I am not climbing Carrauntoohil today. I am in Kerry, I am in Killarney, I am staying at the Mountain Lodge of explorer, adventurer and mountain mentor Pat Falvey; but I am still not climbing Carrauntoohil today.
Pat has a group going up alright; all anxious and excited with crampons and ice-axes, in search of snow and ice in Curved Gulley. I envy them a little, but I am not going with them. I haven’t been on a hill for a couple of months, and halfway through a six hour hike in winter conditions is not the time to discover you’re not hill fit. Especially when you know the answer before you start.
I did get the invitation to join them though, and I couldn’t resist the lure of at least walking in to the foothills.
I had a late and sociable night, finally rolling into my duvet around 2am. When the alarm kicked up a racket at 7am it was still inky dark outside. I shivered, punched my pillow, and considered rolling back into the arms of sleep. A little part of me wondered ‘what was the point of joining the hike if I wasn’t going to climb the mountain’.
The smell of fried black pudding – that newly discovered ‘superfood’ – coaxed me from the covers and within minutes I was packed and ready. Avoiding the ‘superfood’, I lash into porridge and berries and listen to the craic at the breakfast table with delight. I love the slagging, the humour, the teasing that is part of being Irish. As dawn broke we poured into a couple of cars bound for Cronin’s Yard and before long we were strapping on rucksacks, checking boot laces and layers and heading off at a ‘clip’ towards the Hag’s Glen.
The stony path is well established and crosses two metal footbridges, one over a stream and the second over the fully charged Gaddagh River. We were moving a good pace and I felt my heartrate rise. A trickle of sweat assures me that I’ve made the right decision on leaving the high places for another day.
Just before the stony path winds back over the river, our group stops to adjust layers and prepare for turning right and climbing up towards The Step of the Goat and higher again, Curved Gully. There are hugs and air kisses and I stroll on ahead on my own.
I love being out with friends in the mountains. I love being out without friends in the mountains. Both are two completely separate experiences and both are intensely enjoyable for a whole range of different reasons.
As I walk through the Hag’s Glen, I breathe the sweet, frozen air and look upwards to the snow-capped ridges all around me, grinning spontaneously with the sheer beauty of the mountain. I had forgotten how much I love being out on a hill. If mountains are soul food and for me I suspect they are – then for me Carrauntoohil is my Cathedral.
I reach the stepping stones over the Gaddagh River. They’ve got deep grooves cut into their flattened tops, to stop them being slippy and make them easier for hikers to traverse. The only thing that is missing is an extra couple of inches on the length of my legs.
If I wasn’t on my own, I’d take advantage of an extra arm to pull me across one or two of them, especially the big one in the middle that just stretches that little bit too far over the noisy, gushing river. I’m laughing at myself, because I posted a video on Facebook earlier in the week of a hiker slipping on stones and rolling head first into a river. I can’t get the image out of my head and remembering how frequently and well I laughed at their misfortune, I just know Karma is out to get me. Using my walking poles, I carefully pick my way across the stones to the centre of the river, and try as I might, I just can’t get any further. I’m still giggling at my plight, but I just can’t get my legs to commit to jumping across that middle stone. I retrace my steps back to the bank and look again, up and down the river. There could be other places to make a crossing, but not without wet boots. Back to the stones, back to the centre of the river. 4 points, a refusal, and back to the bank.
This is getting silly. Looking ahead and up the valley I consider turning around and heading back for hot chocolate in Cronins. No flippin’ way. It’s bad enough accepting that I’m not hiking high today, but I’m not turning back over a difficult stepping stone and two feet of water. Hopping on one leg, I take off my boot and sock, and then the other, and walk across the river.
Feeling 100% like a kid, I skip up the rocky trail towards the Devil’s Ladder. My feet returned to their boots and fluffy socks, are warm and toasty. I walk fairly fast but stop frequently, not for rest, but to drink in the view, intoxicated by the rushing waterfalls dashing from the cliffs all around me. I can see the mist is low down on the mountain, shrouding the summit, and merging with the snowy peaks all around. It is beautiful. I cannot find words to explain what my eye can see. It is like I am watching the mountain with my heart, and it is beating faster with the thrill. I am happy. Such an important phrase and one that we take so little time to speak out loud. I am happy.
I meet several other hikers headed for the Ladder, a wide scrambling route cut deeply into the mountain and one of the most popular, though not necessarily the safest, routes to the summit. We look each other in the eye and nod and smile and exchange comments about snow and ice and conditions and how lovely the day is. It’s easy to start a conversation, just being here creates a common bond to share.
Frequently I stop to stare up towards the Heavenly Gates and across to where I can spot the red and green jackets from my group, moving like ants and highlighted brightly against the dark of the rock. Gazing hard, I’m pretty sure I can see the points where they need to scramble. I’m not envious any more. I’m enjoying myself too much. The mountain is going nowhere and I’ll be back, when I’ve done my homework. I won’t be leaving it too long. It’s back out on the Wicklow Hills again for me. I had forgotten how much I love being here. How could I forget how much I love being here?
What’s the point of joining the hike if you’re not climbing the mountain?
To my surprise my FitBit buzzed on my wrist, telling me I’d walked a thousand steps, my daily goal. I didn’t think I’d walked that far, but technology wasn’t dictating the pace today. I would walk on to the foot of the Ladder and then turn.
It didn’t take much longer to reach the cut. I considered pushing further up. I was perfectly capable of hiking for another couple of hours, I was well equipped and I wouldn’t need crampons or an axe for this route. The thought didn’t last much longer than a minute. Plan your hike and hike your plan. No one would know I had changed course and I didn’t fancy scrambling back down the Ladder in the dark if I misjudged the time.
I turned and the Glen stretched out in front of me as I changed direction and walked back down towards Cronins and hot chocolate. Walking out, I pass between the two lakes that guard the foothills to this side of Carrauntoohil. Lake Gouragh on my left and Lake Callee on my right.
The benefit of not going high is that I have more time to linger, to potter around and enjoy the landscape. I step off the rocky trail and pick my steps through the boggy turf, down to my right, towards Lake Callee. A few lazy sheep scatter and look at me accusingly as I totter down towards the lake’s edge.
The air is cold, but it’s dry and there is no wind blowing here. I stare curiously at the lake. Last year I swam in Lake Cummeenoughter, the highest lake in Ireland with International Ice Swimmer and long distance ILDSA swimmer Sinead Merrigan. That was high up on the mountain behind me in the shadow of Beenkeragh. It had been cold, very cold, but stunningly beautiful. Our own personal infinity pool, a tiny corrie lake surrounded by rock on three sides and tipping over the side of the mountain to join the Gaddagh River below.
Without thinking much more about it, I slip off my boots again, pull off my leggings, thermal top and jacket, and edge my way through sharp, slippery stones, into the dark boggy water, as little waves whip up foam towards me. I push forward quickly into the water and count ten strong, measured strokes before allowing my brain to register the cold. Oh it is cold. I stay close to the shore, pop down a foot to register I’m just within touching distance of the bottom, and swim. It’s beautiful, icy, fresh, clean, without a current, but quickly my fingers icy, and I turn to shore, while I can still dress myself without shaking.
There may have been a couple of inadvertent pale-skin coloured flashes but within minutes I’m back in my boots and my layers, and trotting briskly towards the Gaddagh. ‘Hah’ I laugh, to no one in particular. ‘I’m nuts’ I shout up to the Hag watching over the Glen. It feels like minutes before I’m back at the stepping stones, and this time a kind gentleman hiker offered me an arm, so I traversed the river with my boots on.
Warm and toasty, I tumble into Cronins Yard and head for the café, ignoring the hot chocolate in favour of warming, hearty home-made soup and grainy Irish soda bread. Sitting back to soak up the roaring log fire, I gaze at the flames and smile. No point in joining the hike if I don’t climb the mountain eh? There’s a lesson there somewhere.
I’m heading from Kerry to Cork early next week before heading back to Dublin. But look out Wicklow Mountains – she’s back.