The mountaineer’s lot: ‘The lightning came. We were knocked unconscious twice’

After a lifetime in the hills, Paddy O’Leary has penned a history of mountaineering. His own riveting stories involve the mother of all electrical storms and being caught in an earthquake

When you're out among hills and mountains, you get a different view every time you turn a corner. So it's appropriate that a newly published history of Irish mountaineering, The Way that We Climbed, is also full of twists and turns. It moves from Victorian gentlemen in high collars and whiskers to athletic 21st-century women encased in Lycra. It scrambles up Dalkey Quarry and scales the most spectacular Andean peaks. It also digs beneath the surface of the climbing world, raising such thorny topics as politics, social class, climbing ethics and the environmental effects of mass recreation on our wild places.

The book’s 77-year-old author, Paddy O’Leary, has spent a lifetime in the hills. He was born in Co Kerry, but got into the great outdoors when he moved to Dublin with his parents as a teenager. “What really turned me on to it was a hill called Moanbane, at the Blessington lakes,” he says. “I got to the top and saw all these valleys and hills, stretching away for miles and miles. And I said, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to find out about this?’ ”

O’Leary found out about it by joining the hostelling association An Óige. Since then he has led Irish expeditions to the Himalayas, taken part in many first ascents of major peaks and cofounded the Association for Adventure Sports and the Federation of Mountaineering Clubs of Ireland. He was director of the Tiglin National Adventure Centre for two decades.

These days he shares an apartment in Salthill, Co Galway, with a mountain of books and a springer spaniel called Flash. A knee injury sustained while skiing has slowed him down, he says. Even so, he still does “a bit of rock-climbing”; he is just back from a day of walking in the Twelve Bens, is planning a trip to Wales, goes to the Burren on a regular basis and was in the Dolomites in September. As we settle down, coffees in hand, to discuss his exploits, he insists that he is just “an ordinary mountaineer”.


"Each thing that happened to me I've seen as a separate thing," he says. "You put them in the back of your mind, and move on. But recently, I was at the movie Paddington with my three grandchildren. At the very beginning there's an earthquake and I said, 'I've been in an earthquake'. They said, 'Grandad, everything has happened to you'. So I began to think, well, all these things have happened to me."

The earthquake occurred in 1991 while O’Leary was sleeping, 6,000m up, on a glacier in India, an experience he dismisses as pretty inconsequential once he and his companion woke up and realised that their tent hadn’t been swallowed up by a crevasse. Has he been frightened on other occasions? “Yes, of course,” he says. “There’s no mountaineer who hasn’t been frightened. But not by the kind of things that one might expect.”

Knocked unconscious by lightning

In the early 1960s, O’Leary and another Irish climber, Padraic O’Halpin, were doing a traverse of two rock peaks in Chamonix, in the Swiss Alps, when they were caught in the mother of all electrical storms. “So there we were on this broad ledge with a huge drop below and a pinnacle that rose up maybe 20ft over our heads,” he says. “The lightning came down the pinnacle. It didn’t hit us directly, but we were charged five times and knocked unconscious twice.

“For the two really big blasts it was like being hit in the back with a sledgehammer. Both of us had out-of-body experiences: the light, the tunnel, and all the rest of it. I went sailing up a big long glacier, looking down on a campsite with Germans on it.” He shakes his head and jokes, “Now, how did I know they were Germans?”

On the plus side, he recalls an autumn walk in upland India with mountains and trees reflected in the still surface of a river. There was also an unforgettable summer climb in Connemara. “If I remember it now, 60 years later, that’ll tell you how special it was,” he says. “I was doing a rock climb with two very good friends and my girlfriend. I was hitch-hiking, so by the time we got there it was very late. It must have been the Whit weekend: anyway, the sun was going down and the myriads of lakes on Roundstone bog were glowing orange and red. The sea was glowing orange and red. Then the full moon came out.”

They walked through the night. “At half past three in the morning, it still hadn’t got dark. And then, as we came back down into the valley, it was getting light . . .” He smiles, then nods at the window, against which the wild Atlantic wind has been bashing and howling throughout our conversation. “Experiences like that keep you going in weather like this,” he says.

Larger-than-life climbers

The Way That We Climbed

is a history, not a memoir, so the author has kept mentions of himself – as well as his personal opinions – to a minimum. But the book is packed with larger-than-life Irish climbers, from a Belfast academic who rejoiced in the sonorous name of Ken WW Double, to Joey Kerrigan, who brought a motorbike to the top of Carrauntoohil. WT Kirkpatrick was a gourmet whose descriptions of his climbs “frequently included details of prolonged halts for cooked meals”.

There’s even a brief appearance by WB Yeats, who was keen to don his hiking boots and join members of the newly formed United Arts Club at one of the glamorous climbing parties held every year at Pen-y-Pass, Snowdonia, by the English poet and author Geoffrey Winthrop Young. Yeats was dissuaded on the grounds that he might “in mid-pitch lose concentration in some poetic or metaphysical reverie”.

O’Leary records the putting-up of climbing routes all over Ireland as well as the high points of Irish mountaineering history, including a winter ascent of the Eiger and Dawson Stelfox’s celebrated ascent of the north ridge of Everest in 1993. “He was the first Briton and the first Irish person to do it. But it wasn’t just the climb. It was also the teamwork, the logistics and so on. They all helped in one way or another. I thought it was very, very well done.”

Now, he adds, Everest has become a kind of travesty. “I don’t know what motivates people to go up Everest now. Climbing over dead bodies, and passing by people who are dying, and using the excuse that it’s such an effort to look after yourself that you can’t help anyone else. There have been some horrible cases. And there are so many wonderful peaks in the world, and lots of routes that haven’t been climbed. I would have hoped that’s what the younger people would be doing.

“Mountaineering was always about putting yourself out there. I get into trouble for saying this, but a lot of it now is about rock climbing indoors. And what they call ‘sports climbing’, where you have protection points every three or four metres. So you can be very fit, and a terrific sportsperson. But it’s not mountaineering.”

The Way That We Climbed is published by Collins Press