A gentle evangelist takes Irish dream to the top of the world

Everest Diary; Khumjung, Nepal
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The Independent Online
JOSIE KIERAN is searching for words to describe the strength her Christian faith will give her in trying to climb Everest, without at the same time sounding pious. "Prayer is an important part of my life and my rosary beads will give me special encouragement on the mountain."

Among climbers, as in society as a whole, to talk with such openness of one's spirituality is unusual to say the least. But Josie does so with a gentle ease and without any sense of evangelising. When she says she believes God will be with her every step of the way on Everest, it is with an uncomplicated faith.

Every step of Josie's way will also be followed by the people of Drogheda and Dundalk in Ireland, close to the border with the North. The 44-year- old smiling woman was born in the former and has worked as a nurse in the latter for 21 years. Training for Everest has included an early-morning three-mile walk with a rucksack loaded with sand to go on duty at Louth County Hospital.

Josie talked of her dream of becoming the first Irish woman to the top of the world as our Himalayan Kingdom's Everest expedition killed time in the village of Khumjung, at least another week away from Everest base camp. Half a metre of snow fell overnight, to the surprise of local Sherpas, and stretches of our route will have become threatened by avalanche.

In such conditions, it didn't take much discussion to decide to stay put. The slower altitude acclimatisation will be useful and it is also a good opportunity to find out a bit more about one's companions on the trip.

Josie seemed an interesting first subject. "I'm just an ordinary woman doing something that is extraordinary," she says. To the job description, wife of a farmer, mother of a 17-year old daughter studying for her school- leaving certificate and full-time nurse, she adds "serious mountaineer". The seeds were sown when she was the same age as her daughter Elaine and went on a walk up Mount Keadeen in Co Wicklow with the local civil-defence group.

"I got a plaque and a certificate for being the first girl up the mountain and I couldn't believe it. I was so excited. I thought I had stood on the cornerstone of Mount Everest. It set me on the way to where I am today and that's a fact."

Everest lay dormant in her thoughts until about 10 years ago, when she returned to the hills, first the walk up Donnard in the north of Ireland, then 4,000-metre peaks in the Alps, often on a shoestring of a budget. Her ascent and descent of the Matterhorn was all the more rapid because she could not afford to pay her guide for a second day. She reached over 7,000m on Cho Oyu in the Himalayas, reached the summit of Huascaran, the second-highest peak in South America, and the summit of Mt McKinley, the highest in North America. The party was trapped on McKinley for 26 days with rations almost exhausted.

Though climbing Everest is very much a personal ambition for Josie, she carries an Irish flag to fly at the summit. She seems overawed by the attention lavished on her by her country's leaders. President Mary McAleese presented her with the national flag and minister of state Michael Brennan invited her to the government buildings in Dublin to hand over pounds 1,000 of climbing equipment. Sealing her celebrity status, she appeared on Ireland's premier chat programme, the Gay Byrne Show.

"It's a very special privilege for me to be given the flag by the First Lady in Ireland. Wouldn't it be nice if when I was on Everest with the flag something could happen in the parallel dream of peace in the north of Ireland? People are starving for it." She also speaks fervently of her hope that youngsters in Ireland will be inspired to take their own first steps to fulfilling their dreams and turn away from drugs or alcohol.

Himalayan adventurers can be cynical about their sponsors once on their mountain. But not Josie. On a nurse's salary she could never have raised the pounds 30,000 cost of a commercial expedition without hefty support and she is grateful to Aer Rianta of Dublin airport, Fyffes bananas of Dundalk and her builder brothers. Schools have also held bring-and-buy sales.

And as she nears the mountain, Josie also knows she will have their prayers for a safe return.