A Hike Without Ropes

At the close of Michigan Irish Music Festival in Muskegon this September, with tunes and stories still rolling in my head, I keep drifting back to memories of visits to the Emerald Isle.

Mweelrea Mountain (Mill-Ra) A Hike Without Ropes (from November, 2011)

Before leaving for Ireland, Jen, Karla, Theresa and I had agreed we would do a big hike during our stay. The trail guide listed Mweelrea as strenuous, describing a five to seven hour timeframe to complete the out and back. It was categorized as one of the hardest hikes in Ireland. Elevation gain was 1600 feet, from bog to peak. When Theresa bought the trail book at the local café, the owner handed it to her, “Thank ye, slog-on girls.” Slog-on was exactly what we did that day.

By 9, we were out of the cottage and pointed north on N59, past Lanaan, around a big lough toward Ben Burry and Mwellrea Peaks to the west. The sun shone brightly, but a brisk breeze called for layers and a jacket. My eyes watered from the bursts of ocean fed breezes, prompting sunglasses. We parked near a famine monument and scouted around for the trailhead. Without the guidebook and a detailed description, we’d never have found the trail. After walking north and south 100 yards, with no visible point of entry, we split the middle and headed in between the lough and the lake. Our shoes were partially submerged, after only a few feet of lowlands. I looked back and watched Jen and Karla search for a dry footfalls, the grim set to their teeth displaying their level of discomfort. Theresa gave up on dry grass and just splashed forward. After 10 minutes, we found the makeshift bridge that confirmed our route. We started up. After that, the terrain went from soggy to damp, sponge like noises emanating from our shoes. Mysteriously, the Ireland bog ascended above sea level. I slogged on behind Theresa who seemed unphased by the conditions.

Our foursome paused to look up at the ascent, where the col was just above a horseshoe shaped ramp. The peak was at 1700 feet (900 meters) with some ominous sheer rock sections, we would not attempt on our route. The pitch steepened and I unzipped my first layer. I felt like the middle-woman that day – Theresa plowed forward not minding to wait for our two slower companions. I kept an eye on Karla who nervously peered at the approaching steep. We followed a grassy ridgeline over a combination of rocks and more bog. I carefully selected my route for fear of sinking in muck up to my knees. The terrain and the pitch had us all gasping and glowing. We aired out our jackets and passed around granola bars.

The pitch and difficulty ramped up and the tall girls (Karla and I) were relegated to all four’s to prevent slipping backwards. The moist green hillside gave way to steely rock and scree. Hiking transitioned to a scramble and I caught myself reaching out with one arm, feeling less steady. There was still no visible trail except for rock troughs that led us up and across small waterfalls. I kept peering back and on one glance, I caught a moving flash of Jen’s green jacket behind a huge boulder. I may have witnessed the last moment of a barrel roll or another bog slip-n-fall. After many moments waiting, she appeared around the boulder, upright, looking exasperated. 50 yards ahead, I waited to be sure she was ok. Karla was watching intently and after a significant pause, she too kept going. I called to Theresa and motioned her to find a flat spot to rest and eat our packed lunch. It seemed like the appropriate time to do an attitude check before the last section.

Plunking down on a rock shelf, switching my camera to video mode, I panned the hillside as Jen and Karla approached. Narrating the scene, I kept up a stream of commentary. “We’ve made it about half way, the terrain has been a challenge… the views are impeccable…. the bogs are plentiful.” I shifted the camera toward Jen continuing, “This hike is labeled difficult, how are you feeling about the climb so far?” Jen’s eyes narrowed as she came toward me, stopping just short of my lens. “I would rate this hike as STUPID,” she spat back to me, clearly exasperated. I clicked the video button off, stopped recording and glanced at Theresa who pretended not to notice while eating her snack.

Jen informed us about her slip and fall incident while munching on bread, cheese and salami. In a serious tone, she asked, “Shouldn’t we have ropes for this section?” Inquisitive looks passed between Theresa and I, not knowing how to answer. I distinctly remembered climbing Kilimanjaro without the aid of any ropes, but elected to stay silent about that fact. Instead, we passed fruit and granola bars. The only conversationalist was Theresa, who seemed quite pleased about the goat-like trail. Even though I adore snack time, the wind chill, prompted a visual review of our goal and a quick restart. There was one, long steep section to the ramp that led to the col. I encouraged Karla and Jen only to continue if they felt comfortable. They both concurred the wet rocky ground was making them feel tentative. For the moment, the four of us began again the process of climbing, squishing and reaching up the hill. Route finding became even more difficult with the pitch. I leaned into the hill and surveyed below me. Karla seemed perplexed about where to step next and I sensed the raging internal debate. Jen just ahead of her, watched, worried and then looked up at me wide eyed. She stopped abruptly, ran her fingers and hand across her neck in symbolic fashion. The motion of death indicated they were done. I yelled to Theresa to hold up, confirming with Jen that she would hike down with Karla. The foursome became two-twosomes.

I caught back up with Theresa. Side by side, we pressed thighs and calves to burning sensations, but within 20 minutes we made the col. A shock of cold wind greeted us as we topped out and walked near the edge, spotting Craig Patrick. An expansive view laid out west to the sea, north to Westport and Clew Bay. The emerald green of the island is deepest when flanked by the ocean. Perhaps, it was just the heights that made me gasp…..both for air and the beauty. A mountaintop view never fails to inspire and we both naturally lifted our arms wide then up, in a tribute to Mwellrea Mountain.

From the peak, we actually spotted the trail for the descent, following closer to the river. I peered down and saw two tiny specks moving slowly below. Our companions were safe, making progress back. The way down was more difficult. We slipped, slid and sunk into muck several times as we navigated down the steep pitches. I slipped sideways twice, sending my hand and wrist into the wet ground. My shoes and pants, from ankle to hip, were smeared with Ireland’s bountiful bog. Theresa stepped in a bog hole up to her knee, just in front of me causing one abrupt stop. Through the bog obstacle course, we zig-zagged down, discussing how irritated Karla and Jen were at us, for pushing them too far. Theresa continued on confidently, about how good balance was imperative for such excursions. Simultaneous to the comment, her foot caught a rock-edge sending her swiftly earthward, to her forearm and stomach, with a thump. Just two-feet away, I gasped at her wipe-out, reaching down to help her up. “Take a minute,” I suggested, as she pried herself up. She wrung out her wrist and said, “I’m ok, but that’s a message from God, for being boastful about balance and agility…clearly a sign to be more humble.” I nodded in affirmation.

We picked up the pace as the trail began to level, closer to the river and caught the girls halfway back. My watch read 3:00, so it had taken five-hours. On the hike back, I thanked the mushy bog beneath my feet, saving our knee and hip joints from further trauma. Another sheep herd crossed our trail and instead of the bridge, we followed a two-track and crossed the river by stepping on black stones, embedded in the flowing water. The silver Ford, glinted in the sun as we approached, signaling our successful return. I piled in the back, pulling on my water bottle, wondering if I should take off my muddy boots, contemplating quietly if Jen and Karla would ever travel with me again.

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