Many people comment on my unusual choice of destinations for my solo travels. My own adventures pale into insignificance when I compare my travels to that of fellow parishioner, Mike O’Shea, a well-known Irish adventure explorer.
Mike’s travels have taken him to the most inhospitable parts of the world and he enjoys recounting his endeavours to audiences. Having seen him talk at the TBEX Killarney conference in 2017, I recently caught up with Mike as he gave a talk in our local community hall here in Kerry. In recognition for his contribution to exploration, Mike is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He started by discussing his involvement in The Ice Project, a series of adventures crossing the main ice regions of the world. Fellow Irish explorer, Dr. Clare O’Leary, has accompanied him on these travels. Clare is the first Irish woman to summit Mount Everest and has climbed the highest peaks on all continents.
Mike outlined the main challenges that the North Pole can present an adventure explorer which are the weather conditions and the ever-shifting terrain. The North Pole is located in the centre of the Arctic Ocean and is composed of moving ice as opposed to the South Pole which is located on a landmass.
Progress made on the North Pole was often undone by the moving ice. Sometimes the ice packs split which meant progress could only be made by swimming between the broken packs. Mike explained that swimming in the icy Arctic was bliss in comparison to the -55°C temperature on the surface.
Mike’s crossing of the Greenland Icecap involved working with a dog and sleigh system. Again, the weather wasn’t his friend with the team going non-stop for 48 hours to outrun a severe storm. The local method of tethering the dogs for the sleigh meant regular stops to unravel the ropes.
Mike and Clare successfully crossed the frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia, in a north to south direction. Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is both the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and the deepest lake in the world.
As we don’t get ice in Ireland, Mike’s lack of skating experience for the trip was compensated by specially-designed sleighs with balance handles. Staying upright during the severe wind and snow storms was a huge test. Temperatures hovered around -30°C.
Lake Baikal is a rift zone and subject to tremors and earthquakes. For Mike and Clare this meant skating and sleeping to the sounds of cracking ice. The upside of the trip was the local hospitality and accompanying vodka.
Mike’s expedition over the North Patagonian Icecap was his dream trip, describing it as “one of the most beautiful places in the world…untamed land”, praising the beauty of the San Rafael Glacier as a highlight. The trip involved a mix of activities and transport options including boats and horses.
Once again, the terrain and the weather were the challenges. The undulating surface of the icepack meant the constant climbing and descending of large crevices. The weather came in the form of severe wind which is the undoing of many an adventure explorer undertaking this trip.
Away from the Ice Project, Mike’s latest trip involved a different kind of danger, that of human nature. Driving a Land Rover, Mike travelled from his home in Dingle to Capetown in South Africa via West Africa and was accompanied by fellow Kerryman, David Gleeson.
The plan was to travel via East Africa but an inability to cross Libya meant a change of route. Mike described it as his most dangerous trip to date, regularly encountering unsavoury characters and waking three times to a machine gun pointed at his head. Police checks were frequent but he refused to pay bribes, instead pleading the poor mouth.
There is very little that can prepare a traveller for this type of challenge but for the physically demanding expeditions, Mike says preparation is key. He focuses on training his body to pull heavy weights and incorporates this into his daily work life, carrying 40kg weights in his rucksack between business meetings. He also pulls tyres around the local Kerry terrain.
The physical demand of expeditions means burning 6,000 to 8,000 calories daily. Boiled water from melted ice is poured into dehydrated food packs. Protein bars are pre-chopped into bit-sizes and left to defrost in the mouth.
For his current adventure, Mike is involved with the Poles Project which comprises of accessing the points on the world’s largest landmasses which are furthest from the coastline. Some points are proving more difficult than others, again for the human factor.
Some of the countries he travels through, particularly on the West Africa trip, are on the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs no-go list. As regular travel insurance will not cover such trips, Mike gets special insurance to cover all eventualities.
Risk and its assessment is Mike’s day job as his Work at Height business is a heights, rescue and difficult access consultancy. He has worked with construction companies, government organisations and film crews. Work at Height provided safety and logistical services to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, both of which were filmed in Ireland. Mike also oversaw the re-erection of the steel cross on Carrauntoohil in 2014 after it was cut down.
Despite his busy schedule Mike does charity work, building an orphanage in Africa and a school in Nepal. He is also involved in the Himalayan Stove Project.
So what inspired Mike to become an adventure explorer? He grew up near the McGillycuddy Reeks so was introduced to a beautiful and exploratory environment from a young age. He volunteered with Kerry Mountain Rescue and learned an immense amount including the ability to use pulley systems involved in all aspects of climbing.
Mike’s appetite for exploration is immense, and his accounts of his trips are as amusing as they are inspiring. Our local community wish Mike the best of luck in his endeavours and look forward to the next chapter in Mike’s story.
All pictures featured above courtesy of Mike O’Shea