It wasn’t on the itinerary, but the mountain was there, perched behind our beautiful Hotel Finca Los Llanos and thanks to Travel Department for adding on the extra and making it happen. Our walking holiday in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range has come to a spectacular Continue reading
I couldn’t sleep. I woke every two hours throughout the night. It’s because I’m giddy with excitement and feeling like a kid. Today we’re going to the sea. It’s a rest day and we’re driving down our beautiful river gorge to Salobrena… the 10th century castle capping the hilltop town, backed by the Sierra Nevada and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Andalucia.com tells me this is Continue reading
It’s our second day on the hills and I already know I’ve made new friends that will share plenty more adventures. What a bunch of super characters we’ve brought together in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountain and the soft, moist breezes from the Mediterranean Sea. We start with Continue reading
My heart is bursting – and it’s only day one. It’s not bursting from effort, or exertion, or altitude or attitude – it’s bursting because I’m among friends, doing wonderful things, in a Continue reading
Real Adventure Starts Here
I looked at the icy slope leading downhill away from me and shuddered. I knew I could go no further unless I tackled my terrors right here. The snow was hard-packed, shiny and hardened into ice. I could see the imprint of the boots that had passed before me and wondered if my feet would hold as well. Smothering all thought of what lay ahead, I took a deep breath, forcing the thin air into my lungs. I reached forward and gratefully took our leader Pat Falvey’s hand, and like a child I slowly and cautiously followed him inch- by-inch down the slope. Terrified of the drop to my right and concentrating firmly on Pat’s orange down jacket, glowing like a beacon ahead, step by step, until we finally reach a makeshift platform. Pat leaves me here with a grin, and thankfully I hug him, assuring him I can take it from here. I step forward on my own into the dark of the drop-house and breathe a sigh of relief as the smell of human waste engulfs me, finally, I can go to the loo…
Why Climb Every Mountain?
I don’t know why people climb mountains. I don’t know why I do myself; and frequently when I’m climbing them, I promise I will never climb them again. Then I see clouds drift across a lofty peak or a movie with the hero stepping confidently in crampons across the rock and ice and suddenly my breath catches in my chest and I think ‘that’s me’. The reality is somewhat different. I stumble and slip in my massive insulated boots, I move awkwardly across the snow in massive down jackets, with freezing fingers squeezed into multiple pairs of gloves, trying to hold onto an axe and make it work in a way that will save your life. It’s not pretty, it’s not an average holiday, and yet we spend weeks of our lives to seek out high, frosty, deadly places to climb. Why? Perhaps in a world which is both easier and harder, the immovable presence of a mountain gives you a benchmark to pit yourself against, to measure yourself against the forces of nature and find out who you are and what you can achieve. As one of the lads said in the safety of basecamp last night “If I can do what I did, and go through what I went through up there and come out smiling, what am I capable of back down below in the real world?” Perhaps it’s that simple, mountains make me feel alive.
Sleeping My Way To The Top
We all spent months preparing for this trip, all in our various ways. Hiking at home, cycling, running, swimming, gym work. All trying to be fit enough to justify our place in the team. You don’t just sign up for a couple of weeks on a mountain, you sign up for a six month campaign of attrition. My own preparation was a nightmare. I travelled to Scotland in January to practice ice skills, shot off to Norway in February to get a taste for how to dress against the bitter cold, I ran, swam, cycled, and then I fell, badly. I needed 14 stitches in my knee, two month’s rehab and then 6 weeks frantic activity to try and get my weight down and my fitness back. In doing that, I pulled a lateral Meniscus in my ‘good’ knee. I’d blown it – I was heading off to the mountain overweight and with both knees in braces. I was feeling weak and feeble as we went through our
acclimatisation walks and ice-drills on Elbrus, waiting for the moment of truth. I had massive doubts. But I knew others had concerns too; there were worries about altitude sickness from the light air, lack of energy, reaction to food, concerns over gear, how cold or warm would we be on the mountain. We all had our niggles and worries, and the team pulled together and reassured each other as best we could. Finally summit day approached with Pat our expedition leader and Artem our Russian guide locking heads over weather patterns and forecasts for the days ahead. The weather was difficult and local knowledge vital for interpreting conditions on the mountain. But we had worked hard as a team and acclimatised well, with walks up to 5,100m, and sessions practicing ice skills and ice-axe arrest techniques on the surrounding slopes. We were strong and we were ready. Despite a storm blowing with thunder and lightening just minutes apart and wind shaking our flimsy hut, we finally got the word that we’d go the following morning. Maybe.
We checked our gear and then prepared for an easy day. I slept. I ate breakfast, prepared my pack and clothes for the summit, and went back to bed. We had lunch in the communal hut and discussed the weather and the chances of going and then I went back to bed and slept again. We had our ‘last supper’ together as a team and I went back to bed, rolling into the row of mattresses that I was sharing with 7 other people, and slept again. I knew I had trained all I could, eaten all I could, hydrated all I could, doubted all I could, prepared all I could, now all I had left to do was rest all I could. In my mind, I was ‘sleeping my way to the top’.
“At 4am with temperatures of -20 and 35k winds, when the cold punches through your ‘top of the range’ down-jacket like a bullet through paper – you know just how fragile you are.”
2am had come and gone and the team thought the trip was off. But two hours later the call went up. With remarkable skill and daring, Pat and his local experts had spotted a weather window and the game was on.
Tumbling out of the heavy sleeping bag and silk liner, pulling on my extra layers, my ice-breaker vest, and favourite Columbia Teflon top and leggings, I add another precautionary Blisteze patch to my heel, before powdering my feet and double socking. Next my heavy double-boots go on, with gaiters to keep the snow out, Gortex waterproof layers, down jacket, balaclava, hat, gloves with liners under mitts, goggles, head torch, hiking poles, ice-axe. Moving heavily I tie on my 12-spike crampons and finally swing my rucksack onto my back, with food and nearly 2 litres of water. I’m ready to follow the team out into the darkness, into the weak, golden pools of light from our head torches, as we leave our camp behind.
Magic Peaks Around the Traverse
At 5,100m the air is light and my lungs screaming for oxygen as we begin the long traverse under the East Summit of Elbrus. I wonder if my mind has been playing tricks because I’m sure someone said this was a gradual slope. Nothing felt gradual about the incline pushing up against my feet. But in the cold, against the wind, and with the effort of each step, I’m suddenly reminded of another reason I love mountains. The life giving sun begins to dawn, casting pink fingers across the waves of frozen landscape, merging with mountain and clouds and me. The incredible beauty of nature. Off in the distance across the deadly slope I’ve been trying to avoid noticing; the shadow of Elbrus is cast pyramid-like against the surrounding mountains. It’s like a scene from the movie ‘The Summit’ when the awe-inspiring and deadly K2 casts it’s shadow across into China. I thought views like that were only for the silver screen and now I’m seeing the same effect here, with my own eyes. The sweeping beauty all around embraces me and warms my soul as the team push slowly forwards against the spindrift as the 35k winds throw surface snow against our faces, driving temperatures as low as -20.
We reach the ‘saddle’ between Elbrus’ iconic twin peaks and the game changes again. The sun’s up and blasting us with her fiery UV rays as the cold winds continue to hammer us, trying to steal fingers and toes. We rest briefly, then rope up in groups of 4, before tackling the next steep incline. The hardest part of this gruelling challenge is before us. The grail lies ahead and nothing between us, save this icy slope. “It’s a hill” I tell myself, as I push my shoulders forward into the wind. Ice axe in one hand, walking pole in the other, inching forward. I ignore the cold, the wind, the sun. I’m telling myself I’m in the Galtee Mountains back in Ireland with my training buddies Tony Nation and Karen Hill. It’s my pace and we’re pushing up Temple Hill. One foot in front of the other.
Falling Off The Edge Of The World
I’m kicking into the snow and ice with my crampons. I’m
thinking of technique, thinking of efficiency. I feel like dragging my feet forward but know if I don’t use the spikes to connect, my foot will slide and I’ll have an energy sapping jerk, pulling at my sore knee and forcing me to take the step again. So it’s slow, steady, and precise. The familiar mountaineer’s step. One clear stride, resting on your straight leg before kicking forward again with the alternate foot. One of our guides, Sasha, had been talking to me about pressure breathing. Forcing air into your lungs at altitude, without shallow breathing or hyperventilating. So again I concentrated. One step, one breath. Although I felt I was double-timing. Breathing two deep breaths per step. But I wasn’t stopping. I was still moving forward and that was the key. You eat these mountains bite by bite and step by step. I was up front in a line of 4, and occasionally, I’d shout back down the line “lads we have this, lads this is ours , we’re not going back now” and the shouts of encouragement coming back up the line gave me new energy to push harder.
Finally the slope evens out to one last platform before the final summit up ahead. So close I feel I can reach out and touch it. The rest of the team are already there, spread out in bunches of four. Either back in the dip or just dropping down from the summit. There’s breathless congratulations and high fives and reassurances that the summit is just 10 minutes away. The ropes are off, rucksacks abandoned, and we four are on our own again for one last pull. I’m last, but I don’t care, I’m exhausted but I don’t care, I’m sore but I don’t care. I’m having this. I’m taking this. There is no way I’m not going to reach out and grasp this now. Crampons in, 12 points in, push and breath, breath and push. Step after step, lungs screaming, legs screaming, soul soaring. I’m steps away from the summit and I hear some of the team shouting encouragement across the wind. I find new energy and double-time my steps as I pull myself up to stand at the top of Europe. Against clear blue skies, in bright sunlight, I turn around 360 degrees to take in the view, and with a catch in my throat, I slowly realise that TeamElbrus have made it. I’ve made it. 5,642m (18,510ft) the summit of Mount Elbrus.
Never Say ‘Never Again’
Later, much later. We’re eating lamb kebabs, drinking local beer and reminding ourselves of the journey we’ve made, both alone and as a team. I’m making my new buddies promise to remind me, never to do this again. So hard, so tough, so demanding and time-consuming. I’ve had it with mountains. I’m no adrenalin junkie, I know when I’ve had more than enough. I’m off trekking in Spain in October with Travel Department but that’s not about endurance, that’s a holiday. Gorgeous 10k walks in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains before heading back to a lovely rural hotel to cool off in the pool. Now that’s civilised. I’m looking forward to walking in Spain. I’ve never done that before. Of course I’ve been walking in other hot climates so I know what to expect and what to wear. I loved hiking in Africa. I climbed Mount Elgon in Uganda before cycling a couple of hundred kilometres over to the Nile to kayak down some white-water rapids. Phyll and Joe from TeamElbrus, they love Africa too. They’ve climbed Kilimanjaro – an amazing mountain they tell me. You know, after Elbrus, and Spain in October, I’d be well fit by next year. Kilimanjaro huh? well maybe just one more mountain….
William ‘Wildfire’ Shorthall
Mick ‘The BIC’ Byrne
Brian ‘Lazarus’ Gallogly
Joe ‘The Snapper’ Byrne
‘Doc’ Phyll Blake Byrne – (My Little Star)
Paddy ‘The Hat’ Lonergan
Noel ‘The Beard’ Garrahan
John Paul ‘Glow in the Dark’ Murphy
Shane ‘I can’t breathe but I’m still coming’ O’Toole
Teena ‘Never Again, Maybe” Gates
Guide; Irish & Worldwide Adventures’ Pat Falvey
Chief Russian guide; Artem Rostovtsev
On Saturday I got to join the Roving Soles Hill Walking Club for part of their Glenmalure Challenge. I got to finish 6 summits and around 24k in 7hrs – they went on to complete 10 summits and 33k. We started from the Glenmalure Lodge, Drumgoff and headed south on the Wicklow Way, taking a forest road for our assent of Carrawaystick Mountain to Corrigasleggaun, to the Saddle of Lugcoolmeen, and up to the summit of Lugnaquilla, Leinster’s highest peak at 931 metres. We descended via Cannow Mountain to Camenabolologue, and I cut out at Table Track for Glenmalure, as the group continued on their way. Thanks to everyone for such a warm welcome on the hill, especially with me hobbling along with my knee braces and sticks. Extremely lovely group… and the bubbles were a bonus!
From Wicklow, I drove to Cork city, catching dinner with a friend before heading on to Youghal where I camped near the sea, ahead of an early 6am start for the DipInTheNip. Close to 200 people joined on a beach near the town to drop their kit and run for the waves, in aid of cancer charities. Old radio buddy PJ Coogan from Cork 96FM led the charge. After a breakfast roll on the beach, I headed for Kerry, pitched my tent in view of the mountains, met briefly with friends, took a two hour stroll in Tomies Wood and finished off a perfect rest-and-recovery day with a plunge into the beautiful ice-cold O’Sullivan’s Cascade, a stunning series of waterfalls and grade 5 kayak route plunging down through the mountains to the lakes of Killarney. Always a magical place for me.
On to the Galtees on Monday, for a tough 8.5hr training hike over 5 mountains with Tony Nation, in preparation for my challenge to climb Elbrus in Russia next month with Pat Falvey’s Irish and Worldwide Adventures. Tony had warned me in advance that today would be tough and he certainly delivered. It was an arduous route, but so incredibly beautiful that it was hard to feel anything other than joy to be out on the hill. We made our way up on to the mountain with a tough climb onto Temple Hill, and climbed up and down around the horseshoe across Ladhar an Chapaill, Carraig na Binne, and Sliabh Chois na Binne, over to Galtymore and exiting down the BlackRoad. Later we heard on the news that a couple of climbers had been rescued after getting caught in a Rhododendron forest, not too far away on the Knockmealdown Mountains. It was a cautionary tale, as I’d been admiring the purple flowered shrubs all day, but Tony had been warning me about their rampant, vigorous growth across the mountains.
Tuesday brought another adventure, when myself and a friend provided kayak-cover for a group of swimmers who were making a crossing from Malahide to Lambay Island, as part of a top-secret art project. We had kind permission to land briefly on the island, which is a nature reserve, and it was a wonderful privilege to have just a fleeting glance at this wonderful, magical place. It was a beautiful day as we headed off into a clear, calm sea, and the crossing was delightfully uneventful until moments before we reached the island. A sea-mist sprung up in seconds, shrouding our landing point in mist. Our approach was marked by dozens of curious seals who heralded our arrival and followed us in to the star-fish spangled beach. We stayed just moments before slipping back into the sea and leaving the peaceful island to it’s misty mystery. A magical experience to add to my list of special memories of Ireland.
A good weekend of training, celebrating friendship and being glad to be alive. Reality returns when I visit the physio tomorrow and get some advice on my injured knee. The Elbrus Clock continues to tick.
I’ve just heard from Travel Department that our walking holiday in Spain is ‘flying out the door’. We’ve been planning the trip since last year, but all of a sudden I feel it’s really happening and I’m getting a thrill of excitement about meeting new friends and ‘walking my way to fitness’ surrounded by blue skies, high mountains, plunging rivers, snowy white villages and a full week of adventure and exploration.
We’ll be staying in a tiny little hotel nestled above the Poqueira River that carries snowmelt from the ice-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains to the sea. We will walk along the river gorge to the abandoned settlement of Le Cebadilla and stay in the hillside town of Capileira, the gateway to the mountains and the highest village that public traffic can reach…. relaxing after each day’s adventure with wine and tapas at the hotel pool. Capileira is the highest of the ancient, little, white villages that appear to
cling to the mountainside as though about to slide into the Poqueira Gorge. At an altitude of 1436 metres, it is one of the highest towns on the Iberian Peninsular.
A holiday is such an important part of the year; we need to come back with memories that will last for a lifetime. I’m confident that Spain’s magnificent Sierra Nevada will deliver. We’ve signed up local walking guides to show us all the special places and answer all our questions. Along with the stunning mountains and river gorge we get to explore the fortress of Alhambra in Granada. Dating from 889, Alhambra was rebuilt to grace Muslim Emirs before being claimed by Christian Monarchs and then European scholars. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and just one of the many adventures on our list. We travel to the coast to the beautiful Salobrena Castle, have a full day sightseeing and shopping in Granada and still have time to sit by the pool at our charming rural hotel Finca Los Llanos.
This is a holiday that combines walking, leisure and culture. We’ll divide the trip into different groups, depending on how active you want to be. I like to walk slowly and enjoy all the beauty of the mountains, so there’s no pressure to be ‘speedy’ if you’re coming with me. The average walking distance is 8k on hilly terrain with some steep inclines, so bring trekking shoes and a walking pole. There’s a discount on your equipment and clothing at Great Outdoors, Dublin, if you’re going on this trip!
We leave with Aer Lingus on October 1st – but the holiday has started booking heavily in the last week, so don’t leave it until the last moment. Visit Travel Department’s website and have a look around our hotel’s picture gallery. If you’ve got any questions, give me a shout on my email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter. I’m looking forward to meeting you in Spain.
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’.