It’s now nine months since Dubliner and long-time Mullingar resident Fergal Hingerty completed a life-affirming climb of Europe’s sixth highest mountain – Mount Kazbek, a 5,047m peak in the Caucasus region, along the border of Georgia and Russia.
The climb, which took Fergal and his entourage around 15 hours to complete after a hike of several days, was the latest milestone on a long road of recovery for the Ardleigh resident, who as recently as 2011, experienced severe difficulty walking due to a debilitating back injury.
“Even with the amount of rehabilitation, exercise and preparation I’ve done since then, someone with my injury should only be climbing the Sugarloaf, and not a mountain like Kazbek,” said Fergal, who intends to use his recovery story to “inspire people” battling any sort of health difficulties, be they physical or mental.
Such was the seriousness of his chronic sciatica, that in 2011, Fergal couldn’t have contemplated walking down to the shop, let alone climbing a mountain.
Originally diagnosed with the condition in 2001, Fergal’s back deteriorated to the extent that doctors intervened with what he describes as a “radical operation” to pare his spine and cut five discs.
The operation took place at Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital in Dublin, whose doctors and staff Fergal credits with saving him from spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Following the operation, he underwent a rigorous rehabilitation programme, including over 500 stretches a day, 2km swims and physiotherapy. After that, from 2012, he started walking middle to long distances, before moving on to hills and mountains.
The more hills and peaks he climbed – between 2012 and today, his number of climbs in Ireland, Britain and Europe exceed the 2,600 mark – the more Fergal embraced Ireland’s hillwalking community, and so what started of as leisurely exercise became not only a sport, but a mission to prove what one man can do to overcome adversity.
After steadily increasing the gradients, a huge milestone on Fergal’s recovery journey came in June 2013, when he scaled Ireland’s highest peak, Carrauntoohil in Kerry. After emigrating to the UK for a couple of years, he continued to climb prolifically, and at the time of writing, he is in fourth place among the summiteers listed on the Irish hillwalking website, MountainViews.ie, having climbed 2,607 hills and mountains in the UK and Ireland.
While in the UK, he climbed Ben Nevis in Scotland (April 2015) and other prominent hills in preparation for an assault on Europe in 2016 and 2017. He has reached summits in Spain, Slovakia, Armenia and Poland, and in the summer of 2016, scaled the third highest mountain in the Pyrenees, Monte Perdido.
Two months later, he went on an expedition in Georgia, climbing several hills, passes and ridges, all the while being intoxicated by the looming shadow of Mount Kazbek – over 5,000ft higher than Monte Perdido.
That became his next target, and in September of last year, he reached the summit of the Caucasian colossus, hoisting the Westmeath colours next to the Georgian flag.
The experience of climbing peaks like Kazbek, Fergal says, was completely different from anything he had ever undertaken before.
“Oxygen at that altitude is around 55 percent,” he said. “We had 11 groups making the climb, and four or five of them had to turn back because they were sick or weren’t physically able to complete it.
“The climb involves a huge amount of preparation, not just in terms of equipment and clothing, but also physically and mentally. At some points you’re walking in total darkness with just a torch strapped around you’re head, and you have to be so focused in case a wrong step causes an accident that could spell disaster for you and a few others.”
Although the climb went well, on the descent, Fergal and his entourage were reminded just how fraught with danger such expeditions are; a Polish man in his 40s had died of altitude sickness.
“This was a difficult end to it all,” Fergal said, “but we were thankful and fortunate that we were one of the 50 percent who manage to reach the summit.”
Fergal is thankful, too, to the people who got him there – particularly those at Cappagh Hospital, where wall displays now exist chronicling his road from agony to some of the limits of human endeavour.
“I want people to look at those wall displays and to realise that if they’re dealing with any kind of illness or adversity, they can battle through it and change their world,” he said.
As a way of extending his thanks to Cappagh Hospital, Fergal has also presented framed wall displays chronicling his achievements to some of his favourite Westmeath watering holes, including Kerrigan’s of Harbour Street, Mullingar, and The Dog and Duck in Ballykeeran, Athlone.
“There’s a photo of me on the summit of Kazbek, a little bit about how I got there, and of course the ace of spades – as Lemmy says, ‘the only card I need is the Ace of Spades’!” said Fergal, alluding to the classic Motörhead anthem (anyone who knows Fergal knows that his main loves, outside of hillwalking and travel, are rock music and Irish soccer).
He hopes that pub goers will, through Kerrigan’s and The Dog and Duck, make a donation to assist the work Cappagh Hospital does to help people with injuries like Fergal’s in their battle for recovery.
Where next? Kazbek is only the beginning, says Fergal, who is planning a nine-day expedition to Europe’s highest mountain, Mount Elbrus.
After that... the sky’s the limit!