I am not climbing Carrauntoohil today. I am in Kerry, I am in Killarney, I am staying at the Mountain Lodge of explorer, adventurer and mountain mentor Pat Falvey; but I am still not climbing Carrauntoohil today.
Pat has a group going up alright; all anxious and excited with crampons and ice-axes, in search of snow and ice in Curved Gulley. I envy them a little, but I am not going with them. I haven’t been on a hill for a couple of months, and halfway through a six hour hike in winter conditions is not the time to discover you’re not hill fit. Especially when you know the answer before you start.
I did get the invitation to join them though, and I couldn’t resist the lure of at least walking in to the foothills.
I had a late and sociable night, finally rolling into my duvet around 2am. When the alarm kicked up a racket at 7am it was still inky dark outside. I shivered, punched my pillow, and considered rolling back into the arms of sleep. A little part of me wondered ‘what was the point of joining the hike if I wasn’t going to climb the mountain’.
The smell of Continue reading
I love my body. Not in a vain, narcissistic way – but with amazement at the body’s ability to cope with everything life throws at it, and just keep on giving. This moment of introspection doesn’t follow any mad achievement or record-breaking feat. It follows a trip to the physio and the news that I’ve strained my Continue reading
I am now a week into the New Year and fair play, the resolution is holding steady. I’ve been open sea swimming several times, climbed a mountain at a cracking pace, walked and trotted around the first #parkrun of the year, resumed my swimming lessons at DCU and returned to CrossFit. I’m not crazy, just Continue reading
This time last year a very good friend of mine and fellow ‘weight warrior’ completed a one-kilometre Reindeer Walk for the RNLI and kick started a life-changing year, in which her 50th birthday suit featured greatly and frequently! Get ready to raise your glass to my guest blogger -a lady who truly does ‘Dream, Dare and Do’ – Averil Larke.
Two days to go until the end of 2014 and I’m Continue reading
The alarm sounds at 0600 and I’m fresh out of my bed and off to make my porridge. It’s day one of my sásta bootcamp and I’m holding the tiniest paper sachet of oatmeal I’ve ever seen, but I’m determined to follow the rules. I’m here for a week and I want to see how my fitness levels improve and whether I lose weight when someone else is calling the shots. We’re training at 0800 and I need to have breakfast finished an hour before, to get the best value from all that carbohydrate. Looking around the kitchen I can’t see a microwave so I drag out a saucepan, and turn on the electric hob. I am used to gas, and the dull grey rings look uninspiring. Bored already, I add some water to the pot and leave the porridge to get on with it while I head for the shower. Twenty minutes later, I’m dressed for the gym and heading for the door – picking flakes of burned porridge from between my teeth as Continue reading
Oops. 3lb UP after my foray into the world of pork scratchings & cider with big bro in London. Good job I’ve got my #SastaBootcamp next week when I’ll be testing Irish entrepreneur Fiona Egan’s latest brilliant idea for getting us all fit and healthy.
I’ll be tucked away for a whole week, with the Sasta training pods, body sculpting, cycling, pool sessions, ball work, jogging, dance, massage, reflexology, the Sasta low Gi diet and the ‘Sasta Siesta’.
It’s residential, with healthy meals provided, and no social media or TV after 8 – to encourage better sleep…. although that’s my own self-enforced ban, to help me focus.
I’m heading down on Sunday and I will let you know how I get on. I can promise you faithfully I will definitely #Lose1LbByFriday .
I’ve just had my 4th swimming lesson with Karl McEntegart at DCU and I really feel I’m making progress. In fact it’s not just a feeling – I can clearly see the difference – from 63 mins in the water for my 1st sea race in July, to 36 mins for my 4th race a month later!
I don’t remember not being able to swim. Like walking, it’s just something I always remember doing. My mum used to tell me that my dad left me sitting on a rock at the beach in Tramore and the tide came in and knocked me off. I don’t know if that’s true, but she claimed I was a toddler at the time, and I doggy paddled back to the shore before anyone could reach me. I love the mermaid feel to the story, so I’m going to claim it and refuse to forensically examine it too closely!
You’d imagine with my ‘mermaid-style’ start to life, that I’d be a strong swimmer. Well I’m not. I’m a comfortable swimmer. I have never struggled in water, never felt tired or sore while swimming, never felt afraid. In fact, when I was 23 stone, being in the water was a very happy place for me. I could hide my body under the surface of the waves and imagine I was beautiful. That mermaid thing again…
Have I Made A Huge Mistake?
It wasn’t until I tried my 1st sea-race this July that I realised how far out of my depth I really was. Struggling to breathe as the waves slapped me in the face, I really began to think I’d made a huge mistake. Everyone else was out of the water and gone home, all but the last of the big orange marker buoys had been taken out of the water, and to my embarrassment I was now on 1st name terms with the rescue boat, who kept asking if I needed a lift! They were probably hoping I’d give up, call it a day, and let everyone go home to their tea… I realised afterwards that race means, well, race! I had never swam against a clock before, never attempted to be fast before. I would happily swim all day, but I wasn’t actually going anywhere. Throw a choppy sea and a turning tide into the mix and you begin to see why I was twice the length of time in the water than the svelte creatures who had flown past me at the first marker.
I realised I had work to do and that was when I started my pool lessons with Karl. He is brilliant at correcting my technique without overwhelming me, and I go away enthusiastically anxious to try out each new trick. Joining the Eastern Bay Swimming Club pool nights has also been a revelation. An hour of swimming lengths against the clock. It’s tough and it’s slightly soul destroying because I’m at least a length behind everyone else in my lane. But I know the only way I can shorten that distance is to keep going.
Each of my 4 sea races have been an education too. Dealing with tides and currents, wind, cold and the dreaded jellyfish. It’s been a tough year to get involved with sea racing. It’s been really stormy, there have been water quality issues, and there have been a staggering amount of jellyfish, including the big bad boy sort, that you hear warnings about on the radio.
Will Curiosity Kill The Cat?
So why this year? Why keep pushing so hard? If I’m honest, it’s because I had a dream. I’ve always been fascinated with Dublin’s iconic
annual river race – the Liffey Swim. While doing ‘kayak rescue cover’ for the swimmers last year I had a sneaky curiosity about whether I would ever be able to swim it too. I swam in the sea all last winter with Eastern Bay, but I was staying close to shore and not pushing any distance. Then I came back to Dublin in July after climbing Elbrus and the thought of having a go at the Liffey just refused to go away.
Which brings me to today’s lesson. After race one, I didn’t think I’d have a chance. You need to complete 4 open-sea races to even qualify to join the starting line for the Liffey Swim. Well I’ve done that. Somewhat to my own surprise, I have my races in. I could have given up at race one, but I didn’t,
and it’s a lesson on the value of just staying on in there. I’m still slow, but I’m not as slow as I was, and I’m improving all the time.
Today I drove over to Dublin 4 to hand-deliver my entry form for the Liffey Swim. I’ve worked so hard to complete those qualifying races that I was afraid to trust the form to
the post. The funny thing is, I bumped into the postman along the way and he had a bunch of
envelopes that were clearly other forms headed for the same address. We ended up having a fine chat about sea swimming, the Liffey Swim, and me apologising for my unwarranted lack of faith in the postal system. Nice bloke and only in Ireland…
So now the race is on.
I’m not racing against the other swimmers – I’m racing against myself. The Liffey Swim on September 13th is 2,500 metres against the tide. That’s 1,000 metres more than I’ve swum so far, and there’s a one-hour cut off. I have qualified to enter, but I still have a lot of work to do to complete the swim within the given time.
I have two weeks, I have Karl, I have Eastern Bay and I have a stubborn desire to be a mermaid.
Wish me luck…
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
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