Peak spirits

Sat, Nov 28, 2009, 00:00

Go Ireland: What would drive you to climb all 278 of Ireland’s 600m summits? Mountain leader Adrian Hendroffexplains

MY LOVE AFFAIR with mountains started in 1994, when as a disgruntled student a combination of bussing and hitching led me on an unplanned visit to the Lake District, in northwestern England. The woman who was giving me a lift dropped me at her farmhouse, in Ambleside. As I needed to clear my head, she suggested I walk up a nearby hill. The views at the top were splendid. So I bought a guidebook, stayed a few more days and went up a few more lumps. My life changed that week. Between then and now I’ve climbed mountains in England, Wales and Scotland, been to the Pyrenees, the Mont Blanc range and the Dolomites, and travelled as far away as Iceland. But Irish mountains are my unending passion.

On November 26th, 2006, on Croaghgorm, a rugged mountain in the Blue Stack range, in Co Donegal, I completed the final summit of the 212 in Ireland that stand over 2,000ft tall. But that list is based on imperial measurements. Its metric equivalent, of Irish mountains over 600m, has 278 entries: as 2,000ft is just under 610m, I still had 66 mountains of between 600m and 610m to bag if I wanted to complete that list, too. So I began the bagging again and set out to climb them.

Just a few months ago, on August 26th, on the south summit of Aghla Beg, in the Derryveagh mountain range, in Donegal, I stood atop my 278th and final Irish 600m mountain, becoming one of the few people in the country to have done so.

What possessed me to devote countless weekends to packing a bag and driving hundreds of kilometres, at night or at dawn, to the base of a mountain? Or to spend weekdays devouring guidebooks and plotting routes? I was so sure to catch RTÉ’s forecasts that my wife labelled me the Weather Man.

Was I obsessed to keep up the same routine, week after week, year after year? Or was there something I found in the Irish mountains that left me no choice but to return? My answers, I hope, might inspire you to embark on a voyage of exploration of your own.

I love our mountains. We have a treasure trove of them, more than we can ever imagine. And although they are not as remote as some of the Munros – the 277 Scottish mountains of at least 3,000ft, or just over 914m – most of our mountains offer a greater sense of solitude than those of Wales or England. I have often walked for kilometres without meeting anyone. And our high places are blessed with spectacular scenery: breathtaking ridges, captivating coums and glittering lakes that are often decorated by an engaging backdrop of the Atlantic, in the west, or the ambient waters of the Irish Sea, in the east.

Ireland’s mountains are secret places where the soul of nature connects with the soul of man, places you wish you could remain for ever. One I’d like to share is a remote col at Maumina, in the heart of the Twelve Bens, in Connemara, surrounded by a fortress of peaks in all directions. Another is Loch Mham Ochóige, an idyllic lake tucked above a col deep in the Maumturks. I will say nothing more. Just plan a visit.

My round of Irish 600m mountains was also a journey back into history, myths and tradition. My footsteps took me along ancient pilgrim routes and miners’ tracks and past deserted villages, Mass stones and burial sites.

Twice I followed closely in the footsteps of saints. On the scree slope leading to the summit of Croagh Patrick, in Co Mayo, I would imagine St Patrick climbing in his bare feet. And high on Brandon ridge, on Dingle Peninsula, I understood why St Brendan fell in love with the mountain named after him.

Both peaks would fill anyone with an astounding sense of peace, Croagh Patrick with its remarkable island-strewn views of Clew Bay and Mount Brandon with its mystical paternoster lakes, sheer cliffs and stunning ridges.

On Dingle Peninsula, Anascaul Glen is decorated by a series of cascading waterfalls and lovely streams with mighty cliffs guarding both sides. In ancient times this was the scene of a legendary battle between Cú Chulainn and a giant who took away his love, Scal Ní Mhurnain. A raging Cú Chulainn and the mighty giant catapulted boulders at each other from the tops of these cliffs. Cú Chulainn was struck by one of them. Scal, thinking him killed, drowned herself in the lake.

I had never a dull moment climbing our 600m mountains. There were the musts of the tallest peaks in the four provinces: Carrauntoohil, highest in Munster and all of Ireland; Mweelrea, highest in Connacht; Slieve Donard, highest in Ulster; and Lugnaquillia, highest in Leinster. There were also the classic must-climbs, such as the sensational Reeks ridge, including the vertigo-inducing Beenkeragh arete; the amphitheatre-like Coumshingaun, in the Comeraghs; the quartzite-dominated mountains of the Twelve Bens and Maumturks, in Connemara; the majestic Croaghaun and its Atlantic-plunging cliffs, on Achill; Errigal, with its haunting views of the Derryveagh mountains, in Co Donegal; and lofty Galtymore, with its spellbinding lakes, in the Galty Mountains. There are also peaks whose names beg you to climb them: Dooish; Muckish; Knocknapeasta, or Serpent’s Hill; the Big Gun; Devilsmother; and Hungry Hill.

Ireland’s mountains have at times humbled and overawed me. I still feel the astral remoteness of the north Mayo hills in my bones, but more profoundly I feel its immense beauty in my heart. I climbed almost 90km on five outings to collect just six tops. One of these, Slieve Carr, accessible only by a long walk on the Bangor Trail, is a beast of a mountain. The others – mighty Nephin Beg, magical Corranabinnia, with a serrated ridge between its two tops, and mystical Glennamong – also bordered on the soul-destroying but were, ultimately, just as rewarding.

Hillwalking seems to be catching on as a recreational sport. In 2004 only about 135 people logged the summits they had climbed on Mountainviews.ie. Today that figure stands at nearly 1,000. Then just nine people had logged climbing 100 summits or more. Today that figure stands at 74.

For some of us, perhaps, the freedom of the mountains is just the tonic to clear the head during this economic crisis. It might not provide all the answers, but the mountains give a feeling of strength, the gift of humility, a chance for escapism, a sense of wonder and an opportunity to reach higher, think deeper, look farther and breathe easier. We don’t have to look outwards for these mountains: they are at our doorstep. They have brought me back time and again. My hope is that, like the dawn of a new age, they will do the same for you.

Simonstewart.ie has lists of Irish mountain summits and links to other hillwalking sites