She was enjoying her job as a management consultant but a change in career has Lesley Emin feeling as high as the tallest peaks in the west, she tells Lorna Siggins.
“I stepped onto a marble staircase with little steps on its very left edge....designed by Michelangelo in exquisite compact marble, reaching into the clouds in the land of sun worshippers.
"It was strangely difficult to tune in to this rock, to see what was flat and what was sloping. Right away my foot slipped off a wet hold...”
When British academic and accomplished climber Terry Gifford decided to tackle one of the most interesting rock climbs in Connemara, he took with him walking guide Lesley Emin.
“When Lesley did her own thing, most things fell into place. Including lunch,” Gifford wrote.
He was lucky, as is everyone who finds themselves in Emin’s company.
Looking across to the “everlasting buttress” known as Carrot Ridge from where we stood on the approach to Benbaun or Beann Bán, Galway’s highest peak, it is hard to believe that anyone could have much time for smiling, let alone eating lavish lunch.
“Well, it was quite a long day,” says Emin, laughing.
“Probably 12 hours, and when we eventually arrived down into Lough Inagh Lodge, the World Cup football final was under way.
"We were the only two people in the bar who hadn’t the slightest interest in watching the match.”
The trained biochemist and management consultant from Antrim only decided to pursue a new career as a mountain guide about six years ago, but one senses she could have been doing this all her life.
Carrot Ridge — so named by late mountaineer Joss Lynam after he took a novice climber up the polished ridge, using a “carrot” approach to keep his partner going — is not her usual outing.
She finds herself getting as enthusiastic about a coastal walk as any day out on a hill.
As we make the ascent of Benbaun, 730m of quartzite in the heart of the Twelve Bens, she points out a Bronze Age stone alignment in the Gleninagh valley and stops every so often to identify a flower, listen to the cry of a chough, or to identify a glacial feature.
“So we have three corries above us,” she says, explaining how the extensive moraine below Benchor and Ben Dubh came about.
“And there we have saxifraga spathularis, or St Patrick’s cabbage, and two types of sundew, both carnivorous...they trap insects very cleverly.”
There are carpets of tormentil underfoot, as a shaft of sun pierces the col at Mám na bhFonsai which aligns with the six stones below.
The Connemara landscape is rich in archaeology and geology, and Emin is keen to share her extensive knowledge.
Over the next six hours, in a very effortless way, she finds examples of bog asphodel, lousewort, common butterwort (carnivorous), bog pimpernel, foxglove, and fir club moss, which are, as they suggest, like miniature fir trees emerging from moss.
She takes a photo of a tiny white flower she isn’t sure of — within six hours, she is back with an ID: Northern bedstraw.
Rowan trees emerge valiantly from small cliffs.
And on this particular clear day, the eye can pick up Achill to the north and Clare Island, Inishbofin and Inishturk — which appears almost close enough to touch — while Mannin Bay beaches glitter in the near distance.
Emin says she still loved her job as a management consultant when she decided to change careers and undertake extensive training with international mountain leader Bren Whelan of Donegal Climbing.
Her skillset extends from knowing how to navigate safely off a mountain in pitch dark or thick fog to identifying plants and wildlife to rescuing an injured climber.
Walking is one of the activities that one can carry from teens into later life, and she is cheered by the fact those few people we encounter on this peach of a day are all men in their 20s — several on their own, several in company, all well kitted out.
Before us on the summit of Benbaun is a map of north Connemara and beyond — Mweelrea, which straddles Mayo and is Connacht’s highest peak, unusually clear, the Sheeffry Hills, a glimpse of Nephins.
However, both the Twelve Ben and Maumturk ranges can also be treacherous in changing weather, and even the most experienced climbers who aren’t familiar with the landscape won’t take risks.
Among her clients has been the legendary Kerry mountain runner John Lenihan, who arrived up with the Ballymac/Glanageenty Ramblers.
Emin recommends those new to hillwalking link up with a club or group, if not out with a qualified guide.
She is chair of the Tuesday Trekkers, a walking club affiliated with Mountaineering Ireland which has members in Clifden, Cleggan, Ballyconneely, and Cashel.
“We do lovely walks of a variety of grades, led by club members every Tuesday. Most of our members are fit over 55s,” she says.
“We do have great fun.”
Emin’s diary varies from guided day walks in Connemara to walking tours and snowshoe tours in beautiful mountains, ranging from the High Tatras in Poland to the Dolomites, to Corsica, Crete, Austria, Britain and Spain.
You’ll find her through The Company of Walkers or by phoning mobile 083-4178208 — and better company you couldn’t find.