A towering accomplishment

Irish girl conquers Icelandic mountain


Courtesy of Olivia Cullen

BITTERSWEET VICTORY: A 12-hour hike in freezing Icelandic weather left freshman Olivia Cullen feeling accomplished, but sad as her “journey was coming to an end,” said Olivia. Having to share half her food with her teammate Olivia said she was starving and looking forward to going home and “eating the entire fridge.”

Abigail Whyte, Staff writer

Numb from the freezing Icelandic weather Olivia Cullen felt scared as she grew more tired, the looming idea of collapsing onto the soft snow grew with each hour.

“I couldn’t help but want to give up, I was hours away from sleep,” said Olivia. As the Northern Lights appeared in the sky, the idea of sleeping was no longer on her mind. “The lights made my fears seem insignificant,” she said, “I felt as though I could accomplish anything.” 

The Crean Challenge was created for ambitious Irish scouts to escape their comfort zone by leading them to the snowy Mt. Esja in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Crean Challenge advertises that the expedition will lead to new experiences and cultures–and push climbers to their limits both mentally and physically.

“It is designed for you to plot your own personal journey and set out your own achievements

which will stand to you in future,” said Tom Crean the creator of the Crean Challenge.

Irish scout Olivia Cullen was excited to hear of this challenge and applied. She had won many awards in scouts for her leadership and outdoor skills and felt confident she’d be chosen. 

“We were excited to hear she was accepted,” said Cullen’s mother, Sally Cullen,” even though it cost an arm and a leg.”

Olivia worked hard to earn her position on the Crean expedition. Months of running every day and hiking more than seven miles every week, “I started weighing my bag down more than necessary, so I could get used to walking with a heavy bag for miles,” said Cullen. 

“I was lucky enough to have friends that were willing to help me train.”

Olivia’s friend and scout Sadhbh Carey wondered how her friend “didn’t give up.” 

“It was exhausting work,” Carey said, “but Cullen always finishes the race.”  

Finally, after five months of training, the Dublin resident headed to Iceland, where she shared a hostel with her crew for the first night. “I hardly knew anything about my teammates at this point, other than that half of them snored,” Olivia said.

The next day she was to sleep in a field next to Mt. Esja–towering 2,999 feet high.

“There it was this huge mountain. I dreamed of climbing it, but it was a lot more intimidating in person,” Olivia said.

“Freezing and snowing it was obviously a perfect day to start”. said, Cullen. 

Olivia had many problems along the way to the peak. “I was hiking up the mountain when there was this sheer drop of ice,” she said. She had to tie a rope across and clip it to her bag. 

“The ice was so slippery and I was only wearing hiking boots; I swear I thought I was going to slip and die,” she said. “Thanks to the grace of God and the guidance of Saint Michael”, Olivia said, she and her crew were able to cross to the other side in one piece. 

Her crewmates were like family for those 15 hours of hiking. “We had to be to complete the expedition,” she said. She ultimately shared half her food with a crewmate after he forgot his at the hostel. 

“At this point, I wanted to go home, I was cold, hungry, and tired,” Olivia said. 

Setting up camp was no challenge for any of the crew members. “I was finally falling to sleep when my sleeping mat deflated,” Olivia said. But the view of the Northern Lights compensated for the discomfort. The next day she was happy to finish her expedition 

“Many of us began crying, as we had finished the race finally,” Olivia said. Relieved, she was astonished by the view of Reykjavik. Cullen’s crew was smiling from ear to ear and embracing one another in celebration. “It felt cool like I’ve achieved it but I also felt quite sad because it meant my journey was coming to an end,” Olivia said.  

After Olivia reached the peak she had to “boulder down”, or climb without a rope, down the side of the mountain. “The idea of bouldering was terrifying, but after surviving that far I felt confident in myself,” she said

She was greeted with supportive text messages from her family and friends, telling her how proud they were of her. 

“I knew Cullen was capable of succeeding,” said Grace, Olivia’s sister, “and I hope she knows how impressed I am of her.”

Her “kind” brother Jack offered less enthusiastic, but equally heartfelt congratulations. “I could’ve done it,” he quipped, “but in all seriousness, it was pretty cool”. 

Starving and tired, Olivia was welcomed by Icelandic scouts to join them for a feast of “urine-soaked shark, boiled fish stew, and whale fat,” said Olivia. 

“Not going to lie–I’m not a fan of any of that,” said Cullen. She appreciated the thought, though, and was excited to head back home and “eat the entire fridge.”

“I’m proud of how much I accomplished over those few months,” Olivia said, “and I’d do it again if I could.”