Friday, 29 November 2013

Ireland's Munros - an outline for Furth-baggers

Ireland boasts 13 delectable Furth Munros - a Furth being a mountain outside, or ‘furth’ Scotland but high enough to have been a proper Munro were it lucky enough to reside within Scotland. See Dave Hewitt’s account of the history of this term here; broad discussion here.

Based on my visit earlier this week, this post aims to help the Furth-bagger with the summary logistics, a taste of the routes, and pointers to detailed route descriptions as they are not included here.

My favourite Irish Furths are Brandon Mountain with its commanding views over the sinuous and convoluted coastline of Dingle; and the 10 summits spiking along the sometimes knife-edged ridgeline of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks (a ridge that invites you to risk traversing its full length in one go despite the fact that the preferred 10 hours of visibility does not fit into the 8 hours of sun up in early winter).

The Faha Ridge en route to Brandon Mountain:

Ireland’s highest mountains lie to the south of the country, and are mainly of sandstone though the Wicklow Mountains including Lugnaquilla are of volcanic origin.
All these mountains were born of immense and varied geological forces. About 420 million years ago, tectonic movements had caused the collision of the Laurentian and Avalonian plates bearing the originally separate northern and southern parts of Ireland [see the animation here]. The intervening Iapetus Ocean was eventually squashed shut; and into the resulting basin rivers deposited rock / sand [375 m yago].

Then a further plate – bearing what we now call Southern Europe – bumped northwards into the plate bearing the recently-assembled Ireland [300 m yago]. This compressed and buckled the sandy deposits creating folded ranges that include Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and the Galtee Mountains including Galtymore.

The friction of such seismic events caused deep-seated magma to well up in volcanic hot-spots to create mountain ranges such as the Wicklow Mountains including Lugnaquilla. These latter mountains are thus mainly of granite, albeit with remnants of the rocks that had originally covered them. Of course, like mountains everywhere, most of the dramatic features have been dug by fault-lines and then carved more recently [in the last 1.7 m years] by the abrasion of ice, the gnawing of Ice Age freeze-thaw, and the drip-drip erosion by rain.

Quick itinerary for the visitor to Ireland
Four stops on a simple loop from Dublin means that you can climb the Furth Munros in four or possibly five days. Or you could of course combine these climbs with broader adventures on other beautiful mountains in Ireland.
Our itinerary was
Day 0 Arrive Dublin. Drive to Wicklow National Park (1 hour)
Day 1 Climb Lungaquilla; drive to Castlegregory (4 hours)
Day 2 Climb Brandon Mountain via the Faha Ridge; drive to Cronin’s Yard (1 hour)
Day3 Climb the Western Reeks via x Coumloughra Horseshoe
Day 4 Climb the Eastern Reeks descending via the zig-zags; drive to Cahir (2 hours)
Day 5 Climb Galtymore; return to Dublin (2 hours)
Fit parties can combine the Eastern and Western Reeks into a single long day, as was evidenced even on our winter visit by the descent of several noisy climbers into Cronin’s Yard at 2am, their way lit by headlights. But then you miss the views…

Lugnaquilla (Log na Coille, meaning "hollow of the wood")
Wicklow National Park allows camping. Emerging from our tents near the secluded Boravore car park at T066942, we hailed and then latched on to a party of other walkers. John, their leader, had climbed this mountain more than 100 times (!) and we followed his confident lead up a steep and occasionally completely overgrown path, heading westwards and immediately uphill from the car park.
Having climbed a deep gully, we reached rolling pathless moorland, a flattish green plateau, and then a curve southwards to approach the summit at T032917. The summit perches between two glacial corries (the North and South Prisons; be careful as the former is a military firing range). Alas the mists descended, so the reputed views across the Irish Sea to Snowdonia remained hidden.
We retuned via Art’s Lough and the track that returned to the car park (and by which less adventurous walkers may approach the summit).
13km; 900m guidebooks suggest 5 hours; we took 3:45 hours. All timings exclude breaks. There are many other routes up this hill.

The palatial cairn atop Lugnaquilla:

Brandon Mountain  (Saint Brendan’s Mountain)
We overnighted at Castlegregory (and the beautiful Dingle peninsula offers many a B&B) then started from the car park (Q493 119) just past Cloghane. There is a lower Pilgrim’s Path that enters the corrie then claws its way to the summit at Q460116 so that pilgrims can pay homage to Saint Brendan who, according to texts of circa 900AD, crossed to North America in a coracle four hundred years earlier.[He may in fact have reached Iceland.].
We, however, opted for the more exhilarating Faha Ridge. To quote “… quite suddenly, the walker comes to the end of the rock plateau (third notch) and is faced with a sheer drop of perhaps 10-15 metres down to the saddle…  Any evidence of a path seems to disappear at the edge of the drop, and it takes a few minutes examination before a possible route down a rock chimney is found to the right with, if recent, the occasional mark of a boot on the small ledges half way down. This is perhaps the best scrambling on the route, and both hands and feet are needed to obtain the bottom. .. Once at the saddle, you leave the rock wall you’ve just come down, but are faced with an altogether more formidable wall looming above you.”
The summit bears a cross and offers panoramic views over the fractal coastline of Dingle and is reputedly the last spot in the British Isles to be illuminated by the setting sun.
There are several routes of ascent and descent; we chose to descend by circling southwards via the “fangs” ridge that includes Brandon South Top and Brandon Peak , before dropping to meet a track that runs back towards Cloghane; a short-cut limits the road walking to 5 km.  
13km 1,000m ascent; guidebooks suggest 5:30 hours; we took 5 hours

Brandon Mountain:

Macgillycuddy Reeks (West) The Coumloughra Horseshoe
(Reek=stack; Macgillycuddy = local landowners)
Preferring the beauty of full daylight views of the Reeks rather than the bravura of a single traverse of the full range that would have been partly in the dark at this time of year, we decided to walk the range in two parts. We had stayed at Cronin’s Yard, the 200-year old base from which to climb Ireland’s highest peaks. It’s worth a Google.
The western horseshoe is a well-known classic route that takes in Ireland’s Mount Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga – together with the ‘interesting’ Beenkeragh ridge.
We started from the new car park – which may not appear in reports older than 2011 – at approximately V771 873, then SE up the concrete ‘Hydro Road’ that lets you gain altitude quickly. Our route was clockwise though others on this day went the other way and there seems little to choose between the two directions.
From a wee lochan we gained the ridge which affords continuous views down to the joined ‘Siamese loughs’ beneath. The going was not too hard at first, and Caher West Top [the 5th highest mountain in Ireland], Caher [#3], and Carrauntoohil [#1] were easily attained. The crossing to Beekeragh is more risky and it’s worth taking detailed instructions with you. We were clambering on narrow ledges, holding on tightly, stepping down carefully lest footings should give way, and glad to have printed directions when too many options, all equally enticing, beckoned us onwards. We took great care across The Bones [#7] aka Carrauntoohil Tooth and unsure which was its true needle to be climbed, climbed all candidates before eventually reaching Breekeragh [#2]. Relative safety prevailed thereafter as we looped back down the wee lochan, glancing periodically back at the stunning ridges, peaks, and surrounding lands.
13.3km; 1,420 m ascent; guidebooks suggest 6 hours; we took 5 hours

The Beenkeragh Ridge:

Macgillycuddy Reeks (East)
From Cronin’s Yard we headed up the track towards the Reeks, cutting left to traverse virgin moorland, pulled on by the just-visible grotto atop Cruach Mhor. We rounded the Lake of the Serpents, and reached the grotto with its Madonna.  In the cold and mist now, we continued on along the rocky ridge with towers to be negotiated by hard-ish scrambling to the pinnacle that is the Big Gun. The rocky spine continued to Cnoc na Peiste, but the route eased thereafter to Maolan Bui, and Cnoc an Chuillin.
Evocative names loomed ahead. We declined the heavily eroded Devil’s Ladder in favour of the Zig-Zags, to reach Hag’s Glen and then passed beneath the Heavenly Gates to reach the Yard again.
12km; 1,300m ascent; guidebooks suggest 6:30; we took 5 hours

The Grotto:

Big Gun is out there somewhere...

Galtymore (Big hill of the Galtees [Galtee perhaps coming from Coillte = forests])
The Galtee range rises steeply from the surrounding plain, its highest mountain a Munro by just 15 feet.
We left the accommodation at Cahir early and started our climb from the top end of the Black Road, which leaves the R639 just east of the village melodically-named Skeheenaranky.
Not wishing to miss our travel connections, we covered the 9.6 km and 650 metres of ascent in 2 hours 15 minutes thanks to the track that leads 75% of the way to the summit, and despite the peat hags, which were relatively dry. We did have time, however, peer several times down the mountain’s sheer north face and into the corrie beneath. Allow three hours on this route if you are not in a hurry, but there are other longer routes to be found.
Though ‘a quickie’, Galtymore provides great views when the weather allows, both from its summit, and from the lower plain on which its stands proudly facing of Knockmealdown which is 100 metres shorter but does not look it.


We found the guidebook useful: The Dingle, Iveragh & Beara peninsulas: A Walking Guide by Adrian Hendroff.

The weather had blessed us by remaining dry for our five day sortie, and in the words of the Irish blessing we had found that ...
  The road had risen up to meet us
  The wind had been always at our backs and
  The sun had been on our faces (well occasionally!)

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