If you’ve never spent time in the mountains the idea of climbing one can seem daunting. The physical – and spiritual – challenges presented by the steepest and most isolated mountains are obviously attractive to exceptionally bold and competitive souls. But if Edmund Hillary is not your role model, does that rule you out from enjoying walking on higher ground?
On the contrary: many mountain pleasures are open to anyone fit enough to hike comfortably for a few hours on a level road. And perhaps it’s helpful, at the outset, to dispense with the notion that hillwalking has to involve scaling a summit.
The writer Robert Macfarlane, himself an accomplished mountaineer, puts it this way in his recent classic, Landmarks: "To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain, nor is a narrative of siege and assault the only way to write about one."
His reflections are sparked by the life and work of another climber-writer, Nan Shepherd. She “confesses that as a young woman she had been prone to a ‘lust’ for ‘the tang of height’.” But she found a richer, more layered walking experience when she let go of her summit fixation: “She tramps around, over, across and into the mountain, rather than charging up it.”
I’ve begun to take this approach to my own local mountain. This happens to be one of Ireland’s highest peaks, Lugnaquillia, in the heart of Wicklow. I used to feel that a climb that did not reach the top was a failure. But it slowly dawned on me that it is at least equally pleasurable to wander side routes without any particular destination. This has led me to spend happy hours loitering on the well-known zigzag route that leads up from the dramatic Carrawaystick waterfall, in Glenmalur valley. This path offers splendid views, and becomes a cornucopia of mountain wild flowers, such as stonecrop and eyebright, in springtime.
At the top of the zigzags are multiple options. You can hike on to the spectacular overlook above Art’s Lough, its peat-tinted waters a basket of golden light far below you when the sun shines. Or you can turn back across the plateau to Lugnaquillia’s most hidden jewel, Kelly’s Lough, and contemplate an untamed landscape to your heart’s content, often in complete solitude.
No more solitude
As hillwalking has become more popular, however, our mountains are now rarely the solitary places they used to be. This has led to severe environmental problems: badly eroded trails, disturbed livestock, crops and wildlife, and bitter conflicts with local landowners about access.
We owe the excellent and open-access condition of the Glenmalur zigzag trail today to the happy resolution of one such conflict. The land’s owner, a farmer named Pat Dunne, had become understandably frustrated with increasing numbers of insensitive hikers marching straight through the farmyard at the base of the trail.
Finally, Wicklow Uplands Council, the county council, and County Wicklow Partnership brokered an agreement with Mountain Meitheal volunteers. This affiliate of Mountaineering Ireland built a boardwalk skirting the farmhouse. Meanwhile, Dunne agreed to maintain the upper trail in good condition, paid for by the Government's walks scheme.
But Mountaineering Ireland’s conservation officer, Helen Lawless, warns that the magnitude of erosion, access and related disturbance issues nationally is now “way beyond the capacity of volunteer solutions alone”.
Last year the organisation published its vision for the future of Ireland's mountains and uplands areas. It offers hopeful and innovative solutions that could turn a neglected landscape crisis into a series of local opportunities.
Lawless encourages beginners to continue taking to the hills but cautions that there are always risks associated with climbing. Don't even go out of the door without reading the organisation's excellent advice.
To whet your appetite, we asked five Mountaineering Ireland veterans to pick favourite routes that offer exceptional rewards for moderate efforts – some map-reading and navigation skills needed.
Binn Shléibhe, or Benlevy, forms the backdrop to the villages of Clonbur, Cloghbrack and Cornamona. The walk from the Ballard car park, while only rising to a modest 416m, is rewarded by panoramic views north to Lough Mask and Maumtrasna, south to Lough Corrib and west to the Maumturk Mountains. This is an easy climb yet offers a sense of wilderness. Take care navigating the unmarked summit plateau trails. Binn Shléibhe is also notable as one of two national pilot Mountain Access areas, to harmonise the interests of hillwalkers and local landowners. Starting point grid reference: M073539. – Trish Walsh
Head uphill from the Nire Valley car park to a gate in the fence; follow the ancient route to the gap between Knockanaffrin ridge and the Comeragh plateau. Left at the stile up the ridge. There is some erosion here because of its popularity, with spectacular views – and a vertical drop on one side. Watch for the small St Patrick's cabbage, a rare saxifrage, as you pass the rugged boulders of the ridge. Stunning views over Coumduala lough, the Comeragh Mountains, and Cos Waterford and Tipperary. This wonderful but not too strenuous (6km) walk gives a sense of exposure, wildness and adventure, with plenty of wildlife, including ravens, birds of prey and plants. Starting point grid reference: S277128. – Michael Maunsell
Mourne Mountains, Co Down
Granite tors, 50 million years old, stab skywards on the summit of Slieve Binnian. Leave Head Road, aim for the quarry and walk on through the confusion of old stone workings to climb steeply up the southern flank. From cart road to zigzag sheep tracks, then above 500m it is trackless. The mind and body work hard to choose their own way among boulders and blueberries. The tors can seem to compel the soul upward, the nourishment of warm sun on granite mixed with the smell of heather blossom. Progress upwards is paralleled by an increased sense of remoteness, and of course the steady reveal of sea and sky until the last step, when the rest of the Mournes is unwrapped. Starting point grid reference: J327214. – Vincent McAlinden
Cooley Mountains, Carlingford, Co Louth
Head up the steep narrow road beside Savage's butchers in historic Carlingford. Then follow the narrow laneway straight ahead, eventually climbing over a green stile. Turn right and continue uphill until you reach a wide grassy track that is part of the Táin Way. Turn right and follow the track to the col between Barnavave and Slieve Foye. Turn right and follow the well-trodden path to the summit. The views on a clear day are some of the best in the country, with the Mourne Mountains to the north, the Isle of Man to the east and the Wicklow Mountains to the south. For its height, Slieve Foye has views and wilderness that few other areas can match in terms of accessibility. Starting point grid reference: J188116. – Derek Watters
The 760m peak of Croagh Patrick dominates the landscape of west Mayo, with its spectacular location overlooking Clew Bay and its distinctive pyramidal profile. There is a tradition of pilgrimage here from pre-Christian times, and the mountain continues to attract large numbers. Unfortunately, that popularity has created severe erosion. Local concern about this damage led to the formation, in 2015, of Croagh Patrick Stakeholders' Group, which is examining options to manage the large numbers of visitors, control erosion and reduce other impacts. The popular route starts in Murrisk car park, outside Westport, and follows a well-defined track, but be prepared for steep sections, loose rock and many fellow walkers. A wilder variation, requiring navigation skills, is a loop heading east off the main path, following the Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail towards the Western Way, avoiding the summit cone and returning to the main path via a number of smaller peaks. Starting point grid reference: L918823. – Orla Prendergast