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'You don't have to be a mountain climber to enjoy great outdoors'

From the summit of Everest to the Lagan towpath, it's all just a great walk in the park for adventurer and architect Dawson Stelfox, writes Ivan Little

He's hit the heights by conquering Everest but mountaineer Dawson Stelfox says he also enjoys more down-to-earth pleasures during regular walks in less challenging surroundings in his beloved Northern Ireland.

And the first Irishman to climb the world's highest mountain is encouraging others to take the first step on the road to discovering the wonders of walking and the outdoors closer to home.

Dawson says: "The health benefits from regular exercise are well known and well promoted not just for physical health but also for mental health as well.

"But there's more and more recognition that the sheer joy of walking is worthwhile too. You don't have to climb mountains to enjoy the positives that the outdoors can offer"

It was in 1993 that the then 35-year-old Belfast adventurer climbed his way into the history books at the summit of Everest.

And that thrill has never left him or the hundreds of Irish people who remember his name and what he achieved.

Dawson is an award-winning architect with a portfolio that ranges from the restoration of Belfast's Albert Clock to the refurbishment of Parliament Buildings at Stormont.

But his passion for fomenting a fervour for the natural environment is a major driving force in his life too. He's been heavily involved with Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland (ORNI), a not-for-profit organisation committed to placing outdoor recreation at the very heart of society.

"And he practises what he preaches - for the love of it. The father of two has never lost the sense of adventure that goes back to his childhood and that still sees him hill walking and climbing in the Mournes or Sperrins though a repeat performance of Everest isn't likely.

Two years ago Dawson furiously attacked the DoE for slashing funding to ORNI

The strategic group he chaired had pioneered bike, canoe and walking trails around Northern Ireland.

And Dawson claimed the 100% cut in the £120,000 budget would put at risk iconic walking routes like the Ulster Way and the Causeway Coast path.

But the pressure paid off and the money was reinstated.

Dawson has also been buoyed by cash incentives from local councils to bolster walking routes.

He says: "The community walking trails are tremendous, opening up local facilities for local people.

"And of course the wider tourism potential for the bigger walking initiatives is crucial too from an economic perspective."

Dawson's hectic professional life during the week restricts his opportunities for walking.

However, he says at the weekends he will head off to the countryside.

Dawson Stelfox climbing Everest

But the Belfast man adds there are treasures on the city's doorstep as well like Cavehill and the Black Mountain.

"It's particularly easy for people in the city to enjoy a good walk," he says.

And down from the hills other gems like the Lagan towpath are another godsend, he says.

Dawson has been encouraged by the rise in the number of walking groups across the province. "That is fantastic for our community cohesion," he says.Dawson is a perfect salesman for walking and the great outdoors.

He says: "They are wonderful for de-stressing and giving yourself time to think.

"There's nothing better than to get out into the countryside to get away, to escape from the pressures of daily life"

Dawson can't envisage the dawning of the day when he will put his feet up.

"I wouldn't like to think about having to stop," he says

In the meantime he still relishes new places to visit thousands of miles away - and just around the corner.

"I love variety and there are so so many new areas to discover. I could never tire of all that," says Dawson, who still climbs in Nepal on a regular basis.

But his visits there now have an added dimension.

For Dawson is associated with a charity that supports educational projects in Nepal - something which clearly gives him immense satisfaction.

The intrepid Dawson has seen some of the most spectacular sights the world has to offer from vantage points that few others will ever experience.

But he insists Ireland isn't a comedown after the likes of Everest.

"Not at all," he says. "I still love my homeland.

"And if I can persuade more people to share my passion I will be a happy man."

Belfast Telegraph

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