Stay away from that mountain!

(by Katherine O’Connor, May 1998)
From New York to Kerry, from fear of heights to a mountain-skills cert – the development of a hillwalker.

“Stay away from that mountain!” My Aunt’s favourite reply whenever I asked about Mount Brandon. Aunt Mary grew up on the last farmhouse at the foot of Mount Brandon (the highest in Ireland outside of the Reeks). She witnessed World War II plane wrecks and brought mugs of milk to the surviving German pilots. She had mountain search and rescue teams based out of her home and her uncle (my great uncle) was clifted while gathering sheep off the Faha ridge. They tell me his shoes were too big and he slipped and fell to his death. The mountain was a big part of her life but it was not a pastime.

Almost every fine day climbers knocked at her door wanting to know if they could leave their car in the yard or to ask advice about the weather or the way up. Mary had climbed to the summit many times for the annual mass in June but her motivation was religion not sport like many of today’s climbers. At first my Aunt enjoyed chatting with these people. However, as the mountain and climbing grew more popular and, as she grew older she resented people coming to her door not out of concern for her but out of concern for the mountain.

In 1975, when her young nieces arrived from New York for their summer holiday we were told that we could wander anywhere we wanted (what freedom compared to a summer in New York City) but “stay away from that mountain” was recited at least once a day. As any good niece would do I listened to my Aunt and stayed away causing the mountain to grow and grow in my mind. I spent the summer exploring the hills and fields of Cloghane, popping in on neighbours, helping my Uncle bring the cows home in the evenings and the milk to the creamery in the morning, all in the shadow of the mountain.

I had seen photographs of the lakes and had heard about the tobar (spring well), the cliffs, the esk (steep, rocky gully) and the summit where an oratory dedicated to Saint Brendan stood and, of course, the dangerous mist that could drop down and blanket it all without a warning. So when August ended and we returned to New York and school I never stopped thinking and talking about Ireland, Brandon mountain and what it must be like up there.

When I was in Austria, ten years later, I bought a pair of hiking boots; they were for “my big climb” to Mount Brandon in a few weeks time. Unfortunately, when my brother and I arrived in Ireland I was knocked out with laryngitis and there was no chance of climbing. Each subsequent trip I made to Ireland I swore I would face Mount Brandon and my fear of heights but what if I was out with people I did not know and I panicked and made a fool out of myself and had to turn back. I didn’t want to go up with just anyone and some of my relatives said they would take me but have you ever tried to pin a Kerryman down to a specific day or time! So another ten years went by, every year repeating the same promise….next trip….next time….

1995 came and I moved to Ireland. No more short holidays as an excuse, I was determined to face my fear of heights and the mountain. Worst case scenario – I would not be able to face the steep esk and would have to turn back – not the end of the world. Then I heard of a pilgrimage to Mount Brandon coinciding with the recently revived Lughnasa festival held on the last Sunday in July. Here was my chance, I figured I could blend in with a large group led by professional guides. I had a friend and local farmer as an escort and he assured me that he had been to the summit on many occasions and would not mind turning back if I had to. Over 100 of us set off in sunshine but two hours later as we approached the peak the mist lowered and we spent the last hour climbing in fog. But as we settled around the oratory for lunch the sun was back and there was plenty of music, poetry and photo opportunities for all involved. After eating we started our descent down and into Cloghane. The village was hopping that evening; everyone was in great form after a successful day out. No easy feat for one hundred people to get to the top and back down again without any incidents. I loved every minute of it and when we reached the summit I was kicking myself for taking twenty years to get there (a very big mountain, indeed!) I had no problem with the climb but now I had a new problem, I could not get enough!

The next few months I spent longing to climb any or all of the mountains in the area but having no experience I could not invite anyone to join me, being new in the area I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed hiking and as much as I enjoy being on my own, climbing alone is not recommended. So every so often I would pick up the phone, call someone that I didn’t really know, swallow my pride and ask if I could join them in a day out. Very humbling – lots of maybes, lots of we’ll ring you, not many yesses. In November, after calling someone I had only met once (what a pest I must have been) I was invited to climb Corran Tuathail (Ireland’s highest). The day was in aid of Rehab and would be led by professional guides and there would be other beginners involved so without hesitation I said yes!

The weather was perfect – cold, crisp and clear but the climb was more difficult than Mount Brandon. When we got to the top of the ridge – a few hundred feet from the summit – I panicked! It wasn’t narrow but we were high up and fear of heights is not a rational thing. Well, this time I made a fool out of myself and needed someone in front to coax me along and someone in back to push me along until we meet up with the others at the cross, had a bite to eat and headed down the Devil’s Ladder. I was a bit shaky but I managed and if the group had turned around and headed back up I would have joined right in! The next two months I spent going on long walks and yearning for more but still could not seem to meet up with anyone I could go climbing with.

1996 – this year would be different. In February, Micheál Ó Coileáin (with the help of Údarás) organised a mountain skills course to be held in Cloghane. I jumped at the opportunity. Here was my chance to meet other people who enjoyed climbing and to learn basic skills like map reading and navigation. But when I received the course prospectus my hands started shaking as I read it. There was talk of ice axes, night navigation, pacing and timing, rope work, dealing with nervous clients and assessment weekends away. I could not do this – not me – afraid of heights – but I stopped and said to myself, “Sign up, take one step at a time and go for it!”

Fifteen people signed up but only eight people completed it. The course was time consuming and people found it difficult to commit. We met every Thursday evening in O’Connor’s Guesthouse in Cloghane, for years a gathering place for climbers. We went from overheads on first aid to navigation at night and from bandages to rope work. Pints of Guinness and black wavy lines (cliffs) floated in my dreams. We were warned that a lot of information would be thrown at us all at once but that over the next few months everything would fall (wrong word?) into place. The emphasis of the course was on doing not talking. Course motto – only one way to learn.

The most important skill was to know where you were at all times by being able to read the lie of the land and transfer it to and from the map quickly and accurately. Confidence came with practice, practice and more practice. Numerous books have been written on almost every aspect of hill walking and safety but they all boil down to common sense and experience. Common sense to think things over and not to take on too much and experience – to learn from yours and others mistakes.

8:00 o’clock every Saturday morning we were packed and on our way to the mountains. The first few weeks were a bit hectic as we tried to settle into our places within the group structure. What should we concentrate on? Everyone was worried about something different – the map, the ground, the compass, pacing, timing, distance, the names of mountains, what we did right, what we did wrong. No wonder I dreamt about the mountains for most of the course and still do! Some of the people caught on very quickly and some people had trouble tying their gaiters and still do (me) but we were all determined to master our maps, get to the top and back down safely and then climb into the nearest pub to talk the day over. It takes time for any group to settle into a rhythm but we settled quickly. Food, water, gear, all up for grabs in the morning. Maps, compasses and suggestions were passed back and forth all day long.

Exchanging of phone numbers and pairing off into teams came about instinctively over time. Some people were confident, others needed to be coaxed, some worried about the weather, others height, some were fast paced, some slow, some loved the snow, some hated it, some were always in the back, and some were always in the front, some people asked a lot of questions and some people had all the answers. Our clothes (most of us wore the same gear every week) were bog-stained, ripped, worn, torn and tattered. Proof that we were either very clumsy or becoming serious about being in the mountains. By the end of the course we were all confident of ourselves and very impressed with each other’s progress.

When I started the course I was afraid of heights, no longer a problem. Before I started the course someone once asked me how I was on steep ground and I couldn’t answer him. Two months later, when he asked I said, “No problem!” I literally faced my fear one step at a time and still do. I always hated myself for being afraid of heights. I thought it was from a bad scare as a child. Now I realise that it had more to do with being in (or out of) control. Once I let go and trusted the group and myself then I realised that if others could do it – I could too!

Now, I have a new fear, I’m afraid of being injured in a car accident because I can’t keep my eyes off the mountains when I’m driving. I’m always comparing the type of terrain to something that I’ve been on or trying to name the peaks or trying to figure out the best route visually or picking out the peaks I’ve been on top of or which ones we will do next weekend or……….