Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sweet Sweet Connemara... Part One - The Maum Turks

Four days of unparalelled scenery and challenging walking lay ahead as I sped along the motorway to County Galway. I was almost dribbling with anticipation as Maam Cross got closer, 33km....24km....18km....9km...

A sense of utter relaxation enveloped me as the view of the Maum Turks unfolded, their rocky summits lined up one after the other in glorious fashion.  They have the look of a 'proper' mountain range, austere and forbidding yet their highest peak just about sits on the 700m contour.

The 'turks' as I shall now refer to them have long been on my to do list. After my jaunt along their length, I realised they had been on that list far too long.

I set off mid afternoon with nobody in sight, a common theme during this trip. The only contact I made with other people on the four days was a brief chat with two young German guys from Frankfurt. They were walking the western way which threads through the turks at Maumeen, a broad col with a holy well and small chapel which seems to be kept in fairly good order.

From here, I ventured onwards and upwards, this time into the dreaded stratus cloud that had enveloped the upper reaches of the mountains as I chatted to Maik and Henning. The turks are notorious for being difficult to navigate, even for the most proficient of orienteers. In the mist, I reminded myself continually, 'trust the compass, it never lies'. I did just that and made it to the summit of Binn Chaonaigh eventually singling out the seemingly highest cairn in the area.

A brief clearing of the surrounding mist afforded a glimpse of the terrain that lay ahead. I would describe the turks as a complex range, made up of steep descents, angular rocky summits, deep and potentially dangerous bogs, multiple cliff edges and sheer drops. 

In mist or low visibility, these mountains represent a real challenge to walkers as to complete the traverse requires concentration, good decision making and experienced interpretation of the varied terrain. That brief clearing of cloud did wonders for my confidence with the compass as I realised I was exactly where I should be. I continued on to the highest summit, 'Binn Idir an da log' with the knots in my stomach loosened somewhat.

From the col after Binn Chaonaigh, I re-entered the gloomy, silent mist. I wouldn't complete the entire range this time round, being a linear route I had no way to get back to the car other than turning back on myself and retracing my steps. I got as far as Letterbreckaun before doing just that, stopping on a shoulder of Binn Idir an da log to park the tent and set up camp.

That night in the tent was without doubt the most silent and still I had ever experienced. No surprise then that I had a most refreshing sleep, which was great, because there was still some serious walking to be done over the next two days. I broke camp in the early morning light which was filtering through the thick mist and found my way back to the car a few hours later. With more new territory on the agenda, Ben Creggan and Ben Gorm my next destination, I headed on feeling like a child in a sweet shop. Bloody marvellous.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sometimes it pays to be impulsive...

A spur of the moment evening trek up Slievebawn on the Blackstairs range proved to be an inspired decision last night. One of the most dramatic sunsets I have ever witnessed appeared as I topped out at the summit cairn. Twas mighty....

I have a trip report coming shortly too from 4 days spent wild camping in the splendid Connemara. Watch this space.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Wanderer Returns

Having been in the blogging wilderness for the last 3 months, I'm finally ready to make a reappearance. The reason for my abscence? A multitude of factors, new job, new home, new people but primarily, a lack of a camera. To me, a blog without photos is only telling half the story, I like to let the photos tell the story.

Now though, I'm much more settled, I have a view of the mountains from my kitchen window and a shiny new camera to allow me to share the sights I see when I'm in the hills.

The last 3 months have also seen a complete overhaul of my kit, details of which I'll be sharing very soon.

Ahhh its good to be back.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Maumturk Challenge Walk

The northern end of the Maumturks from the summit of Mweelrea              
 I'm taking part in the Maumturk Challenge Walk next Saturday (April 3rd). Its arguably the most challenging of challenge walks on the Irish Walking Associations calendar.

They describe the route as "one of the strongest tests of endurance in the years calendar", "for very experienced walkers only".  I've mentioned before my love of Connemara and its rugged and demanding hills. It's a part of the country largely unexplored by me. Last year I completed another demanding walk nearby, the Joyce Country Challenge which, despite misty and rainy conditions, proved to be a wonderfully arduous 31km trek and I'm busting to get back again.

The Maumturk challenge is 'only' 24km in comparison but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in its steep inclines and variation in terrain. Adaptability, a robust temperament and a truck load of stamina are required for this test, the attributes most of us hillwalkers have in abundance.

A local weather system around the Twelve Bens and Maumturks mean conditions can change rapidly throughout the day so navigation skills and having your 'homework' done are essential. These things all make for a most interesting Saturday. If the weather holds, be prepared for some of the most fantastic mountain vistas in all of Ireland.

The walk is organised by the NUI Galway Mountaineering Club, they have registration and route info here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Mourne Wall Wild Camping Experience

I'm hoping to get out this week, where to I don't yet know, I'm spoilt for choice, somewhere with a refreshing breeze and a cosy pub fire nearby would be just the ticket. In the meantime I thought I'd put up some of the photos from the Mourne Wall walk I did last summer with a good friend. The Mourne wall can be walked in one arduously long day. We decided to make it a comfortable multi day wild camping trip and it turned out to be a cracker.

The Mourne wall itself was constructed over 100 years ago between 1904 and 1922. It was built to keep cattle and sheep out of the water catchment area of the Silent Valley reservoir. These were the days before sophisticated water treatment techniques so it was important to ensure that potential contamination of the water was kept to a minimum.

The wall stretches for 35km and completely encloses the high Mournes. Its course takes in no less than fifteen mountains and is an arduous trek for anyone wishing to complete it in a single day.

Instead of beginning first thing on the Monday morning, we decided to head up on the Sunday evening and camp up high on Slieve Bearnagh. It meant we could start at the wall afresh on Monday morning. It also meant we would get to enjoy two wild camps instead of one. The skies that evening were softly lit and a light mist began to form in the plains below.

The first morning, we woke early, a thin layer of cloud had settled down over the hills, the sunlight trying to force through its rays.

Setting off, with boundless energy, we headed down Bearnagh towards Hares Gap and beyond to Slieve Commedagh. Before the final push to the summit there is a pipe with constantly flowing fresh water where we refilled our bladders and bottles. There would be no fresh drinking water now until Silent Valley.

Upon reaching the highest point on our walk, Slieve Donard, we realised the entire mountain range was poking up above the clouds. We had found oursleves in a cloud inversion. It wasn't the most dramatic but it did mean we were now walking in unexpected heat, we began to drain our reserves of water at a higher rate than we'd planned.

Due to the cloud inversion, views out to sea were minimised. Views in toward the inner mountains were great though. Above is an impressive view of the Devils Coachroad on Cove Mountain with the rocky tors of Slieve Bearnagh in the background, where we began earlier that day.

From Donard, the wall sweeps alongside Rocky mountain and around into the Annalong Valley. Here the wall splits into 4 directions and we took a short break to discuss which way was correct.

After minimal deliberation, we took what turned out to be the correct route. There is a short break in the wall where the Annalong River cuts through. The shallow waters provided much needed cooling in the worsening humidity.

That same humidity was taking its toll, we were feeling tired and the legs were fading. I was affected by brief bouts of cramp on the ascent of Slieve Binnian. Luckily we had planned to camp on the summit where we could rest up.

We were relieved to arrive at the summit of Binnian, the first day had been tough, tougher than first imagined thanks to the energy sapping humidity experienced from early in the day. Now, perched high above the Silent Valley reservoir we were able to brew up and rehydrate.

The clouds had dissipated as we pitched our tents for the second time and views over Carlingford Lough and the Kingdom of Mourne were extensive.

Waking up on the second day was fantastic, a warm and windless night made for a great sleep so we were refreshed once more. The clouds today were high and the sun bright, it was going to be a scorcher.

With seven mountains remaining to be climbed that day, we were far from home and dry and our water supplies were running low. Luckily we weren't far from Silent Valley where we knew we could top up.

By the time we reached the reservoir, we were out of water and almost gasping. We were early for the opening of the cafe so we waited a while on the freshly cut grass beside the water. The temperature was beginning to rise, it was turning out to be a gorgeous summers day.

The Mournes are a very 'up and down' mountain range. You don't get up high and stay there for the whole walk. On this walk there were great descents between the mountains. It makes for a challenging day out.

The last stretch took us over the summits of Slieve Muck, Carn Mountain, Slieve Loughshannagh, Slieve Meelbeg and Slieve Meelmore. From Slieve Muck, the wall stretches out, almost to infinity over the following hills.

Our minds were taken off the sweltering heat and discomfort it was causing by the fantastic views all around.

The wall at this point was immense in proportion, I'd say it was nearly six feet high in places along Slieve Meelbeg and Meelmore and almost a metre thick. I took to walking the last two mountains on top of the sturdy construction. An enjoyable end to the walk.

Picking our way down the boulders on the slope of Slieve Meelmore brought the finish post into view and a sense of relief washed over me that we had finished. It had been an epic walk and one of the highlights of 2009. Our luck with views, weather and wild camp spots couldn't have been bettered. This is an adventure sure to be repeated.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Innov8 Roclite 370 Boot Review

I've now had these for a couple of months and have now clocked up a few miles in them on terrain a little more testing than the stairs at home.

I said previously that the fit was excellent, the cushioning satisfactory and the weight astounding. None of those opinions have changed, in fact so much so I feel they are changing the way I walk in the hills.

The fit was superb, I knew that from day one, my feet were snug straight out of the box. On the hills of the Mournes I wore some Bridgedale Precision Fit Ski socks with a pair of Sealskinz mid length socks as protection from moisture ingress. I have had the Sealskinz for over a year now without really testing them out and as I have had trouble obtaining a pair of Rocky Oversocks I decided to give them a fair trial. I've heard bad reports about them, with some people stating that they have as much waterproofness as a colander.

As I headed out towards Hares Gap, the thaw had left icy puddles all over the lower slopes which simply couldn't be avoided. At one point before the climb, the Trassey River had to be crossed, the shoes were immersed right up over the laces and I felt the cold water rush in immediately through the mesh upper. Initially, I thought the socks had completely failed and soaked my feet through, thankfully that wasn't the case. It was the temperature of the water deceiving me. I did think that the 2 layer sock combo I was using would have provided a bit better insulation against such a thing.

Before long my feet had readjusted and were warm once more as I moved onto hardened snow and icy terrain. Here, I felt I could have done with a stiffer boot to allow my feet to sink further into the ice and provide some better traction. At times, especially on the steeper slopes leading up to the summit of Commedagh I found that I had to really force my feet into the ground to gain enough of a secure footing. The deep tread did not aid the climb in these conditions. A pair of Kathoola Microspikes would have been ideal here but I wanted to test these shoes to their limits. At the end of the day when I took the boots and Sealskinz off, my feet were warm and dry.

In the Comeraghs the next day, the 370s' really came into their own. The grip provided by those deep lugs was exceptional which gave me the confidence to hop skip and jump through the boulder field at the beginning of the walk. Taking on the sharp end of the ridge was no problem whatsoever in these boots, I felt more secure than ever and I see no problem using these for more challenging ridges like the Big Gun on the MacGillycuddys' Reeks in similar conditions.

Again, I was wearing the same sock combo as in the Mournes but as I reached the ridge, it became apparent that I would be encountering very little water on this walk. So the Sealskinz were jettisoned, allowing more air to get to my now hot feet. I was thankful for a little airflow through the boots, on a hot summers day though, when my feet usually melt in my normal walking boots, its going to be a revelation.

The higher cuff on these boots does offer a little protection from twisted ankles but obviously, nothing compared to regular 3 season boots which I'm used to but with a little more care taken with each step, I don't see this becoming a real issue.

The real area where these boots reign supreme over 3 season boots in my opinion is the weight. I noticed as soon as I began my walk on both days that I was somehow lighter despite normal pack weights and clothing. I've heard it said before that a hundred grammes off the weight of your shoes is the equivalent of shaving a kilo off your pack weight.

Now I'm not sure if that is strictly true but I certainly noticed a huge difference while walking. My legs didn't feel tired at all at the end of either walk, in fact I felt I could motor on for a good while. So in this respect alone, I can see these boots changing my walking in future, especially on longer trips.

The only area of weakness I can see in the 370s' is their durability. I can see these maybe lasting me until the autumn or this time next year at the most. It's obvious that with their weight and build, they simply are not as robust as the sturdier 3 season alternatives. For me though, its not an issue. The pros far outweigh the cons and they are worth the money to replace them once a year.

In two weeks I'll be completing a traverse of the the Maamturk range in Connemara, I intend on using these boots, this will be a real test for them, the mountains there are tough, rugged, steep and boggy in parts. At least now, I'll be heading there with my footwear no longer an unknown quantity.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Coumshingaun; A walk back in time...

Still smirking from what I witnessed in the Mournes that morning, I drove back to Tipperary in high spirits with one thought on my mind... Where next?

Brandon Mountain was the front runner, Mullaghanattin a close second. The weather was set to be clear countrywide, I could have gone anywhere I fancied. As I said, County Kerry seemed to be the destination.

Until I remembered a mountain range closer to home. One with a feature I've been wanting to get a closer look at for some time.

The Comeraghs are situated in County Waterford and only an hour away from the house. The prominent feature are the glacial coums sculpted from the mountains by unimaginable forces over thousands of years. Coumshingaun is probably the most famous of these coums, it falls dramatically from the vast and desolate Comeragh plateau and until Wednesday I'd never seen it in the flesh.

I'd been here once before but bad weather and a bad feeling in the bones made for an early bath. This day though was different, the weather was bright, I arrived early, clouds were lifting from the ridge nicely. My timing; impeccable. Kilclooney Wood was the starting point for the day. No other cars were there. Its one of the benefits of walking midweek, the weekend crowds are at their desks working hard, or perhaps at their desks sifting through outdoor blogs looking for inspiration for their next trip, which is exactly what I'd be doing if I were them.

After a short stroll through a forested area and past a fake spruce tree (I think) acting as some sort of antenna, I came out onto a boulder field with a view up to the first prominent rock outcrop ahead. The slope here isn't overly steep but relentless all the same and I found myself peeling off to just my baselayer as the sun beat down upon me. I reached the lower part of the ridge in less than an hour and caught my first glimpse of the immense coum. Wisps of cloud still lingered on the top of the ridge ahead but I was confident it would soon dissipate.

Further on, the ridge began to sharpen and I purposely kept to the top instead of playing safe on the narrow path that follows alongside the rocky tors. This route kept the coum in view for the entire length of the first ridge and was an absolute joy. I wouldn't attempt it in low visibility or if there was anything resembling a wind blowing, some parts are surprisingly exposed and care is required.

The back wall of the coum is a breathtaking sight, it rises almost vertically from the corrie lake 335 metres to the crest of the cliffs. They are a geologists dream, what with the rock bands clearly visible. I did a small bit of research into what the rock is here, its predominantly old red sandstone and was formed probably around 380 million years ago when the area of land we now know as Ireland was located somewhere near the equator and had a desert climate which fascinated me. I also found out on the same web page that 350 million years ago Ireland was submerged beneath a shallow tropical sea! To me, trying to get my head around the processes and time involved in changing our landscapes is a folly, but I can't help reading the figures with wonder.

I intend to read more about the geology of our mountains, I feel it will add yet another interesting dimension to my walks. To be walking over whatever mountain, knowing that 20 gazillion years ago a huge collision between two tectonic plates caused an upsurge in the land to form a range that for a time was higher than the Himalayas really excites me.

In Ireland we are lucky enough to be able to do such a thing, Im told the Sperrins in Co. Londonderry along with mountains in Scandinavia, Scotland and believe it or not, the Appalachians in the US were once part of a huge mountain range known as the Caledonian Mountains and are thought to be the highest mountains in history, reaching heights of over 10km.

After a final steep but short scramble I reached the plateau that overlooks the coum, the mist which had been forming at the top of the cliffs was obscuring my view of the lake below. The ground here was icy but it was clear that normally, this area is a soggy bog.

The summit of Fauscoum (792m) lies approximately 400 metres from the edge of the coum and I wanted to bag it, the mist over the plateau made navigation difficult but I took a bearing and followed. There is no real "summit" to speak of, just a bit of ground that happens to be higher than any other, adorned with a small rock cairn and a piece of cloth with the Waterford colours, blue and white.

As I approached the cairn, the mist began to thin and I views of the surrounding areas were exposed. The vast, featureless and boggy plateau opened up before me to the west and north. An entire traverse of these hills would be a real test of navigation and willpower and I believe there is a Comeragh Challenge walk every September or October. I'll keep my eyes peeled for more information on it for later in the year.

I lingered at the summit for a little while, orientating myself with my map, attempting to become familiar with the area as much as possible for another trip in the future. I have a good memory for mountain landscapes, so if I'm ever somewhere new, I try to take in whats around me, it has stood me in good stead in the past.

The coum was calling me and as I saw a large front rolling in from the east, I made my way back towards the cliff walls in hope of some good snaps of the bowl from above. I was in luck, the mist had disappeared, for a while at least.

The view was splendid, from the picture above, its easy to see the route the glacier took as it gouged out this chunk of rock and earth and flowed out into the valley below, depositing its load.

From the cliffs edges, I skirted around to the second ridge where I'd be returning back to the forest where I started out. This ridge wasn't as narrow as the first and proved to be an easy stroll down towards the lower slopes, with only a couple of rock steps to overcome.

A lunch stop allowed me to stop and take a few more snaps and enjoy the scenery on offer. Once again I had the mountains to myself, one of the perks of walking Irelands hills and mountains. The post walk Guinness in the pub afterward never tasted so good after this grand day out.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Back in the Motherland; Slieve Commedagh Wild Camp

This is my first post for over a month now, with my trip to Germany and some personal upheaval upon my return, I have not had time to sit and bash out the words on the keyboard. Last weekend I was in Belfast for a party and as I usually do, I threw the gear into the car with the intention of skipping through my favorite mountain range, the Mournes.

So, on Monday afternoon, I was Newcastle bound, the excellent Meelmore Lodge was my destination at the foot of Slieve Meelmore. I was only parking here as I had my sights on a wildcamp up high. I arrived at around 4:15pm and was in no rush, I mooched about and had some dinner in the car and took some photos of a particularly friendly and inquisitive Robin who perched itself on my wing mirror.

After that, I was having a final rucksack check when I came to my green drybag which contains my Jetboil and cooking paraphernalia. When I opened it up and took the Jetboil out I knew what the problem was right away..... no gas. Disaster. No gas meant no hot meal or drink, no hot meal or drink meant a cold night in temperatures that were already going to be below freezing on the summits overnight.

By now it was 4:50pm, Hilltrekker in Newcastle was my only hope, I raced down but only to find Hilltrekker with their shutters down. This wasn't the first time I have required a last minute piece of kit only to find that shop closed. Anyhow, I headed back up the road to one of the caravan parks who didn't have any either but gave me the name of another store in Newcastle; 'Four Seasons', a real 'jack of all trades' store, and I remembered upon entering that I had bought some pots in here years before. To cut a long story short, they were open, and they had the gas, although only in a size that wouldn't fit inside the Jetboil. Beggars can't be choosers however and I was thankful for getting any at all.

I arrived back at Meelmore at 5:30pm, the light was beginning to fade fast and I was disappointed that I would be missing out on the sunset but at the same time excited that most of my trek would be in the dark, something I haven't enjoyed for a couple of years now. 

I enjoy isolation in the wilds, I would stop often in the cold still air and listen to the silence, the absolute silence. I seemingly had the Mountains all to myself. I hiked up the Hares' Gap and from the top, I realised there wasn't a sinner to be found, I checked for lights from head torches on distant peaks but none were spotted. There's something special about walking alone in the mountains when the daylight has gone and is replaced with a beautiful starry sky.

Some people I know won't walk alone when darkness falls in the hills let alone camp as they feel spooked out by eerie noises or the feeling that someone is walking behind them when there's nobody to be found for miles. That's fair enough although for me it isn't an issue. In fact, knowing that I'm the only person for miles is something of a privilege for me. Think about it; there's this awesome night in the hills with a darker sky and more stars than you'll ever see in the Mournes and as far as I was aware, I was the only one witnessing it. That's whats I call a privilege.

I reached the foot of Slieve Commedagh where the slope steepens considerably and in view of the deeper snow which had formed an icy surface, I elected to bring out the head torch for the ascent. There has been a real thaw in the last week in the Mournes and there was no trace of any powder snow left, the slopes were frozen solid almost and I carefully picked a zigzaging route through the ice fields. In what seemed like no time however, I was at the shelter stone unpacking my stove and gas, I had one thing on my mind; dinner.

Fresh pasta with a spicy sauce and a chopped up spicy pepperami was on the menu. This was real 'haute cuisine' for me, my usual effort is a couple of Wayfayrers boil in the bag meals but since this was a one off camp with no great distances covered I opted for some comfort food.

Since there wasn't even a breath of a wind, I was able to eat out in the open, on the Mourne wall. With my down jacket on, I didn't feel the cold whatsoever and my meal followed by a almost a litre of hot chocolate went down a storm as I stargazed for what seemed the longest time.

After around 9:30pm I went in search of a place to camp, there was a large section of summit bereft of snow or ice that was just perfect. The Akto was erected in no time and the truly excellent pegs sunk into the frozen ground without any bother. Soon I was wrapped up in the sleeping bag and after my meal and a bit of a warm up consisting of some running on the spot and star jumps, I was cosy too in the frigid air.

I was awake early and I popped my head out the tent door to see a slither of moon in the early morning sky. I was anxious not to miss the sunrise as I knew it would be a belter so I donned my warm wear and frozen boots in double quick time. The sun hadn't outed itself just yet so I brewed up in preparation and to get some warmth into my innards. Slieve Donards' north face was still mostly snow covered and provided a wonderful view with the emerging sunrise providing a terrific backdrop.

I perched myself on the Slieve Commedagh summit cairn, about 50 yards from where I was camped and waited.

I'll let the pictures tell the tale, It was simply majestic.

I walked back down later that morning a happy man. I passed a few people including the owner of Jacksons Sports in Belfast who had taken the day off work and was taking the same route I had the night before.

I chatted to everyone I met and took my time, I was tempted to stay up another night but I had other plans. The drive back to Tipperary wouldn't be so bad now.