Across the Nephin Beg Range

(by Joe Glover, from Irish Mountaineering 1960)
An 18-hour hike along the Nephin range from Bangor to Mulrany.

Several years ago, when studying Bartholomew’s ¼" map of Galway and Mayo, a wild plan began to take shape in my mind. A cross-mountain tramp all the way from Bangor Erris to Mulrany – had it ever been attempted or accomplished?

Late in 1958 I began to plan a route and survey the difficulties of this terrain. In over ten years of mountain walking I had never covered more than fifteen miles at a time and the worst of my routes had been through semi-civilised country where “escape” routes existed at several points. The centre of Mayo, however, is probably the wildest and loneliest part of all Ireland and the Nephin Beg range itself appeared to be hemmed in on all sides with the worst type of bogland.

A brief study of the maps soon decided me on the question of which way to tackle the trip. North to south was the answer as this way the dullest country is covered first and the views ahead would be better. The total distance to be covered appeared to be about 27 miles and involved some 20,000 feet of ascent and descent and three major descents and re-ascents. Since I could not accomplish the trip in daylight I decided to start late in the evening, walk all night, and finish next day.

Pat McMahon of Tuam gave me invaluable advice – and, furthermore, I learned that he had already accomplished the major part of my route, bivouacing overnight on the way.

June 19th dawned doubtfully and brought the unwelcome news that Denis Helliwell, one of my two companions, was not feeling up to the mark. However, he and his wife Barbara insisted that we should go ahead with the trip as they were quite willing to drive to Mayo and back and manoeuvre the transport for my sole benefit – such is the true spirit of mountaineering!

As we drove westwards from Derry the weather improved and on arrival at Bangor Erris it was near perfect – with a full moon on show, too. So, at 9.50 p.m. precisely, off I set with my fox-terrier, Kim, just as the light began to fade, while Barbara and Denis prepared to camp.

Leaving Bangor I crossed the stone bridge over the Owenmore River, bearing left across a playing field and joined the rough track (Bartholomew’s!) climbing steadily across the west slopes of Knocklettercuss. The track was very rough and going so heavy I soon took to the hillside, heading for the broad ridge-top. At 10.50 I arrived at the top and tried to pick out my planned route across the bog to the east towards Maumykelly. As I expected, this turned out to be one of the most trying and deceptive parts of the tramp as I did not stick to the contours as shown (accurately!) on the ½" map, but took a route which, in the poor light, seemed right but never was.

As I left the top of Knocklettercuss I had behind me a glorious sunset and ahead, dimly revealed, the great crescent of hills I was to cover. Far away to the south I could discern Achill and Slievemore.

Off I headed to the east and after forty minutes arrived at the base of Maumykelly after crossing the last stream I was to see for hours. It was now quite dark, the moon being low to the south-west and hidden by the steep slopes of Maumykelly (1,205). I finally reached the top around midnight. The moon was now behind a cloud and a fresh cool breeze was blowing. I shivered! – and not altogether from the cold. This was my point of no return because from here escape was possible, though irksome. Every yard would now take me up and away from civilisation and I knew that night-walking in bare open country was quite a different proposition from a daylight jaunt.

Far ahead loomed Slieve Car. I was at once somewhat disconcerted to find myself going downhill into heavy bog. Too far left! Around 1 a.m. the wind assumed February-like tendencies and I felt distinctly lonely and depressed on this barren upland. Up and on again – odd lights twinkling miles away. The slope suddenly steepened, the drop to my left became abrupt – and then the immense cairn showed up just as the clouds cleared away and the moon shone bright and clear.

I scrambled to the top of the cairn (a burial mound I imagine) on top of Slieve Car (2,369 ft.) at 2.40 a.m., but I did not stay long. Ahead to the south was a long stretch of high-level bog and stony ground, which, according to my map dropped fairly steeply off at the edges. The next forty minutes was spent circumventing myriad small pools and boggy patches. Far ahead I could just see Nephin Beg. Eventually I reached the southern edge of the elevated plateau at Corslieve (1,785 ft.) and here was revealed a strange and memorable sight. A thousand feet below and stretching for miles to the south- west and west were hundreds of little bog pools and streams with the moonlight reflecting from them to cut a glittering, golden path through the desolation of black bogland.

Ahead and below lay the twin pools of Lough Scardaun and beyond was Nephin Beg, wreathed in early morning clouds. I pressed on for the west end of the Lough, the clouds increased, a high wind suddenly blew up and once again I seemed to be embarked on an endless uphill climb. Finally, as the light improved, I arrived on the nondescript level top of N.B. (2,065 ft.) to encounter a gale. As I was not yet half-way I was justifiably worried, as I would be heading into it. However, I knew that a mile or two ahead my old track crossed the mountains and this would serve as an escape route if the need arose. By the time I had located the negligible cairn in the cloud I was well and truly off line, so – out with map and compass. Off I headed and after descending about four hundred feet came out of the cloud – to find myself completely lost. Nothing made sense and no feature could be allied to the map. Back I went to the cairn again and this time I was very careful in my descent – and this time I came out of the clouds into a world which somehow seemed to have become adjusted! Suddenly the clouds began to lift rapidly and the truly lonely majesty of these hills became most impressive.

In bright sunlight and the dying breeze I headed down across a subsidiary 1,356 ft. top. Every feature for miles around was now etched out clearly in the after-dawn. There lay my long-expected track and it was 6.45 when I crossed it, suddenly feeling exhilarated and fit though hungry. Just over half-way – hours of daylight and sunshine ahead – no need to hurry. I was going to finish this tramp – if I didn’t fall asleep first!

I paused for breakfast on the banks of the Bawnduff River and took time to survey the scenery around me before setting off again at 7 a.m. on the long ascent to the top of Glenamong (2,067 ft.). I took 11 hours over this, but eventually reached the surprisingly broad top and had a chance to see the route ahead. Miles and miles of undulating hill top – and no sign of Denis and Barbara who were to drive to Mulrany and come eastwards to meet me. Too early yet, I thought, and headed down a brief drop, over a slight ascent and then down the long slope preceding the gradual ascent of Cushcumcarragh (2,343 ft.). From this there was a grand lateral ridge running S.E. over Bengorm to Lough Furnace with possible climbs on its north-east face.

It was now about 11 a.m. and not far ahead lay the next major top at 2,230 ft. Leading up to this was the most interesting obstacle yet – a fine arête about 150/200 yards long. Although I was now very tired, this was too good to miss and the next fifteen minutes were most enjoyable.

The nameless top was soon surmounted – I gazed ahead. Where were D. and B.? Suddenly as I sped down the long westward slope I spied them far ahead, just near the 1,446 ft. top west of Glen Thomas. About mid-day we made contact and the feeling of relief heartened me no end.

We chatted about our experiences for fifteen minutes and then Barbara and Denis decided to head eastwards to Cushcummcarragh and come off by the long lateral ridge mentioned above to the main Newport road. Off I staggered again, finding that the rest had been nearly fatal. I doubted now if I could make it, as the next top (1,646 ft.) seemed unattainable. I would pause and consider carefully the alternatives of climbing down ten feet into a dip and up again – or of walking thirty yards on the level to avoid this. The temptation to lie down and sleep was almost irresistible – Kim succumbed to it several times.

The day was now gloriously fine, hot – and growing hotter. Stripped to shorts, I struggled on.

Presently I reached Glennamaddy Lough, having covered 1½ miles in as many hours. The last top, Claggan Mountain, now lay ahead, but it seemed to have several tops. Being mentally very weary, I changed my mind three times about which was the highest and finished up by climbing all of them! The long ridge towards Mulrany became so irksome that I finally abandoned it and came down to the road beside Ballycragher Bay for the last two miles. The briar- tangled mountain was now definitely preferable to the sun-softened tarmac, but on I plodded. At long last, at 4.07 p.m. precisely, I arrived at my car – elated with the realisation that I had achieved my ambition.

Somehow I drove to Newport, in spite of having to stop the car every time any traffic approached and after waiting some time at my contact point I collected Denis and Barbara and pushed on for Westport where a hot bath, a steak and fourteen hours sleep nicely rounded off one of the most memorable mountain tramps I can remember.