'I went for a hike and ended up climbing Kilimanjaro'
You get a full body workout with a trek, and you have a laugh
Ten years ago Ray Farrell was a gym rat. But after several years of being something of a fitness freak, his passion for press-ups and pumping iron rapidly dwindled. "I got burnt out," he says. "I suffered from depression, which led me to not wanting to do anything."
As his depression increased, Ray began going to the gym less and less, and his weight ballooned to nearly 17 stone.
Then his uncle uttered five words that would change his life. "It was one St Stephen's Day when he turned to me and said, 'Let's go for a hike'," says the Kildare man. "We walked the Spinc trail in Wicklow. And it was brilliant.
"In the gym I was used to enclosed spaces with people always in your face. So I loved the sense of freedom and the beauty of it. When we finished it, I felt such a great sense of achievement."
Ray soon decided to push his newfound passion for hill-walking to the next level and signed up to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in January 2011.
"It gave me a great goal to focus on," says the 31-year-old. "I was only trekking one day a week and that is not going to get you very fit. The first time I went on a training hike with the group of people I would be climbing with, I remember being so out of breath and they probably couldn't believe that this guy is doing Kilimanjaro in four months!"
This spurred Ray to train even harder. He gave up alcohol and by the time he was setting off to Tanzania, the six-footer's weight had dropped to 13.5 stone. "Climbing Kilimanjaro is achievable but only through hard work and graft," he says. "It was really tough and knocked the stuffing out of me. But when we got to the summit it was unbelievable."
Not only did his outdoor pursuits help Ray to lose weight and get back in shape, it also helped to ease his depression.
"You spend Monday to Friday working indoors, so getting outdoors into the fresh air is great," he says. "Outdoors people are also generally friendly so there is a great social element to it."
But while Europe's tallest mountain, Russia's Mount Elbrus, and maybe even the summit of Everest could be part of Ray's future, climbing Mount Blanc was enough to satisfy 36-year-old Marie Hunter.
"I was training for a marathon in 2009 and I saw a poster advertising a trek to Mount Blanc," says Marie, who works as a nurse in Dublin. "It was so daunting. I remember going to a meeting for the trip and thinking, 'Will I be able for this?' But you realise the people that are there with you are in the same boat and have the same goal that you have."
After training for six months, learning navigation skills also how and how to climb with ropes, Marie was finally ready, not only physically but mentally, for the challenge.
"You realise that you can do anything if you put your mind to it," she says. "You just feel so lucky to be there. You are absolutely exhausted and it is all about getting to the top. You might only be on the summit for minutes but no photo could compare to what it is like to get there and take it all in."
Now Marie is intent by keeping fit by trekking outdoors rather than being tied to a treadmill. "Gyms to me now are just boring," she says. "The big difference with hill walking and trekking is the sense of camaraderie with the people you climb with. I have made friends for life."
And it appears that as people struggle to motivate themselves to stay in shape after the initial buzz of joining their local gym wears off, the popularity trekking is on the rise.
"Running on a treadmill is a very difficult task and you have to have a set goal or be highly motivated," says Ian Taylor, of Ian Taylor Trekking. "The outdoors provides a mental stimuli and people feel invigorated and revitalised afterwards. And they are getting a full body workout outdoors, while having a laugh. Not to mention there is such a sense of achievement when you complete a climb."
Throughout the country there are walking and hiking clubs people can join for between €100-300 per year that not only provide organised walks but navigational training and other skills.
"All people need is a good pair of boots, at the start," says Ian. "Then they will need to get waterproof gear, a fleece and so on, but you don't necessarily need all of that straight away."
However, he warns newcomers that there are dangers that need to be heeded.
"There are risks in the outdoors in Ireland and many people don't realise this," he says. "People have a responsibility to learn the skills before taking on big challenges. It is like training for a marathon, you don't after a few weeks go out and try to run 20 miles. You have to understand and know your environment."
But for those who get addicted, it appears there is no substitute for the great outdoors.
"Gyms don't do it for me any more," says Ray, who can now be found rambling around Wicklow and further afield most weekends.
"The air is unhealthy and the enclosed space is claustrophobic so I have taken all my training outdoors. It is also an excellent way to help with depression. Getting outdoors and meeting with other people has really changed my life. There is something amazing about getting to the top of something and looking down on the world beneath. It is good for the soul."