Mountain falls, mountain rescue: whose risk at the high path to ecstasy?

Another Life: The €40,000 judgment for a woman who fell on the Wicklow Way, a strenuous hillwalking route, might trouble anyone with common sense

Mweelrea: waiting at the top of the bog road for half my lifetime. Illustration: Michael Viney

Mweelrea: waiting at the top of the bog road for half my lifetime. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

The mountain looms larger as the air clears for winter. At sunrise its close, dark bulk holds back the glow from the east but sends a hidden shaft of sun down Killary Harbour to light up Inishturk, far out at sea, then reaching around to gild the rim of the dunes.

At this time, too, it can sport a brilliant orange beacon of mist at its summit, a fiery, folkloric omen. At evening the mountain backs off a bit, setting a mirror to the sunset, its ramparts pink and purple in the slow fade to dusk.

I won’t get up Mweelrea again, but never mind. Like city monuments and galleries that are always there to visit next week, the mountain has waited at the top of the bog road for half my lifetime. A few solitary ascents up the seaward scarp, each sense and nerve enjoyably alert, preceded more sociable climbs with wife or daughter.

Once, descending with Ethna, we met a neighbour working with her sheepdog on a high slope under the ridge. Her casual woolly cardigan, flapping in the breeze, suddenly disarmed the climb as any great test of achievement.

Once you’ve gained the saddle, then the summit, the views on a good day – to Achill, Nephin, the Maumturks, the Bens, the islands – can be exalting (“Bliss, pure bliss! Life doesn’t get much better than this” – a tribute on mountainviews.ie, the hillwalkers’ network).

The peak was once a nunatak, a bare rock above the glacier grinding down the fjord to the sea. But the mountain’s great horseshoe massif is not always a safe place to be, as the loyal volunteers of Mayo Mountain Rescue have had to witness too often.

The ridges drop away in precipitous cliffs, walls to a great corrie that swoops down to Doo Lough Pass and Delphi Adventure Centre. A sudden swirl of sea fog or low cloud can completely disorient the walker. Winds gust from nowhere to rattle the scree. (My drawing shows plough marks they have carved in the edge of a cliff.) Even without such hazards a neighbour, Christy Gallagher, long familiar with every tuck and fold of Mweelrea, was gathering ewes from a ravine this summer when he slipped and fell to his death.

Hillwalking and climbing do, of course, carry risk of injury or worse, and everyone donning boots for a hike is charged with personal judgment and responsibility. This is why a Circuit Court judgment last spring has so outraged the hillwalking community – indeed, troubled anyone with common sense.

The court awarded €40,000 to a woman who fell on a raised boardwalk section of the Wicklow Way, at a height of more than 500m. The judgment was made under a section of the Occupiers’ Liability Act and found that the Wicklow Mountains National Park, a responsibility of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, had not taken reasonable care to maintain the boardwalk in safe condition.

A photograph in Irish Mountain Log, the excellent quarterly magazine of Mountaineering Ireland, has shown a long section of such a boardwalk on White Hill in the Wicklows. It is a narrow, planked wooden path stretching hundreds of metres, often stepped up or down to change its level. It is intended to check erosion of the sward of an exposed but inviting hilltop.

The Wicklow Way is graded as a strenuous route by the National Trails Office, and walkers are advised to expect rough going underfoot. Yet, in her written judgment, the judge found it relevant to mention two cases relating to the maintenance of structures in playgrounds.

The judgment will be strongly appealed to the High Court next month by the State Claims Agency on behalf of the parks service.

Protecting the vegetation of hard-walked but windswept and rain-scoured heights is a well-worn challenge in conservation. In Connemara National Park, for example, a walkers’ loop over Diamond Hill has demanded gravel paths, stepping stones and timber boardwalks across the boggy bits. What can happen to hill or mountain paths when no one takes power to act finds extreme example at Croagh Patrick, in Co Mayo, where the final ascent is worn to a notoriously dangerous scree.

Wood cracks and rots eventually. The parks service has been having second thoughts about boardwalks; its emphasis now is on using “local materials”. From that, I suppose, one might look to lofty paths of hand-distressed Wicklow granite (a fine, gritty footfall indeed) built with helicopter airlifts, a few weighty slabs at a time.

The Circuit Court judgment sent a renewed tremor of anxiety through landowners letting walkers cross their land. As Mountaineering Ireland was quick to reassure, farmers rarely provide walkers with “structures provided for use primarily by recreational users”, and the stiles and bridges of managed walking trails are already covered by insurance.

To borrow the solicitude of young women bidding one farewell: “Take care.”

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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