Why Do People Climb Mountains?
Muireann Conneely’s account of the rescue of her party from Carrauntoohil on 4th April 2009.
Why do people climb mountains?
Two days ago, that question might have been merely a general musing; an abstract wonderment as to why some of us, every so often, like to expend enormous amounts of energy pushing and sweating our way up these large masses of earth and rock, only to have to come all the way back down again, and ultimately end up in exactly the same place we began.
Two days on, however, following the scariest experience of my life thus far – the experience in question that of being rescued from a pretty dangerous spot on the side of Carrauntoohil by the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team – it assumes a particular significance.
No really, why the hell do people climb mountains?
I’m not sure that today is the best time to be recounting the events of the weekend. It’s less than 48 hrs since we actually got off the mountain, and I’m still feeling pretty shell shocked. Actually, I’m not really sure what I’m feeling. One minute I’m feeling almost a supernatural sense of elation, an almost giddy high at the joy of being alive – seeing the new buds of spring on the trees for the first time, marveling at their fresh greenness and rejoicing at such an appropriate symbol of new beginnings… the next minute I’m standing in the dairy section of the supermarket, feeling numbly incapable of deciding between strawberry and vanilla yoghurts, and then suddenly almost bursting into tears when “You Found Me” by The Fray starts to play on the shop’s sound system. I feel like a TV with as many emotions as channels (one with a subscription to Sky Digital), and one whose channels are being changed at the whim of a ten year old with ADHD. On speed.
For this reason, the account of events written today would probably differ quite significantly from the one I might write in a week’s time, or even in an hour’s time. It might lack a little balanced clarity that a few more nights of decent sleep in an actual bed might bring. But no matter, I’m going to write it now, because maybe the sooner I write it down, the sooner the whole experience will cease to go around and around in my head.
Or maybe it won’t.
It all still seems so surreal, as though the five of us were characters in a film (Called Five Idiots Get Stuck On A Mountain). And so, like all good films where you know that some terrifying experience is going to befall the main protagonists, the day started out pretty well…
It began with a great breakfast, cooked by the wonderful Brigid and Connor of Gleann Fia guest house where we were staying. We were all in high spirits, looking forward to a day out in the fresh air and beautiful countryside, and achieving the challenge of climbing the highest mountain in the country. We had decided a few months previously to take part in the Four Peaks Challenge to raise money for Focus Ireland; a month ago we had climbed Slieve Donard in Co. Down as part of our preparation, this weekend we were going to get up and down Carrauntoohil. (Not for one second did any of imagine that getting down would involve 17 members of the Kerry Mountain Rescue team, a series of ropes and a number of some very useful metal clamps called jumars)
Perhaps at this point I should introduce the rest of the characters briefly: our mountain climbing expedition team of April 4th included myself and 4 friends – Laura, Eilish, Jess and Mike. Do not think any other details are necessary at this point.
The weather was good; some early showers had cleared while we ate our breakfast, and the sun began to come out. I was tired enough after a long drive the night before and having been on call the previous two nights (and getting calls both nights), but was feeling that the change of scenery, fresh air, and the company of my friends would be of enormous benefit to me.
Soon we were off. We began our ascent from Cronin’s Yard and made our way up by the Copper lakes. It’s funny, actually, I don’t really remember a whole lot about the first part of the day now. Perhaps all of the finer details have been obliterated by the events of the latter half (though the details of those are a little hazy also, I must say).
I do remember really enjoying myself. I remember looking around and being in utter awe at the amazing scenery surrounding me. I remember being pretty pleased that my body seemed to be carrying me up the mountain without an undue amount of hardship; though it was no walk in the park by any means. I remember having lunch at the copper lake and thinking I’d never had such a tasty meal in such a beautiful location. I remember sitting in the sunshine feeling hopeful that the sunshine might help clear up my irritating adult acne (little knowing that I would soon come close to having medical matters of a slightly more life–threatening nature to contend with). I remember being impressed that Laura and Eilish were managing so well despite this being their first mountain climbing expedition (not that myself and Jess had done much more, but we had climbed Slieve Donard the previous month) I remember looking up at the actual peak from below feeling a little bit daunted, but certain, nonetheless, that we could manage to reach it.
And reach it we did, though not without some rather scary parts along the way. I don’t know exactly what name these parts had (and that, probably, is one of the many factors in why we ended up in the situation we did – our actual lack of precise geographical knowledge), but there were times we were crawling up on our hands and knees, clinging onto tufts of grass and rocks that didn’t seem altogether stable. This, perhaps, should have been the first warning sign that we were a little out of our depth. Or rather, it was the first warning sign, but we should not have ignored it.
It was about 6pm when we reached the summit. It had taken us 7 hours to get there. I imagine that at this point we should have been a little more concerned that it was a bit late to be commencing our descent, but perhaps we were all distracted by the elation at actually reaching the top and for those few moments, being the highest people in the country.
So, we started to move down the mountain. The first part of the descent seemed to be easy enough. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment we realised all was not quite right, but gradually I became aware that we were spending rather a lot of time on our backsides and that the incline seemed to be getting steeper and steeper. The other girls started to voice some concern when the rocks we were climbing over began to seem less and less stable. There seemed to be no clear path for us to follow anymore, and everywhere we looked, deep gullies and ravines lay below us. Still we continued on, perhaps a growing awareness beginning to dawn at last, that it was now getting quite late, the light was beginning to fade, and we were nowhere near the bottom of the mountain.
I think at this point I was too scared to admit that perhaps we might be in real trouble. The other girls were questioning now, quite vociferously, whether we were lost and whether we should call for help, but I just could not allow myself to believe that this might be the case. It was a classic case of denial.
At one point we had to negotiate a path of shale and almost every rock, large and small, was moving. It was impossible to judge what was safe to hold onto and what might become dislodged with just the slightest bit of pressure and tumble into the gully underneath us. Laura and I managed somehow to cross over, but as Eilish followed us, she lost her footing and slipped. By the grace of God, the rock she managed to grab to steady herself did not move. The others her foot had kicked as she scrambled to gain a foothold did, and my stomach lurched with fear when I could see their final destination. Still, I didn’t entertain the idea of calling for help. I just could not believe that we were in a situation that required emergency intervention.
Fortunately, Eilish did. A few minutes later, we had reached a location further down where the rocks were not moving, for once. It was now getting pretty dark. It must have been around half past eight at this stage.
Again, details are a little hazy here. I do remember Eilish insisting we ring 999. I remember sitting down on the rock feeling all of a sudden quite trembly and weak, as the cold hand of fear began to squeeze my stomach, finally having to accept that yes, we were now in real danger. It was at this point that everything suddenly became very, very surreal, and we turned into characters from the film Five Idiots Get Stuck On A Mountain.
It was Laura who made the call, and I remember thinking how bizarrely ridiculous it seemed that she was so calm and pleasant on the phone. “Hi, we are climbers on Carrauntoohil and we seem to have got lost, I wonder could you put us through to Mountain Rescue please?” It sounded as though she was ordering pizza.
She spoke to somebody from the Mountain Rescue team and was able to tell them roughly where we were (on the side of the mountain, Hag’s Glen, up from the two lakes) and we were told that the team would be on their way and would arrive in about an hour.
I felt much better once we had made that call. At least help was on the way. We were in an undeniably unfortunate situation, but at least we were safe; we just had to wait for help to arrive and everything would be just fine. None of us had any idea just what would be involved in the rescue operation or just how long it was going to take. I had naively imagined they might come and simply whisk us off our precarious little location in a helicopter. (I was subsequently informed that helicopters can’t be used in the dark, and only in a certain number of open locations on the mountain; certainly there was absolutely no question of a helicopter being used to get us out of where we were)
Wednesday 8th April
It’s amazing how quickly life slips back into its same old routine. I’m no longer the quivering emotional wreck I have been for the past few days; since about halfway through yesterday afternoon I have been slowly turning back into the vaguely disgruntled, slightly neurotic person I was before the experience of the weekend. Work is the same (How can anything possibly be the same?). Bitches to be spayed, itchy dogs to be de-itched, evening clinics to get through, nights on call to be spent hoping not to be called… the surreal events of the weekend seem even more surreal as they fade into the past and become obscured by the routine events of day to day life.
So I want to finish this account as quickly as I can, while the events and emotions are fresh. I want to write my thank you letters while I feel so grateful I well up every time I think of the people who saved my life. Not that I will ever stop feeling grateful, but the sheer intensity of the emotion I’m feeling now is so overwhelming I almost feel dizzy and I want our rescuers to know the profound effect they have had on me.
And so, back to that night; 4th of April 2009 around 9.00 pm.
I got a text message from my mother. Well did you get up and down ok?
At this point in time I was sitting on a rock at an unspecified location on the side of the highest mountain in the country. It was pitch black. We had just called emergency services. I decided it might not be prudent to reply to her message just yet.
To begin with, we were in reasonably good spirits. I think we were just relieved to know that help was coming. We waited and chatted. About what, I can’t remember. We waited some more. It began to get colder and darker. And colder. We were all fairly well clothed; I had a thermal top, a fleece, a waterproof jacket, a hat and a neckwarmer. And thankfully, it hadn’t begun to rain. But my feet were wet, and our bottom halves were wet from all of our scooting on wet ground. As time wore on, I grew colder and colder.
Luckily, we also had food. We shared bananas, and a snickers; although poor Jess got none of these as she was separate from us – a little further down, on a rock all by herself. She could not come back up as it was too dark to ensure a safe return. And so, she waited alone, bananaless and snickerless. We called out from time to time to make sure she was ok. She was.
It must have been about 10:30pm or so by the time we could see lights approaching. Far off in the distance we could make out a number of lights from three vehicles coming closer, driving very slowly up by the lake. At this point I think we were beginning to realise that this operation was going to take quite some time. Our rescuers still had to find us, and get to us. And climb a mountain in order to do so.
Locating lost climbers is the biggest part of any rescue operation (according to a farmer I know who is a member of the South East Mountain Rescue Team). We were lucky that we had a camera with a battery; Tim (I think) was in contact with Laura by phone to tell Mike to take pictures of the lake so they could pinpoint our location by seeing the flash. The team by the lake in the jeeps could see this flash and communicate with the climbers by walkie talkie as to where we were. After what seemed like an age had passed we could see a light beam from a torch on the mountain opposite, and we spoke to Tim on the phone a number of times over an extended period of time. Yes, we could see the light now. No, we couldn’t see it any more. Left, left, further left; yes it was opposite us again. Take another picture. And another one.
God, it was cold. Legs were beginning to shake involuntarily. I rubbed my legs with my hands to try to warm them but this did no good whatsoever. I decided to leave them alone; perhaps if they just got numb altogether it would be easier all round – I wouldn’t feel the cold so much then.
The moon was shining, I remember that. We shared a few cigarettes. I had given up smoking a few weeks previously, but felt the stress of the situation called for a recommencement of the habit. Eilish joked that she might even consider taking up smoking in the hope the glowing ember might provide a bit of warmth. It didn’t.
So, so cold now. Where were the lights? Why had nobody come? Periods of chatting waxed and waned. I had been shivering for hours; I had pains in my intercostal muscles from holding them so tensely. Dear God, I would never complain about being cold on farms again. I remembered my last night time calving call two nights previously and it seemed positively toasty by comparison. That nice warm shed. All that cosy straw. My insulating body warmer. Those great big buckets of hot water to scrub the cow. What I wouldn’t give to be there at this moment in time…
I dearly wished I could fall asleep so that I wouldn’t have to endure this bitter cold. I have been known for my ability to fall asleep in the most random of locations, but this talent seemed to have deserted me now. Though I did realise it was for the best, as falling asleep was probably a sign of hypothermia, which would not be good.
Remember looking at the sky and the stars. There was the plough, which was comforting, in a way. The plough was always there, a constant in a world of inconstants; whether one was looking at it while sitting on a beach drinking cider with friends (illegally, as one was underage), whether one was outside the backdoor of one’s house smoking cigarettes and pondering how things had gone so horribly wrong that one had to take a year off college. It had been there two nights ago when I finished the caesarian section and here it was again, as I sat on the side of a mountain, as close to danger as I had ever been before in my life (although that cider was pretty lethal). As sure as anything, I would have another moment of night time gazing at the plough, and I would look back and think; gosh, the last time I was looking at the plough, I was waiting for the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team to find me. That was comforting, imagining myself in the future, the warm, safe, future…
More lights. Some whistles. Who had the whistle? I think it was Eilish. We had joked about it earlier. Jack… come back…*blows whistle*…come back (said in extremely croaky voice) It was a quote from Titanic. I don’t think any of us thought we would ever be employing it in a non-joking capacity. But yet, here we were, blowing the goddamn whistle. I guess that’s what people do in films when they are stranded on the side of a mountain.
I was starting to get a bit sleepy now. Body had shifted somewhat into a vaguely more comfortable position. Legs were no longer shaking violently (perhaps they had finally gone numb… I couldn’t tell, they wouldn’t move very easily) I was resting my head on Laura’s knee (hopefully not her bruised one) as she texted her boyfriend. Remember having some vague self-pitying thoughts re not having a boyfriend to text and then giving myself a stern mental talking to (at least I hope it was mental). I should be bloody well glad to be alive. Boyfriend is optional extra at this point, Muireann, you silly, silly girl…
“Muireann, Laura, wake up…” This seemed to be a command coming from Mike. Apparently we had fallen asleep, though Laura vehemently denied it. I remember her rubbing my shoulders and the violent leg shaking began once more.
Lights from the top of the mountain, to our right. Some shouting. Whistles. How could Mike shout so loud? And then I could see a shape, a human shape and more torch lights and they were all now focusing on us. They had found us, at last! I don’t know what we did then, I think there was shouting. Hello! Hello! This was the really exciting bit in the film… I was trying to think of some suitably moving background music to accompany it. Hoppipolla, by Sigur Ros, possibly… I remember waving weakly and seeing my giant gloved hand (Mike had lent me his ski gloves) moving backwards and forwards in the beam of light, like an appendage that wasn’t attached to my own body. Oh thank you God, they had found us, it would all be ok…
And then the lights disappeared. Where were they? Why had they gone? Of course, they now had to get to us. But at least they knew where we were.
I cannot remember very much at all about the period of time between when our rescuers pinpointed our location and when they actually physically reached us, and the time it took to do this is not clear. We seemed to have entered a strange time warp, where things seemed to be happening really slowly but yet time was paradoxically speeding up. Probably a degree of hypothermia was contributing to this sense of disorientation.
I remember a few of the conversations we had while we waited, but can’t be sure whether these took place while we waited for them to find us, or get to us. I think one of the rescue guys had suggested we talk about our favourite bands and films etc. But our conversation took a more morbid turn. Prefer to be eaten by a crocodile or a shark? Shark, I think was the general consensus. Burn to death, or freeze? Burn, most definitely (this may have been influenced somewhat by our present situation). Most desired superpower? Flying, obviously (likewise)
Time ticked on, and still no sign of our rescuers. The conversation had stopped a while ago and the wind was picking up; the moon had disappeared behind some clouds, and I remember feeling colder still. Moving my feet did not help in the slightest. I remember moving my knee supports down to my ankles, as they were cold, and wet, and chafing the skin behind my knees. Now they were chafing the skin on my ankles. So, so cold. Where were they? It must have been nearly 1am at that stage, though I can’t be sure.
I remember Eilish ringing Tim again. Her voice was choked and tearful now. “We’re just all really, really cold. Just wondering when you might be here…” Her voice trailed off, into the dark. “Ok, yeah, ok,” she responded, and Mike was put on the phone. “We’ve to sing happy birthday,” he said, and we decided to sing it to me, seeing as I was turning 28 on the 17th, and then to Mike, as his birthday was on the 14th. I can’t imagine either version was particularly tuneful.
Happy Birthday To Us.
What a novel way to celebrate, for sure; stuck on a mountain in the freezing cold, precariously close to hypothermia and unable to move for fear of falling to our collective deaths. Party on.
Following the two Happy Birthdays we started singing a selection of Irish songs; Oró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, Tír na n’Óg and Trasna na dTonnta were all rolled out in quick succession. I think we might have been in the middle of Báidín Fheilimí when our rescuers finally arrived. Again, my recollection of events is a little vague at this point. Who came first? What did they do? I have a mental image in my head of a number of men in red jackets with torches on their heads. Were we all ok? Yes, yes we were. Where was the other girl? Down there, further down. Jess, you ok? Yes she was, seemingly. Casualty five located, all ok. Casualties? Is that what we were now?
Were we cold? Extra jackets were produced. Hungry? Somebody handed me half a balisto bar. I remember feeling nauseous at this stage but forced myself to eat it. Then somebody was putting a helmet on my head and trying to get a harness over my shaking legs. He introduced himself as Dermot. Stand up there till we get this on. This was difficult. Felt very weak, almost dizzy at this point. On with the harness. Off with the harness because it was tangled. Sit down there for another minute. Freezing freezing freezing. Finding it difficult to stay awake now. Eyes were hurting. Was I saying anything? I can’t remember. I think I was just trying to be a good little casualty, standing when I was told, sitting otherwise. Was too cold to do anything else.
There was, I remember, a time when we were attached to a purple rope. This was Plan A, I believe, which was abandoned in favour of Plan B before too long (Plan A involved walking us back around the way we’d shimmied on our backsides, but this was deemed to be too dangerous. Plan B involved a vertical ascent back up to the path on ropes and jumars). So some more equipment changes. We need more crabs, Tim. God, this was taking such a long time. Had I known the length of time that would be required to get us back up to the path I think I would have given up there and then. As it was, I was just about hanging on.
Someone speaking on a walkie talkie. Can we start moving the casualties now, Tim? Ha, there was that ridiculous film word again. One of these girls is in poor enough shape. Was that me? And then there was another coat around me and someone (Dermot) was feeding me chocolate, actually putting the squares in my mouth one at a time, as though I were an injured animal that one had to forcefeed. Remember feeling quite nauseous, but gradually a little better as my blood sugar levels normalized.
It must have been at least two o’ clock in the morning by the time our rescuers actually began to move us from where we had been sitting for the previous five hours. I’m afraid the details of our ascent are going to be extremely hazy and disjointed; I really only remember a few sporadic moments out of what must have been at least a four hour climb.
I was feeling very weak and shaky just before we were moved. I had eaten the chocolate fed to me by Dermot, and I no longer felt like vomiting, but my entire body was shaking uncontrollably. I’m not sure whether it was the cold at this stage, or fear. Probably both. One might imagine that I would have been too physically cold for my brain to be registering such complex matters as fear… but likewise, surely my utter terror would have distracted me from the cold? I don’t know. Either way, my whole body seemed to have gone into a series of minor spasms.
I do remember Dermot grabbing me by the shoulders. “Look at me,” he insisted, giving me a firm shake, and staring sternly into my eyes. “Look at me. Do I look scared? Do I look worried? Do any of us look worried? We’re going to get you out of here, you’ll all be fine, but you have some work to do. You’re really going to have to try your best.” And strangely enough, all of a sudden I felt much less scared.
Mike was first to go up. Then me. Safety rope attached to the crab on my harness, hand grasping the jumar for dear life. Somebody gave me some brief instructions on how this little device worked: See, you hold it like that… and push it like that… and then it sticks, then you can pull yourself up, see? You just keep pushing it ahead of you. Just keep pushing that jumar.
And it was time to go. Pushing the jumar. Shaky, weak legs scrabbling for a foothold. Someone beside me, can’t recall anything that was said. Just focusing on pushing that jumar and pulling myself up the side of that mountain. Bit by bit we went up. I can’t remember how long that first stage took (there were three in all, I do know that). I do remember beginning to feel a good deal better; the physical activity was bringing heat to my body – my feet no longer felt like the two blocks of ice they had previously, and I didn’t feel sick anymore. This was good. This was good because I really was not sure to begin with whether I would have the physical strength to get myself up those ropes at all, but it seemed I did, which was a pleasant surprise. Thinking about it later, I realised I was lucky to have reasonably good upper body strength built up from work; hoisting hefty Labradors on and off tables, pulling 50 kilo calves out of 500 kilo cows and the like seemed to have developed my arm muscles to a degree that enabled me to get up that mountain without the awful difficulty I thought I might have experienced.
Not that it wasn’t difficult; oh God, it was. Even though I was warmer, it was still freezing, and now it was rainy and windy. And even though I was managing to pull myself up those ropes behind Mike, it was still immensely hard work. Just keep pushing the jumar. Push that jumar. Push, push, push. Pull, pull, pull. Jesus.
There is one moment that will stand out in my memory forever. That is the moment when I briefly took my entire focus off task of pushing the jumar for one second. There was a bit of a hold up ahead, don’t know why. Anyway, we had stopped climbing, and I paused, and looked around.
I don’t think I will ever forget that scene. There were the lights of Killarney far, far off in the distance below. The moon and the stars glittering in the night sky seemed impossibly close. The wind was whipping around the side of the mountain, flattening the grass and nearly taking my breath away. And here I was, clinging onto a rope attached to the looming shadow of Carrauntoohil, which towered darkly above, majestic and terrifying in equal measure. I do not think there exists a word to describe what I felt at that moment in time.
Keep going Muireann, keep pushing that jumar… Who was saying this? Was it Dermot? Was it me?
Cannot remember how long that first bit took. Cannot remember exactly what happened as we rested following that first stage, waiting for the girls to arrive behind us before we moved off again. Or did we wait for them at all at that point? Is that the part where there was some conversation with a rescuer called Sean about his five month old twins? How funny it is to think that these little babies have no idea yet what an amazing person their Daddy is .But they will. Or did that take place earlier?
The middle bit was tougher, I think. Parts of it were almost vertical. I remember following behind Mike as we tried to make our way up in between giant slabs of rock; somebody was telling me I’d have to try to get my legs across the gap… something about a chimney… no good, damn legs are too short… Down came a sling, more people in red jackets appearing from behind rocks (How many rescuers were there?) Hoisted up, doing my very best, pulling myself with every once of strength I had, muscles screaming… Jesus, this was without doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever put my body through…
Following the near impossible sling hoist, I think there was a longish period of straightforward upward jumaring (was there?) before I ended up in the survival tent. Or was the survival tent straight after the sling bit? I can’t remember.
Mike had arrived in the tent some time before me and it was warm. For the first time in what must have been 7 hours or so, I was actually warm. I think we spoke briefly, but soon I was lying on his knee and drifting into sleep while Eilish, Jess and Laura arrived, and one by one climbed into our lovely warm survival tent. I have no idea how long I slept, but I think I could have slept forever. I do recall feeling very disgruntled indeed to be woken and told it was time to get moving again, and it was a very grumpy Muireann that emerged from the survival tent to begin the last stage of our ascent to the path.
Remember very little about this climb. I may have been still asleep.
Nor do I remember arriving back at the path. Think it was still dark at that stage, but gradually grew lighter and brighter as we made our way downwards. Have an image in my head of my own two booted feet on the grey rocks beneath, somehow still moving; doggedly, one after the other. Plod plod, plod plod. How on earth were they still holding me upright?
Think I was mentally numb by now. Don’t remember talking to anyone; I probably didn’t. I was just concentrating on walking and not falling. It took two hours to get from the top of the path to the bottom, where the Mountain Rescue Jeeps awaited us; but again, curiously, did not seem to take half that long. Time seemed to have taken on the properties of an elastic band, somehow.
And then, finally, we were nearly there. The jeeps, which had seemed like a distant dream for such a long time, actually looked as though they might be real, and might, in fact, be within walking distance. And they were; getting closer as I looked at them, closer every second. Plod plod, plod plod seemed to be happening much faster now, and I possibly would have broken into a run if my damn boots weren’t so heavy and my legs didn’t feel quite so jelly-like. Don’t remember much else apart from trying to get to those jeeps as quickly as I possibly could, in case they should disappear. Plod plod, plod plod. Could feel hot tears welling up as I realised that this was nearly over, and that we were, in fact, going to get home in one piece.
Someone took my helmet, and there was some futile fumbling with numb and swollen fingers to try to remove my harness; I needed help with that, in the end. Somebody shook my hand and I was shaking back, and smiling, and saying thank you, thank you. And another shake. Thank you. All of a sudden I recognised it was Dermot. Dermot; who had taken such good care of me for the last 8 hours, who had fed me chocolate and wrapped me in extra jackets, who had given me a life-saving motivational pep talk when I was at my physical and mental nadir; I think I wondered for a brief second whether it might be inappropriate to hug him, but my arms were already clasping him fiercely before my brain had come to any definitive conclusion on the matter. Thank you.
Bundled into the back of the warm jeep, scarcely believing I was actually in the place I’d been visualizing for the last 8 hours or so. Laura was sitting beside me, talking to the driver in a remarkably matter of fact voice; not at all the voice one would expect from someone who’d been sitting on the side of a mountain for most of the night. I was too scared to open my own mouth much, not certain that what came out would make much sense. So I sat, dazed, and listened to the conversation around me while we waited for the others.
Stories of people who’d fallen to their deaths, people carried off Carrauntoohil in stretchers… not that any of us really needed any further evidence that climbing mountains is a highly risky pastime when undertaken without the appropriate equipment and preparation, but we deserved to hear it, undoubtedly.
Tom, who was telling us these unhappy tales, was not doing so in a lecturing tone (though he would have been very much entitled to), but simply relating the facts. And these were the undeniable facts. Mountains are dangerous. People die.
And so, feeling at once very, very fortunate and very, very stupid (and so tired I think I had entered another state of consciousness) we left the mountain behind us. The jeep carrying us lurched forward awkwardly over the uneven terrain as we passed the rescue crew getting out of their gear and into the other jeep; chatting, smiling, undoubtedly tired also. Much waving.
How on earth could we ever repay these people?
We couldn’t possibly.
Sunday 17th May
It’s now exactly six weeks since we were rescued off the side of Carrauntoohil. At the moment, I’m sitting on my sofa in my pyjamas, waiting for the rain to clear while my breakfast digests so that I can go for a run; at this precise moment six weeks ago I was in a middle of an almost coma-like sleep in our bed in the guesthouse in Killarney; stomach full, cheeks flushed with the heat from two hot water bottles, shivering finally stopped. In a couple of hours time we would wake, dress and make polite conversation with our hosts and each other before journeying back to our respective homes and our old lives, and everything would gradually return to normal…
And it has, more or less. Six weeks on, our mountain rescue seems like a distant dream, and almost as though it never happened at all. Life has resumed it’s inevitably mundane little routine and the memories of our adventure on Carrauntoohil are gathering a light layer of dust.
But something strange has been happening. Granted, as time gallops onwards relentlessly, it happens less and less, but every now and then, when I’m least expecting it – be it in the shop as I’m buying milk, or in work as I’m vaccinating somebody’s puppy, or out with friends – the ground beneath me seems to move, ever so slightly, and my heart takes a little jump, and for a split second I’m transported back to that night, back to that cold, wet time we spent sitting on the side of Carrauntoohil and I am reminded though everything has ostensibly returned to normal, something very extraordinary happened to us on the 4th of April that has affected us in ways that we perhaps don’t fully yet realise.
It was, without doubt, one of the more major learning experiences of my life. And I don’t simply mean all we learned relating to climbing mountains and being prepared and safe and appropriately equipped, etc (although this is all obviously of vital importance!); as well as all of the above I think our experience allowed each of us to learn a lot about ourselves and each other, and the way in which we all dealt with the situation. It was only later on, when we were off the mountain, in the days and weeks that followed and in the moments of quiet reflection on the events of that weekend that a few interesting realizations began to creep into my own consciousness.
For one thing, I was surprised to realise my total unwillingness to admit that we were on the wrong path; my denial and insistence to myself and everyone else that it was all fine and we were heading in the right direction, when so clearly, we were not (and deep down, I knew it, though I was scared to admit it). It came a quite a shock to become aware of just how good I can be at convincing myself everything is just hunky dory; the terror of allowing for any other possibility being just far too terrifying to contemplate. It has come as something of a revelation to understand that perhaps this applies to other areas of my life (and not simply mountainous misadventures). And the lesson to be learned: listen to my gut instinct. Allow myself to question whether things are right. And if not, do something about it, otherwise I may well end up perched on a rocky ledge within a hair’s breadth of tumbling into the abyss (this is meant both in the metaphorical and non-metaphorical sense).
I also learned that though matters might seem bleak and hopeless, there exists within me and all of us a determination and strength that will carry us to a better place. One of the memories I will hold onto forever is Dermot’s comment to me as we began our ascent, and I surprised him by actually managing to get myself up those ropes. “Well Muireann,” I remember him saying, as I pushed and pulled that jumar as though my life depended on it (which undoubtedly it did). “You may sound like the creaking door, but you’ll be the last to fall.” Coming from someone I regard with the greatest admiration and respect, I consider this to be the best compliment I have ever received in my life (reference to faulty furniture notwithstanding).
And so, six weeks on; mountain rescue over, life trotting along as usual, memories of jumars and crabs and screaming muscles and the most unearthly cold imaginable gradually losing their crystal clear sharpness. I can no longer conjure the smell of the damp earth of Carrauntoohil as we slid downhill. My stomach doesn’t flip with fear when I picture the moment Eilis kicked the stone and it disappeared into …where? The mental image I have of Dermot’s face is growing a little fuzzy, and now more than ever before do the events seem like those of a film. But however faded these memories become, they will stay with me forever.
And six weeks on, have I finally come up with an answer to the question: Why do people climb mountains? What reasons could possibly exist to make the sweating and the effort and the aching muscles and the mountain rescue worthwhile?
Is it so we can gaze around us, dumbstruck in wonder and awe at the beauty that exists in this world? Is it to prove to ourselves and each other that our frail little human bodies are capable of conquering even the greatest of obstacles? Is it so that for one brief moment, we can transport ourselves beyond the confines of the narrow little box within which we live most of our lives and look at the world from a slightly different perspective, so that when we have finished our climb, when the exertion is done and the sweat has dried and the throbbing in our muscles and ligaments is easing; we can know that yes, in a geographical sense we may end up in precisely the same place from where we started. But mentally, we might be in a different place entirely.
Perhaps this is why people climb mountains.
Just bring a map.