The beautiful mineral blue waters of Lake Cummeenoughter have fascinated me for many years, ever since I spotted the corrie lake on one of my first hikes up Carrauntoohil with mountain ‘mentor’, Irish adventurer Pat Falvey. Depending on light and conditions I have seen the lake sparkling emerald green, deep cobalt blue, and ominously dark and brooding in the heart of winter. Its crystal clarity hints at a sandy bottom scattered with rocks, but I have wondered how deep, how cold, how clear it could be and I have always wanted to swim it.
I was deeply saddened in April by the Earthquake in Nepal. It felt painful to see the ruin and hardship in villages and monasteries that I had physically walked through, when visiting Everest Base Camp in 2010. I wanted to make some small gesture in solidarity with the gentle, friendly people who had made me feel so welcome while a stranger in their country. I decided to make a personal donation to the Nepal Ireland Society’s relief fund, and ‘wild’ swim my emerald green lake; Lake Cummeenoughter, the highest lake in Ireland. I turned to my friend and adventurer Pat Falvey for help and guidance in climbing to the lake, and to my friend and ‘Extreme Swimmer’ Fergal Somerville for both his company and expertise for the actual swim, which I knew would be cold and challenging.
At 707 metres above sea level, Ireland’s highest lake, would probably be the country’s coldest as well. On previous climbs, I have looked at the water enviously but was reluctant to take a dip, in case my body temperature dropped too sharply and endangered the rest of the climb. This trip was specifically about the swim, we would head for the lake beneath the summit of Carrauntoohil, and then head back down the mountain, with no attempt on making the summit. This wasn’t without its own difficulty. The route to Cummeenoughter is through the ‘Step of the Goat’ and up to ‘Brother O’Shea’s Gully’. It’s a scrambling route, with a lot of scree and exposed ledges. Climbing back down could be tricky. It would be no simple climb, but I knew with Pat Falvey on board, we were in the best possible hands.
Fergal Somerville has swum the North Channel, the English Channel and around Inis Meáin in the Arran Islands. He organises the Eastern Bay Swim Team International Invitational Ice Swim and he is the International Ice Swim Association Ambassador for Ireland. He was the best possible man to have beside me for this swim and he was equally as intrigued by this lake as I am, we kept grinning from the moment I first mentioned it, and we knew without question that we were going to make this happen. We also knew that we couldn’t underestimate the difficulty of what we intended to do. Fergal first introduced me to open water swimming and I have swum all-year-round in the Irish Sea for the past two years. I completed the Liffey Swim last year and I have provided kayak cover for three ‘Ice Swim’ events, so I have some experience of what was ahead. This is NOT a swim I would advise for anyone who hasn’t acclimatized well to cold water for several weeks and months in advance. A ‘Wild Swim’ is swimming without a wetsuit, in only swimming togs, cap and goggles. An ‘Ice Swim’ is internationally accepted as a swim without a wet suit, in water temperature of 5 degrees Celsius or lower. In the middle of May, we wouldn’t normally expect those temperatures here in Ireland, but we knew Cummeenoughter had its secrets so we needed to be prepared. We had to make sure that we did not get hypothermic, or use so much energy that we ran into problems climbing back down the mountain.
Our team was small but strong, we knew what equipment we needed, and we had a ’cause’ to give our challenge extra purpose. All we needed was to find a date that suited. We all had crazy diaries but finally grabbed a Sunday that suited us all, although I’d have to drive back to Dublin directly after the climb and Fergal would have to take a train from Dublin to Killarney on the morning of the challenge, after flying in from Germany the night before. Just details, we brushed away any thoughts of discomfort and lost sleep and marked in the date. May 24th 2015. It would also be the day that Ireland celebrated an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote, in the country’s referendum on marriage equality. We didn’t have a rainbow flag to bring with us, but I tucked my rainbow coloured shoe-laces in my pocket as a gesture of solidarity with the parties kicking off all-over Ireland.
On the Friday before ‘Swimming Carrauntoohil’, I turned up at the National Aquatic Centre, Dublin, to ‘Swim a Mile’ with Today FM and Swim Ireland. It’s a brilliant initiative that sees ordinary people all over the country get active, get into the pool, and finally swim a mile as part of an annual challenge. At the swim, I met a friend from Facebook, Sinead Merrigan, who I had met a couple of weeks earlier when she organised a sea-swim as part of the run up to the ‘Grand Dublin Swim’ which is taking place later this year. Sinead is a member of the Irish Long Distance Swimmers’ Association. ILDSA. She flew through her own mile at the NAC and then jumped back into the pool, to accompany me as I finished my last 50metre lap, for a total time of 47 minutes (which is good for me). Afterwards, we grabbed food with friends, and we all ended up at the climbing wall at Awesome Walls in Finglas. Before we finished ‘hanging out’ in harness and ropes, we had brewed an ‘awesome’ plan that Sinead would join us on Carrauntoohil and drive down to Kerry with me the following morning. A scramble was made to get gear assembled and the plan was made. A bit like a flash of lightening, but life can be like that sometimes. Sometimes if you spend lots of time thinking about doing things, you never actually get around to doing. We were doing this.
Hanging off a ledge on Carrauntoohil 48 hours later, I’m not sure whether Sinead wasn’t beginning to hate me a little. But Pat is a master guide and I was touched and elated when Sinead later wrote on Facebook: “I struggled up the mountain. I doubted myself, questioned my abilities and had a whole lot more running through my head as I climbed up. Reaching Cummeenoughter was an incredible moment and the swim all the sweeter. You wouldn’t see a more beautiful lake in one of the most spectacular locations. After a while and some savage flapjacks, it was time to descend. If I thought the ascent was tricky, the descent was something else and yet I was in the company, guidance and encouragement of Pat, Teena and Fergal. It was never not a case of getting back down again. As I sit here and reflect on that journey I cannot yet completely comprehend it as, to be honest, it hasn’t sunk in. I remember looking back at the mountain with my jaw often hitting the deck and saying ‘did I just climb that or was it all in my head?’ What I can say at this point is that I left more than blood, sweat and tears on that mountain. I came down with the knowledge that if I set my mind to something that I originally considered impossible, I could do it. It would be a battle, but it could be done.”
“The ordinary can achieve the extraordinary…..”
It was a beautiful climb, tough and challenging, but it is an amazing route with spectacular views of the reeks. The weather was kind, giving us a cool dry day with only a hint of mist on the highest points of the mountain. The valleys and the range below and around us was spot lit with a soft-green luminance that only Ireland can offer. Each level we pushed higher across the next fold in the mountain, moving ever closer to the waterfall flowing down from above, the over-spill from the highest and most spectacular infinity pool in the country. Finally we made it and Sinead broke into a beaming smile, Fergal’s cheeky grin overflowed and Pat looked at his mountain and our reactions, with a fond affection which never seems to wane despite the hundreds of times he has climbed this beautiful lady and introduced people to her misty charms. It impresses me that Pat never loses his enthusiasm and love for the mountain and never loses his patience and pleasure at bringing people to see her.
We took in the views and photographed the lake, but didn’t lose much time in switching to the next stage of the challenge. It is interesting to see how experience shows in people, whatever their sport or profession. Fergal, Sinead and I clicked into another gear, without speaking. Organising ourselves smoothly and efficiently for both entering and leaving the water. Towels ready, layers ready in order of placement, dry rocks selected to sit on while changing. Food and recovery drinks prepared. This all sounds subtle and simple but it is vital when leaving the water to get your wet and cold togs off, and warm layers on, as quickly as possible, before your body starts to shake, making dressing more difficult and delaying the process of reheating. Fergal had placed a thermometer in the water and Pat took over the role of camera director and temperature monitor. Though tempted to join us, Pat would not be getting wet, for safety reasons. We needed him to look after us if we got too cold, or had difficulty getting down the mountain after the swim. He also had not had the benefit of acclimatising to cold-water immersion and trust me, your body will let you know very quickly if you are not well enough prepared.
It was cold, freezing cold, taking my breath away and threatening to produce an ‘ice-cream’ headache as I pushed into the water and took my first few strokes. I had splashed my arms before getting in, to warn my body about what was coming, and once in the water I swam 10 strokes before stopping and looking around to take my bearings. That is my habit when I get in the water, I think everyone has their own mantra. We were all in, we were all grinning, we were all good and we pushed out across the lake, swimming easily but strongly to generate heat. Fergal was minding us, reminding us to keep swimming and keep moving to keep generating warmth. The water was heartbreakingly clear and I still have no idea how deep the lake is, because looking down I could see stones and sand beneath my toes, and yet I couldn’t touch them. The crystal clarity of the water managed to hide Cummeenoughter’s true depth, even though I swam in her for 23 minutes. The water temperature was 6 degrees celcius when we entered the lake and stabilised at 7 degrees. We joked afterwards that we were ‘hot stuff’ to have steamed up the lake.
We had warned Pat beforehand not to worry when we started to shake, it is the body’s natural way of helping to generate heat. However Pat has spent enough time in snow and ice, to know instantly how our bodies were coping. We dressed quickly, lose layers that didn’t stick, covering our trunk first, then head and hands and feet. Food is next, high energy bars and sandwiches, thanks so much to Mags ‘The Ambassador’s Wife’ for the flapjacks! Fergal shared a flask of hot coffee and we stood there shaking violently and trying not to spill the liquid from our coffee cups as we quickly warmed up and started to look upwards at the cathedral of rocks still looming above us. Pat’s eyes looked longingly towards the summit “we’re so close” he remarked quietly to himself. I felt that yearning pull too, but we averted our eyes and looked back down towards the scree bank and where we now needed to go. A plan is only a good plan, if you follow it.
We warmed up quickly as we navigated the scree and before long, we were packing away the extra layers and getting back down to t-shirts and shorts. I couldn’t stop smiling as we made our way back down. Pat was brilliant at guiding us as we back-climbed down the trickier scrambles, his knowledge of the mountain is remarkable, every foot and hand hold, he knows which way you will twist and turn and where you are most exposed. I wonder if he knows how poetic he looks when he’s bringing people through those passes? Before long we were back in the valley on the walk-out towards Cronan’s Yard with thoughts of warm showers at Pat’s Mountain Lodge, a visit to see his real ‘Polar Bear’ and dinner at Kate Kearney’s Cottage fuelling a somewhat accelerated pace.
Final word to Fergal “Teena, Sinead and myself ascended Ireland’s tallest mountain to become Ireland’s highest ever swimmers (by elevation alone) swimming for over 20 minutes in Cummeenoughter to raise much needed funds for Teena’s ‘Lake4Quake’. Special thanks to Pat Falvey for getting us safely up and down. What a fantastic day it was, in the best of company and for a great, charitable cause: www.idonate.ie/nepalrelieffund”.