Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 5)

September 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

If it's good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it's good enough for me.

If it’s good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it’s good enough for me.

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

Part 4 is here

Day 7: Feohanagh to Cloghane

Distance covered: 21 km; total ascent: 650 m

It’s D-Day.

This is the day I have been both anticipating and dreading ever since I decided to hike the Dingle Way: the day I go over Mount Brandon.

Mount Brandon is the second highest mountain in Ireland. It has multiple peaks, however, and I won’t be climbing the highest one (952 m); the Dingle Way passes over it via a col between two of the lower peaks, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór (names which to me look as if they came straight out of The Lord of the Rings). At 650 m, it will be the highest I’ve ever climbed.

I’ve added something extra to my usual trail rations: a tin of Kendal Mint Cake. I’m sure I’ll need the extra energy, and reason that if it’s good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it should be good enough for me.

Over breakfast (which is every bit as absurdly splendid as yesterday’s dinner), the Englishman tells me he’s checked the forecast for today and it’s meant to be sunny, apart from some fog on the mountaintops.

‘Oh, that’s fine,’ I remark airily, gesturing to the window to my left. ‘Brandon looks totally clear.’

He bursts out laughing. ‘That’s Ballydavid Head you’re looking at,’ he says. ‘Brandon’s the other side of the house.’

I spring up and go to the far window and that’s when my jaw nearly hits the floor. A massive hulk of a mountain rises in green majesty, completely blocking out the horizon, its slopes splashed with sunshine. The highest of the peaks are cloaked in fog.

‘…Thanks for clearing that up,’ I mumble weakly.

Breakfast finished, we part ways (the English couple are off to Waterford; the Irish couple are hoping to visit Great Blasket) and they all wish me luck. I finish packing, thank my hostess profusely for having restored me to myself, pluck my pole out of the umbrella stand in the front hall and soon I’m on the trail again, the sun so gloriously warm that I almost immediately discard my hoodie and roll up the sleeves of my t-shirt (I’m wearing the bird one again, for good luck).

Mount Brandon 1

The first several kilometres of the trail are gentle, passing through farmland, mostly on the flat. Mount Brandon unfolds before me in a breathtaking combination of sun and cloud shadow. As I get closer, I realise that the gradient of the lower slopes, at least, looks fairly gentle. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

Mount Brandon 2

Mount Brandon fog

The trail crosses a small car park and goes through a gate and just like that, I’m climbing the mountain.

Mount Brandon trail

The ascent is easy at first. I pass two hikers, a middle-aged American couple; apart from them my only companions are the ever-present sheep. The sun is warm and the ground, despite two days of rain, isn’t particularly muddy. After I’ve gone what feels a decent distance, I stop for lunch, perching on a bit of old stone wall. (For something that looks like a bar of soap, the mint cake is surprisingly tasty, although not so much that I’m likely to add it my daily diet.)

Ballydavid Head seen from Mount Brandon

Ballydavid Head seen from Mount Brandon

Ballydavid Head 2

The trail continues to climb, following the remnants of an unfinished British military road. It’s getting stiffer, but is still entirely within my abilities, and the reward for stopping to rest is spectacular views – behind me, Ballydavid Head and the Three Sisters; ahead of me, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór, the former bathed in sunlight, the latter buried in fog. The col looks clear. And I’m rapidly approaching the top.

One more push and you’re there, I tell myself. I redouble my efforts and stride up to the crest.

Something’s wrong. The stone pillar with the Ogham carving that’s supposed to stand at the summit is nowhere to be seen. All I can see is the mountain rising higher and higher… into the fog.

I consult my map again and realise it’s missing a vital bit of information. The peak to my left that I took for Más an Tiompán is apparently a peak too minor to merit inclusion. No, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór are the two peaks buried under a huge cloud.

I’m going to be scaling Mount Brandon in the fog.

I find myself thinking things about the guidebook that, if I were to spell them out here, would make this blog thoroughly NSFW. But cursing out a useless guidebook will only get you so far. So I shove it back in my rucksack and consider my options:

  1. Turn and walk back to Feohanagh with my tail between my legs and beg the B&B owner to book me a taxi to Cloghane;
  2. Press on.

Option #1 is considered for about two seconds and thrown out. I wade into the fog. After I’ve gone about 100 metres I glance back over my shoulder. Ballydavid Head has disappeared from view. It’s just me and the mountain now.

There are times when I find myself rather regretting my atheism and this is one of them. It would be very comforting to be able to pray, to place my trust in some higher power – but I can’t. Moreover, surrendering my trust to something external is probably the very worst thing I can do right now.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and wait for my pulse to stop thundering so loudly in my ears. You can do this, I remind myself. With the sleeves of my t-shirt rolled up over my shoulders and the bandanna knotted over my hair, I reckon I look a bit like Rosie the Riveter. It’s a cheering thought, even if Rosie probably never would have worn hiking boots and a walking pole isn’t exactly the same thing as a riveting gun.

Luckily, the good people who maintain the Dingle Way are obviously aware of the problem heavy fog poses on Mount Brandon, and there are many extra waymarkers here – white posts, each placed about 10 m apart. With current visibility conditions I can see two white posts ahead of me. I keep my eyes fastened on them and strike off.

If I thought the trail between Tralee and Camp was boggy and rough, now I realise that was a mere warm-up for Brandon. Every third step I find myself squelching through boggy ground or mud. The ground is so watery that not infrequently sections of trail are, essentially, streams. My boots, which hadn’t entirely dried out from the last two days’ worth of rain anyway, are soon waterlogged. The air’s chill and damp, the fog swirled by wind, but I’m so warm with exertion that I give no thought to putting a jacket back on.

The world has narrowed to this: fog, boggy ground, the sharply-rising mountainside, and the line of white waymarkers that I tick off like beads on a chain. The only other living creatures I’m aware of are a few sheep cropping grass with supreme unconcern. I won’t deny feeling a bit frightened, but I also know I’ve rarely felt so focused in my life. One foot in front of the other. One more waymarker down.

After I’ve been battling my way up for what seems an eternity, I hear voices ahead of me. I can’t seen their owners but it sounds like several men and women, laughing and shouting to each other in German. For the first time on this walk I’m actually glad beyond belief to discover other hikers on the trail. If they’re ahead of me, it means that 1. the trail is passable and 2. I’m not as alone as I thought I was.

Ogham stone, Mount Brandon

Ogham stone, Mount Brandon

At long last the ground begins to flatten under my feet, and through the fog I see a pile of boulders at what I think must now be the crest of the col. Five bright jackets are huddled around the boulders, and as I draw closer I see the German hikers perched on the rocks unwrapping their lunch. Ahead of me is a tall, narrow slab of red stone, slightly curved at the top: the famous Ogham stone.* I stop just long enough to snap a couple of photos and catch my breath, but I don’t spend too long congratulating myself. Everything I’ve read about the Dingle Way suggests that the descent of Brandon is much tougher than the ascent.

I press forward, searching for the next waymarker. I can just pick out one of the usual black ones with the little yellow hiker at the top, but ahead of it – nothing. Perhaps I should go right instead? I timidly venture in that direction but now there are no waymarkers of any description. I try my torch. It’s useless in the fog. I head back to the last waymarker and then realise my mistake.

I was looking ahead of me for the next one. I should have been looking straight down.

Suddenly I’m grateful for the fog. I’m sure that if I were actually able to see the descent in its entirety, I’d be paralysed with fear. As it is, I can see just far enough ahead of me to – I hope – avoid falls and obstacles.

I start down the steepest descent I’ve ever done in my life, keeping as close to the ground as I can, relying on my pole and on grabbing hold of chunks of turf and rocks to keep me from falling. It’s inglorious and graceless but nobody can see me and frankly, I’d rather make it down alive than die gracefully.

The trail on the ascent was boggy but the descent is worse – mud, mud, mud as far as the eye can see. It cakes my boots and makes every step treacherous, but it does at least have the advantage of slowing me down, of helping me fight gravity…

Or so I think. Just when the gradient is starting to lessen, I take one false step. Before I can blink I’ve landed in the mud. Right on my bum.

Shock gives way immediately to laughter. It’s undignified, I’m covered with mud but I’m safe. I haven’t fallen off the mountain. And I sit there in the mud for a moment, shaken by peals of relieved and merry laughter, before I pick myself up and continue on my way.

Mount Brandon descent 1

The gradient gradually becomes gentler, even if the trail is still ankle-twisting and rough, and the fog begins to lift. When I turn back I see Más an Tiompán soaring upward into the fog, its slopes littered with boulders and I gasp. I came down that?

Mount Brandon descent 2

Mount Brandon descent 3

Finally the trail comes to a junction with a gravel road. I stop to catch my breath again and gaze back at the mountain, its peak still hidden by the fog.

I’m exhausted. I’m pouring sweat. I’m liberally coated with mud. My right Achilles tendon is thoroughly unhappy with me.

I feel like the Queen of the Universe.

*

The rest of the descent from Brandon is surprisingly gentle and entirely over roads, first gravel and then paved, with majestic views of the mountain towering above a river valley. I pass two other hikers going the opposite direction but apart from that I’m on my own and glad of it again. The sheep on Brandon seem to be a more phlegmatic breed than the ones in the Emlagh Valley: none of them bolts as I pass, they just stare after me, no doubt thinking what are you, strange two-legged creature?

Pub cat, Brandon village

Pub cat, Brandon village

The trail winds gently down to Brandon village, which is small, charming, full of blackberry-laden hedgerows (I regale myself shamelessly, especially as they’re the first ones I’ve encountered today) and, most important, two pubs. The first one, O’Shea’s, looks shut (although I make friends with its cat) but this turns out to be a blessing – the other one, Murphy’s, is perched above the harbour and has plenty of outdoor tables. I’m not usually one to have a drink before the end of a hike but today of all days I think I’ve earned it. I order a glass of cider and drink it at a table overlooking the pier, watching the fishing boats come and go and feeling utterly contented.

Brandon harbour

Brandon harbour

The remaining 6 km to Cloghane are easy, over quiet lanes and minor roads, and I feel as if I’m floating, as if I could keep going forever. The guidebook describes the final descent to Cloghane as ‘rather steep’ and I have to laugh, because compared to the descent from Brandon the description is comical. All the same, it’s quite muddy and I go carefully, not really wanting a repeat of my earlier fall.

Ruined church, Cloghane

Ruined church, Cloghane

Cloghane is tiny and pretty and if my B&B is nowhere near as splendid as where I stayed the night before – it’s just rooms above a pub – I’m too exhausted to care, fatigue finally falling on me like a great weight now that I know I don’t have to go any further today.

26.8.14 Cloghane

As I’m drifting off to sleep, I realise something startling.

My knee hasn’t bothered me at all today. Not once.

 

*The inscription reads ‘of the priest Ronan, son of Comgán’. The purpose of the stone is unknown but it’s thought to be a memorial of some sort.

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