Sunday, 15 December 2013

Scaling the Heights of Ireland: The County Top Quest

There was a time, not so long ago, that I claimed that I was no summit bagger, but having inadvertently done many of the County Tops whilst completing various hill-walking circuits, ticking off the final few began to create something of an itch that needed to be scratched! In November 2012, on a bitterly cold day with occasional hail showers, we assailed the nondescript Slieve Beagh, our final summit, in County Monaghan. Later that day, on the long journey back to Wicklow, I reflected on scaling the heights (of nonsense some might say) of all 27 summits, completed over 3 years and in all winds and weathers.

 After an ice climb of a gully at the back of Glencullin Corrie to the Lugmore Ridge in 2010, the sight of Mweelrea (Mayo) from Ben Bury glowering in shafts of broken sunlight, its icy slopes shining like liquid mercury and the purple shapes of myriad islands floating amid rafts of sunshine reflected off the calm Atlantic, brought a sudden and unexpected lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. This vision is forever seared into my memory. With darkness chasing away the last rays of sunlight, there was no time to bag this behemoth on this occasion, so surmounting it on a hot autumn day with exquisite coastal views was unforgettable.
A case of carpe diem, we did Lugnaquilla (Wicklow) from Glenmalure on snowshoes during one of the coldest winters in living memory, summiting in Arctic conditions to a riotous sunset, descending in the light of head torches under a purple sky showered with brilliant stars. That same winter, frigid Slieve Donard, King of the Mourne Mountains (Down), clad in diamond dazzling treachery gave crystal clear views of the icy Isle of Man. On Errigal (Donegal) and Kippure (Dublin), I strangely felt my mortality as I watched the vermillion orb of the winter sun slip below the western horizon and the full moon rise like a paper lantern. We were tested climbing Sawel (Derry/Tyrone) in deep snow sans snowshoes (how did we manage to forget them?) and were nearly flattened by gale force winds on a very autumnal Mt Brandon (Kilkenny).
Vivaldi’s Gloria captures the sheer euphoria of gaining Benbaun (Galway) on one of the finest spring days imaginable with endless views in all directions. I was bemused to see joss sticks burning at the summit of mighty Carrauntoohil (Kerry), Ireland’s highest peak. But size isn’t everything. I loved exploring little Slieve na Calliagh’s (Meath) megalithic tomb which receives the first rays of dawn at both equinoxes and meandering amid the whispering beech trees and carpets of bluebells fringing Mullaghmeen (Westmeath) on a warm spring day.


Slieve Foye (Lough) was a steep pull up from sea level, but I shall carry the memory of the views of Carlingford Lough and the Mourne Mountains heaped on the horizon opposite to the ghats! Corn Hill (Longford) and Cupidstown Hill (Kildare) posed no challenge: tarred tracks led straight to them. Slieve Gullion (Armagh) was quickly scaled from a nearby car park where happily, thieves seem to be a thing of the past! The prize for a bog trot goes to burst teabag Moylussa (Clare), but Trostan (Antrim) and 'old chalky' Cuilcagh (straddling the border between Cavan and Fermanagh in the Republic and Northern Ireland respectively) were worthy runners-up. Seltannasaggart SE Slope (Roscommon) was a dull affair unless you're 'into' wind farms; aqueous Arderin (Loais/Offaly - why on earth would someone cart a car battery to the summit?) and Slieve Beagh SE Top (Monaghan), wringing wet affairs. The sight of paragliders atop Mt Leinster (Carlow/Wexford) was delightful, quad bikers on Knockmealdown (Waterford) was not.


For an edgy experience the Truskmores win hands down, bagged at the fag end of a wet and windy summer’s day. The gate to the RTÉ mast access road declared the site off limits and due to the legendary hostility of the local farmers, including the infamously named ‘Bull McCabe’, we almost ran up the steep and dreary tarmac way convinced that any moment a shot would signal the prelude to our derrieres being peppered with buckshot, put there by an irate local farmer! Truskmore (Sligo) was a deflating experience, trig point marooned within a muddy building site. Truskmore SE Top (Leitrim) nearby offered some consolation when the cloud rose revealing fine views of Yeats Country and not a farmer in sight! Most vile climb? Definitely Knockboy (Cork). After scrambling up a mucky gully, it began to rain steadily and I fell into deep bog, couldn’t get out, lost part of my walking pole and was bitten alive by horseflies! We returned to the car soaked to the gussets and filthy dirty. Then to cap it all, the gauche B&B we stayed at in Bantry had no hot water for a shower!  

Finally, high drama on Galtymore (Tipperary). After scrambling up a gully, we arrived at the top to find two women, one holding a Tesco's carrier bag, both  ill clad, disoriented and mildly hypothermic, wandering about aimlessly in the dense mist that had suddenly descended. Three of their group were missing and none had coats on. We got them into our emergency bivy and were brewing up hot tea to warm them up as 2 more walkers appeared, panicking about a missing friend. We had no choice but to call in Mountain Rescue. Galtymore was bagged in something of a hurry whilst traversing the top of the mountain trying to locate the missing walkers. Mountain Rescue was stood down 3 hours later, all casualties safe. Yes, the County Tops have given me many great memories. Some I’d happily climb again, others no way!

Delectable Donegal: Climbing Errigal and Slieve League

Donegal, a magical corner of Ireland: remote, not on the way to anywhere, a land of wide open spaces and big skies. Friel's Donegal, a place of jagged coastline and treacherous cliffs, shimmering loughs, heathery moors and bogs hemmed in by mountains. Its primitive charm and its wildness have also spawned some of Ireland’s finest musicians. Their languid, ethereal tunes, many sung in the haunting cadence of Gaelic, conjure up images of this timeless land. You don’t just ‘see’ Donegal, you ‘feel’ it.

We set out mid afternoon on a cold November day to climb Mackoght and then the steep quartize giant, Errigal, the highest summit in County Donegal. The air was cold and crisp atop Mackoght and mist drifted periodically up over the shattered scree covered NE face of Errigal which looked virtually unassailable from this angle. Joining the tourist path we quickly attained the summit of Donegal's most iconic mountain to feast our eyes upon sublime 360 degree views. The setting sun cast a pool of rosy light upon the scalloped face of Aghla More and the loughs of Dunlewey and Nacung blushed pink. On our descent, the full moon rose and stars began to wink in the firmament. The moonlight reflected off the bog pools like shattered shards of a giant’s mirror and it was so bright it was possible to see without head torches.

After booking in at Errigal Youth Hostel in Dunlewey, we headed for the Tábhairne Leo at Gweedore, renowned for nurturing world famous musical talents Enya, Clannad and Moya Brennan. The clientele was amazingly colourful as is often the case in littoral societies which always seem to harbour colonies of 'bohemian types' who find that there is nowhere left to run, so just settle downA tall man with a face like a nutcracker, whom a very gossipy local lady at our table duly informed me was Dutch, wore apparel like that of a Puritan preacher complete with broad rimmed black hat, while a middle aged lady originally from South Dublin sporting peacock feathers in her 1920’s hairdo, cruised the bar area, wine glass in hand. The place was packed to the rafters as the musicians struck up sometime after ten, the rhythmic beat of the bodhrán contrasting with the plaintive, mellow notes of the flute. ‘Níl sé ina lá’ sang the band, ‘níl sé ina lá is ní bheidh go maidin’, as my mind, hazy from the Guinness, began to wander. ‘De ye know ‘Tuoer-kee?’ enquired another local woman at our table, who had told me her entire life story in fifteen minutes. Smiling banally, I wondered what on earth ‘Turkey’ had to do with me being from Cornwall... the Guinness began to flow more freely. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to 'drink here 'til the morning' as in the lyrics of Níl sé ina lá’ and like many of the locals undoubtedly can and would, we quietly slipped away during the distraction of the draw of a raffle in aid of Donegal Mountain Rescue, arriving back at the hostel sometime past midnight.
The land steamed as the morning sun gently released it from the icy grip of the night. There’s something about the quality of the light in Donegal - a translucence that enlivens the russet heather, green mosses and warm bands of coloured rock in the cliffs of Slieve League, exposed and polished by the storms of countless ages, and contrasts with the deep blue of the sea and sky. The cliffs truncated by ice and ocean are stupendous, the sea so far below the waves appear silent. On a perfectly still and sunny autumn afternoon we took the cliff path, scrambling the airy arête at Kerringear and One Man’s Pass to the summit. Panoramic views unfolded: Benbulben, Nephin, Achill Island, and even distant Croagh Patrick. Inland a sea of mountain-tops receded in tumultuous waves as far as the rounded head of Slieve Snaght and the distinctive quartzite cone of Errigal, which we had assailed the day before. We completed our circular walk via the Pilgrim’s Path to Bunglass as night fell and the moonlight shimmered over this enchanting landscape.