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‘I bet you didn’t worry about your bills because all you cared about was whether you were safe’

Women with Altitude are on a mission: to encourage women of all ages to take up the challenge of hiking and climbing

On the ascent of a sheer rock face, finding the next finger or toe hold is all that matters at that moment in time. “It puts you directly into the present,” says rock climbing instructor Oonagh Kelly, who enjoys the mindfulness nature of her sport.

As she has remarked to people who have come down elated after a successful climb: “I bet you didn’t worry about your bills and I bet you didn’t worry about what you’re going home to, because all you cared about was your life and whether you were safe.”

Although adult beginners perceive it as a dangerous activity, it is all about building their trust, she says, by starting them off slowly and not pushing them.

A sense of adventure was what first attracted the 38-year-old Limerick woman to mountain challenges. The health benefits became apparent later – particularly for mental wellbeing. Both hiking and climbing are very conducive to reaching a “flow” state of mind, which is associated with positive effects, including increased happiness, better emotional regulation and greater intrinsic motivation. Giving the brain even a temporary break from habitual worries and stresses lifts the mood and increases energy levels, which are further boosted by a sense of achievement in completing a challenging task.


Heading for the hills ticks many other wellbeing boxes too: it is an excellent cardiac, lung and muscular workout, which also reaps the benefits of immersion in nature, and, if you choose to do it with others, encourages close social bonds.

Years of living and travelling abroad, in places such as South America and Canada, fostered Kelly’s love of being out in the mountains. When she returned to Limerick in her early 30s wondering what to do next with her life, she remembers thinking I just want to hike all day. It led her to enrol for a two-year, full-time advanced outdoor instructor course in Co Kerry.

“It was fantastic,” says Kelly, who went on to complete a rock climbing instructor qualification. After some further travel and then Covid, she returned to a full-time job in HR in 2021. Now she pursues her love of outdoors in her own time and this year is involved for the first time in running the annual Women with Altitude ( weekend, aimed at encouraging women of all ages and abilities to take on greater challenges in hiking and climbing.

I think it was during lockdown, when I was deprived of the opportunity to get out into mountains, that I realised how much I loved it

—  Caoilainn McDaid

An initiative of Mountaineering Ireland, with funding from Sport Ireland’s Women in Sport programme, this year’s event will be held May 17th-19th in Cronin’s Yard – a gateway to the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in Co Kerry. All 120 places at Women with Altitude (WWA) were filled within 48 hours of booking opening last March, despite capacity having been increased by almost 40 per cent on last year’s event.

Caoilainn McDaid, one of 12 staff working with Mountaineering Ireland, believes an “explosion of interest” is partly due to a new drive among people, like herself, to get outdoors in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

“I think it was during lockdown, when I was deprived of the opportunity to get out into mountains, that I realised how much I loved it.” A Dubliner, she has since got into long-distance hiking, “dabbles” in climbing and is working towards a mountain leader qualification.

She singles out the mental health boost, along with the social aspects, as attractions of hillwalking. “It is a great chance to have a chat with people and you clear your head.” Much of the wellbeing derives from being outside in nature, she points out, and conservation is an important element of Mountaineering Ireland’s work, to protect the environment that facilitates people’s enjoyment of hiking and climbing.

There are physical benefits too of course and McDaid says that bouldering has motivated her to do more strength training. Bouldering is free climbing on small rock formations or artificial rock walls, and probably more beginner friendly, she suggests, because it does not involve ropes and harnesses. “It’s a fun way of strength training, rather than just going to the gym.”

Women and men are represented almost equally among the 16,000 membership of Mountaineering Ireland, mainly due to the popularity of hillwalking among women, while rock climbing and leadership in various mountain activities have traditionally been male dominated. The higher up you went, in terms of instructors etc, the ratio of female participation got lower and lower, says McDaid, but this is changing.

All-female events such as WWA, says Kelly, give women a supportive opportunity to step up and develop their interests. Whereas in mixed groups, men tend to take the lead and women are more hesitant.

“It’s not to be discriminatory, it’s not to exclude, but it’s just to hold space for women.”

She has observed how men more naturally embrace risk and throw themselves into challenges, while women are inclined to stand back and assess risks.

With indoor walls now making climbing more accessible, Kelly would also encourage parents to think of giving their children a chance to try it, particularly those who struggle with team sports. She has worked with such youngsters who are happy pushing to achieve for themselves and do not need the adoration of team members. “Maybe your child will love it and it would build their self-esteem way more than not being picked for a team.”

Here four other members of the WWA organising committee talk about how they developed their love of mountains and why they want to share it with others.

Trail runner Maike Juergens: ‘It’s incredibly welcoming and supportive’

The big appeal of trail running is that “you get through a lot more mountain faster” than walking, says Maike Juergens. She works as a scientist, is raising a three-year-old daughter with her partner Matthew, who she met through trail running, and plays cello in a community orchestra, so time is very precious.

Running on the flat can be rather monotonous, she suggests, but running uphill you get an endorphin rush after putting in the extra effort to reach the top and then “a bit of recovery” when you run downhill. She started running in her native Germany around the age of 17, when concussion stopped her from playing her favourite sport, Olympic handball.

Living in Sweden for a while, she got used to running in a forest beside her home and when she first moved to Ireland, she would go to the forest around Ticknock, not too far from where she was staying in Sandyford. Her first race, with the Irish Mountain Running Association, was up Ticknock in 2013 and from there “I got hooked on hill running”.

Although she is aware of the risks, Juergens, who has trained in mountain and navigation skills, does not hesitate to go trail running on her own. But she knows some other women are afraid to run alone, worrying about falling or getting lost.

“It can be enjoyable to be out on your own when work is busy and life is busy.” She fits in a two-hour-plus run at the weekend when she can, in the Dublin Mountains, not far from their home in Ballycullen. Since becoming a mother, she has completed more than 50 Dodder Valley Park Runs while pushing her daughter in a running buggy over the 5k course.

Juergens went to her first Women with Altitude event alone and found herself among “loads of like-minded women”. She loved it. “It’s incredibly welcoming and supportive. Everyone’s at a different level and, in the best way possible, it doesn’t matter.”

There are lots of very capable women involved in mountain sports but sometimes they are just not as visible as men, she adds. “You go on these weekends and the skill level is incredible – and everyone’s really willing to share it.”

Scrambler Colette Mahon: ‘It’s almost like a religion ... a spirituality’

Scrambling is “the middle ground between hillwalking and climbing”, says Colette Mahon, a qualified mountain leader and rock-climbing instructor. “Going exploring in broken ground.”

You need a sense of adventure to go off marked paths. Her role as an instructor of basic scrambling (more advanced levels require the use of ropes) is to encourage participants to do just that, but also equip them with movement and judgment skills. They need to be able to see a practical and safe way to navigate a stretch of ground, doing risk assessments about the chances and consequences of a fall.

“You could make a really technical move, but just be landing on a nice grass patch. Or you could be doing a very simple move, but actually there could be a major drop below you.”

As a child in the 1960s, growing up on a Co Tipperary farm with three mountain ranges in view, “there was very little hill walking or mountaineering, unless your family was into it”, she says. “There was very little for girls as well.” A typical Sunday family pastime was going for a drive, maybe to the Vee car park in the Knockmealdowns, where her parents would sit in the car reading the papers while she and a sibling were allowed out to wander – but never out of sight.

She thinks it sowed a seed. “There was all the curiosity – I really wanted to go further, to see what was around the next lump of ground but I never did at that stage.”

Instead, she played a lot of hockey, trained to be a physical education teacher and then went to work in Wexford, where she got married and had three children. After being introduced to a local mountaineering club that did mostly hillwalking, she met some members who were into scrambling and a bit more adventure. She hasn’t looked back and now regards time in the mountains as “crucial” for her good mental health, as well as for maintaining aerobic fitness and muscle strength as she gets older.

“I often say to people, ‘it’s my thinking place’. I go a lot on my own to the mountains. And, you know, it’s nice to see some of the younger women are doing that as well.” While the social aspect of mountain challenges and meeting people is important to her, “I really enjoy getting lost in the hills on my own. I could probably go a little deeper and say it’s almost like a religion… a spirituality.”

A big part of the ethos of Women With Altitude “is to try to encourage women to be less of a follower”, she says. “There are very few things happening at the weekend where somebody just turns up and they’re led. They’re doing a course to upskill or they’re coming for self-led activities.”

In deciding what self-led activities they are going to do, “if there’s nobody there with better skills than you, then you are going to have to take some kind of a lead or a share in the lead”, she points out. “It’s a very fine line between getting people to take on a bit of personal responsibility or, go a step further, and be responsible for somebody else.”

The event is not just for the 120 women who have signed up but also to showcase and bolster the all-female instruction team, about 25 in number, who will have a dedicated session for themselves on the Friday evening.

Hillwalker Rita Connell: ‘I got a hobby and a hubby out of it’

Rita Connell was in her late 20s when a notice about a meeting to set up a hillwalking club appeared in a parish newsletter in her native Castleblayney, Co Monaghan. After her mother suggested she attend, Connell discovered two new passions.

“I got a hobby and a hubby out of it,” she laughs, as she went on to marry one of the founders of the new club, Nicky Hore. They have walked together in nearly all the continents of the world since.

It is a past-time that has had a very positive impact on all aspects of her life: socially, physically and mentally. Hill-walking is good for maintaining bone density, she says. “You don’t have to do all this weight training; your own body weight is as good as any weight training and carrying your rucksack.”

Now a retired primary school principal, she has always found walking in the mountains a great way to clear the head. “You’re thinking of nothing else really except getting from a to b – and whatever is in the lunch box.” It also broadens your horizons – literally and metaphorically – when it can be too easy to fall into a rut.

As president of Mountaineering Ireland, she is delighted to see new, younger women getting involved. “There’s a lot to offer on the mountains, from low-level trails to the highest level of climbing.” Women with Altitude demonstrates the many options and gives participants the chance to access something they might not have thought of doing, adds Connell, who encourages all to join clubs and pursue further training.

Mountain leader Ursula Timmins: ‘I was working hard and I suppose playing hard’

Growing up in a family of seven in Portlaw, Co Waterford, Ursula Timmins and her siblings were brought for walks up the mountains by their father most weekends. But as a teenager, athletics was her chosen sport before the busyness of life squeezed that out in her 20s.

“I was working hard and I suppose playing hard.” Returning to the mountains in her early 30s was, she says, “the saving of me”. A medical scientist, she was working in Galway University Hospital when a friend suggested she join a hillwalking club.

Through that she was encouraged to do a mountain skills course with Mountaineering Ireland and later went on to qualify as a mountain leader. She did a basic course in Alpine mountaineering one summer, was introduced to ski mountaineering and was in her early 40s before she started rock climbing.

During all her courses, she had a flair for the medical aspects and went on to train to emergency medical technician level. When she returned to live in Co Waterford in 2018, where she works in the city’s University Hospital, she joined the southeastern mountain rescue team. The rate of call-outs varies but she was out twice the week before we talk, and the training is ongoing. But she enjoys how all the skills she has learned over the years have come together for this work in helping others.

Her own fitness was much improved by upscaling her mountain activities from her mid-30s onwards. “Before I had chronic backaches and I was smoking. I wasn’t in a good place. It was the saving of me. I really got into it and it brought back happy memories from childhood.”

She always finds a day out in the mountains is a great way to destress. “If you’ve had a bad week or a heavy week, it definitely recharges and on a Monday if I haven’t got out on to the hills over the weekend I know.”

She too talks about it as a kind of mindfulness, particularly rock climbing. “You’re just living in the moment. You have to concentrate.” It’s a full body exercise in which you have to be able to control your breathing. “Then you have the confidence to move and not let your nerves get the better of you.”

Timmins, who has been involved in Women with Altitude since its inception, would encourage mothers who bring their children to indoor climbing walls not to just sit and have coffee while the youngsters are being instructed but rather to try it out themselves. She also hopes that more women will make the transition from those to the outdoors, to “the lovely places around Ireland that you can climb”.

To those thinking about taking up hillwalking after they retire, her advice is don’t wait. The older we get, the more scared we become of taking on new challenges, so the moment to head for the mountains is now.