In august an off-grid week of wild camping and mountain summitting in the desolate beauty Wicklow Mountains, my first foray into the Irish summits had all the makings of a fantastic adventure. Things certainly didn’t quite turn out as planned but nevertheless, an adventure it certainly was! Here is Part One of the four part drama!
I had plotted a 220km route looping from Dublin to include the 39 mountains in and around Wicklow National Park. With over 8500m of elevation gain, very rough terrain, notoriously fickle weather and the surprising remoteness of the area I looked forward to a week long, fast-packing, wild-camping adventure which in reality turned into the toughest mountain week I have experienced to date! It was definitely NOT a week of instagrammable camping sunsets but more of a special forces training expedition for one!
The Wicklow Diaries : Day 1 – The Calm Before…
Just under 10km through Dublin city from the Ha’Penny Bridge over the Liffey is Marlay Park, the official start point of the popular ‘Wicklow Way’, a 127km upland trail. I would dip in and out of a couple of small sections of this route as it doesn’t visit any summits but skirts mostly along the eastern side of the range.
Fuelled on a small Guinness I began following some easy paths of the Wicklow Way and soon the first mountains gave a hint of the nature of the terrain in this region. Though granite at their core these mountains are blanketed with peat bog which on many summits and cols form the impression of a ground that has been stretched and ripped resulting in boggy mazes of peat hags and channels.
It’s really surprising just how remote and desolate these mountains can be when you consider they can be reached on foot from the bustling capital city of Dublin in just a few hours. Heavy, intermittent rain showers were the order of the day but my only real challenge on this ‘warm up’ section was the uncustomary weight of my pack – a hefty 17kg – I was carrying a weeks food as my route would not pass any place to restock after the second day. This was quite something to contemplate hauling up and over 39 mountains but at least it would gradually get lighter as I munched my way through the supplies!
Day 2 – Closing in….
Setting off, my pack must have easily been 500g lighter after last night’s dinner and a hearty porridge breakfast! An ambitious 20 mile route over 10 Mountains was the plan and I made good ground through the morning, even dumping that monster pack halfway up a hill for a quick ‘out and back’ on Kippure – after all, (a)there was nobody around and (b)if anyway did try to hoof off with it they would not have been making a very fast escape under that load so I was confident I could give good chase!
After six summits I was a bit behind schedule having been slowed by the bogs and was yet to cross Barnacullian Bog – an expanse of peat bog generously described in guidebooks as “complicated ground”. This desolate landscape is an obstacle maze of peat hag islands, black holes and channels deep enough to be described as crevasses, all ready to swallow the unsuspecting hill goer.
Distracted by the task of navigating over the saddle to begin the climb to my last three mountains I had barely noticed the bad weather closing in and thick dark clouds dropping to smother the mountains as the wind began to rise. Heavy weather and high winds were forecasted but not until the following day and I had been planning sensible shelter for the Friday night but this was 24 hours early and suddenly looking grim. It was 6pm and at the speed I was making it would take some time to get over the next three mountains and down to more sheltered ground. Not knowing the terrain ahead and with Tonelagee summit looking less inviting by the second I made the decision to start scouting out a camping spot amidst all the bog. Dropping down off the main ridge in the lee of the increasing winds I found a pretty good spot sheltered by some large rocks and on well drained ground. Putting up the tent in double quick time I just got everything thrown inside including myself before the downpour began.
And so began a very long night as my tent was tested for the first time in torrential rains, high gusting winds and then to my absolute horror, a thunder and lightning storm. The lightning was an unexpected and un-forecasted additional worry factor as I was a little higher than I would have liked to be at 590m elevation and next to some pointy rocks. But I was off the ridge and perched on my air mattress (for all the good that would probably do) and had even formulated an escape route should my tent blow away so I curled up inside and nervously watched the lightning illuminate the tent as menacing cracks of thunder drew ever closer and louder…suffice to say I didn’t feel like I slept at all but (spoiler alert) I obviously survived the night, yet as I peeked out from the comforting bubble of the tent as daylight grew the weather was not improving and it looked certain it would be a challenging day ahead…