The Maamturk Mountain Traverse Day 1Connemara, Wilde’s place of ‘savage beauty’ on the very western edge of Europe, where the constantly changing light subtly alters the tone and mood of the landscape. Here, formidable quartzite mountains lift their lofty heads heavenward, myriad lakes trace intricate lacy patterns across the blanket bog, and narrow lochs, crevices of the sea, give way to the endless Atlantic beyond. Fishing villages with quaint quays, now tourist traps, and golden sandy beaches fringed with brown seaweed, lie along a convoluted coast where seagulls whirl on the wind. Connemara is a place of memory too. The ghostly imprint of lazy beds, dry stone walls and solitary derelict cottages, the fractured spines of their chimney places where peat fires once banished the cruel cold, are poignant reminders of those who vanished in an Gorta Mór.
The warm, sweet smell of freshly cut peat pervaded the summer air as we drove towards Leenane. Conical turf ricks lined up like weather beaten soldiers, were serenaded by the incessant melody of skylarks. A stiff breeze agitated the surface of Lough Inagh creating waves that deposited a thin line of foam on the shoreline; sun kissed ragged heads of yellow flag irises nearby nodded joyously. A swathe of sea mist that had blown in from Killary Harbour lay trapped below Mweelrea, hugging its slopes like a silk skirt, the Bald King’s head rising defiantly to greet a powder blue sky.
We passed the Maamturks, giant beehive shaped heaps of quartzite, the range we were going to traverse, their steep slopes appearing almost insurmountable. Doubts began to crowd my mind like dark shadows as the taxi from Leenane that dropped us near Maam Cross sped away. Was I equal to the task of completing this punishing traverse? The lonely call of a cuckoo out on the heath served only to heighten my unease as we set off carrying 10 kilo packs to trek 25 km of the most challenging terrain in Ireland.
At Binn Ramhar, we located a large cairn illuminated by a blazing sunset that marks the start of the treacherous steep descent to Maumeen Lake. Celtic crosses silhouetted against the darkening sky guided us up to the small chapel above the lake, a perfect place to fire up our stove, replenish water supplies and bivy overnight.
The Maamturk Mountain Traverse Day 2We slept fitfully due to the wind that gusted through the col that night. A watery sunrise and grey, chilly morning greeted us; Binn Ramhar’s top was wreathed in mist. We began the long haul up Binn Chaonaigh opposite. Close to the summit the cloud descended and an eerie silence enveloped us. With quartzite rock underfoot and the mist above, everything acquired a strange white luminescence. We plodded on along the gravely ridge leading to Binn idir an dá Log taking in Binn idir an dá Log SE Top en route. The tricky descent to Lough Mhám Ochóige was an enjoyable challenge involving some mild scrambling.
What a delight to see this indigo lake nestling in its corrie appear through the mist. And the immense serpentine coils of the Failmore River, sweeping verdant expanse of Gleann Fhada and the far section of the Maamturk Range beyond. Away to the left were Loughs Inagh and Lehanagh and the mighty Twelve Pins. Ahead, the brooding hulk of Knocknahillion lay in wait. We had completed half the traverse.
A steep pull brought us to the summit and this was followed by some pleasant airy walking across the quartzite ridge towards Letterbreckaun, taking in Cnoc na hUilleann North Top. Looking back at the magnificent landscape we had just crossed was humbling: deep corries gouged out of the face of white giants by glaciers that sliced through solid rock to create the deep valleys below. But the intense concentration required to negotiate the rocky terrain coupled with the exertion of carrying a heavy pack began to take its toll. We paused for something to eat and to treat more drinking water at Loughaunnagrevagh before summiting Letterbreckaun. Fine scenery continued to ravish the eye: Loughs Kylemore and Fee and Killary Harbour, thin ribbons of indigo set in a sea of verdure hemmed in by mountains. But my heart sank when I saw the distance we still had to cover. The ridge of the NE Maamturks looked like a green tidal wave, threatening, insurmountable and in between, yet more ascent and descent, including the daunting prospect of the Col of Despondency.
As my aching feet hit the Western Way I wept with relief, to have completed the traverse; we were both down safely. I swore I’d never do it again. Ever. But never is a long time and half an hour later, sitting in a pub in Leenane nursing a creamy Guinness, smug with the afterglow of success, I’d already begun to forget the mental anguish and physical pain that had stalked me like the Grim Reaper in those mountains.
Watch the video of our Maamturks Taverse here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BO9bIVcVn8