The drive from Connemara to Westport took us through the wild and rugged Doolough valley which is dominated by the mountain Mweelrea. A great big beast of a peak and one which I had planned to climb whilst I was in the area. However it has a reputation of being really tough and definitely not one to do it mist which there was always plenty of! Whilst we were there a walker fell to her death down a gully and this sombre news put me off. If there had been a forecast of settled weather I think this mountain would have been the highlight of my trip. There is always next time!
We later drove past Croagh Patrick which we had plans to climb after Achill, it was clear and sunny today and we could just make out the white dot of the church on the summit. After a short excursion to Westport, a town that even a town hater such as myself liked we headed onto Achill Island just as the weather made a turn for the worst. We had plans to stop at the campsite on the beach in Keel the main village on the Island. However our hearts sank when we arrived, the campsite was huge and heaving with a funfair next to it. Not what we wanted! We immediately turned around and headed for the campsite near Doogort but that looked even worse. It was back to keel to stay the night and see if we wanted to stay in the morning.
It was actually not as bad as we initially though and we managed to get a quiet pitch near the beach with loads of space. The actual location was stunning set on a large sandy beach with the Menawn cliffs as a backdrop. If we looked in that direction we were happy. If we turned around we could see a rabble of caravans and groups of bored looking youths in tracksuits attempting to look menacing. Just like a bit of my hometown Nottingham transported to the wilds of Ireland! We did get treated to this great rainbow over the Menawn cliffs though.
Croaghaun 688 metres
The summit of Croaghaun has been on my list of must climb mountains for a while now. It boasts the highest sea cliffs in Ireland which rise to right to its summit at 688 metres. I set off from the campsite to start my walk at Keem beach situated almost at the furthest tip of the Island. The coast road heading there is stunning, running unfenced along the top of cliffs. I just had to get out and take this photo of Keem beach.
I parked the polluter at the upper car park at Keem beach so as to cut out a small amount of ascent. A track passes the public toilets leading to a strange looking building, a bit like a deserted hotel. I left the track here and cut acoss the valley crossing the stream. At this point I noticed that my lower trousers were covered in ticks, so after picking them off I put on my gaiters even though it was warm and dry. A short sharp ascent over easy grass led to the col below Moyteoge head with its former coastguard watch house. This gave views down to Keem beach and the access road leading down to it.
The following mile or so was absolutely breathtaking with the sea to my left at one point being over 1000 feet below me. Lines of cliffs led to Achill head in a wave of peaks, a superb mountain ridge falling directly into the sea. A unique ridge walk with the sea on the left and the ground falling steeply to the right to the Keem valley.
This section soon came to an end and I dropped a couple of hundred metres to a low grassy shelf just above the sea. On the descent the cliffs of Croaghaun dominated the view ahead but unfortunately the tops were capped by cloud. The slopes of the mountain from this angle looked impossibly steep and I was beginning to wonder if it was actually possible to climb from this side.
Crossing the river it was a slow steady climb up short cropped grass to the point where the cliffs join the grassy flanks of the mountain. It was then a real leg wobbling ascent up exceptionally steep slopes which provided no hazards except effort! The photo below shows the view from just over half way up.
The mist was now teasing me, coming and going giving a feint promise of a mist free summit. I was relieved to reach a spot of level ground just below the western summit getting a glimpse of the beach far below.
Mist began racing up from the seaward side of the mountain never crossing over the ridge, a great effect but disappointing that I could not get a view down the cliffs.
A short climb and I was soon at the summit, where the mist had completely closed in. A real shame as I had been looking forward to the views from the top. I had to satisfy myself with a quick sit down on a damp rock before getting the compass out to head in a south esterly direction. Once out of the mist is was simply a case of picking the easiest descent line through rough ground back to the van. A simply stunning walk, just a shame that the mist spoilt it a little bit!
The Bangor Trail – Letterkeen loop and Western Way
After Achill we decided to head back to Connemara to stay at the same campsite as it was simply stunning. That would give the opportunity for a good walk to break up the journey a bit. We had a choice of Croagh Patrick or to explore a bit of the Nephin Beg range. My partner was not too keen on a mountain climb and I fancied a bit of wild country so we headed to a minor road and car park that skirts the edge of Nephin Beg. This mountain range although not particularly high is the largest expanse of wild country in Ireland. A huge wilderness of bog and mountain without any roads crossing it, unique for Ireland where it can be difficult to get a long way from a public road (ok roads are often very minor and remote in themselves!). My map showed that a section of the Bangor trail and Western way were linked, surely this would provide a nice easy day out?
We parked the van north of Lough Feeagh, a mile or so after the public road ends and turns into a forest drive. This area has a real wild feeling to it with very few houses and almost no traffic on the roads. A short distance down a track we came to the Brogan Carroll bothy, I really did not expect to find any bothies in Ireland. A bit bare and spartan but Im sure it would be more than welcome after backpacking across the Bangor trail.
An informative information board warned us of the dangers of entering remote boggy country as we set off over the footbridge. We had only gone a few hundred metres when we realised that our trousers were covered in ticks from the bracken we had walked through. So after brushing down it was on with the gaiters, to try and get some protection from them. The first mile or so was along the river bank with more deep bracken and we had to constantly brush ticks off. The narrow but well defined trail then soon gains a little height and provides a couple of miles of easy walking with great views of the surrounding hills.
A high shoulder of land is crossed before descending to the Bawnduff river. There was a feeling of entering wild remote country now and I would loved to have continued deep into the range. Maybe one day I will return and backpack these hills. Instead we took a right and contoured above a forestry plantation climbing through increasingly difficult terrain. The vegetation got more and more tussocky and the path disappeared, but there were regular waymarkers to keep us on track. The views opened out even further as height was gained.
There was then real confusion as the waymarkers stopped corresponding with the route marked on my map. Conditions under foot were now pretty rough and we thought that maybe it would be best to see where the new trail would take us. Instead of dropping down to the valley floor as indicated by the map they continued to climb to a small unnamed rocky summit which just topped out at 311 metres. Its small size however gave panoramic views, with the eye being led across the vast flat Mayo bogs. You could see how in the distance fields suddenly gave way to a flat brown carpet as far as the eye could see, with just the add plantation or building adding a bit of scale.
Happy that I had spent a bit of time in ‘wild country’ we followed the markers down to the track along the western way. It was now a simple easy stroll back to the van. On the map the route we did almost looks a bit dull and I initial thought that we would be walking through forestry plantations on easy tracks. In reality it was a cracking walk, a bit rough but with great views and no people for miles. Even with its access problems Ireland is great.