On Top of the World
UL graduate Robert Mortell, at 26, overtook student Mark Quinn as the youngest Irish person to scale Mount Everest. Seán Lynch caught up with them one year on.
When University of Limerick alumnus Robert Mortell found himself standing on top of the world’s highest peak last year, the overriding emotion was one of elation. There had been some worrying moments however. Just before he had reached the mountaintop, having experienced technical difficulties with his oxygen, Robert had run out of energy and come to a halt.
“It was a worrying point because if you don’t have the energy to go up, you may not have the energy to go down,” he remembers.
At 26, Robert had just become the youngest Irish person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. A massive achievement, sure, but a little-known fact behind that story is that he captured the title from current UL student Mark Quinn, who was 27 years of age when he completed the mammoth feat in 2011.
While the pair have rarely met face to face, they have more in common than their UL and Everest connections. Both Limerick natives, neither Robert nor Mark come from a family of mountaineers, nor did they expect they would ever be in a position to seek to realise the dream of climbing the world’s highest mountain.
It was a worrying point because if you don’t have the energy to go up, you may not have the energy to go down.
For Mark, the catalyst for aspiring to reach the top of the world came when he was training for his first marathon at 24.
He thought to himself, “A marathon would be no problem, I could do anything. What’s the maddest thing I could try to do?”
The answer he came up with was Everest. Mark scaled his first mountain, Carrauntoohil, on May 10, 2009 and stood on the highest point in the world on May 20, 2011, just 741 days later.
For Rob, the journey to the top began in 2010, when he pitched the idea of climbing the Matterhorn in Switzerland to his brother. Having overcome their initial fears and lack of experience, the brothers succeeded in 2013, after which
Robert continued his preparations to attempt the biggest adventure of his life.
The planning, research and fundraising took many years to line up but his employer, KPMG, was very supportive in part-sponsoring his expedition, alongside Volvo Ireland.
The remainder was financed by Robert personally. On the morning of May 23, 2016, the law and accounting graduate made Irish climbing history.
I had it drilled into myself not to get carried away and celebrate too much but, as the summit came closer, I finally could.
Mark’s approach to funding could hardly have been more different.
Without any corporate sponsorship, he financed his climb through local fundraisers and crowd-funding. He used his journey to foster an interest in mountaineering among young people in his community and students of Crescent Comprehensive College, Limerick even held a fundraiser for Mark by climbing Galtymore.
Setting off, Mark did not expect to reach the summit. His only priority at the time was to make it home alive. “I imagined I would have a funny story about how I got to one of the camps and had to come back down but everything kept going right,” he says.
The morning before he reached the summit was one of the highlights of his climb. It was then that he finally knew nothing was going to stop him.
“I had it drilled into myself not to get carried away and celebrate too much but, as the summit came closer, I finally could.”
While reaching the top is a climber’s aspiration, they are all aware that the descent can be treacherous and, for Mark, this proved to be the case. As one of the last climbers to leave the summit, he felt himself continuously slipping and eventually had to stop. As the final group passed Mark, he realised he was the highest person in the world. He knew he was in trouble but found himself, as he puts it, “typically sitting on my arse”.
I suffered from frostbite on my descent, so the tips of my fingers froze and turned black.
He eventually found the energy to finish the rest of the descent, mostly alone. Mark had no major lasting effects from the climb, aside from a mild tingling in his fingers for a few months but it went away “like everything else”.
Rob’s fingers, however, did not fare as well. “I suffered from frostbite on my descent, so the tips of my fingers froze and turned black. If the frostbite had reached the first joint in any finger they would have had to be amputated, but I was fortunate to address the issue before suffering any permanent damage,” he says.
Mark advises anyone with a dream to make a plan and go for it. “If you want to run a marathon, get out and run five kilometres, then push yourself up to seven kilometres. Once the plan fails, just adjust it, make a new one and don’t freak out,” he says.
Neither man has plans to climb Mount Everest again in the future, but say they will continue to attempt other smaller peaks around the world.
Robert Mortell speaks at various corporate events and works as an accountant and tax consultant with KPMG, while Mark Quinn is finishing his final year in UL, studying Journalism and New Media.