Tomorrow I’m in the gym at 0730 before catching a lift to Donegal for a special birthday celebration for a really good friend. A bunch of mates are marking the occasion with a meal tomorrow night, followed by climbing the iconic, volcanic, and mysterious looking Mount Errigal. What a way to celebrate a friendship, which for me covers 4 years of extraordinary change. My friend and I both discovered hills and walking around the same time, and this weekend will be really special.
The annual fundraiser for Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue. It’ll be tight getting to the start in time, but I’ve a fireman driving me, so hopefully we’ll make it 😉
The 25k hike kicks off at 9pm and continues through the longest day/night of the year, to finish well after dawn on Sunday morning. This is a chance for the hiking and climbing community to give something back to the volunteers who are on call 24/7, 365 days a year – ready to pull us out of trouble when we discover our map-reading skills aren’t as good as we thought they were! If you fancy it, the starting point is the Brockagh Centre in Glendalough. Registration opens at 6pm and you can be join a group with a navigator or navigate yourself. Click on the picture below for details.
Presuming I finish up in time, it’s another dash – over to Swords this time, to meet up with my buddies from Get Off The Couch, the TV show we recorded last year. This bunch of adventurers from all over the country got out there and got active, and inspired a whole load of other people to do the same thing. They kept up their adventures, even when the cameras stopped rolling – and we also kept up our friendship, which is wonderful. They’re having a get-together in Dublin this weekend and I’m dropping in for breakfast to survey the damage….
From Swords it’s back to Lucan for another friendly get together with a mate who’s planned a bit of a spa-break to help me recover from all of the above. It’s certainly going to be a busy weekend – but it all counts as training too; because my trip to Mount Elbrus looms ever closer. I picked up my Russian Visa earlier this week, and it’s all looking very real..
I sit for a moment in the car, huddled against the blast from the heater. Peering out through the misty windscreen I can see cloud shrouding the top of the mountain. I don’t normally need encouragement to get out into the hills, but this morning I feel that I need a cattle prod to get me moving. It’s the beginning of May and the start of the summer but the weather looks more like mid-November. It’s cloudy, misty and quite cold and I grimace as I open the door and climb out, reaching for boots and waterproofs.
The car-park here in Glendalough is virtually empty. That’s unusual for this time of year and a clear sign of how gloomy the day is looking. I sigh and surprise myself by considering a retreat, but I’ve driven an hour from the city to get here and it would be silly to turn back now. Adjusting my walking poles, I start to stroll towards the upper lake, and turning left, head to the bridge that leads towards the Poulanass Waterfall.
The plan is to stroll along the ‘white’ loop-walk; up over Spinc Mountain, across the bridge over the Glenealo River and down through the Miners’ Village to the Upper Lake. I warm up quickly as step out towards the wooded trail. Birds are singing everywhere in the rain dampened trees and the crackle and splash of the waterfall gets louder as I approach. It drowns out the patter of raindrops but the birds still pipe loudly through the cascade. Pausing for a moment I wonder about the power of the water dropping here to pools carved out of rock, from a hanging valley formed in the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. I wonder what the water feels like, how cold? I always promise to stop here during the summer when I’m warm and sticky after a long hike, take off my boots and plunge my feet into the white froth. Somehow I always forget. This year I’ll do it; definitely.
I reach the junction where I need to swing right for Spinc or left for the Derrybawn Ridge. I hesitate, with no sense of urgency in my mind. I meant to train hard today, to set a pace and work on my fitness, but I’m reluctant to push up into the cloud. Instead I potter around the river and take some photos of the water tumbling over the rocks. I’m familiar with the terrain around here and I have a map and compass; and so on a whim, I veer off the trail and into the woodland pushing ahead on an adventure and leaving the high trails behind.
Within moments, the roar of the waterfall is behind me, along with the brash, glare of the multi-hued, green riverbank. I’m entering into a carpeted, hushed arena beneath the bared bark of conifers stretching so high and thick above my head that the rain and cloud are banished. The change of atmosphere is dramatic, like stepping from the light and noise of a busy street into the sombre chambers of a cathedral. The light is amber, shaded by the canopy above and tinted by the russet carpet of fallen pine-needles and cones beneath my feet. Invisible birds make sounds all around me. I think I’m treading softly, but they hear the fine snap of twigs beneath my feet and clearly keep their distance.
I follow a gentle incline, moving steadily upward through the forest. I know Derrybawn is on my left and Mullacor is on my right and slightly ahead; but I don’t intend to push ahead that far. Reaching a fire-wall, I veer left, to meet a small stream rushing down from the ridge. I come back out into the light. There is no trail here and I have the river to myself. I potter around taking photos; and find I’m smiling and grinning at the sight of saplings and ferns unfolding, and clover in flower. This little glen has infrequent visitors and it’s showing no hesitation in sharing its secrets with me. I can almost imagine fairies dancing here in early morning sunbeams. Briefly I remember how it felt to lie beneath the yellow gorse in Roscommon as a kid fresh arrived from London; smelling the vanilla-scented pods of the furze, trying to whistle through stands of grass, watching fluffy clouds against a blue sky and dreaming of fantasy and wonder.
Eventually, I drag myself away from the magic glen and follow the river back towards the trails. I swing up left towards Spinc and climb the 600 wooden steps to the observation post high above the valley. Taking in the stunning views, I catch my breath. That will do for training for today! I swing down past Kevin’s Bed; the now inaccessible cave believed to have been used as a retreat by St Kevin and later for St. Laurence O’Toole; and down to the Upper Lake, past the 11th Century Reefert Church, the burial ground for the Clan O’Toole – the local kings or rulers.
Walking back towards the car to dump my damp gear in the boot, I glance at a teenage girl, dragging herself reluctantly from her dad’s jeep with a gloomy sigh. I smile as we pass each other, and I comment that I didn’t feel like going up myself this morning, but it was worth it when I got out there. “Really?” she replied. Not a bored ‘teenage’ reply, more hopeful and pleasant. Encouraged, I laughed and explained how I nearly drove back to Dublin without getting my boots wet, but ended up being thrilled by flowering clover, clever birds and silver spider webs caught in herbs and heather.
She smiled and said OK and headed for the hill. She may have been inspired, or maybe she thought I was ‘off with the fairies’. Although, I suppose, that could be inspiring too. Who can ever know what lies under a mountain of cloud and gloom? Like life itself, it’s often worth pushing on and giving things a chance. I may not have covered many kilometres of incline today, but I had fun and fed my soul. Sometimes it’s good to put the training regime aside and just enjoy the outdoors for its beauty and timeless simplicity. I’ve learned already, you can move mountains, just by ‘walking your way to fitness’.
Three years hoofing it around the horse-shoe at Spinc Mountain in Wicklow and looking down with a lump in my throat at the beautiful Upper Lake at Glendalough. My first sight of the lake from the observation point half way up the mountain, marked a turning point for me 3 years ago. I was 19 stone at that point and had already lost 4 stone, which had enabled me to go hiking for the first time. I knew then as I looked down from my mountain perch that I’d be climbing mountains for ever more.
The lake continued to intrigue me each time I’d go hiking to Spinc, but I largely obeyed the ‘no swimming’ signs keeping hot and sweaty hikers at bay. Then a couple of weeks ago, I spotted on the internet that there’s an annual swimming race in the lake. I had just two weeks to train and register, really not enough, but there was a 750m category and I knew I’d swum that distance a couple of years ago in the ‘lake’ stage of a triathlon at Lough Key Forest Park. At the time I had trained with Eastern Bay swimmer & English Channel and North Channel crosser, Fergal Somerville. This time I wouldn’t even have time for a quick swim with the gang at High Rock in Malahide before the lake. I pondered my options. I might be a bit rusty for the job, but I still couldn’t resist the temptation of swimming in that lake. I signed up.
I may have dreamed of cutting through the mirror-like glassy surface of Upper Lake – but those dreams never included rain and a gale blowing through the valley and whipping up choppy waves on the expanse of water that disappeared into the thick mist at the top of the valley. The picture on the website was more like the scenes of my imagination than the reality when Saturday morning broke and I felt like challenging the advert under the trade descriptions act! I could hardly see the road as I drove through the Sallygap on my way to Glendalough. Sheer misery. The organisers had warned that we may be asked to wear wetsuits if the water temperature dipped, and while I was happy to swim in just a suit, I’ve got to admit – when I saw the other swimmers getting wet-suited, it didn’t take me too long to follow their example. Shivering on the beach as the wind blew down the bouncy-castle style ‘starting gate’ – I wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped away. But it was only a passing whinge and shortly I was striding down to the water’s edge, listening to the briefing and hoping secretly that I wouldn’t be the one that single-handedly delayed the start of the second race, by having to be rescued from the middle of the lake. Stepping into the brown, peaty, water I was pleasantly surprised. It didn’t feel too cold at all, I’d guess about 15 or 16 degrees. I walked to my waist then pushed off, we all bounced about in the water a bit, getting used to the feel of it, before we got the count and we were off.
I learned a bit since my first outdoor swimming race, and hung to the back and side, letting the sharks fly off ahead. It saved me getting a toe in the face, or getting physically pushed down in the water as the speedy types swam over me. I struck out confidently, happy that I knew the job ahead. We had to swim out past 2 yellow marker buoys, then across the lake to a third and back to the fourth to finish. The lake was choppy and waves broke in my face, forcing me to time my breathing carefully and be ready to adjust my breathing rhythm. I could see a couple of the swimmers were finding it tough going but to be honest, I was in my element. Swimming with the Eastern Bay club off Malahide is perfect training for these rough, choppy conditions, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was never going to be fast, but I felt strong and felt like I was flying as I made my way down the lake, eating up the buoys. I turned to go across to marker 3, prepared to feel a different current with the cross, and it was fine. I turned for home and felt the familiar swell of a current coming behind me, picking me up and throwing me forward. I knew this feeling too, all good. I picked off the last buoy and turned for the finish. Suddenly I had a moment. Mentally something changed. In hindsight I think I had told myself the last buoy was the end of the race, and I suddenly got a bit of a shock when I sighted the finish and saw I still had a bit of work to do. My breathing got ragged and for the first time I lost my confidence. I swung over onto my back and took a couple of deep breaths. I rolled back over and had another look, just as one of the safety kayakers edged over to check if I was ok. I heard myself shouting back that I was fine, it was ‘my head, not my body’ that had the problem. I realised that was true and to my shame I started to doggy paddle, while I gave myself a swift, mental, kick in the ass. Then I had head down and was pushing forward again – all the way to the finish. Despite my little crisis, I made it back in less than half an hour, which was my target. So job done, and lessons learned. Next time I’ll train!
After Glendalough, it was on to Bray – to Brennanstown Riding Stables to go trekking with friends. It certainly was a great way to warm up after the lake swim. Brendan the instructor had me in stitches laughing as we rode out for a couple of hours through more of my gorgeous Wicklow. He has good taste, he listens to Dublin’s best radio station, my own 98FM! There was great irony going downhill on horseback. For the past year, Dave, my kayak instructor at Wild Water Kayak Club has been yelling at me to ‘lean forward’ in my kayak, as we fly down the weirs on the River Liffey. The opposite is true on horseback, and it amused me greatly to hear Brendan shouting at me to ‘lean back’ in my saddle, as we wound down the hills.
Saturday finished with a hog roast at the Garda Boat Club in Chapelizod to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wild Water Kayak Club. A brilliant night arranged by a great bunch of people, and really interesting to see the old film footage of Dalkey where the club was originally founded. The things they put to sea in! The film gave me extra confidence for the following day when I was taking my river kayak out into Dunlaoghaire Harbour to help with boat-cover for the Dunlaoghaire Harbour Swim. It was a long day but it was a great experience and it all goes towards my training for the LauraLynn Liffey Descent. The water was quite choppy out near the lighthouse, but Sásta Sage, my Sasta sponsored training kayak didn’t let me down and we cut through it really well. I was glad to be in a kayak and ON the water rather than IN it this time. That really is quite a swim and it was inspiring to be involved with these amazing people. My Eastern Bay swimming pals were strongly represented in the Harbour Swim, as well as some of my work colleagues. GOTC Swimming mentor and buddy, Fergal Somerville was back in action – coming 12th in the overall mens’ race, as well as 1st Vet and winner of the Kevin Darby Trophy.
Back in February, six ordinary people from around the country met with myself and a production crew from Athena Media. We went for a short walk in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, while we discussed our plans to get out and get active in the great outdoors. It was our first day of filming for a six-part television show that will be broadcast on Setanta TV this September. In the months that followed, we ran and trained, climbed mountains, cycled bikes, learned to swim, took part in triathlons and became firm friends.
When I started this project, I was widely enthusiastic, exhilarated by the opportunity to preach my message once again – that if I could lose 13 stone and get healthy, anybody could. For me, the benefits of a healthy lifestyle have exploded into a life full of passion and colour and I can’t help but get carried away when I talk about the joy of waking up each day with my new-found health. I hoped my group of six ‘Get Off The Couch’ participants would have a similar experience; but I could hardly have imagined the outcome.
I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re not just talking about six people who got fit and healthy, we’re talking about new jobs, a return to college, a major sports deal, giving up smoking and whole families changing the way they spend their leisure time together.
Strictly speaking, we finished filming back in June. But on Saturday we met again, to catch up, and because I wanted to show them my lovely Spinc Mountain that I had been bragging about throughout our months of training together. They were invited to bring friends and family, but I was a little concerned when I saw the youthful bunch that turned up – our youngest walker was just 4-years-old, and I confess I didn’t think they’d last 5 minutes. To my amazement, they hopped around the mountain covering a 9km hill-walk with a climb of 380m in just under 4 hours; and 4-year-old Charlie was the most energetic of all of us. It just goes to show that sometimes our kids can be limited, not by their lack of strength or maturity but by the preconceived and erroneous notions of us boring old adults.
Thanks to my GOTC gang for a fabulous day – to the kids for the life lesson – and to Joan Kavanagh (local historian and member of the Glens of Lead Project) who met us on the trail along the way to introduce us all to ‘Paddy Byrne’ (wooden miner model) and to tell us about the history of the old lead workings and mines at Glendalough.
After a ‘Last Supper’ with the team, several of us went back out on the hill again for a night climb on Spinc – as part of my climbing mate Vera Baker’s preparations for a Concern hike to Kenya later this year. Staying in Wicklow overnight, the Concern trainees were back out on their bikes for some cycling exercise on the Sallygap on Sunday, and then I was back up on Spinc for a 3rd and final climb on Sunday afternoon, before I returned to the city and prepared for work and the gym on Monday.
My own training intensifies next week. I’m preparing for the Liffey Descent kayak and cycle challenge that I’m doing this September with ‘Mr Kayak’ Kipper Maguire, to raise funds and awareness for LauraLynn Hospice – Irelands ONLY childrens’ hospice. If you have a few bob, please drop it into our MyCharity page here – and please pass it on….
Today kind’ve hurt the body, but fed the soul. But I knew in advance it would be like that, and it was a glorious day in the snowy Wicklow hills. I’d been sick and my fitness left a lot to be desired, but the snow was here and that was just too good an opportunity to miss.
A group of hardy hikers, we set off from the Glendalough Visitors’ Centre, trekking through the parkland then across the carpark and back out to cross the road, and then simply headed up into the woods in the direction of the snowline and the Camaderry summit.
The first incline through the trees was pretty steep and pretty slippy, and I danced over my boots, carefully picking where I placed my feet to avoid an unexpected slide. My breathing was pretty rough, a witness to my lack of presence of the hills lately. My dodgy knees felt well though, although I was using sticks to help them and I could feel the tension in my shoulders from the poles and my rucksack. But as we found our rhythm, old muscle memories came back and the skills picked up in the hills in the last couple of years kicked in. I shortened my stride, relaxed my shoulders and lifted my head a little to help the air to reach my lungs. I’d forgotten how good this felt, when your body lines up with your mind and works as a team, at one with yourself and the mountain around you.
As we reached the snowline, the chance of slipping eased and the new challenge was to step over the deep snow and into the footprint of the climber ahead. The snow was 9 inches deep in places and the joke was who would come looking for me, 5″foot tot that I am, if I completely disappeared in the snow. Such sympathy and empathy from my climbing buddies!
We got the ‘science’ along the way from Everest Summiteer Ian Taylor and Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue buddy Ronan Friel. As we got higher, our boots crunched through hard-crusted snow to sink deeply to the ground below. The height and cold was freezing the top layer of snow, and the lads explained how layers of soft and frozen snow can build, become unstable, and depending on the incline and what lies below, can cause an avalanche. But not today in 9 inches of snow in Wicklow. Thankfully.
As we left the treeline the mist cleared and gave spectacular views across Glendalough. I always think views like these are the reward for the hard slog, but you don’t always get them, and that makes them extra special when you do.
Within moments the snow had descended again and we pushed on towards the summit in a white-out. I’m always hugely impressed at the skills of people like Ian and Ronan, who can unerringly find their way to a chosen point regardless of the weather and visibility. I’ve got my MS1 and should be able to navigate, but I’m not; mainly because I’ve been too lazy to practice. That’s something I must tackle this year.
On cue, the stones that mark the summit, pushed up through the snow covering them and the mist surrounding them. Time for snow angels and lunch, as we grab fleeces and layer up. So quickly the chill sets in when you’re not moving and before long we were striding out again, back towards the treeline.
Today wasn’t a long hike and it wasn’t a particularly hard one, but it was hard for me. I wasn’t panicking about that though. I haven’t been able to exercise properly for nearly a month, and I realise that it’s natural to expect a lack of energy after surgery, a fever, and weeks of drips and pills. The main thing is that the mountains haven’t gone away and there’s a whole year ahead to get fit and strong again and enjoy these hills and others.
Today was a very good day.
I’ve just finished my last procedure at Dubin’s Beacon Hospital after my Kidney Stone drama over the New Year… and now another ‘beacon’ is calling me. The lure of my mountains is proving almost irrisistable. I sometimes can’t understand how I spent over 40 years on this planet without realising how much I love the hills and how good and strong they make my spirit feel. I may not be physically at my peak right now, but I know that a day out there – regardless of weather – will renew my heart and mind and shape me up for the weeks ahead. I’d hoped to head up Lugnaquilla tomorrow (Leinster’s highest peak), but the roads are icy and as the rescue services are busy enough the hike’s been changed to the more easily accessible Glendalough, climbing Camaderry and Turlough Hill. It’s still a 5/6 hour hike, and will probably push me a bit after weeks on drips and painkillers etc.. but I know in advance, that however hard it is, it will be good to be back. 🙂