This has been sitting in my journal for a month, and for some reason, I’m only now posting it. Due to internet connectivity issues, I will have to insert the pictures at an even later date.
October 11: Mweelrea
Having been in Venture Crew since I was fifteen, I’d like to think I’ve done a fair amount of hiking – in Wisconsin, in Minnesota, in Michigan, along a small portion of the AT. Yesterday, however, I went hiking with the NUIG Mountaineering Club, and I can say without doubt that it was the most intense hike I’ve ever done in my life.
We scaled part of Mweelrea, the highest peak in Connacht (western Ireland, to those unfamiliar with the geography of the island). Let’s just say that the photo album is titled “Holy ****, We’re Climbing THAT?!?” for a reason. The incline for a good portion of our ascent had to be between 45 and 60°, even steeper at some points, meaning that we were essentially crawling uphill some of the time. Our ascent took us up several hundred meters – within the first hour alone, a number that grew to over 800 by the end of the day.
Complicating our hike was the fact that Mweelrea doesn’t have trails, something I’m coming to realize is true of most Irish hiking locations. We got on the mountain by hopping a gate and followed the fenceline up the mountainside as we began our climb. I had to hang onto it at several points, being careful to grab the portion below the top string of barbed wire, in order to keep my footing as we made our way at an awkward angle across slick grass, slicker mud, and unfortunately placed rocks. You could never be sure of where to place your feet, as even the grass was often untrustworthy. Connemara is the land of bog, meaning that the ground gives way beneath your feet like a sponge, often submerging you to the ankle in muddy water. Standing water, where the ground is level enough to allow such pools to occur, is to be avoided at all costs; if the ground is so saturated that even a few inches of water are visible above the surface, stepping in the puddle could well mean plunging knee- to waist-deep in it.
We were all cold enough to don our coats before starting up the mountain, but the hard going quickly warmed us up. Hats and coats were put away, though I was the only person to do most of the climb in short sleeves. The going was tough, beut we stopped regularly for breaks, and so I had no trouble keeping up. Indeed, for much of our initial ascent, I felt like the group was too closely bunched; I kept having to stop so that I could see and plan my steps three or four at a time.
The forecast for the day was sun, but the sun was scarce to be seen. A think layer of mist hung about the tops of the mountains, obscuring their peaks from view – and by lunchtime, we had entered that veil. Our breaks became more frequent, as it became harder and harder to see all the way to the back of the line. Eventually, this became completely impossible, and three or four people immediately before and after me were all I could see. Visibility was down to about fifty feet, our fearless leader completely enveloped by the fog ahead.
Only once before in my life have I experienced fog so dense. It swirled around us, muffling all sound. It clung to us, condensing in our hair – no longer do I thing the “foggy dew” of Irish song to be a gratuitous expression. It isolated us, allowing every hiker to climb alone in his own quiet, white world.
The ground had leveled off considerably by this point, diminishing to an incline that, while still distinctly uphill, was comparatively gentle. As far as we could see (which, admittedly, was not far), we were walking across a wide, sloped field. For perhaps twenty minutes, we were able to walk somewhat normally, without using our hands for support and balance or worrying about the placement of every foot.
Which made it all the more surprising when the ground to our right abruptly fell away. We had reached the ridge and were now hiking along the rim of a massive bowl. Not five feet to our right, the edge was studded with impressive boulder formations, which although they punctuated it, did not hide the steep slope or the potential for a very long fall. On a clear day, the view from this rim must be spectacular; as it was, the boulders, half-shrouded themselves, were the only things visible between us and a vast white abyss.
The view to the left was more comforting, but not by much. It too sloped away, albeit much more gradually. But because anything more than forty feet away was completely swallowed by the mist, it was impossible to tell if the hospitable downhill continued, or if it too would end in an abrupt and deadly drop. Making our way somewhat gingerly along the roughly ten-foot-wide strip of navigable ground, we finally reached a small cairn. This pile of stones, little more than a foot high, marked that we had finally reached the highest point of this particular route up the mountain.
But there was no time to stop and celebrate, for we now had to make our way back down from the height we had just reached. And while the descent was less strenuous than the ascent, it was immensely more stressful. The rock on this part of the mountain was different and consisted mostly of small, flat, and frequently sharp-edged stones. Though I wouldn’t have imagined it possible, the footing here was even more treacherous than it had been on the way up. Imagine, if you will, trying to pick your way through a minefield of small loose stones along a pathway that has narrowed to only a few feet. Best step carefully, because a misstep that throws your balance too far to the right could quite honestly be your last. But don’t take too long deciding on where to put your feet, because the gap between you and the person ahead is widening. Most of the group is completely out of sight, and the path ahead isn’t marked. Once or twice, the group ahead of me disappeared entirely, leaving me to figure out my own way across the rocky slope, a harrowing task indeed.
At last the rocks gave way, and we reached a much larger cairn that had been erected to mark the way down. We turned right here, and after making our way one at a time around one particularly difficult corner – the cling to the rock and edge sideways along a foot-wide ledge that disappears altogether at the point of the protruding right angle kind – we were again making our way down the mountainside, with no frightening edges coming perilously close to our path. You still had to be careful about where you put your feet, though, as the ground was muddy and steep.
This seems an appropriate time to mention that the mountaineering club deems several things essential to attend their hikes. These include: hiking boots; wind- or waterproof pants (or at least pants that are not jeans); water; lunch; and a change of clothes for the ride back. During our descent, I was brusquely reminded that the change of clothes should be a full one, including not just a shirt, socks, and pants, but also underwear and a sweatshirt. If, as is entirely possible, you step in a wet patch and wipe out completely, you’re going to want all of those. Even if you can change out of your muddy outer clothes, the bus ride home is not going to be comfortable if you have to sit through it in wet underwear.
At long last, we made our way back down to the bus. My knees were killing me by the time we reached the bottom, and the last part of the descent seemed to take forever. We had finally gotten below the fog line and were able to see just how long we still had to go. The unstable and slippery nature of the ground meant that you had basically two choices: go slowly, and place every foot with caution, or move fast enough that the ground didn’t have time to give way beneath you. Istvan was of this second, mountain goat mentality, and I envied him his ability to skip nimbly down the mountainside. My own legs were far too exhausted to manage such a thing and would probably have given out beneath me if I tried.
I was thoroughly impressed by the sheep of the region. Even the steepest cliffs were dotted with tiny white specks, and while it was certainly thickest at the base of the mountain, we had to dodge sheep scat all the way up to the top. “Fit as a Connemara sheep,” I have decided, is one of the highest compliments you can receive as an athlete.
In retrospect, all of this sounds a lot whinier than I meant it to. The climb was challenging, and certainly not something I would attempt on my own, but it was well within my own abilities. If anything, it gave me a better idea of what I am capable of. And the terrain, though somewhat perilous, was amazing to behold. My day at Mweelrea was an intense and difficult one, and muddy and misty to boot, but that was what made it awesome.