Tag Archives: Slieve Donard

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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Back to the mountains

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

“Time and money – that’s the problem with this game.”

The game? Mountaineering. The sage? A sunburnt, rock-battered British climber.

We were sitting in the bar of a small hotel in Leysin, Switzerland. It was August 2010; I had just finished a week-long traverse of the Monte Rosa massif on the Swiss-Italian border.

My fellow climber had left his family behind in England to undertake two weeks of climbing in the Alps. He made the trip yearly despite, as he acknowledged, the financial and emotional difficulties of leaving home.

I didn’t have these challenges. I was working, single, with a severe dose of summit fever. His comments passed me by.

Getting to the mountains, and getting up and down them, was everything in these years. Nothing else would stand in my way – it was hard to think of an August that wouldn’t see me cleaning crampons and packing an ice axe before catching a flight to Geneva.

A group of us drank late that night at the Lynx Bar, planning new trips, checking diaries, before leaving for home early the following morning.

I haven’t been back to the Alps since.

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Looking at my diary for 2010 I see that I hiked and climbed in Ireland almost every weekend – for eight or nine months of the year at least.

Numerous days on Lugnaquilla, different routes in the Mournes, weekend raids on the Mweelrea mountains, a week spent around the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. It was a year, like others before it, of days spent climbing or planning to climb.

And then time moved on. In 2011 I climbed Ben Nevis, made frequent trips to the Wicklow mountains, and summitted Carauntoohill by a couple of new-to-me routes..

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

The following year saw less trips. I moved house and got married. I had less weekend time to spend in the hills and less inclination to spend long days away from my wife. Nonetheless I got up when I could.

2013 started slowly but a spectacular snowy hike in Wicklow promised good mountaineering in the Spring.

Life then intervened. A loved one was seriously ill and I had no intention or desire to spend my free time away.

I managed a summer Saturday on Lugnaquilla but my heart wasn’t really in it.

I didn’t return to the mountains for the rest of the year.

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As the months passed it began to gnaw at me. Standing at the foot of Croagh Patrick a fortnight ago I made up my mind: I had to get back.

And so I found myself awake at 5am last Friday, after a fitful night’s sleep. Rushing my breakfast I departed at daybreak for Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains. Hours later I was standing on top, under a blue sky, facing down an icy northwesterly.

Sheltering behind the summit cairn I thought of the night in Leysin and the conversation with the English climber.

Yes, mountaineering costs time and money. But it takes more than these; it requires effort and energy. It often conflicts with home life. You’re often wet or cold or both. Injuries are commonplace.

Why do I go back?

At times I wonder, but never during the times I spend on the mountains. When I’m there I’m in the great immensity, part of The Whole Thing.

I imagine that British climber returns to Leysin. I might head back there myself one day, or not. But I’ll always keep going back to some mountains, somewhere.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

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