Co Down woman El Fegan on climbing Ireland's highest peak 30 times this month

Getting to the top of Carrauntoohil once is challenging enough but Co Down woman El Fegan is climbing Ireland's highest mountain on 30 consecutive days this month

Co Down polercise instructor El Fegan near the summit of Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest mountain
Maureen Coleman

FOR the past 23 days, Co Down woman El Fegan has pulled on her hiking boots and waterproofs to climb to the top of Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest mountain.

Standing tall at 1,039 metres with stunning views across Co Kerry and the Killarney lakes, Carrauntoohil is a popular destination for mountain trekkers like El, who has climbed it twice before.

This time though, she has set herself the challenge of climbing to the summit for 30 consecutive days throughout July, come wind, rain or sunshine. To motivate herself to do the daily hike, which can take between three and a half to six hours, depending on route, El is raising money for a local charity, Moving Mountains.

Fitness isn't a problem for the Hilltown polercise instructor, although she admits her knees began to twinge halfway through her 30 Day Carrauntoohil climb. Rather, the weather has been the most challenging aspect of the fundraiser and El, who celebrated her 40th birthday in lockdown, is relieved to be on the home straight now, with just one more week to go.

“Given what Irish summers are like, I should've known it would rain throughout July,” says El. “For 10 out of the first 16 days, it rained and I was coming down from the mountain and pouring water out of my boots.

“When it's raining and cold, it's pretty tough. I have Raynaud's in my hands, which affects circulation so when I'm cold, my hands can be painful. On those days that it rained, you can't really see much at the top except for the Carrauntoohil cross. When it's wet and cold, I don't hang around up there.

“But on other days, the weather has been amazing and I've sat at the summit and had my lunch. The views from the top are just stunning. You can see all around for miles and those views make it so worthwhile.”

El, who is also a member of the Co Down-based outdoor pursuits group the Feel Good Factor, likes to routinely test herself, physically and mentally. For the last few years, she has set herself various fitness challenges including climbing Kilimanjaro and, closer to home, Slieve Donard. She also climbed the highest mountain of every county in Ireland.

“I just like to make up my own challenges,” El explains. “It's something I enjoy doing; pushing myself. And then to hold myself accountable, I choose a charity to ensure that I complete the challenge. That way, if there are days that I don't really feel like doing it, I'm motivated to keep going.”

It was while doing her County High Point challenge five years ago that she first encountered Carrauntoohil. Then two years ago, she returned to the mountain with her nephew, who was keen to give it a go.

With her plans to mark her 40th birthday thrown into disarray as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, El decided to put her free time to good use.

“I had been planning to go on lots of holidays for my birthday but that obviously couldn't happen,” she says. "I started to feel a bit restless in lockdown on my own, so thought it would be a good idea to set myself another challenge and climb Carrauntoohil for 30 consecutive days.”

Well used to her adventures, her family and friends were encouraging and many have joined her on the treks to the top of Carrauntoohil. The first few days, it took El five to six hours to reach the cross; but after that, she managed to quicken her pace and do the hike in three and a half hours.

There are a number of routes people take to the mountain's summit including the most popular, the Devil's Ladder and O'Shea's Gully, which El found the most challenging.

On the days she climbed alone, she was able to go at a faster pace but was glad of the company on other days.

“I wasn't nervous at all going up on my own,” she says. “I've climbed it before and then as the days went on, I got to know the Devil's Ladder route pretty well.

“The great thing about the mountain is that you're never really alone. Even on the worst days, weather wise, there were still plenty of people about. And when the weather was decent, it could get quite busy at the top. I never felt alone really. And it's been amazing the support I've had, from family, friends and people on Facebook who wanted to join in."

El, who runs Polercise in Belfast and Dundalk, was also accompanied on her challenge by John Lenihan, the world champion mountain runner from Kerry, who holds the record for running Carrauntoohil in the fastest time. John rounded up a few members of a local walking group too, so for most her challenge, El has had company.

“It's been so lovely having people come out and walk with me,” she says. “I've had family and friends down every weekend and the days I haven't had anyone here have been fine because I like my own company.

“I love setting myself personal challenges. They give me something to look forward to. This time round, I've learned from my mistake climbing Slieve Donard without a stick, so I took one with me.

“The second part of the challenge has definitely been tougher and physically, it's taking a toll now. I'm expecting it to get tougher still in the countdown to the end of the challenge.

“But I imagine it's a bit like childbirth in the sense that when I come down from the mountain, have a shower and chill out, I forget all about the pain, the weather, the exhaustion. Instead, I'm ready to go again the next day and can't wait to get back on that mountain.”

Local legend John Lenihan is full of praise and admiration for El's mountain challenge and said he hoped the public would support her massive fundraising drive.

“The rugged and windswept summit of Carrauntoohil can depend on the weather; it can be either heaven on earth or sheer hell,” John says. “When El set her sights on reaching this peak for 30 days in succession for her chosen charity Moving Mountains, it was obvious she would encounter both extremes.

“People who attempt this, let alone complete it, are indeed very rare but highly driven and motivated. People hike Carrauntoohil and it takes them a week to recover yet here you have a girl who is having to face this day after day, often on her own, in horrendous weather conditions.

"Few people understand the skill, the willpower and the free spirit required to go through what is a minefield of potential accidents waiting to happen on a mountain that has claimed so many lives.

“To me, this is the mother of all challenges and I wish El luck and a safe journey and hope she raises the money she deserves for the children who depend on people like her.”

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