrain. I have since tempered the message to my own taste. I now often wear trail-runners rather than boots, particularly during the summer when trails are dry and when my feet tend to sweat easily. ‘Stay-dry’ linings are great in winter when you’re splashing through a stream but are less useful in summer if your feet are soaking little puddles of sweat. I’ve got two favourite pairs of trail shoes; a pair of pink Helly Hansen trail runners and a pair of very expensive, very swanky, very sporty-trendy Salomons. I prefer the Helly Hansens, partly because they’re pink, and partly because I think they’re a broader fit and my foot is short, fat, with high insteps and dropped arches. It’s a major point to make – along with getting the right technical footware, it’s vitally important that it FITS.
When trying on your new boot, it should feel like someone is holding your foot firmly across the instep. You need a little toe-room, but not enough that your foot is slipping down in the boot when you’re making a descent, or you’ll end up with battered toes and blackened nails. I generally find my boot is a size larger than my normal shoe size. You need to have enough room in the boot to allow for circulation, for your foot swelling, and to fit a thick sock along with a thin liner, to avoid friction. I’ve been told you need enough room to slip a finger down the back of your boot behind your foot; and I’ve found that rough guide works for me. Consider the shape of your foot, if you need a broad or narrow fit, you may need to try several different brands to get the right fit. Specialist stores will measure your foot and can even produce moulded insoles that could help. Never be tempted to walk away wearing something uncomfortable in the hope that it will get better later – it won’t. Also, don’t tie up the laces too tightly, and give yourself a chance to break your boots in, or they’ll break you! I may have chanced my new boots on a long hike without warning, but if you’re depending on comfy boots in high places, you really should be hiking in them for at least 3 months beforehand.
That’s about the size of it for me. Happy hiking – and let me know what works for you out on the hill. I love to hear other people’s hiking stories and recommendations, so send them on. Email me on: email@example.com and remember, if you’re going on a walking holiday with me in Spain this October – Great Outdoors will give you a discount on your gear! Check out the Travel Department advert at the top of the page.
Tomorrow I’m in the gym at 0730 before catching a lift to Donegal for a special birthday celebration for a really good friend. A bunch of mates are marking the occasion with a meal tomorrow night, followed by climbing the iconic, volcanic, and mysterious looking Mount Errigal. What a way to celebrate a friendship, which for me covers 4 years of extraordinary change. My friend and I both discovered hills and walking around the same time, and this weekend will be really special.
The annual fundraiser for Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue. It’ll be tight getting to the start in time, but I’ve a fireman driving me, so hopefully we’ll make it 😉
The 25k hike kicks off at 9pm and continues through the longest day/night of the year, to finish well after dawn on Sunday morning. This is a chance for the hiking and climbing community to give something back to the volunteers who are on call 24/7, 365 days a year – ready to pull us out of trouble when we discover our map-reading skills aren’t as good as we thought they were! If you fancy it, the starting point is the Brockagh Centre in Glendalough. Registration opens at 6pm and you can be join a group with a navigator or navigate yourself. Click on the picture below for details.
Presuming I finish up in time, it’s another dash – over to Swords this time, to meet up with my buddies from Get Off The Couch, the TV show we recorded last year. This bunch of adventurers from all over the country got out there and got active, and inspired a whole load of other people to do the same thing. They kept up their adventures, even when the cameras stopped rolling – and we also kept up our friendship, which is wonderful. They’re having a get-together in Dublin this weekend and I’m dropping in for breakfast to survey the damage….
From Swords it’s back to Lucan for another friendly get together with a mate who’s planned a bit of a spa-break to help me recover from all of the above. It’s certainly going to be a busy weekend – but it all counts as training too; because my trip to Mount Elbrus looms ever closer. I picked up my Russian Visa earlier this week, and it’s all looking very real..
My thighs hurt, my calves hurt, my shoulders hurt, my ankles hurt, my fingers hurt…. what’s wrong with me? Oh yes, I’m back from training in Kerry’s high peaks. My neck hurts too.. in fact, the only thing that doesn’t hurt is my knee – which is great news, because that’s supposed to be my weakest bit. So I’ve kept my dodgy knee safe, and worked everything else. Result.
I have 31 days left, before I head off to Russia to climb Mount Elbrus with Pat Falvey Irish & Worldwide Adventures, and after getting injured earlier this year, I’m really running out of time. I’m back in the gym, doing yoga, cycling, using weights, running and swimming – I’m doing everything I can to be fit in time. I’m fairly confident that I’m fit enough to train properly now, but I’m running out of time to get hill-fit, and every day counts. All my friends have been called into action, to give me company out on the hill. It’s all to play for, and I’m not giving up.
This is the second weekend I’ve spent in Kerry. Last weekend, Pat Falvey and Alpinist John Higgs, invited me to Carrauntoohil for a ropes and crevasse rescue course. This weekend Pat and instructor Tony Nation had me back out on the hills – this time at 2am, beating back the rain and mist to find sunrise over the Kerry Reeks, after many hours of climbing and ploughing through bog. I was piggy-backing with a gang of girls who are training for a trip to Kilimanjaro. It was tough going, and when we reached the summit of Cnoc Na Braca, all I was fit for was huddling into the rocks and feasting on a tuna-wrap, which tasted a bit like mana from heaven.
Six hours of hiking through darkness into a relentless Kerry rainstorm was enough to test the best of gear and spirits, but as we got to the top, the rain eased, a brief shimmer of sunlight emerged and the mist lifted just long enough for a few photos while we ate lunch, giving us a tantalising glimpse of the beautiful view over the Black Valley, before closing in again, shutting down, and punishing us the whole way back down the hill. Kerry can be a bit like that at times. I found going down harder than going up, and was relieved to reach the valley floor and head back to Pat’s Mountain Lodge for a full Irish cooked by the boys, which was a truly unexpected treat!
For a while I thought I’d made a mistake going out with the group. I’ve been letting my leg heal for a few months now and I was worried that perhaps the long haul over the uneven, soggy, bog, would have caused new damage. But I woke up this morning, stiff everywhere else, but ‘sound of knee’, so I’m relieved, and ready to keep stepping up the pressure.
It could have been a lot worse of course. Pat had ‘threatened me’ with his ‘Survival on Carrauntoohil Bootcamp’ to help with my fitness. I got to see how that looked when the Adrigole GAA team turned up on Saturday morning at Cronin’s Yard. The guys were faced with Pat Falvey, Tony Nation and two Military Instructors who put them through their paces. I watched as they carried ‘casualties’ across the mountain, using shovels and pick-axe to dig out channels, dragging under camouflage canopies, and struggling through icy mountain streams, as the mist and rain beat them back into the bog. Those lads were WICKED.
Parting shot from Pat as I left the lodge? “Goodbye now girl, and you know, you could try climbing a few mountains…” I guess I’m heading back to Kerry next weekend.
My leg is properly healed now and I’m training hard for Elbrus. I’m heading to Russia in July with Pat Falvey Irish and World Wide Adventures, to climb the highest mountain in Europe. Elbrus is a frozen volcanic glacier with a big reputation and one of the ‘Seven Summits’ the highest mountains of each of the seven continents.
The odds are stacked against me, because I need to fit 6 months of training into less than 2 after being injured earlier this year. It’s a serious challenge and I’ve got an awful lot of work ahead. It doesn’t help my confidence when I keep finding little details like this on ‘about.com’…..
•Climbers regularly die on Mount Elbrus, as many as 30 a year. In 2004 alone, 48 climbers and skiers died on the mountain. Elbrus is considered one of the world’s most deadly peaks with a high ratio of climber deaths to climbers.
May the force be with me! I’m heading down to Pat’s Kerry Mountain Lodge shortly to begin training on Carrauntoohil. I hope I’ll be ready for climbing Ireland’s highest mountain. It will certainly show me how much work I have to do. Kerry will bring this challenge home.
Well the challenge is on. In the next two months I need to pour 6-months of training into just 8 weeks. In July, I travel to Russia with Pat Falvey Worldwide Adventures to try and reach the summit of Mount Elbrus – the highest mountain in Europe and one of the Seven Summits.
I’ve been planning the climb for close to a year, but falling and slicing my knee open in February wasn’t part of the plan. At this stage I’m not nearly ready, and have only started to resume the training plan that I should have been working on for the past three months.
I don’t know if I’m going to be ready in time, but the knee has healed well and is taking weight – and with two months left, I’m not saying ‘no’ just yet. Tips, hints, suggestions about rehab and healthy eating will all be very welcome in the coming weeks, as I crank up the race to be fit.
At some point I’ll have to make a decision about the safety of joining an expedition on a mountain where unpredictable weather calls for endurance, fitness and the ability to move quickly if nature throws a curveball – and all this at altitude. For now, I’ll just concentrate on getting fit. I feel like I’m 23 stone all over again. I have a mountain to climb.
Elevation: 18,510 feet (5,642 meters)
Prominence: 15,554 feet (4,741 meters)
Location: Caucasus Range, Russia. On the border of Asia and Europe.
Coordinates: 43°21′18″ N / 42°26′21″ E
First Ascent: 1874 by Florence Crauford Grove, Frederick Gardner, Horace Walker, Peter Knubel, and Ahiya Sottaiev (guide).
Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia. At 15,554 feet (4,741 meters) it is also the tenth most prominent mountain in the world, and one of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. Mount Elbrus lies on the geographical dividing line between Europe and Asia, but most geographers consider it to be the highest mountain in Europe.
‘Climbing.about.com reports that Elbrus is considered one of the world’s most deadly peaks with a high ratio of climber deaths to climbers, as many as 30 in a year. Considered an inactive volcano, Mount Elbrus is perpetually snow-covered with an icecap and 22 glaciers. Lava flows cover the mountain as well as 100 square miles of volcanic ash and debris. Pyroclastic flows of ash and mud, indicative of a powerful eruption that melted ice, also drain off the mountain. An 800-foot-wide snow-filled volcanic crater is on the mountain’s western summit. Elbrus last erupted around 50 A.D.