Limerick coach puts explorer to the test before North Pole trek

Aine Fitzgerald


Aine Fitzgerald

Clare O'Leary being put through her paces by Gerard Sheehan. Picture: Dermot Lynch
A LIMERICK strength and conditioning coach is working hard against the clock to ensure that renowned explorer Clare O’Leary is “bombproof” as she sets out to tackle the world’s hardest expedition.

A LIMERICK strength and conditioning coach is working hard against the clock to ensure that renowned explorer Clare O’Leary is “bombproof” as she sets out to tackle the world’s hardest expedition.

Corbally-based Gerard Sheehan is preparing the accomplished adventurer to cope with extreme conditions including temperatures as low as -55 degrees Celsius.

The North Pole is regarded as the hardest expedition in the world, and has been quoted by explorer Reinhold Messner as being “ten times harder than Everest” which Clare conquered in 2004 – she was the first Irish woman ever to do so.

On February 14, the Cork woman will set out on her journey in a bid to become the first Irish woman ever to reach the North Pole.

The start date, she explained, has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, and has more to do with “the flights being a little bit cheaper”.

Clare trains once a week with Gerard who has been her strength and conditioning coach for the last three-and-a-half years.

“We would be working with the med ball and dumbbells,” explained Clare, who, in the past has climbed the Seven Summits (highest mountain on each continent) and has also skied to the South Pole.

In preparation for her latest challenge, the Clonmel-based doctor and her Ice Project team partner, Kerry man Mike O’Shea, will be going into a freezer in Dublin for 24 hours next week before they head out to Northern Canada to begin their gruelling challenge. “The freezer is about -20. It will probably be below -50 at the start of the trip, so compared to the temperatures on the real trip, -20 isn’t that cold,” Clare smiled.

As part of his remit, Gerard works with Clare on injury prevention and building up her general strength and fitness. “At certain stages of the season I just work on pure strength and getting Clare kind of bombproof,” explained the fitness expert who operates KBAM Fitness at Seanchoill Sports Complex in Corbally.

“Over the weekend Clare ran 12 kilometres pulling big tyres to try and simulate sled-pulling which is what they have to do out there. They haul a sled up to 12 hours a day, some days even more, and that has all their equipment in it.”

That equipment includes a tent, sleeping bags, food and a small stove each. “We have sleeping bags that are rated -40 which means that it should keep you warm, or relatively warm, down to –40 degrees,” Clare explained. “The body sort of closes down with all the cold so we sleep quite well out there.”

Clare and Mike have demonstrated in the last 18 months their ambitious desire to reach the North Pole, having spent 19 days on the ice in temperatures as low as -55 in 2012. They are widely regarded as one of the strongest teams in the world with the potential to make this expedition a success and be the first people to reach the North Pole in over four years, and the first Irish in history.

The bitterly cold temperatures, Clare said, are bearable once they keep moving. However, if they stop for anything length of time, the extreme conditions begin to take their toll. “You cool down so rapidly and your hands get so cold when you are trying to handle anything that trying to eat is very difficult. Stopping to put up the tent and take down the tent in the morning – they are really the times that you sort of dread.”

Their diet consists of freeze dried food for breakfast and evening meals “and during the day it’s mainly trail mix, cereal bars and protein bars.

“Every night it takes us maybe three to four hours to melt enough snow to give us water to drink and to add to our dinners,” said Clare.

According to Gerard who resides in Clonlara, Clare is in peak condition to take on this great challenge.

“Clare weighs about 53 kilos. She can squat over 100 kilos. She can dead lift over 200 kilos. She can do press-ups all day for you. She is the ideal athlete for a conditioning coach – she is so professional, so focused, motivated and organised, it just makes my life really easy.”

The main threats posed to Clare and Mike’s safety on the expedition will the cold, the water and the polar bears.“We carry a gun with us,” said Clare. “Obviously, using a gun would be a last resort but we may need to use it to frighten a bear. Most expeditions haven’t encountered polar bears, not on North Pole trips, but when there is open water, there are seals and where there are seals there are going to be bears so it’s certainly something we always think about.”