Category Archives: Mountains

Ridges and rodents – hiking to Angel’s Rest

Angel's Rest and the Columbia River, May 2017

Angel’s Rest and the Columbia River, May 2017

I would have felt a bit better about climbing Angel’s Rest if a chipmunk hadn’t beat me to the top.

Yet there he was, the focus of all attention. I watched as a group of hikers ignored the spectacular views of the Columbia River Gorge below, and instead perched themselves on the cliff edge trying to get a snap of the striped rodent.

Alvin wasn’t alone – dozens of chipmunks live on the rocky outcrop at the end of the Angel’s Rest trail, one of the most popular hikes in the Gorge. Their presence adds a cuteness factor to an easy, but rewarding, 442m ramble up from the trailhead below.

My wife and I undertook the hike last weekend, partly to take advantage of the improving Pacific Northwest weather, and also to get back into the hiking groove after a dreary winter of record rainfall in the Portland area.

It’s not hard to grasp why the trail is so popular, and a useful starter hike for the summer season. The trailhead is a minute off I-84, the path itself is well maintained, and the route is unmistakable – mostly because dozens of other hikers are making their way up ahead of you. And many dogs are accompanying them.

Tail on the trail

Tail on the trail

After winding through forest, the route opens up to a series of switchbacks, as you climb above the Columbia River below, passing Coopey Falls, a 46m-high horsetail waterfall. Ascending in the direction of Angel’s Rest itself, you hike for 1.5 miles across terrain that still carries the marks of a series of forest fires.

The congestion on the trail means that a clean rhythm is difficult to achieve – the routine of stopping and starting put me in mind of one of my regular city hikes when I lived in Dublin, the circuit of Howth Head, whose narrow trail is also heavily populated on summer weekends. (And whose paths are scarred by brush fires.)

Eventually though, after 2.4 miles and 90 minutes of hiking, a final left turn led us to the payoff, a rocky ridge leading to a bluff 481m up. The spot commands impressive views of the Columbia River, Beacon Rock and Silver Star Mountain across the gorge, and even Portland itself, far off to the west.

Our day was overcast but clear – the cloud kept the temperature down but afforded us the full array of views. It was a gentle reintroduction to hiking after the winter’s hibernation.

We weren’t the only ones who’d hibernated, of course. The chipmunks glanced with bewilderment at the panting climbers, scurrying around our feet on the lookout for scraps of food.

Having encountered goats, sheep, and ibex in the mountains in Europe, I’d assumed that the high places were always home to bigger, hardier, creatures. Add chipmunks to that list.

After a series of snaps and stretches, we started our descent, one made easier on the knees by the forgiving switchbacks. Little more than an hour later, we were back at the trailhead.

And so begins an outdoors summer in Oregon. Here’s to more hikes, more summits, and – naturally – more chipmunks.

Angel’s Rest

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Four million people at our feet

Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Downtown LA from Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Los Angeles is not a great hiking city. A mesh of sprawling, strangling freeways that cross a vast, concrete-laden, urban area, it’s hardly known as a spot for a hearty outdoors ramble.

This was my attitude before I first travelled to the city. On that initial visit I scratched off the idea that I’d get outdoors at all, given the daytime temps in the 90s.

This was despite the imposing presence of the San Gabriel Mountains, which overlooked my wife’s hometown of Temple City. From a distance though, they appeared smog-choked and dusty.

But luckily my wife’s family know LA, and know where to hike. Slowly but surely, subsequent visits introduced me to hill and mountain paths, most of which were within 30 minutes of Downtown (presuming traffic’s light, which is always a risky presumption in the City of Angels).

Hiking Topanga Canyon

Hiking Topanga Canyon

And so I’ve hiked up through Eaton Canyon to the falls at its head, spent an early morning walking the Los Liones trail in Topanga State Park, and filled the best part of a day traversing the trails above Millard Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Last weekend saw me add another route. Waking early, we travelled to Ernest E Debs Regional Park, a set of small hills and paths overlooking central northeast Los Angeles.

Unlike previous hiking spots I’d been to in the city, Debs Park is surrounded – or so it seems – by urban LA. The 110 freeway skirts the park’s northern edge; LA’s Eastside sprawls in one direction, with a view towards Downtown in the other. There’s graffiti on the tree trunks, and desolate, burned brush on parts of the hills.

But 20 minutes, and a steep tarmac roadway, later saw us perched on a dusty trail above the city. A slight breeze kept LA’s yellow smog haze at bay, and – despite the fact that it was a weekend morning – there was no-one else around.

For a few moments we had our scrubby, green-brown, hilly oasis. A city of four million people lay at our feet, but the only movement was the sparrows flying over our heads.

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A winter walk on the Wildwood

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

I’d like every one of my hikes to be in the Cascades, the Alps or the Adirondacks.

But as a man of finite time and even-more-finite means, that always doesn’t happen. In fact, it rarely does.

I still want to hike though, even if it’s not an eight-hour day trek or a week’s climbing on glaciers.

Luckily I relocated to Portland, Oregon this year, which is where Forest Park comes in. Running for eight miles on hillsides overlooking the Willamette River, and encompassing 5,100 acres of woodland, it’s one of the largest municipal parks in the US.

Moving countries, households and jobs takes time. Up to a fortnight ago, with the exception of one early morning hike around Trillium Lake, I hadn’t had a decent, muck and sweat-strewn outing since last July.

It was boots on and up to Forest Park then. My wife and I opted for a route running from the Newton Road to the Wildwood trail (#12 here), a loop that ran for 4.4 miles and involved a descent (and subsequent ascent) of 300 meters.

On the Newton Road.

On the Newton Road.

Despite the lateness of the season, early November in the park meant some autumnal color, much slippery windfall underfoot and temperate hiking. Luckily for us the frequent Portland winter rain also held off (allowing us the view above), as did any large groups of fellow hikers.

And so we were granted a quiet, people-free three hours in the hills, a few short miles from downtown Portland but as remote as the wilder parts of the Wicklow Mountains National Park (where I hiked regularly when living in Dublin). Our outing was not quite fauna-free, thankfully: we spotted a woodpecker (the first this Irishman had ever seen) and a fox, two of the 112 bird and 62 mammal species to be encountered in the park.

Much as I’d like to set off on winter outings that involved down jackets, crampons and 4am starts, such expeditions are not always practical – as any city-based hiker will tell you. Hence the importance of outdoor spaces like Forest Park.

I’m lucky that it’s all of 20 minutes from my front door – and that there’s another 5,000 or so acres of it to explore.

Two roads diverged.

Two roads diverge.

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A running lesson from a 70-something hiker

On Croagh Patrick

On Croagh Patrick

“It’s good for the soul.”

Not the words I expected to hear from a 70-something hiker as he ascended the tough scree slopes of Croagh Patrick, a mountain on Ireland’s western seaboard, on a rain and wind-lashed November afternoon.

The light was falling and I was coming off the mountain as quickly as my sodden boots could carry me. As I descended I was surprised to see, emerging from the mist ten minutes below the summit, a couple of men making their way up.

As they got closer I expected a brief conversation, above the howling wind, about conditions on top or how much longer they had to hike to get there. That’s if I even wanted to engage in conversation – my summit high had quickly faded and I was dreaming of taking off every piece of wet clothing once I got back to my car.

The lead climber, now just meters away, was 40 years older than me, moving slower than I was and clearly feeling the impact of a 700 meter ascent up a wet rock path.

Seconds before we passed he looked up and grimaced, before smiling briefly and giving me his words of advice. A second later we parted. I think we managed a mutual ‘best of luck’ – but I doubt either of us heard it above the wind.

This morning I awoke more than 4,400 miles from Croagh Patrick, to the sight of rain pouring down on the September streets of Portland, Oregon. It was before dawn, I was tired, my legs were sore, my rain-gear packed in a box still in transit from Ireland.

I could’ve provided myself with a dozen more excuses not to go for a morning run. But something in the rising light or the hanging clouds on the West Hills kicked me back to November 2008, to the slopes of Croagh Patrick and an old hiker who refused to quit on a hard mountain day.

My three miler was little compared to his daylong climb, though we probably wound up equally drenched afterwards.

Eight years on, the Croagh Patrick climber’s advice has stayed with me. Whether it’s climbing a weather-lashed mountain or pounding city streets through the rain, don’t think it, just do it – and keeping doing it. If nothing else, your soul will be fit.

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

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What I learned from a towering wall of Alpine ice

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson called it ‘the beckoning silence of high places’ – the lure that pulls people to the mountains, often to their most dangerous spots.

I’ve been to few places higher, or more silent, than the icy glacier that sits atop the Monte Rosa massif, the mountain chain which borders Switzerland and Italy, a sea of ice flowing down a frozen valley beneath the peaks of the Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze.

Six years ago this week I traversed the massif, climbing eight peaks in five days and pushing myself to limits I wasn’t even aware of.

Over the course of the week I came dangerously close to losing a glove in high winds on the Zumsteinspitze, assisted in bringing a fellow climber down after he was struck with altitude sickness, and – the payoff for repeated endurance tests – witnessed a series of incredible summit vistas.

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

I also took not-insignificant risks, one of which is pictured above. The picture was snapped as I descended from the Signalkuppe (4,554m), travelling by a hanging serac wall under the Parrotspitze (4,432m).

At the time the huge mass of ice above barely registered, despite it being mid-afternoon and a dangerous time for avalanches. I’d been climbing for 12 hours. Like the other members of the small group I was with, I just wanted to get down – and the route under the Parrotspitze was the most direct way.

In fact, given my tiredness, light supplies and the hour of the day it was the only option.

Perhaps that’s why the danger never registered at the time – when you’ve a single route forward and no way back it’s pointless to dwell on a concept like risk (or tiredness, or freezing feet, or an unquenchable thirst and a very finite amount of water in your flask).

Afterwards – if there’s an afterwards – you applaud yourself for your bravery, or dig up your photograph and write about it all.

I’m reluctant to draw life lessons from trips to the mountains, but when the Monte Rosa picture popped up on a social media feed this week it occurred to me that risk is a phenomenon that takes up as much space as you allow it to.

If you’re on a single path, to a single destination, it becomes – as it was under the Parrotspitze – simply part of the landscape.

Under the mountain - Parrotspitze, 2010

Under the mountain – Parrotspitze, 2010

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Ain’t no 8000 metre Himalayan peak high enough

Cho Oyu. Pic: Uwe Gille

Cho Oyu. Pic: Uwe Gille

Know any songs about mountaineering? Me neither.

There’s plenty about mountains, of course. Led Zeppelin don’t have much in common with Percy French but both wrote about the hills (although Misty Mountain Hop is a very different song to The Mountains of Mourne).

There are more (possibly the most famous, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, originated from a music label in Detroit – a city hardly known for its peaks) but they’re not that common. There’s a list of others here. Suffice to say that more music is inspired by cars and girls.

Until you come to the work of Geir Jenssen. Under the name Biosphere he’s released some of the most acclaimed ambient music of the past 30 years – not least the benchmark album Substrata.

Geir Jenssen. Pic: Mitja Podreka

Geir Jenssen. Pic: Mitja Podreka

But Jenssen is also a mountaineer. In 2001 he climbed Cho Oyu, at 8,201 metres the sixth highest mountain in the world, doing so without supplementary oxygen.

If this wasn’t achievement enough, Jenssen managed to document the ascent by recording sound samples including one, incredibly, on the summit itself.

Five years later he compiled the recordings, releasing them in an intriguing package which included a diary of the climb. He titled it, simply, Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings from Tibet.

The 48-minute recording documents the elements, the voices of fellow climbers and locals, radio broadcasts and movement. The last five pieces are named for the camps on the mountain and, finally, the summit itself.

The ‘tracks’, such as they are, are a step beyond simple field recordings. There’s occasionally a percussive element, a natural sound repeating, that offers a rhythm. There’s a sense of pacing and atmosphere building. Despite this there’s little doubt that, as listening goes, the work will appeal first and foremost to mountaineers.

Committing the sound of a mountain environment to an album-length recording is difficult, if not impossible. Instead Jenssen’s Cho Oyu release goes some way to communicating the atmosphere of climbing a high mountain – the wind, the flapping of fabric, the slow trudge of crampons on snow, the wind again (although the climatic track, The Summit, is surprisingly calm).

Very few of us will climb an 8000-er but, in the right frame of mind, Geir Jenssen can put us on one. Could Marvin Gaye do that?

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The high wilderness of Lugnaquilla

Descending above Kelly's Lough, July 2016

Descending above Kelly’s Lough, July 2016

Lugnaquilla’s not a marquee mountain.

It lacks the height of Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak, or the spectacular ocean views of Brandon or Mweelrea. It’s not a pilgrim site, like Croagh Patrick, or close to a famed smuggler’s path, like Slieve Donard.

But what it lacks in pizzazz it makes up for by its wildness. It may be only an hour’s drive from Dublin but Lugnaquilla presides over a high, windswept wilderness, a landscape of moors and tarns and very few people.

For that reason it offers city dwellers short on time – or tourist hikers – a day hike do-able from the capital.

Over the years it’s offered me – depending on the season – lunar-like landscapes of snow and ice, driving rain or hours of cold, high sun. And always the wind, blowing from the Atlantic across the flat Midlands and up the ramp of Camara Hill, or from the north over the whale’s back of Mullaghcleevaun.

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

I can always get up there more often. Living in London in the 1790s, William Wordsworth would think of the mountains of the Lake District, writing “’mid the din,  Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet”.

I’m often struck by the same. And so, coming off a busy home schedule last week, I pulled out my boots, emailed friends and arranged a hike to the ‘Hollow of the Wood’.

Having tried many routes over the years the most favourable ascent, to my mind, is that from Glenamalure, a glacial valley to the mountain’s north, reportedly the longest of its kind in Ireland and Britain.

This was the remote place where Irish rebel Michael Dwyer hid out from the British at stages in the years after the 1798 rebellion. It’s easy to see why – the nearest sign of civilisation, the townland of Aghavannagh, is known to locals as “the last place God made”. Even at the 9am in the height of summer our group were the only ones setting out from Baravore ford at the head of the valley.

The route up is navigationally easy. A path leads past a youth hostel and up into the heart of the Fraughan Rock Glen, where the first of three steep pulls, alongside an unnamed river (surging in winter), brings you up  into a cwm below the summit itself.

This is where the isolation of Lugnaquilla becomes apparent. On the many occasions I’ve ascended this way I’ve rarely encountered other hikers in the huge, grassy, stream-streaked bowl.

Summit - 925m

Summit – 925m

On crossing the cwm the ground gets steeper, before levelling out at the foot of the final ascent, which brings you onto the saddle of the mountain.

This flat, barren landscape can present navigation problems. But a combination of timing and sheer luck last Saturday saw us reach it just as the clouds cleared, revealing the Glen of Imaal to the west and the Irish Sea to the south east.

However, with thundershowers forecast this was no place to linger. After a brief breather at the summit cairn (925m) we descended to the east, across to Clohernagh (800m), which hangs above Kelly’s Lough, one of the highest lakes in the Wicklow Mountains.

From there we descended to the cliffs at Bendoo, where we picked up the head of the ‘Zig Zags’, a trail which provides a knee-testing descent back down to Glenmalure.

We didn’t waste time, completing the 15.5km walk in four and a half hours – clocking up a 800m ascent in the process.

As for wildness, we had it in spades. We encountered no-one on the ascent, a couple of hikers on the summit and perhaps a dozen descending the Zig Zags.

For much of the hike we could have been walking hundreds of years earlier, alongside Michael Dwyer or Wordsworth, feeling – as the latter put it:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky…
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Always bring a map – in this case OS 56

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Winter hiking above the Angels

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Ascending the fire road

I was probably half way, and two pints of sweat, in before I thought: “this is a good idea”.

After all, who hikes on their Christmas break while battling eight time zones of jet lag and seasonal quantities of food and drink?

That’s the question I asked as my brother-in-law and I pulled into a parking lot above the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last week, just after the Christmas weekend.

We’d promised each other an easy ramble in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Of course it never works out that way.

Thirty minutes in and the gentle grade up through Millard Canyon already reminded me that no amount of flat running or biking can prepare your thighs for the upward pull of a brisk hike.

But the clear, crisp canyon breezes and southern California sun made for an easier trek than my last mountain outing in winter, a wind and rainswept day on Lugnaquilla.

Keeping on track

Staying on track

As we ascended, below us, in eerie green-brown silence, lay a city of 10m people. Ahead – with the exception of a stray biker or two – the path was clear. The city of Los Angeles, that great mechanised metropolis a mile or two away, was just another part of the scenery – alongside the lightening-battered weather stations or the broken-up fire road we were hiking on.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote John Muir, the high priest of the Sierra (who I doubt ever troubled himself with as minor as hike as Brown Mountain). I’d add that it’s also the clearest way into one’s mind, particularly a mind sedately muddled by the temptations of the holidays.

By the time we came out at the Brown Mountain Road junction (710m – an ascent of 400m from our start 80 minutes earlier) our minds were clear of anything but the desire to drink water and photograph the views – south to the Pacific Ocean and north and west into canyons of wilderness.

We could have gone on of course – with the summit ‘just’ another 650m up. But common sense – or the part of it which resides in tiring leg muscles – prevailed. Not before a speedy, if dusty, descent down into the City of Angels though.

On the way we even briefly encountered that rarest of phenomena – Los Angeles rain. Winter hiking indeed.

View from Brown Mountain Road Junction.

View south from Brown Mountain Road Junction

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Walking out of the body and into the mountain

Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

By influence habitual to the mind
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur; and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
To majesty; such virtue have the forms
Perennial of the ancient hills; nor less
The changeful language of their countenances
Gives movement to the thoughts, and multitude,
With order and relation.

So wrote William Wordsworth, a man familiar with the ‘ancient hills’ and the trudge of a long hike (he would reputedly think nothing of walking 30 miles across the Lake District to visit his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Walking nine miles across Glenmalure to the top of Lugnaquilla last Saturday my mind was void of such majestic thoughts. I had arrived at the mountain, as often happens, with a garbaged mind – too tired or preoccupied or unmotivated to look beyond the top of my boots.

Lacking order and relation what mountain thoughts I had concerned only with the sub-zero wind and the best route up over the loose snow and rime ice on the slopes above the Fraughan Rock Glen.

An hour will surely fix me, I thought.

But that hour passed and most of the next. And still Lugnaquilla, a boon companion over the years through all weathers and moods, did not work its magic. Racing, my mind remained back in the city.

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Descending Djouce Mountain, February 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Descending Djouce mountain, February 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Before I began climbing mountains I had little conception of the mental silence that could be achieved amidst freezing wind, driving rain, searing bright suns and movement ever, ever upwards.

This was something that rose slowly, within; a silent, solitary realisation, it came in marked moments: descending Djouce as a February sun set behind Scarr mountain; turning to look back at the summit of Mont Blanc as the sun rose over the Col de la Brenva; standing alone on the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Years after I first ventured into the uplands I read Nan Shepherd’s ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain –  which provides a true account of this effect.

Here then may be lived a life of senses so pure…that the body may be said to think.
Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience.
This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

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Had I lost this? Last weekend, amid doubt and disillusionment, I suspected so.

Until, cresting out onto the summit plateau onto a field of ice, it rose through. Perfect focus descended, my body and mind and breath were one.

I was thereHere I was.

Shepherd called this “walking out of the body and into the mountain”.

Wordsworth wrote of peaks whose “presence shapes, The measure and the prospect of the soul, To majesty”.

To majesty, eventually. For now: to clarity, to peace, to silence.

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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Tough times at the top

The felled cross on Carrauntoohil, November 2014. Pic: Kerry Climbing

The felled cross on Carrauntoohil, November 2014.
Pic: Kerry Climbing

On top of a famous Irish mountain there’s a well-known structure, a blot on the otherwise brown rocky heights, a carbuncle whose size is way out of proportion to its surroundings.

But I can guarantee you no one will attempt to remove the summit cairn on Lugnaquilla this week.

Not so the iron cross which, until a few days ago, adorned the top of Carrauntoohil and, by virtue of that peak’s elevated standing, the top of Ireland.

The cross, which had stood for 38 years, was cut down at some point in the early hours of last Saturday morning by persons unknown, for reasons unspecified.

It’s speculated that the incident, dubbed ‘vandalism’ by some, was motivated by secularism. The more outraged have even linked the incident to abortion, gay marriage and assisted dying. Or the work of “the Antichrist”.

Who knew that a piece of weather-beaten metal, unusually masked from most people by the often-present Kerry clouds, signified so much?

Not I. Any time I’ve been to the summit I’ve found little to like about this five metre crucifix, whose rivets and angles stood wholly at odds with the sculpted 250m-year-old sandstone of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks all around.

Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Wild times. Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Nonetheless I’d have preferred if Mother Nature had done her Ozymandias trick on it, instead of an amateur steelworker, whose efforts left behind the heaviest piece of litter on an Irish mountain.

Where does he, she or they intend to stop? The equally remote Galtymore has a fetching, more ornate white cross atop it. And the summit of Croagh Patrick has a cross, and a whole church built to house it.

But the fate of the Carrauntoohil cross shouldn’t just be cast as a battle between the secularists and the religious. Standing off to the side are those who don’t believe that there’s any place for man-made structures in the mountains.

Which brings me back to Lugnaquilla, the 13th highest peak in Ireland, whose lumpy hills are some way off the dizzy wildness of Carrauntoohil.

Where a simple pile of rocks would suffice its summit is marked by a circular stone and concrete structure, not unlike a Normandy beach pill box, on which the summit cairn itself is perched.

(Not content with this someone has plonked a second stone structure nearby, with a stone compass atop and arrows pointing to other mountain peaks. All of which is often rendered redundant by frequent mist and cloud.)

The resultant grey mass is far more unsightly (as is Croagh Patrick’s church) than Carrauntoohil’s cross. Yet it remains, unchallenged.

The truth, as most Irish hikers will know, is that many Irish summits are decorated with structures:  crosses, man-made cairns, ordinance survey trig points or, in the case of Slieve Donard, a giant wall.

Personally I’d like to get rid of the lot – the absence of civilisation being one of the great lures of the mountains.

But, until they disappear, I’ll content myself with the words of one mountain worshipper, John Muir, who wrote: “None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.”

Anyone who’s spent a winter’s day on Carrauntoohil – cross or no cross – knows that.

Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Cairn and compass on the summit of Lugnaquilla.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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