Michal’s Story – Scaling Mount Etna on a handcycle

The Celtic Tiger was roaring at its most powerful when Michal Baran came to Ireland in 2005. He initially came to Ireland to meet a girl, Ela, who is now his wife and together they had their son Natan.

Michal and Ela’s lives changed very quickly in the early days. They moved to Co. Clare where Ela worked at Shannon airport and Michal was employed at a local factory as a forklift driver. Life was good.

Michal and Ela got married, had their baby son Natan and started to build a future together. Michal fell in love with what he calls the “beautiful Irish countryside” and became very interested in activities such as mountain hiking, cycling and running at local events.

Michal climbed Carrantuohil many times in those early years, and spent many holidays climbing mountains all over Europe and also Jabal Toubkal in Africa.

He explained: “I took part in many local running events, 10km and half marathons and started preparing my son who started running with me when he was four. Of course only short distances up to 5k. He is still doing it.”

Michal was a keen backpacker and travelled through many European countries. He loved going off for the weekend and exploring a new place.

He explained: “By 2011, my appetite for adventure was growing bigger and bigger, so I signed up for an adventure race. It was a combined sport event which included hiking, running, cycling, and kayaking. The race took place two weeks before my 31st birthday.”

On the day of the race everything was going well until, after a mere moment’s inattention during the cycling stage of the race, Michal found himself in a ditch beside the road unable to move his legs.

“This moment changed my entire life completely,” said Michal.

He was transported to the local hospital in Tralee and then immediately to the Mater hospital in Dublin. After a month in the Mater hospital, Michal was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dun Laoghaire.

When he looks back now he says he remembers his three months at the NRH as “a very nice time with great people and great staff.”

“Once I left the NRH at the end of February 2012, however, I had to face a 100 per-cent-new reality, adjusting to my new life. It wasn’t such a friendly environment as in the hospital any more, where everything was made easy for you.”

While Michal was in hospital, his wife and son moved from Co Clare to Co Meath to be closer to him. The family now live in Meath in a two-bedroom apartment that they describe as “rather overcrowded for three people” due to Michal’s growing arsenal of sports equipment.

After he returned home, Michal was eager to get back to some of the activities that he had loved. He decided to focus on hand cycling, determined to travel again for weekends of adventure, just as he had before his accident.

Michal had a long-held ambition to visit Sicily and cycle around Mount Etna. Now that he had his handcycle, he was determined to make this dream happen.

“I knew that it would require a lot of hard work and things would not always go like they are supposed to, especially if you travel in a wheelchair and with a handcycle. I had to ask myself questions like ‘How do I pack and secure a handcycle in a plane? How expensive is it going to be?’”

“It is also very hard to rent a car with hand controls, it’s next to impossible. Usually you get a different car from the one you booked but with a similar capacity. In this case we needed the exact car that we booked or even bigger to avoid troubles with loading the excessive baggage.”

Michal then had to think about the hotel facilities and whether or not they were really going to be wheelchair friendly.

“I asked myself on more than one occasion, ‘Am I really able for this and how far will I be able to go on my handcycle?”
Michal explained that he trained hard for his trip.

“Cycling around Navan is all very well, but it’s not exactly Mount Etna. So I organised a small trip, let’s say a dress rehearsal, to Porto in Portugal for just €90 per person. I booked the three of us – my wife, son and myself.”

Prior to flying to Porto, Michal discovered information on the airline website stating that he could take a second piece of mobility equipment free of charge.

“I rang the special assistance line and explained what exactly I wanted to take with me. Happy days! I could take my trike free of charge!”

The next step for Michal was to contact a rental company that offered cars that could accommodate handcycles and other pieces of equipment.

At home Michal has a Ford C-Max and ordinarily after loading his trike, which requires at least two back seats folded, there is one back seat left for his son. Then the front wheel goes between the two front seats.

“It sounds crazy, but it works quite well and we can add a dismantled wheelchair and three pieces of luggage into the car. When I went looking for a rental car I tried to find the same type of car we have at home. Eventually I found one, and it cost just €106 for 4 days.”

Michal was excited at the prospect of a weekend away but unlike most holiday-makers, he wasn’t looking for a beach or some nice restaurants. He was looking for a mountain to cycle up.

Naturally enough he chose the highest mountain in continental Portugal, Torre in Serra de Estrela, which is 1,993 metres high. The region is about a two hour drive from Porto airport.and Michal was delighted to discover another deal: “Never-ending happy deals! I found a 4-star accessible hotel for three of us for just €146 for 4 nights, with breakfast!”

The hotel was located in Trancoso, about 40 minutes’ drive from Seia, the town where Michal wanted
to start climbing Torre. The family arrived there at about 10am and parked in the car park at the border of the town. From this point it was about 1500m to the top of Torre.

“Shortly after arriving I started cycling up and my supporters went to explore the town and the Museum of Bread which is fully wheelchair accessible. Natan loved it! After about two hours they met me when I was at the height of about 900m and after that they stopped every few km and waited for me with water and food,” recalls Michal.
“Everything went smoothly until about 1pm when the sun became scorching hot and shortly after I could feel my forearms getting sunburnt. I wasn’t prepared for it and hadn’t any sunblock with me. It was not easy. I climbed at a slow pace and made short breaks more and more often.

“At a height of about 1100m I got roughly three minutes of nice chilling wind when riding down to the small village of Sabugueiro. After this short but refreshing ride came the hardest part with a 10% incline. My forearms and lips started to get itchy because of the sunburn. I blessed every cloud which gave me a little bit of shade for a few seconds. At a height of about 1200m I knew already that I would not make it.
“Slowly I kept climbing forward until I had hardly any power left. On top of that, the burnt skin on my forearms was unbearably sore. I decided to call it a day at the next meeting point with my wife and son. I met them at the perfect height of 1500m beside a mountain lake. There was about 493m and 12km remaining to reach the top. Maybe a bike would be easier? I love cross-country riding but I have been seriously considering a racing bike since then.

“After meeting my goal, we loaded all the stuff into the car and drove up to the peak. There was still a lot of snow and the cold made a nice change.

“Serra de Estrela is a beautiful place for cycling and at the same time good for testing your own strength. I met many cyclists going up and down the road,” explained Michal.
Despite not reaching the summit by handcycle, Michal is not disheartened. He said he knows what to expect now and is more determined than ever.

“I know what I am able to do now and where my limits are and I am going to push them! I owe a huge thank you to my wife. It would be next to impossible without her help! With this experience I am looking forward to the summer and cycling around Etna! Fingers crossed!”