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INTERVIEW Ian McKeever on 35 climbs of the Reek – in a week

Outdoor Living

Ian McKeever at the foot of Croagh Patrick.?
CHALLENGE MET Ian McKeever at the foot of Croagh Patrick.?Pics: Conor McKeown

Record-breaking McKeever scales new heights

Trevor Quinn

Lecturer, author and mountaineer Ian McKeever climbed Croagh Patrick 35 times in one week last week. Yes, you read that right, 35. Describing the final stages of his record-breaking climbs, he told me: “The body goes into shock mode … the pain and the joint pressure … you just have to think of the bigger picture. The reality is that you’ll come out of this.”
McKeever climbed in excess of 12 hours a day covering more than 60,000 metres in support of Mayo Autism Action, which was aiming to raise over €500,000 in this, the fifth year of the annual Croagh Patrick Challenge. The funds raised will go towards the Áthas School in Kiltimagh, which relies entirely on public fundraising.
McKeever, along with hundreds of charitable and enterprising climbers from Mayo and around the country, joined organisers Johnny Oosten and Pat Kearns for the difficult daily challenge of reaching the summit of Ireland’s most iconic mountain in freezing and often dangerous conditions.
A number of people were hospitalised and stretchered off the mountain by Mayo Mountain Rescue after slips and falls on snow and ice during the week. While one daily ascent proved problematic for most, McKeever set an ambitious personal challenge of five per day.
The adventure addict, who climbed Mount Everest as well as the world’s seven highest peaks in 2007, said: “Johnny Oosten and Pat Kearns kindly invited me to present medals last November to the climbers from last year’s challenge and invited me to say a few words… TDs and dignitaries were there, and I suddenly realised there’s no point standing up there and being reflective yourself … The people haven’t asked you to come out and talk about what they’re going to do – you have to get your ass up off the grill and do it too.”
McKeever approached more than 30 companies prior to the climb and received sponsorship in excess of €5,000 on condition that he successfully completed his 35 ascents. He also promised to give copies of his books and free motivation talks to the companies if they  supported him. “I wanted to earn it. Some of these companies have countless requests to give to charity every day, but I said I wanted to give something back in return.”
McKeever reflected on the wonderful spirit that was created during the challenge: “I think the thing that I thought was fantastic and kept me going was, number one, the people that you’d meet along the way and their stories. There was one young lad who was climbing… he had a hole in his heart. His mother would always make a phone call to make sure he was okay. He was a great kid, and you’re just thinking, God almighty.
“Another lad who was there had been in a coma after a car accident. His family talked to him constantly and helped to get him out of his coma. He did, and he’s rehabilitating himself – and he’s climbing and getting fit again. It was just wonderful to see.”
McKeever remembers one girl and her sister who were in Westport for the weekend and who decided to climb Croagh Patrick with the volunteers having heard about the challenge on the radio. Both girls were feeling the after-effects of a sociable weekend, but they told McKeever,  “if you can go out and do this 35 times in one week, then we can go out and park our car and manage to climb the mountain once.”
One ‘incredible’ local 16-year-old also climbed the reek every day before school, rising at 4.30am every morning, just one hour after McKeever. In the hub of economic gloom and doom, positive stories were a regular occurrence on Croagh Patrick, despite some bumps and bruises.
McKeever shares another story of a man named affectionately as Paddy the Rocket. “He was a legend of a man,” McKeever muses, “He’s 59 years old, and he eats nothing but natural stuff. You can tell how fit he is. One day he said to me ‘What is that you have in your mouth?’ I said that’s just carbohydrate gel and I handed it to him and he tossed it up in the air and I had to collect it. After that he was gone like a whippet. It was fecking minus six degrees and he’s 59 with his top off, and is gone like a bullet!
“He was like a cartoon character. One minute he was there and the next he’d pop up on the other side of the mountain. His head would emerge when you’d least expect it from a glacial snowdrift.”