How the West was 1. Green, 2. White, 3. Gold

(by Declan Cunningham, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2010)
Staying at home has never been so green or so good, especially when climbing snow-covered Mweelrea in the winter sunshine.

It’s hard to believe that Paddy’s Day has been and gone already and that horrible ringing in your ears isn’t tinnitus but the ever-constant moan about the recession. I’m not the sackcloth-and-ashes type really so the only way to get through these dark times is to enjoy them and get a bit greener at the same time.

Weekend breaks don’t have to involve low-cost airlines, confiscated nail clippers and packing 25kgs of clothes by wearing 10kgs to be fun you know. Our Emerald Isle has more than its fair share of hidden gems if you really want to get away from it all and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time.

With this in mind we opted for a trip west before all the snows had got a chance to disappear for the next few decades. Three of us piled ourselves and all our gear into our tardis-like Honda Jazz and got to grips with the new N6. Getting to Galway has never been easier. Of course once you get that far you feel like you’re almost there but the roads over there seem to eat time and by the time we got to Letterfrack there was time for only one thing … a pint!

We were staying in the very quirky Old Monastery hostel with the rest of the Irish Mountaineering Club people who had travelled down for what is now a traditional meet to Connemara. It really is a top spot and it’s the only hostel I know with double beds and perspexed-walled and LED-lit bathrooms with piped music and a real fireplace! The owner Stephen will even provide a three-course vegetarian meal for a group if required. Did I mention the porridge and home-baked brown bread and proper coffee for breakfast … how’s that for service?

There were various plans being put forward but it really came down to just two. The main contingent were heading off with meet organiser, John Duignan, to take on half a dozen or more of the Twelve Bens while Mike Scott (Scotty) had enticed the rest for a very deserved return to the ever-impressive Mweelrea. It’s always a good idea to limit group size or just split large groups and go to different locations. It’s a good way of minimising your impact and finding out a bit more about an area. You get more ground covered so you’ll find out about places worth visiting the next time round.

On previous visits to this top spot I’ve experienced fairly mixed weather and have curtailed more ambitious plans accordingly. This time though it was a beautiful clear day so we opted for a car drop and a horseshoe. Car pooling is a simple way of taking the edge off your impact and it’s a bit more social too.

There were only six of us so two cars were plenty. After some very delicate driving and some all-out skating we arrived at Doo Lough. It was early so neither Scotty nor myself could quite get to grips with the idea that both cars had to go to the finish point so that one of them could be left there but we figured it out eventually. Do make the effort to park considerately especially when doing a car drop to ensure access for locals and, perhaps more importantly, mountain rescue, should the need arise.

There are several ways up Mweelrea but considering the unusual and unseasonal snowy conditions we opted to go up ‘the ramp’ on the north-east side. The going is a doddle to begin with if just a little boggy. The enormous back wall of the corrie towers over you and you’d swear blind that there wasn’t a way up it at all. As we passed the Lugmore ridge rising steeply on our left it felt like we were entering a cave almost it’s such an amazing natural amphitheatre. Normally, I wouldn’t be looking in the backs of corries for ascent routes but with this one it’s different … and tried-and-tested to boot.

The huge walls covered us in shadow as we crept our way beneath the north face of the Mweelrea mountains. This place would be impressive and daunting at the best of time but sections of the rock looked even more so draped in ice and snow. None of the ice looked strong enough to climb on but looking over at the huge hulk of Ben Bury with its summit high enough to get the sun made it feel like we were deep in The Rockies. Anyone for a Coors?

Normally I’d advise people to stay on trails to keep wear and tear to a minimum but the trails were snow-covered so we followed in each others footsteps most of the time instead. Hardened Star Wars fans may recall that Sandpeople travel in single file to conceal their numbers, well walkers can do the same to avoid too much wear and minimise impact.

The ramp gets thinner as it approaches the ridge line and normally a few exposed little skips will get you onto the plateau below Ben Bury. For us though it was a little more serious with the steep path completely snow-covered. Scotty made a brave sortie where it should have been but it was a bit more than precarious so we decided to get our crampons on, axes out and pick an alternative. As it turned out our second effort was pretty straightforward and before we knew it we were basking in glorious sunshine at the cairn.

Thawing out is always a bit of a distraction for me but one thing about climbing Mweelrea from Doo Lough is that when you get to the plateau you realise that the summit is still quite far away. I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing but more of an eye-opener. If the going is tough or your group is slow you might want to rethink your plan for the day because cold, tired hikers are less likely to care about their surroundings as well as being more likely to come a cropper.

You have an option here to follow the ridge line up Ben Bury or just contour round towards the main objective. We went for door number 2 and set off. Something akin to a sit-in occurred shortly afterwards. Lunch had been mentioned and it was about that time but it became obvious that when everybody just dropped their packs and started to graze that mealtime had arrived.

Because of our arbitrary choice of lunch spot and the snow there wasn’t any sign of anyone else’s lunch. It may be a bit corny to say ‘Leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs’ but it never ceases to amaze me how many people seem to believe that banana skins, orange peel, tea-bags and the like will break down … Basically, if it didn’t grow there or get there under its own steam and is equally capable of leaving then it probably doesn’t belong there. Bottom line … if you brought it in then it’s up to you to bring it out. Jaysus, it’s sounds like I’m more likely to break down just thinking about it.

Lunch could only hold us so long and the summit certainly wasn’t getting any closer so it was time to get moving again. The final plod up to the top isn’t too bad and it’s easy for the spectacular views to distract you from the effort involved. On a clear day this has to be one of the most beautiful places in the country. To the East and North are the Sheefry Hills and Croagh Patrick. To the South were the impressive peaks of the Maamturks and the Twelve Bens shining in the sun. Out to sea you get great views of countless islands including Inishboffin and Inishturk and just in case that wasn’t enough to float your boat you could drop your gaze into Killary Harbour and follow the coastline with its seemingly endless golden beaches glittering in the distance. It’s not often you get to see snow and beaches in sunshine at the same time now is it?

We topped out a little after 2pm and took some well-earned rest while taking in that hard-to-rival choice of views. There were a few clouds knockin’ around but none of them looked too threatening. No matter what the forecast told you it’s a good idea to keep a weather eye out for changes in case you need to turn tail sooner than planned. It’s never pleasant to get caught out.

I usually bring a mini-tripod to help with photos but if you’re not too precious about your camera you can always balance it on a rock or something. Group photos are worth having and the palaver involved makes them a bit of crack too. Several balanced cameras later we decided we better get down to the business of getting down.

Part of our chosen route meant doubling back to the plateau cairn but this meant we kept our options open. No one wanted to head back the way we came especially considering the dodgy return to the ramp but if time was against us or the weather turned it would be a quick way off.

On our way up we’d spotted a lone walker in the distance but so far bar bumping into a trio of walkers we had the place to ourselves. Picking less-visited areas means you’ll enjoy your little escape that little bit more. It’s not that I have an anti-social gene that I’m trying to repress; it’s just sometimes you really need a bit of space and quiet to take it all in. Getting out and about is a chance not just to detach but to unplug so switch the phone off. I really don’t like hearing a group before I see them if you know what I mean. Besides, too much background noise takes away much more than the view.

Getting a glimpse of a little wildlife is always a bonus for me. We’d spotted lots of what looked like fox tracks though it seemed an unlikely place for one to be, especially in the snow. We were lucky enough to see a few hares and the well-travelled fox. At different times and going in different directions mind. They’d make you green with jealousy with the ease at which they can cover ground so quickly.

Our pace meant we needed to keep going and gain the Lugmore ridge for the route back. There are several little peaks along the ridge as it curls south and then east and the main trail hugs the very top of this precipitous route. I don’t know much about base jumping but keep an eye on the edge and don’t go too close unless you fancy a free fall. It’s like a contour conference there’s such a gathering of them. There’s an inexplicable draw to the edge in areas like this but keep your feet to avoid becoming part of the fabulous view.

The main ridge divides into several smaller spurs going in various directions. Navigationally we had it easy because visibility was so good but cloud is a very regular visitor on Mweelrea so make sure you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. At this stage the trio of walkers had joined us to catch a lift back to their car but also to make sure they didn’t head down the wrong way. The snow gradually receded as we lost height and it wasn’t long till we were back on boggy ground and heading towards Fin Lough and the car.

Despite the cost of living, it’s still popular so the next time you’re at a loss for a weekend break don’t bother with the low-cost airlines but spoil yourselves with home-grown delights instead. Staying at home has never been so green or so good!

Start Point: Follow the N59 to Leenaun and then take the R335 around Killary Harbour and park just past Doo Lough at L828696.
End Point: We left one car the finish at L841651. You don’t have to do a car drop but if you don’t someone will have to do a 4km road walk back to the start.
Distance: 12km
Way Points: Ben Bury – 795m, Mweelrea – 814m & Lugmore 803m plus a few unnamed spot heights for good measure.
Total height gained: About 1100m
Time taken: We took about 6hrs in good conditions. Bad weather would make this walk a far more serious undertaking.
Map: I’d love to say there was a 1:25000 map for this area but there isn’t so I use the OSI Discovery Series (1:50,000), Sheet 37.

More points of interest

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Green tendencies

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Other queries about Access & Conservation can be directed to Aodhnait Carroll, MI’s Access & Conservation Officer  (01) 6251103 or aodhnait-AT-mountaineering-DOT-ie .