Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mweelrea and The Twelve Bens. A Winters Tale

Saturday January 17th 2015,

I hummed and hawed for the last few days as to what I would do. I debated staying at home or heading over to Snowdonia in the hope of perhaps finding the place in winter conditions. I had just about made up my mind to go, my bag was packed and I was going to head to Dublin after work and catch the overnight ferry across, when I saw a post on facebook of the mountains of Connemara looking amazing and covered in snow so I had a change of heart and decided that the west was best. It meant I could have another night at home and I left home at 10am and set off on the long drive to Letterfrack which is home for a couple of days. Arriving at 13.45 I checked into "The Lodge" and once settled I left and went for a nice leisurely bimble up Diamond Hill 442 meters. Small in stature it may be but its positioning, set apart as it is from all other mountains nearby and rising in splendid isolation out of the boggy plains that stretch to the sea gives it a range of views that are hard to beat. There is a well engineered path that loops up and around the mountain and it offers easy access to a wide range of people and abilities, which ensures that it is quite a busy place. Today it was lovely and sunny as I set off which went a long way to counteracting the chilly 5 degree temperature. I was a little overdressed for such a modest outing but it felt good to give the legs a bit of a stretch after the long drive.
Diamond Hill

Towards "The Bens"

Looking back towards Tully.  Wonderful!

The Twelve Bens....well some of them

Nice evening light.

 The last time I was here it was with Kevin, Terrence and Anthony when we took part in the Rough Diamond adventure race. I struggled to run the hill that day and took 55 minutes but today it was a much more leisurely affair and two hours of pleasure followed. As I neared the summit some cloud and weather approached and this coupled with a brisk breeze meant that the summit was a decidedly chilly spot so after taking a few pictures and soaking in the views I set off back down. It really is a small hill and it doesn't take long to return to lower ground but I am very glad I did it. Bigger days ahead for sure.

Sunday Jan 18th;

I got up fairly early and set off for Mweelrea nearly forty kilometres away. I was expecting the roads to be pretty poor as we had some snow down to sea level overnight but it was very localised and once I was a kilometre into the trip they were fine. There was a little cloud on some of the tops but my word it was a beautiful drive. I have seldom seen the equal of the scenery that was literally all around me. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road as I was constantly gazing at each new vista. I think if I never went climbing it would have been worth the journey just to enjoy that drive. I was in great spirits and when I finally arrived at the start of the route at the end of Doo Lough the sight of the enormous Coum that rises to the crest of the Mweelrea mountains, covered as it was in a wintery splendour just made me even keener to get going. All thoughts of Wales were well and truly forgotten. The drive between Louisburg an Leenane in in my humble opinion THE most beautiful that I have seen in the country. There is something about it that just suits my eye. Everything seems to fit, a bit like the northwest of Scotland. It is always a bit sobering to realize that this beautiful place is the area where one of the most awful tragedies of the Famine of the 19th century occurred. In 1849 people from Louisburg had to walk to Delphi Lodge (some 12 miles away) to register for a continuation of famine relief. Hundreds of people undertook the journey (in, as can be imagined a terribly weakened state) in some dreadful weather conditions. Afterwards the bodies of seven people were discovered at the roadside and a further nine people never made it back to their homes. It is always humbling to  realize that here amidst such savage beauty people endured a savage struggle.
Looking into the coum

Towards Ben Creggan

The cliffs on the left of centre drop for about 1500 ft

I set off across the wet boggy ground and headed straight into the heart of the majestic basin. Even though you only gain a little over 100 meters of height to enter the coum it is rough tough walking hopping from boggy tuft to tuft and never able to string 10 easy paces together. Once inside I had a choice as to how I would reach the plateau high above. The normal way is to go up the ramp which rises from left to right at the back of the coum. I was tempted, but I opted instead for the steeper ground on my right which on past occasions involved a very nice scramble up steep rocky ground to reach the shoulder underneath Ben Bury. As I am not a huge fan of scrambling up black wet rock with some snow lying on it I opted to head for the obvious gully on the right of the rocks that promised a demanding but less stressful ascent. The morning wasn't too cold and here in the coum I was sheltered from all the wind, so I took off my hat and gloves and my Rab jacket and set off up. Progress was steady and height was gained quickly on the 40 degree slope. Soon I entered the gully and reached the snow line. As is often the case, once you reach a gully things become a bit rockier and it necessitated using hands. Under "dry" conditions there wouldn't have been a difficulty but when snow covers the rock it requires a more cautious approach. The going was never technically difficult but nevertheless care was required and I had to slow my progress a bit. My hands were also almost constantly in the snow and I was mindful of trying to avoid the "hot aches". Longer stretches of smooth rock meant that I decided to exit the gully on the left which led to some steep bits with one or two awkward steps. The end result was of course that I never stopped to put on gloves and my hands were cold and I got a bitch of a dose of the hot aches. Thankfully I was on easier ground as I eventually had to just stop and "deep breathe" and try not to barf or indeed pass out. Welcome to winter climbing. The one good thing about "the aches" is they pass and soon enough I was climbing the ridge towards the plateau. There is one "bad step" on the ridge that in dry conditions can prove to be a bit awkward. I arrived at its base and it didn't look too appealing to me. It was icy, but not icy enough to give goo axe placements, and as it was really only for three or four moves so I didn't feel it was worth the bother of getting the axe and crampons out, so I went in search of another alternative. I went around to the steep northeastern side of the mountain and there seemed to be a nice line up steep turfy ground to the ridge line some fifty meters above. I set off up and soon realized that I would need my axe as the ground was a bit steeper than first appeared. There followed about twenty rather desperate meters of steep climbing when I was plunging the axe into semi frozen turf with my chest pressing against the snow covered steps in front of me. Thankfully whenever I really needed the axe to bite it did and I gained the crest of the ridge and easy ground. I was mightily relieved to finally be on stress free ground and once I had caught my breath I progressed easily to the broad top of Ben Bury (795 mtrs).
Back and across the coum

Looking up to the bad step. I went up the ground on the right.

Ben Lugmore 803 meters

Wonderful view across to Mweelrea 814 meters.

Wow. The scenery was stunning. The day had cleared up beautifully and I was standing in the finest of mountain magic. I stood in the chill, buffeting wind and just gloried in being lucky enough to be here. Little mini tornadoes of spindrift swept along the broad plateau which was scoured by the wind and what remained was nicely frozen so the going would be easy for the 2.5 kilometre hike to the summit of Mweelrea, at 814 meters the highest in Connaght. It must be six years or more since I was last on this mountain and that was in "normal" snow free conditions and I loved it then. Today in snow and blue sky and sea I felt truly elated. A guy who had come up a different route behind me stopped and we had a chat and he described the scenery as almost alpine. I didn't argue. There is always something special about any mountain that rises straight from the sea and Mweelrea is doubly blessed. To the west lies the Atlantic and on the southern side Killary harbour cuts inland. To the north the mountains of the Nephin range and Achill Island just be seen in the hazy distance. I set off for the summit which was a wild and wintry place. The wind seemed to have been channelled up the massive basin to the east and it seemed concentrated on one spot just short of the top. Spindrift blasted like needles so I didn't stay long and I turned around and retraced my steps back to Ben Bury. On the way back I found a nice sheltered spot out of the breeze and enjoyed a nice bite to eat and soaked in the sun and views.
Nice spot for lunch.
From Ben Bury I headed east so as to traverse the four tops that encircle the coum, the highest of which is Ben Lugmore (803 mtrs). I was looking forward to this section and once again it didn't disappoint. The ridge is at times pleasingly narrow but it is always easy and the sense of airiness and exposure is a real treat as you look down into the coum on your left with its 1500 ft cliffs and on the right, the ground slopes steeply for over 2000 ft. It was great to stop and look back at the impressive scenery as I made my way around. All too soon the time came to begin my descent and I set off gently down the south east spur towards the southern of Doo Lough. There is no really easy way down towards the lake and in my usual impatient way I thought I spotted a way down and set off. I knew straight away it was a possible mistake as the ground was really steep with soft snow covering grass and some rock and I had to be very careful to avoid a slip, the consequences of which would have been disastrous. I dropped perhaps eighty meters when I could finally see that the way ahead was barred by a big drop. There was nothing for it but to turn around and head back up. I wasn't doing very well today was I. I could see about a kilometre further on a sure way down and I cursed myself for my impatience and impetuosity for wasting time and energy. I eventually reached easy ground by the lake and made my way back to the car. It had been an adventurous fun packed 7 hour day when I covered about 15 kilometres and 1400 meters of ascent with a couple of mistakes thrown in. I loved it.
Ben Lugmore cliffs

A beautiful ridge

Happy chappie.

Looking towards the Twelve Bens.
Monday January 19th:

Today I was heading for the beautiful Twelve Bens. The morning was pretty good with occasional cloud but plenty of clear sky as well. There had been a frost overnight but now it had gone and a stiff breeze carried a chill. I packed up and set off for the Inagh Valley and I was leaving the car at 9am. There was lovely light as I drove along and I had to stop to and take a picture at Kylemore lake.
Not a bad way to start the day.
My objective today was the Gleninagh Horseshoe which I had done last March with Frank. It is a worthy outing of about 13 kilometres and 1300 meters of ascent. The first thing I noticed upon leaving the car was that the wind was stronger than yesterday and it was a bit colder. The frost meant that the near three kilometres of bog I had to cross to reach the base of Bencorrbeg 577 mtrs was quite firm underfoot. As I was feeling the effects of yesterdays outing and I was glad for any break that came my way. There is no way to avoid the 500 meter slog to the first summit so I just had to knuckle down and forge on. Grey was I guess the dominant colour of the day and the blue skies of yesterday were gone. The forecast was for a front of weather to arrive after midday and I didn't doubt it would arrive. I was just hoping that it wouldn't come until I was done for the day. When I finally reached the broad ridge I was struck with the full force of the wind which was buffeting and cold. Thankfully the cloud stayed above the tops and as I had no incentive to linger I pressed on to the next top. Chilly as it was I was loving it. The Bens are truly beautiful mountains and even though they only barely reach 700 meters they have a presence and aura of mountains that are much bigger.



From Bencorrbeg towards Binn an tSaighdiura, Binn Chorr. Binn Dubh and Binn Bhan
 The occasional flurry of snow was now arriving and if anything as I approached Binn Chorr 711 meters the conditions got a bit worse and I was glad to drop to the leeward side as I headed for the col under Binn Dubh 696mtrs which gave welcome shelter for a while but that respite was short lived as the wind was funnelled through the gap so I pushed on the 200 mtr climb to the summit and then down to the beautiful gap below Binn Bhan right in the heart of the range. This is a beautiful atmospheric place that reveals the full majesty of these mountains. It also means that there is a climb of over 300 meters to reach the summit of Binn Bhan 729 meters. Here I was actually pretty sheltered from the worst of the wind and the snow flurries meandered about me in a pleasant manner. All this changed however as I reached the summit as the cloud came down and the wind became very strong and carried horizontal snow/hail and spindrift. Full on winter conditions had now arrived and I thought that things would improve as I dropped down to the long almost level spur that stretched for three kilometres to Binn Charrach. I couldn't have been more wrong as by now the weather was positively stormy and fierce in every way. I don't know the formulas but if the temperature was lets say hovering about freezing, what it translated to when windchill was taken into account would have been considerably lower. Still I found I was really enjoying it in a perverse sort of way and it felt great to be alive and experiencing this wild place at its wildest. The descent down to the car was rapid and when I finally got changed into fresh clothes and enjoyed a belated bite to eat my face positively burned from the windburn now that I was in the warmth. The temperature at the car was 3 degrees and it is amazing how balmy that could feel. Now all that I faced was the three hour plus drive back home. I love Connemara.
Wintry weather

Ben Breen

Pleasant morning looking at the Maumturks

Gaining height

From the slopes of Binn Bhan looking at Binn Dubh

The Maumturks. A bit different from earlier.

Looking back towards Bencorrbeg

Finally back down from Ben Charrach