Leaving Dublin at 7 p.m. with a four hour journey ahead of us. I didn’t envy Bren driving having done the last stint. There’s nothing to make the time pass quicker on the first leg, plain motorway and the stretch with the stunning landscape will be obscured by darkness by the time we get there. The darkness that surrounds the road into Leenaun is something else. You feel like you’re driving in the fjord, it seems at times like the water comes right up to the tyres of the car on one side and that you are millimetres from the hills on the other. Not an easy ride at the best of times, and certainly not on a dark, damp early May night.
We arrive safe enough and check into the friendly Leenane Hotel. We are in the annex, and the first word is a ‘lived in’ room for Bren and Aidan. Myself and John appear to have slightly better luck as I get no hint of the damp described by the lads. However, nature is attempting to reclaim our room as the ivy enters through the air-vents. The kitchen is closed at our late arrival and there is no chance of food. Four pints of Guinness so and John manages his way through five packs of Tayto with a little help from the rest. We can only manage a couple of pints and we know we have an early start ahead of us tomorrow so we make it to the beds by 12:30 a.m. for an 8 o’clock start.
Our second attempt at climbing Connaught’s highest point. One year to the weekend when we last tried and failed. The weather went against us, fog and rain hindered our sight. Wind like I’ve never felt before or since quite literally knocking us from our feet. Our final ascent was only blocked by a ridge that appeared, to us, about two foot wide. Naivety would have pushed us on to our potential detriment and probable death. Sense prevailed and we lived to return to the beautiful surrounds of Leenaun and the Killary Fjord and one more bite of the deceptive peak.
We started out at an early enough hour, stacking up on breakfast, fuelling the body for a marathon we would never run, but fuck it, you’re on your holidays. But this was no holiday, this was serious shit. The hope was everyone would return, but you really never know with these things and looking out at the mist that shrouded our looming summit, wandering from a 600ft cliff top was actually a real concern. Thinking caps needed to be secured for this jobby. The short drive to our start point was filled with the weighing up of probabilities. Who were we most likely to be leaving behind, would we all make it back and if we did not, could the rest of us let it ruin the lovely meal that awaited us upon our return. We made it back, one and all, but in how many pieces and at what cost. In reality, the only real complaint was some seriously sore knees from John and an exclamation of extreme tiredness from Aidan. But this place has taken lives.
Setting out from the car, we tore into it. Setting an initial pace that couldn’t last and that could only have been some kind of echoed youthful exuberance filtering through the ether from our past. We were at 350 metres before we knew it, and there was a definite need to take stock as we would never have the energy to get back if we didn’t slow it down. There was also the fact that we couldn’t see the summit for the fog, had never been here before and had no reference point from which to decipher a location or route of attack. If we were to be brutally honest, at that point we were not even sure if it was Mweelrea at which we were headed. It turned out not to be when we eventually arrived at 800 metres odd and, checking our maps, were no where near our intended peak. It’s easy to see how people get lost on this type of terrain. It may sound like the impossible, to go a measly few hundred metres up and not know what direction you came from or where you are supposedly headed, but with thick fog, cold, rain and physical exertion you start to gain a renewed and real sense of admiration for those souls who have both braved and perished in some of the most hostile environments on earth. Truly we are nowhere by comparison. With this is mind, we stumbled forward on our meagre adventure. We had spent a full forty minutes wandering aimlessly around the horseshoe, up and down, to the point where confusion told us Mweelrea was both directly in front, and directly behind. Obviously, this was true to an extent but, taking one of those options over the more practical was a huge time commitment. Looking back at our route on RunKeeper, it shows a series of loops and indecision, dangerous in the conditions we faced.
We stopped for lunch around the two hour mark and it was the move we needed to make. Disappointed with our progress pre-lunch but knowing we needed to do some real navigation, find our bearings and note all possible deadly drops before ploughing on into the unseen. Bren was the voice of reason, me being moments from madness with my interpretation of where we were on the planet, I could have had us walking into the void. We turned 180 and very quickly were on a steep incline toward another summit, Google informing us it was finally Mweelrea we pushed on. Pumping the legs for the last 200 or so metres we started to make out the cairn appearing from the ridiculously thick fog. Death to our left, there was no-one around to hear us scream if we allowed our natural inclination to guide us and plummet from whatever height. Enough to do it anyway. But, constantly reminding each other to be mindful worked out and we stood proud upon the rocks marking the real provincial top. A lovely feeling.
We spent a few moments revelling before we turned for home after some brief discussion about which direction our origin may lay. Without our GPS we would have lacked any confidence in our aim and could have wandered again clueless trying to find the car. It felt like we were walking for hours, descending into what seemed like a never ending field. No sight of the gate we passed through earlier. This was the real slog, tired bodies and on the come down. The car couldn’t come quick enough. The ground was boggy and impossible at times. Offering traction for a moment, giving you that false sense of security, before in an instant removing all grip like a trigger pull and sending you to your arse. Just as well we stand among familiar faces and here fall among friends as any embarrassment can not last long. The mountain makes equal fools of us all. You are rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding area on the way down, views that I’m sure are all the more pleasing from the top on a clearer day. Unfortunately, from the peak we were staring into what seemed like the clouds. We were given no view from the top, only the sense of achieving what we had failed to do pretty much one year before. It’s totally worth it though.
Leenaun is an incredibly picturesque place. Lying close to the water of the Killary Harbour surrounded by the hills. A small village with that authentic Ireland vibe going on. I could and do love it for a while, but would go mad with familiarity I’d imagine. Very relaxing but not a huge amount to do outside of what we’ve come to do. The Sheep and Wool Centre offer a pretty good coffee and I stroll down after our hike and grab a take-away cappuccino with a slice of chocolate biscuit cake before hurrying back to the delightfully peaceful lounge of the hotel. I could sit there for hours. It has something wonderful about it. Plenty of comfortable places to pan out and a relaxing aroma of old books and wooden furniture fills the air. The perfect place to enjoy my cappuccino. The chocolate biscuit cake is not great, the biscuit is soggy and there isn’t a huge amount going on in the taste department. Oh well, the coffee is great so we’ll call that a draw.
A few hours pass easy in this room and I’m relieved to be reminded of the time by the alarm I set earlier. Dinner awaits.
The food here is great, a remote location with some great menu options and really tasty meals. The staff are incredibly nice and couldn’t make you feel more welcome giving us a real sense that they know us and are happy to see us. The kilo of muscles ordered by John as his main offers some comic relief for both us and the staff as our waitress is required to replace his wastage dish for fear of a collapse. The food is all very palatable and the only complaint is from me and my poor decision making in terms of mains. My mushroom soup to start was great, but my vegetable penne pasta with a creamy tomato sauce fails to excite me but that’s my fault. I don’t even like pasta any more. Should have ordered the lamb! Dam it. Apple and berry crumble with vanilla ice cream to top it all off, it would be hard to go wrong with that.
We realise that the nights entertainment is to be provided by the obnoxious and crass duo who disgusted us last year with their abominable vocals and intermittent feed back which pierced the ear at best. Shouting ignorantly to the bar staff to replenish their drinks as if slaves. The only option is to down the pints we’ve already ordered and head for the village and the more agreeable atmosphere of Gaynors (as seen in The Field apparently, there are plenty of hints). We indulge ourselves with a few very pleasant pints before stumbling back into the darkness and our quarters to rest our weary bodies. Back to Dublin tomorrow.