Top of the world... woman's role in world's highest rugby game
An exhausted Co Tyrone woman has helped a group of rugby enthusiasts take the game to new heights - by completing a record-breaking charity match on Mount Everest.
Omagh-born Jude McKelvey (43) teamed up with rugby stars - including former England and Bath hooker Lee Mears and ex-Wales and Ospreys wing Shane Williams - to act as touch rugby judge in the seven-a-side match held 20,771ft (6,331m) above sea level.
Both teams battled chronic altitude sickness, fatigue and exhaustion to raise more than £250,000 for Wooden Spoon - a charity which supports disabled and disadvantaged children through rugby.
"Not everybody on the team made it - we had a couple of people who had to drop out," Ms McKelvey said after landing at Heathrow yesterday afternoon.
"Four went home at base camp, then another couple dropped out and one team leader is still in hospital out there with a collapsed lung."
The match was made up of the standard two seven-minute halves of rugby in order to meet strict Guinness World Record rules, and ended 5-5 after each team scored an unconverted try. In doing so, they set a record for the highest game of rugby in recorded history.
Ms McKelvey, who now lives in Essex, spent a total of 24 days in the Himalayas and played in a mixed match at base camp to acclimatise to its 16,794ft (5,119m) altitude.
She is delighted that her name will be included in the record books due to being officially tasked with monitoring the touchline for the men's match, which took place on East Rongbuk Glacier, near Everest's Advanced Base Camp.
"Part of that involved checking the pitch for crevices and making sure there was an actual pitch to play on," she explained.
Ms McKelvey said the gruelling trek back down to base camp was almost as bad running up and down "knee deep in snow" during the game, which was refereed by former England women's captain Tamara Taylor.
"But it was all worth it - I was very fortunate to be part of this amazing life-changing experience."
Williams, who captained one of the teams, said Everest is "inarguably the world's most spectacular setting for a rugby match, but also the most inhospitable conditions - the game was incredibly tough".
"If you ran during the match it took 10 minutes to recover," he added. "That said, everyone put in 100% and there was some great rugby played. I can't praise the team enough."
Referee Tamara Taylor said the altitude took its toll on everyone but that the group summoned a second wind to keep playing.
"The energy has been tremendous, with everyone rallying together to spur each other on and, even though we're exhausted, we're buzzing at the achievement," she said.
"After days of having to deal with one of the world's harshest environments, we're looking forward to coming down off the mountain and enjoying the feeling of having broken two world records and raised a lot of money for very worthwhile causes."
More information can be found at everestrugby.org.uk