Tragic Ian was a force of nature
Climber McKeever loved nothing more than the challenge of toiling over the roughest of terrain, writes Jerome Reilly
'Nobody conquers a mountain. It was there before any of us and it will be there long after us," said Ian McKeever of his beloved Kilimanjaro shortly before his last, fateful ascent. With its three volcanic cones, Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,341ft – and it was where Ian McKeever was at one with himself.
Ian, too, was a force of nature – a man blessed with seemingly inexhaustible energy, drive and no little ambition. Only the challenge of testing himself against the mountains or the sea provided peace and tranquillity.
He died where he was most content and at a time of newly found happiness in his personal life.
The 42-year-old talismanic leader of the 24-strong group striving to conquer Africa's highest peak bore the brunt of the lightning strike. Three other Irish climbers were also hit but escaped with minor injuries. Ian was struck down at the front of the group – a natural place for a born leader who had climbed 'Kili' hundreds of times.
Just yards behind him was his fiancee Anna O'Loughlin, sharing another ascent on the mountain where they first got to know each other. They had been planning to celebrate the anniversary of their first meeting on Friday.
She said they knew they were "soul mates" from the moment they first met.
"I met Ian exactly a year ago, as was typical of Ian, so much was lived in this time," she said. "From the moment we met we knew we were soul mates.
"We spent so much time together, Ian was never off duty when it came to his charity work and climbing, so we did that together – climbing, trekking and meeting and making friends from Carrauntoohil to Lugnaquilla. Ian, I love you dearly, I miss you terribly. I cannot conceive what to do next without you, but yet I know you will always be with me."
Ian was still alive when he was brought down the mountain. A spokesman for Tanzania National Parks, Pascal Shelutete, said: "There was quite a lot of rain, and about 24 people were on their fifth day climbing the mountain.
"They were about to reach the point where they were supposed to stay overnight, but at midday huge rains accompanied by thunderstorms and lightning occurred and unfortunately Mr McKeever was hit by that.
"Lightning is not common, it happens rarely; this is the first time we have experienced this calamity."
Each route to the summit is covered by a rescue team and a team was at the scene shortly after he was struck, Mr Shelutete said.
"He was still alive when the rescue team arrived there. On the way down, that's where things went wrong and that's when he passed away," he said.
The expedition began their ascent the day before New Year's Eve.
Ian was clearly excited at ringing in the new year on Kilimanjaro with his fiancee, and wrote on Facebook: "So here we go. Familiar patterns for some – anxious parents driving for the airport, excited adults desperate to escape the humdrum of another drunken New Year's Eve somewhere on Dublin's main streets. . . Yet all the while there's a tingle in the air – a hint of expectation as 23 more people prepare to board a plane bound for Africa. . . and we wish them every success as they make their journeys towards the summit of Africa's highest peak. What better way to ring in the New Year eh?"
On the eve of his death, he wrote another post.
"Torrential rain all day. Spirits remain good even if drying clothes is proving impossible. We pray for dryer weather tomorrow – the big day," he said.
Ian, from Roundwood in Co Wicklow, prided himself on the fact that while four out of 10 people who attempt Kilimanjaro fail to reach the summit, he had a 100 per cent record with his groups.
Assiduous planning, a tough training regime and a safety first approach to acclimatisation to the high altitude were part of the McKeever creed. It meant that pensioners, transition year students and others managed to tackle Kilimanjaro.
Though the climb – or, more properly, trek – is not as dangerous or as technically difficult as the Himalayan or Alpine peaks, it is still considered a dangerous and challenging expedition.
Altitude sickness can hit the most experienced climbers. Ian, who was educated as a social scientist at UCD, had previously worked as a radio announcer with AA Roadwatch and only recently forged a new career as a motivational speaker, fundraiser, mountaineer and adventurer.
As well as Kilimanjaro Achievers, he was also connected with the Life & Executive Coaching Institute and wrote two books, Give Me Shelter and Give Me Irish Heroes.
He had been writing a third, Give Me 28 Days, at the time of his death.
Matt Loughrey, the well-known west of Ireland photographer who climbed Croagh Patrick over 365 consecutive days to raise money for families in need, was a kindred spirit.
The pair met when Ian planning his own Reek record, to climb Ireland's highest peak 35 times in seven days in March 2011 in aid of Mayo Autism Action.
"He was an astonishing man. I will miss him dearly. He had such strength, such charisma. We were treading a similar path literally but he was a great support to me. He had huge spirit and he's gone too soon," he said.
"If you are a person of faith you would like to think that he was called to do some work elsewhere."
Matt also photographed Ian during his ascents of the Reek.
"They are mostly side profiles. I could never get in front of him," he added.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who helped launch Ian's first book, recalled him as "extremely passionate" and said he had come to know and admire him for his achievements, charity work and helping young people achieve their full potential.
"Ian said to me once that there was no place he would rather be than in the mountains," said Mr Kenny.
It was clear that this connection to the high peaks was a leitmotif of Ian's frenetic, high-octane life.
In 2007, he broke the world record for the 'Seven Summits Challenge' by climbing the highest summit on each of the seven continents in 155 days, 32 less than the previous record – a feat of remarkable stamina and endurance.
Mountain runner John O'Regan said his friend seemed "happiest when he was in the mountains".
"So to me he has gone enjoying what he did most".
His former teacher at Clonkeen College in Dublin, Dom Twomey, said it was evident from an early stage that Ian was a deep thinker.
"He was passionate about sport and education. In gaelic football he was the best place kicker from the 50-yard line we ever had and he was part of the team that won the All-Ireland schools championship in the 400 metres relay," said Mr Twomey.
"He always was one of those guys who lived the creed that you get out of life what you put into it.
"He had focus, determination, and there was the sense of the visionary about him. People were sometimes sceptical of the tasks he set himself but he always achieved them.
"He made dreams that became a reality. He was also a thoroughly good young man."
His sister Denise said that the family had been left "absolutely devastated" by the death.
He is survived by Denise and his parents Niall and Aideen, who live in Wicklow.
"We were so proud of Ian. He died doing what he loved," Denise said.
"Ian was always on the go so he was a constant worry for my parents and myself.
"He absolutely loved Kilimanjaro and he climbed it hundreds of times."
She added: "He loved teaching first-timers on the mountain and he thrived on all of that."
It is hoped that Ian's remains will be repatriated later this week.