Lugnaquilla

Catherine, I, Conor and Donal went for a walk up Lugnaquilla recently on a fairly damp, gloomy day.

We took a fairly unconventional route – again thanks to Lonely Planet’s Walking in Ireland – starting at the footbridge in Glenmalure, up the road to the bigger car park and the youth hostel, up through Fraughan Rock Glen onto the eastern spur of Lug, to the summit and back to the start via Clohernagh.


Looking Back Down To Fraughan Rock Glen and Glenmalure

Once we climbed up out of the boggy Fraughan Rock Glen, I really enjoyed getting up onto the spur and finding the summit in the dense mist. Lug is a bizarre place in low visibility; a flat grassy summit with serious drops on either side – the North and South Prisons – and lots of people milling about, having their lunch on the cairn marking the summit.


Top Of Lugnaquilla

The sun made an appearance as we started down from Clohernagh which is probably what made us go a bit wrong. Rather than taking a northern spur down to Art’s Lough, we went down the eastern spur and ended up at the opposite side of the forest from where the zig-zag path to footbridge begins. Full of beans, we started ploughing through the dense forest thinking it wouldn’t be long before we came upon the path. A good 45 minutes later, we finally made it through, scratched to pieces and with a nice collection of pine needles in our clothes.


Conor, Me and Donal

Unlike the rest of us, Donal – the one who wanted to turn back half way up – seemed to love this part. The quote of the day was definitely his “every day should have a moment when you feel like Rambo” …

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Cardiff and Brecon Beacons Horseshoe Walk

Last weekend Catherine, Janina and I visited Vanessa in Cardiff.

Catherine and I went over Thursday morning and stayed in the lovely Vale Hotel in the Vale of Glamorgan, had a massage, wandered around the golf courses, ate, drank and generally just chilled out.

For the rest of the weekend we stayed in Vanessa’s place, close to Bute park in the centre of Cardiff.

On Saturday, Vanessa brought us for a classic Brecon Beacon’s walk where we started at the bottom of Craig y Fan Ddu, around and up to Fan y Big, Cribyn, Pen y Fan, Corn Du and back via the upper Neuadd Resevoir.

It was a long enough walk – maybe six hours at a decent pace – but we were rewarded by stunning view after stunning view. It’s hard to describe the geography of this area of the beacons … it’s like a series of peaks joined by a ridge, the north side of which is a pretty sheer drop and the south side made up by a series of glacial corrie. All that makes for lots of ups and downs and walking along cliff edges.


Cribyn – Humphrey The Camel

“Humphrey the Camel” … WTF? I can’t post that picture without also posting this:


Who’s at the top of Cribyn! – Humphrey The Camel

Strange goings-on seems to be the norm around here – just as we got back to our car, we could see a group of fell runners blithely tearing down the steep slope we had climbed at the start, while at the bottom one of their group was wildly waving his arms pointing another direction. Looks like they’d come down the wrong ridge and the poor buggers had to trudge back up and go down a different way to their cars.

Anyways, it was definitely one of the most enjoyable days walking we’ve had in quite a while. Our appetite has been whetted again for hard walks. Back to Lugnaquilla next weekend!

Lately

What’s the most common mistake made by bloggers? Starting out with a flurry of posts and then letting them dwindle until there’s only one in a blue moon. Yeah, well …

Skiing

Early in March, a group of eight of us went skiing in Sรถll, Austria. As usual, we had a great week. Lots of skiing, lots of eating, lots of drinking and lots of laughs.

I’d only ever been skiing in Meribel, France before, and I found I didn’t enjoy the skiing itself in Sรถll quite as much. The Ski Welt area (of which Soll is a part) is pretty huge, so there is plenty of opportunity to explore. Our main problem, though, was that it took us ages to figure out the piste map enough to get out of the immediate Soll area and across towards Scheffau and Ellmau. We weren’t the only ones confused.

Most of our group did group lessons nearly every day, so Marie, Paula and I spent most of the week exploring together. Steve, the owner of our Hotel, the Gansleit, also took us out a few times during the week, which was pretty cool. Nice to have someone in the know guide you rather than having your nose buried in a piste map the whole time.


Me and Marie

As for the apres-ski part … well, we didn’t go too mad this year. Most days we came straight back to the hotel where there was a really nice sauna, steam-room and solarium to chill out in. Much more civilised than heading straight to the pub. Some nights we stayed on in the hotel for drinks after dinner, other nights we headed down to one of the bars in the village. One night we found ourselves in a low-ceilinged bar, heaving with locals, singing “The Irish Rover”. Bizarre, but good craic.

On our second last night, though, the “craic” ended with a “crack”. Messing about with Derek, I found myself flat on my face, with mild concussion, a fat lip and a sore hand. I still went skiing the next day – even leading the whole lot of us around the place – but by the end of the day, from the pain of dragging my gloves on and off, I realised things weren’t right with my thumb at all, at all. Back in Dublin, at hospital, it turned out to be broken. Dammit.


FAIL

Hiking

Needless to say, with a cast on my hand I couldn’t get up to much for a few weeks, but Catherine and I did manage to go for a few nice walks.

One of those was the Great Sugar Loaf, which we’d passed so many times on the N11, but hadn’t explored. We took the route suggested by our Lonely Planet “Walking in Ireland” book, going up from the north side and coming down the east flank. On the way up, we met only a small handful of people until just below the top where there was crowds and crowds of mainly families coming from a car park on the south side. We couldn’t wait to get down off there again and away from people.

Another weekend we went back to one of our more regular walks, the Tain Way and Slieve Foye in Carlingford. Living on “de northsoide”, it can be much handier to get up there than across the city to Wicklow. That day was a funny ould day for the weather … you can’t beat the Irish mixture of gale force winds, blissful sunshine, hail, sleet and rain all mixed up together. It’s definitely a walk we’ll do again and again, though. I love emerging from the forest towards the end with a view of the lough, the village and, across the water, the Mourne Mountains.


Top of Slieve Foye, Carlingford

We’ve lots more hiking ahead of us this summer as we’ve just booked ourselves in with UTracks to do the northern half of the GR20 in Corsica this September. The GR20 is supposed to be “the most difficult long distance walking trail in Europe”, so we’re in for a bit of a challenge, but it sounds like it’ll be excellent. I just can’t get my head around the fact that a Mediterranean island, 10% the size of Ireland, has mountains up to 2700m. When we’re done with our weeks trekking, though, we’re going to spend another week chilling out near a beach. I’m almost looking forward to that as much as the first week …

Sailing

Since I enjoyed the dinghy sailing courses in Sutton Dinghy Club so much last year, I’ve started the process of looking for a boat. Hugh Gill, club manager, was really helpful one lunchtime when I went down there looking for advice.


Hugh in a Pico

There’s so much to think about, it’s not funny. What type of boat? A Laser, an IDRA14, a GP14? If a Laser, then a full rig or a radial? Buy an old boat for a couple of grand, or spend twice that on a newer boat that would last you longer? If the boat doesn’t have a road trailer or trolley, where to pick those up? Where to store the boat out of season? Towbar for the car? Insurance for driving with a trailer? Insurance for the boat? Joining the club? Getting a boat parking space at the club?

Phew.

I’m leaning towards getting a Laser with a full rig, since it’s single-handed and there’s a fair few adults racing them in the club. I’m right on the recommended weight limit for a full rig, so I’ll probably have a tough time controlling it in strong winds, but maybe that’ll just get me down the gym more …

Now, if I could convince a certain other person that we really wants to take up sailing too, then maybe the slightly more sedate two-handed GP14 might be a good option. We’ll see ๐Ÿ™‚

Mountain Running

With the cast off, and some fitness regained, I’m getting back into running again and doing some hill/mountain running.

A couple of weeks ago, I went along and helped out with the registration at the Wicklow Way 22km and 44km races. It was good fun to go along, meet up with some IMRA folks and “do my bit”. No question that all IMRA runners should volunteer regularly since so much work goes into each race with course marking, registration, timing, marshalling, website stuff etc.

Still, though, it’s good that no-one expects too much from the organisers of each race – at Johnnie Foxes, I was given a list of names and told to give a “finishers mug” to anyone registering who had their name on the list. Next thing, Mike and Lindie had disappeared off to set the ultra runners on the way and I was left with a queue of the 22km runners looking to register. “Right then, how does this registration thing work?” was all I could say before getting the folks in the queue to help me figure it out … ๐Ÿ™‚

Best part of the day was when Mick Kellett came up to me to register for IMRA for the year and I realised this was someone almost in the M70 category about to run 22km across the Wicklow Mountains. Can I grow up to be like him, Mammy?


Mick Kellet – taken by Forrest5000

Wednesday night in Bray saw the start of IMRA’s Leinster League – 12 races, of which your 7 best results count. I was looking forward to it because it sounded like a nice, straightforward little race to ease back into things – 5km with a 275m climb? No problem.

Except, when I arrived in Bray – yeah, I’d never been to exotic Bray before! – it didn’t look so easy. That cross up on the Head looked like an awful long way up. Once we got going, though, it wasn’t so bad after all … I took it easy on the way up to the cross, not wanting to kill myself early on, and then pushed hard to keep on the heels of my nemesis-to-be, Tommy the Tumbler, across to the second hill and back. On the way back down, I managed to pass Tommy and a bunch of others, but I got my comeuppance back down on the seafront when I totally faded on the last 200m, and had to watch them all go past me again.


Thumbs up No. 92 – taken by Darragh Sherwin

I think that’s what I’m going to enjoy about these IMRA runs – I may have only come 95th out of around 220, with a finishing time 145% of the winner’s time, but it was still great fun “racing” against similarly-paced others. Mediocrity can be fun too!

Next week is in Howth. My home ground. Watch out Tommy!


Racing – taken by Darragh Sherwin

(Poor Tommy if he reads this … I’m sure he’ll wonder “who the hell is this guy?”)

Mountain Skills Course

Last weekend Catherine and I went and did Bren Whelan’s Mountain Skills 1 course in the bitterly cold Wicklow mountains. I was pleasantly suprised at the amount we covered over the two days and am much happier with my navigation skills now.

Concentrating Hard

The first day we covered different types of maps and their features, how to intepret contours, hand-railing (i.e. how to use a feature to guide you), different types of slopes, gear, mountain rescue, etc. etc. Aaron Byrne of Mountain Ventures Hostel and Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue was our instructor for the day.

The second day we went up Trooperstown Hill and moved onto a gradual, but detailed, introduction to navigating with a compass, pacing excercises, recovering from errors and “aiming off”. Bren was our instructor and I really liked the way he eased us into the skills, introduced concepts gradually and then did lots of useful excercises to drill them into us.

Both days we were joined by Ian, a trainee instructor, who very quietly added some useful tips and helped keep the atmosphere relaxed and cheerful.

There was six in our group, which was a perfect group size. It was nice that we had a mixture of experience and interests, but at the same time we were all at a similar level so no-one felt left behind or bored.

The Group

Some of the most useful stuff we picked over the weekend was from seemingly random chats between the “real” stuff, but I guess that was all part of the plan, really.

I’d definitely recommend these courses to anybody who likes to spend time in the mountains. They’re extremely well thought out, professional, good accompanying material etc. At the end of the course you’ll feel a lot more confident about what you’d do if something went wrong.

We stayed two nights in Lough Dan House, not far from Laragh, well up in the wild mountains between Scarr and Lough Dan (O 147 032). Sean and Theresa we great hosts and we spent hours chatting with them on Friday night in front of a roaring fire over a bottle of wine. The room was really top notch – newly decorated, big, bright, airy and cheerful – with an en-suite. Plenty of choice for breakfast, with everything from porridge to “full irish” to kippers on the menu. I reckon we’ll be back there as we start heading to Wicklow more often.

Comeragh Mountains

Over the weekend Catherine and I went for a really nice walk in the Comeragh Mountains. We set off from Mahon Falls car park, climbed up alongside the falls themselves, continued on up to Knockaunapeebra and “792” (the featureless high point of the Comeraghs) and onwards to the cliffs overlooking Coumshingaun Lough. From there we retraced our steps back to the falls, but returned to the car park via the ridge on the western side.

Mahon Falls

It was a fun walk, but the gale force winds and poor visibility made it more interesting than it usually would be. Also, the stretch from Knockauanapeebra to Coumshingaun was a bit of a trudge through bogland and bracken. It’s good to see that I’m not totally hopeess with a map and compass though ๐Ÿ™‚

While we were munching on a sandwich above Coumshingaun – waiting for the clouds to clear so we could actually see the lough – we met the only other person we saw walking around there. It turns out he’d come up the ridge to the south of the lough and was returning via the north ridge. Sure enough, when the clouds cleared a bit the view over the lough was stunning and the ridge walk looked like a lot of fun. We’ll be back to do that one, I think …

Mountain Meitheal

At the MCI lecture the other night there was a brief mention of Mountain Meitheal, a volunteer group who give up their time to help maintain some of the mountain and forest tracks (currently only in Wicklow, it seems).


Building the new bridge at Carrwaystick

They definitely seem like a group worthwhile volunteering for if you spend time in the mountains. I really like their “for every seven days in the mountain, how about you give a day back?” approach.

Valerie and Neil’s TMB Photos

Valerie and Neil just sent on their excellent photos of our Tour du Mont Blanc holiday.

They did a much better job of capturing what the walking itself was like.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Wrap Up

Below is a journal I kept of our two week Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) organized by Exodus. You want to start at the first entry and read your way to here in order for it to make any sense.

The TMB is one of the classic alpine walking trails, and I’d whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone with any interest in hill-walking. If you do it over two weeks, you should be able to manage it if you have a reasonable level of fitness … e.g. if climbing Ben Nevis, Snowdon, Scarfell Pike or Carrauntoohil doesn’t sound like an impossible challenge.

The TMB is usually done by people who have booked overnight stays in the many mountain refuges along the route, although I guess you could also carry your own tent and camp. The easier option, where you only have to carry a daysack, is to organise it through an adventure travel company like Exodus or UTracks either us part of a group with a leader or self-guided with your gear transported between refuges.

A word on gear. The weather is seriously changeable in mountainous regions such as the Mont Blanc Massif, so you don’t want to skimp to much on your gear. We brought:

  • Good (Gore-Tex) waterproof and windproof jackets
  • Lightweight waterproof boots (Goretex lined Brashers)
  • Waterproof trousers and gaiters (you could manage without the latter)
  • Two fleeces, a light one and a heavier one
  • A woolly hat and turtlekneck scarf
  • Gloves – don’t be afraid to bring ski gloves, you’ll probably only use them when it’s both wet and cold
  • Walking trousers with zip-off legs
  • Quite a few pairs of decent hiking socks
  • Good 20l to 35l daysacks
  • Waterproof covers for our rucksacks
  • Telescopic walking poles – don’t worry about looking stupid, they come in very useful on the descents
  • A hydration pack and water bottle – you should carry about 2 litres with you each day
  • A map of the region and a compass
  • For emergencies, a whistle, first aid kit, space blanket, pen knife and thermal bottoms
  • A good sleeping mat for camping – got 5cm thick “trail comfort” Therm-a-Rest mats and didn’t regret the cost
  • Inflatable pillows
  • Trek towels– we had a Lifeventure trek towel each and they stood up pretty well to a fortnight’s usage without being washed

Enjoy!

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Getting Home

Time to go home! Up at 06:00, we packed up everything for the last time, loaded up the van and had breakfast. At 07:00, we left the campsite, said our goodbyes to Liz and got on the bus with Charlie and headed down to Chamonix to pick up the hotel group.

The journey to Geneva airport was uneventful, with most people catching up on some kip, and at the airport we all parted with hugs and promises to meet again. Our flight wasn’t until later in the afternoon, so we just hung around the airport reading our books and killing time until we could check-in and relax in the business lounge.


Cathy Messin

Cathy Messin

By the time we reached home in Dublin, we were completely shattered and looking forward to some of our own home cooked food, a nice shower and a real bed with clean sheets.

We may have been tired, though, but both of us were already itching to get out the Exodus brochure and plan our next trip. I think we’re hooked on these adventure holidays …

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Rest day, Traversing the Vallee Blanche

Our last day, and supposed to be a rest day. Janina, Vanessa, Catherine and I were up at the usual 07:00 along with Liz and Charlie as we were all off (not together) to the glaciers for the day. After a quick breakfast, the three girls and I headed off to les Praz where we met Neil McNab who was to be our guide for the day on a glacier walk between Helbronner and the Aiguille du Midi.

We felt we were paying a lot for this day out – โ‚ฌ170 all in – so we were pretty relieved when we could sense straight away the caliber of guide we’d managed to find ourselves. Neil struck us immediately as quietly confident, mature, experienced, softly spoken and someone who very much knew what he was about. As he chatted to us about being a “quite well known snowboarder”, his training through french to be a mountain guide, his snowboard training camp business, the six remaining Mont Blac ascents he was booked on as a guide before the end of the season, the many different climbing routes around the area … we were left with no doubt that we were in safe hands.

(Later on, we googled him and came up with a “Neil McNab Saves Life On Mt McKinley” story which further improved our impression of him ๐Ÿ™‚


Neil McNab

Neil McNab

Anyway, Neil drove us down to Chamonix where we first bought our cable car tickets and then headed to a nearby sports shop where we hired out proper rigid alpine boots, crampons, climbing harnesses and ski axes. Leaving the shop, we started getting seriously excited because we felt like the real deal in all our gear. We headed straight for the cable car and ascended to the Aiguille du Midi where Neil pointed us out various peaks and climbing routes and then caught the little cable cars across to the Helbronner. The views from the cable car were absolutely amazing – it’s like a different world up there hanging above the Vallee Blanche – but it was especially cool to watch all the little dots picking their way across the glacier and thinking “yep, that’ll be us in a few minutes”.

At Helbronner, we had one last chance for a toilet stop and then headed out onto the snow where Neil showed us how to put on our crampons and then got us to stomp around for a bit. Crampons definitely take a bit of getting used to. You have to do your best to get a firm footing with all spikes in the ground so as to not strain yourself too much and you also have to be careful not to trip over them. Once we felt we’d got the hang of that, he roped us together with him at the front and me at the back and we set off across the glacier.


Intrepid Explorers On The Vallee Blanche

Intrepid Explorers On The Vallee Blanche

Most of the walk was pretty straightforward, but really interesting. We had amazing close up views of the glacier, crevasses and the surrounding mountains. After walking steadily for a couple of hours we started to feel we were really getting the hang of walking in crampons and stopped for a quick lunch. Quickly getting going again, and plodding along the narrow path, I think we all started to wonder whether Neil just wanted to finish the walk as quick as possible and get home again, but it was only later that we realised that he knew we were going to be tight on time given the difficulty of the final stretch. We had no idea what we were in for.

As we approached the Aiguille du Midi, gently ascending, we passed a group of climbers pitching tents and building walls of snow, obviously planning on spending the night. From there, the going got steeper and steeper until we were all struggling to keep going. I guess the high altitude and the trouble we had in using the crampons on such steep an incline was what gave us such difficulty. On and on it went, with no option of stopping for a breather since we were roped together, we eventually made it up to a bit of a plateau. There, Neil roped us much closer together and pointed out where we were going next – an extremely steep ridge, with sheer drop-offs on either side, all the way up to the Aiguille du Midi.


Vallee Blanche

Vallee Blance

Without any further fuss, we got going and as the going got steeper, and we got more exposed to the wind, we all really struggled to keep going. I was breathing hard, exhaling sharply and loudly to get decent breaths, but Janina directly in front of me was almost baying like a mountain goat. I didn’t even consider going after my Fedora baseball cap when it blew off. Catherine, up front, said that Neil was almost dragging her along using the rope and she was just following his footsteps. Eventually, with much encouragement from Neil but no stopping, we got to the top of the ridge but as we walked along the last few metres I found myself shouting at Janina “Watch your feet! You’re going to trip on your crampons!” as I was terrified she was going to trip and send us off the side of the perilous ridge where we’d no doubt plummet to our deaths.

Once we got in out off the ridge, we all fell about the place laughing and gasping for air. What an experience! Catherine was beaming from ear to ear and looked about 15 years younger … I’ll never forget that look. To any experience climber, we must have looked like complete beginners, but we didn’t care … we felt like we’d just climbed Everest …

We didn’t hang about long, but took off our crampons and some layers of clothing before catching the cable car back down. Once we’d returned our gear to the rental shop, Neil dropped us back to les Praz where they four of us had a celebratory beer on the sunny terrace of a hotel.

Back at the campsite I had a quick shower, left Catherine to pack up most of our stuff for the flight home and set off jogging and walking fast with poles towards Chamonix in order to catch the start of the North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc which was starting at 18:30.

Ever since learning about this 170km race around the Massif over two days and reading Aisling Coppinger’s account of finishing it, I was absolutely fascinated by it. Trying to get more into distance running myself, I just couldn’t fathom how people could run that distance. I mean, running up mountains in the cold, wet and dark and keeping going for over 40 hours … it just doesn’t make any sense. Looking at the times from the year before it was incredible to see that the winner ran down from the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to Chapieux in about 20 minutes at the dead of night, whereas it took us about three hours to walk up there in daylight.


Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc

Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc

Chamonix was thronged with people when I got there and, after stopping for a second to chat with Brian, Gary, Neil and Valerie, I made my way around to behind the start line where I just soaked up the atmosphere and watched the 2,500 runners preparing to set off. Some were deep in mental preparation staring into space, while other were joking around with their friends as if they were waiting to get into the pub. One runner was sitting very close to me with his wife and young daughter chatting and as the start time approached they hugged, kissed and said their goodbyes. Very sweet. As soon as they started, I went through some side streets a good bit away from the start and cheered them on running along the main street out of Chamonix. Amazing to watch them, and if I ever feel remotely able for a challenge like that I’ll be very tempted to give it a shot.

Snapping out of that daydream, I had my own little race ahead of me. I had to make the 45 minute walk back to the campsite, change for dinner and meet everyone at the restaurant in just over half an hour. That worked out fine, in that I made it on time, but when I got there I was so seriously over-hyped from the glacier walk and watching the start of the race that I just babbled away to people until I caught Catherine’s “calm down!” look.

In the restaurant, we all lashed into our beers and wines and jostled for position in the queue for the buffet starter of cold meats and “stuff”. For main, most people had steak and chips and for dessert we had chocolate pudding or apricot tart.

Atfer dinner, Brian gave an excellent speech thanking Liz and Charlie and Teressa gave them our card with a contribution to their “Mont Blanc Fund”. Charlie, the poor fella, and Liz both had to give a speeches in return thanking us all for being the best group ever (of course!). By the end of it, we had certainly disturbed everyone elses’ dinners in the restaurant …

Leaving the restaurant, we strolled down to the bustling (okay, deadly silent) les Praz main street and convinced an English hotel owner to serve us drinks (thanks Gary!) on the terrace behind his hotel. Nearly everyone had a cognac, and we all toasted a most excellent holiday and had a good laugh chatting in the dark. It was pretty clear that we were all shattered, though, so we only had the one drink before going back to the campsite and turning in.