THE height of ambition for some might be to climb one mountain in a lifetime, but four men from Bangor have reached the summits of five in as many days.
Brothers Michael and Jonathan Macdonald, their brother-in-law Gerard Doherty and friend Steven Murphy have scaled the peaks of endurance to raise funds for Autism NI.
They raised £5,300 after climbing Slieve Donard on Wednesday, April 26, swiftly followed by Carrauntoohill Mountain in Killarney on April 27, Snowdon in Wales on April 28, Scafel Pike in England on the 29th and finally Ben Nevis in Scotland on April 30.
They were motivated to do so in gratitude for the help Michael’s 13-year-old son Joel has received from the charity since being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as a six year-old.
Says Michael: “Everyone, from Autism NI to all the statutory bodies, has been able to assist us as a family and open up a life that Joel couldn’t have had if it hadn’t been for their help.
“He wouldn’t be able to be where he is today, being able to read and be able to write to his potential, without that help.”
Michael says that the lifting of Covid restrictions and a return to a greater sense of normality prompted a desire to take on a new challenge.
“We enjoy getting up into the hills but this was something a bit different and a way to raise money for autism in the process,” he explained.
“We made a decision we were going to do this as four individuals and then just raise a little bit of money. It was all self-funded so none of the fundraising was used in any way to fund the trip.
“I thought if we raised a few hundred pounds it was something, I genuinely never envisaged us getting anywhere near as much as we’ve got. People have been so kind.”
They initially considered taking on the challenge of climbing three peaks in 24 hours but Michael says “To be honest I didn’t want to be climbing mountains in the dark. We wanted to do something to have a degree of challenge and we thought why not do a peak a day of the five tallest peaks of the UK and Ireland.”
Whilst Steven and Gerard have taken part in the two-day Mourne Marathon, Michael’s mountaineering experience was limited to doing his Duke of Edinburgh award at school.
To ensure he was in the best shape for the challenge Michael began training in September 2022, doing a mixture of strength training and running.
He adds: “Where possible I was getting out to do some trail runs, using the likes of Cairn Wood outside Bangor, running up and down the hills and getting down to the Mournes four or five times just to get a bit of strength in my legs for going up and down the mountains.
“From Christmas onwards I started getting more hill walks in and we got to a level of fitness where we would be able to manage it, be safe and do it well.”
Reaching the summits took between four and eight hours, with Ben Nevis taking the longest.
The Scottish mountain isn’t a particularly difficult walk, says Michael, but is a ‘long slog’, and the final half a kilometre saw them having to negotiate snow.
He added: “Each of us maybe has our own opinions on which was the hardest climb but I would say the most challenging was Carrauntoohill, the tallest mountain in the Republic of Ireland.
“None of us were very familiar with it so it was an unknown. You had to summit another mountain before you got to Carrauntoohill and you only had a metre wide path between the two summits of a ridge walk, so it was a bit more technical than some of the other walks. You just had to be a bit more sure of yourself.”
Whilst each mountain presented its own challenges, Michael says it was almost as difficult getting to each location on time.
He explains: “It was the logistics and the travel to get to the next one that was nearly the more difficult part of it because that’s when your legs begin to seize up a bit, sitting in the car for four and five hours and not being able to stretch the same.
“For instance, you were up and down Slieve Donard on the Wednesday and then you had a five-hour, 300-mile drive to Killarney.
“There was also a bit of time pressure when we climbed Carrauntoohill. We were up and down it and then literally in 10 minutes we were straight back in the car to race to Dublin port to get the ferry over to Wales, so we were able to make Snowden the next day.
“That probably was the most pressurised part of it, getting up and down it in good time, getting into the car and getting to the next one and being prepared and ready to go again the next morning.
“There was a lot of shared driving and we just kept on going.”
There was never any risk of them giving up, says Michael, because they were ‘spurred on’ by the generosity of all those who supported them through Michael and Jonathan’s Just Giving pages. .
He says: “That really did give us the motivation to keep going, not wanting to let anybody down.
“We more than doubled what we started with when we began the walk, with people seeing what we were doing and giving us a little bit of money.
“They were so kind, especially in these difficult times of prices as they are. They dug deep and really helped out.
“It gave us the motivator that we really needed to do this, we couldn’t just give up. Even if it got hard all these people had faith in us and have pledged money to help us and that definitely kept me going.”