A Baker's Dozen in the BluestacksThe heat from a glassy sun engulfed us soon as we left the taxi from Glenties that dropped us by a track at the side of the Barnsmore Gap Road, starting point for a 2-day 34 km traverse of the Bluestacks. Our kit (sleeping bags, mats, pillows, bivvy sacks, stove, gas, pans, food for 2 days, sundries and water) packed into Osprey Alpine packs, felt heavy as we slogged across blanket bog to Brown’s Hill. It soon became apparent that progress would be slow in the sapping humidity. We had only chosen the hottest two days of the year thus far for our trek! There was barely a breeze and the stifling air, heavy with the smell of freshly cut peat, was thick with swarming midges which did not appear to be deterred by deet!
Atop the hard won Brown’s Hill, the sinuous granite spine of the Bluestacks receded in the shimmering haze, each summit marked by a pimple-like cairn. These mountains feel truly remote, no well-worn tracks traverse their peaks and we saw barely a boot print. It is impossible to move quickly over the terrain of exposed slabs of granite, wiry heather, tussocks, through eroded peat hags and across sly patches of bog. The humidity was relentless and atop Croghnageer our water bladders were empty. Fortunately, numerous loughs and bog pools enabled us to treat water with a UV pen to replenish supplies along the route.
Struggling in the humidity, we gained Croaghanirwore, followed by a steep descent and a lung bursting climb up to Croaghbarnes. Lough Belshade looking as if it had swallowed the entire sky, it was such a deep shade of blue, provided a brief distraction from the midges, by now pestilential. Reaching the summit of Croaghbane to be greeted by a cooling breeze which banished these vile insects was heaven! Finding a flat grassy area just below the summit cairn with a lough 100m away where we could source water for cooking and drinking, we set up camp and fired up our gas stove for dinner.
Thankful for the refreshing gift of a sound night’s sleep, I woke just after dawn to the smell of coffee. An ethereal mist had crept in from the sea swallowing views of Donegal Town, but the sky was clear, the sun already warm; it promised to be another scorcher. Breaking camp, we began the steep descent from Croaghbane involving mild scrambling over granite cliffs towards Ardnageer, a superb fin of rock reflected in a bog lough in the col below. Approaching the summit, we disturbed two grouse which took off protesting noisily. The summit gave views over Lough Belshade, indigo and mysterious in the morning light, while on the northern horizon the quartzite cone of Errigal rose majestically above the Derryveagh Mountains. We passed over Ardnageer SW Top close to a strange outcrop of gleaming quartz on its NW flank, behind which Lavagh More loomed ominously high.
Before we scaled its heights, we had to surmount the highest point on the traverse: Croaghgorm. The route was incised with steep gullies of exposed granite with carpets of bog in their bottoms. In one, we found the wreckage of a RAF Sunderland DW110 which crashed in January 1944 claiming 7 lives. The highest point in the Bluestacks gained, we were over half way through the traverse. A gentler descent off Croaghgorm over heath and grass took us past Lough Cronagorma fringed with bog cotton nodding ragged white heads in the breeze and sporting a colony of stringy bogbean. Here I disturbed a fledgling meadow pipit which fluttered clumsily across the water and lay cowering amid a tangle of vegetation. I gently picked it up, a fragile little ball of warm fluff and feathers, its tiny heart pounding against the palm of my hand. Released from my grasp, it soon disappeared. Motionless, its plumage provided a perfect camouflage.
The pull up Lavagh More was punishing in the heat. Besides midges, we now had horseflies to contend with; I could feel their razor sharp mouth parts slicing into my skin. What annoying agony! The summit gained, we had lunch before assailing Lavagh Beg, passing above several loughs in the boggy basin between Silver Hill and Binnasruell. But the turbines of the wind farm near Carnaween still looked very far away.
From Silver Hill to Cullaghacre, up to the foot of Carnaween, the route was mostly exposed peat hags and squelching bog. After halting at Miley’s Lough for a cuppa and to refresh our weary feet, we assailed the quartzite slopes of Carnaween, the final summit of our baker’s dozen. Following makeshift waymarks (Carnaween is always climbed on the 1st Sunday in June) we descended steadily over heath, heading for a picnic area at the end of an old boreen by an abandoned cottage where we were to be collected by taxi.
We should have stuck to the waymarkers but took a short cut and unfortunately veered off into a stinking morass of boot sucking bog and waist high reeds. Recriminations were swiftly traded between us!!! My hair, by now transformed into dreadlocks, was stiff with sweat, my face salty and rough from perspiration, and my skin, sticky with sun cream and deet, peppered with the red weals of insect bites. Thoughts of a cool beer, a hot shower and an escape from midge misery crowded my mind. The gate at the end of the boreen was indeed a welcome one and the sight of the taxi, wending its way along the rough track to the picnic area, was a huge relief. Although we had enjoyed a fabulous two days in the Bluestack Mountains, which proved to be nowhere near as excruciating as the Maamturk Traverse, I was still mightily relieved to see the cheery face of our taxi driver, who hailed us with the words, ‘welcome back to civilisation!’.
Watch the video of our Bluestacks Traverse here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCmv_TB86Ys