PRESIDENT Mary McAleese led a stream of tributes to a team of intrepid Irish explorers when they arrived at the South Pole last week.Adventurers Pat Falvey, 50, from Kerry, Dr. Clare O'Leary, 35, from Bandon, Co. Cork, and Dubliners Jonathan Bradshaw, 36, and Shaun Menzies, 42, made history when they reached the southern tip of the earth's axis after a grueling 700-mile trek across Antarctica.Leader Falvey described the 58-day "Beyond Endurance" trek as the equivalent of completing 58 successive marathons.McAleese in her tribute said, "Occurring one century after fellow Irishman Ernest Shackleton's first attempt on the pole, the expedition's achievement is particularly poignant."Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the quartet, "You are continuing a proud tradition of Irish adventurers and you should be very proud of your wonderful achievement."An Irish record was already set at the South Pole, as Kerry mountaineer Mike Barry undertook a similar trek in 51 days three years ago as part of an international expedition. However, Falvey's group was the first Irish team to make it.O'Leary, a gastroenterologist based at Tipperary General Hospital, became the first Irish woman to complete the trek, adding the achievement to an impressive list of other successful adventures.She is a highly accomplished mountaineer and was the first Irish woman to make a successful Everest ascent when she reached its peak in May 2004. She also holds the distinction of being the first Irish woman and second Irish climber to reach the summits of the world's seven highest peaks.O'Leary, deputy leader of the expedition, told RTE radio from the South Pole that she felt "grand." "It's brilliant and amazing to be here after such a long time," she added.She said that constantly getting up every day at 5:45 a.m. and knowing there were 10 hours of skiing and pulling a heavy sledge ahead was tough. "But," she continued, "there was always something to focus the mind." She always believed they would get there and so kept pushing on.She spoke of how her heart jumped on seeing a black dot on the horizon which marked the South Pole on the final day of the long ice trek across the coldest place on earth. She enjoyed a cup of tea on arrival.Falvey said the expedition was carried out as a tribute to former Irish adventurers such as Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and the McCarthy brothers of Cork."Of the 52 expeditions I've done, this has been the hardest in a very hostile environment," he added. "We were down to one pack of food - and you have to be self-sufficient when you arrive at the South Pole. It is an incredibly emotional experience to be here with the Irish flag."The group spent their first night after reaching the Pole at the Amundsen-Scott research station run by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Outdoor temperatures were minus 22 degrees, with a wind-chill of over 30 degrees.They were due back in Ireland on Wednesday of this week.
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