When considering how to ascend or descend a particular section of steep terrain, whether steep wet grass or a rocky outcrop, it is important to make a personal judgment on your ability to safely negotiate the ground ahead of you.

When assessing the risk to your personal safety it can often be useful to think in terms of a chart of the likelihood of a slip, and the possible consequences of such a slip occurring.

This is depicted below in the form of a traffic light system, green (safe); orange (caution); red (danger):

 

Assessing personal risk when moving on steep groundThe likelihood of a slip is can be considered as either:

  • Low (not likely to slip here)
  • Medium (there is a chance I might slip)
  • High (there is a good chance I might slip here).

Equally the consequences of such a slip can also be considered as either:

  • Low (very little chance of injury)
  • Medium (some chance I might get injured)
  • High (very likely I will get injured)

If both likelihood and consequences are low, when you are ascending easy angled ground for example, then the chart puts us firmly in the green sector, safe to proceed. This is also true for a low likelihood of a fall but a medium consequence, green again.

If we venture into ground where there is a medium chance of a fall, and the consequences may result in injury (medium consequences) then we are into the orange zone on the chart. A warning to take care.

If we consider the likelihood of fall to be medium or high, and the consequences to be high, then we are entering the red territory on the chart and need to think very carefully before proceeding.

The likelihood of a slip will change depending on the prevailing conditions. Wet or icy ground will make a slip more likely, as will high winds.

This assessment of risk is personal to the individual, what someone considers a moderate or high risk is often determined by their personal experience and level of skill.

 

Ultimately this is your decision to make, take care.

 

Russ Mills is the founder of Mountaintrails.ie, a guided hiking and mountain training company based in Dublin.

As the warm, dry summer gives way to the cooler and wetter conditions of autumn, you might be considering replacing your hiking boots.

However, how do you make sense of the bewildering array of styles and designs available?

The first thing to consider is the type of terrain are you likely to be using your footwear on. Footwear is now produced to suit all grades of hiking, from simple trails to high altitude mountains, and understanding this will help you narrow down your selection considerably.

In the better stores you may see boots classified as either B0, B1, B2 or B3. This is simply a measure of their stiffness, and hence the suitability of high mountain use. All hiking boots will be B0, low stiffness, and this makes them ideal for walking in as they have a reasonable amount of flexibility in the sole. B1 and B2 boots have increasingly stiffer soles and are used for climbing and mountaineering. B3 boots are often made of plastic with a good deal of insulation and are designed for high altitude climbing in the Greater Ranges.

In the ever-increasing push for sales, manufacturers now produce footwear to cover every possible usage and terrain type.

Selecting hiking boots
A selection of hiking footwear. From left to right: Trail Shoes; Mid-height Boots; Full-height General purpose Mountain Boots; Mountaineering Boots; Winter Mountain Boots.

 

To simplify it down a little let’s look at the five most common styles:

Trail Shoes

Trail shoes are lightweight and comfortable, with a flexible and soft sole, they are low cut with no ankle support. They look very much like runners and perform in a similar fashion. They might also have a waterproof liner which would be effective in wet grass and small puddles.

These shoes are only suitable for walking trails and made up paths in dry and warm conditions, and the shallow sole pattern reflects this. They certainly would not be suitable for open mountainsides and rocky terrain.

Mid -height Lightweight Boots

This is a very common style of boot found in the footwear departments. They are lightweight, comfortable and require no breaking in, they can be worn straight out of the box. For this reason, they are very popular as a first-time hiking boot. They would be classified as B0.

Selecting hiking boots
Shallow sole pattern

They will be manufactured from stitched fabric with maybe some leather in parts, andhave a Gore-Tex or similar internal membrane to make them waterproof.

The ankle ‘cuff’ will be what is called ‘mid-height’, this allows for a degree of ankle support without feeling too stiff and restricting. It also protects your foot from (shallow) water seeping over the top and twiggy debris and small stones getting into the boot.

The boot will be flexible and soft, not ideal for rocky mountain terrain, and the sole pattern can range from quite shallow to a much more aggressive pattern.

These boots are best for summer use in upland areas, hill paths and easier mountains in Ireland and the UK. I have used this type of boot in summer alpine conditions, the Atlas Mountains and even on Kilimanjaro.

 

Full-height general purpose Mountain Boots

This type of B0 boot has a higher ankle cuff to support the foot, the uppers will comprise some stitched fabric but may predominantly be made of leather for improved weather proofing and ruggedness. It will also have an internal waterproof membrane. It may have a rubber ‘rand’ around the edge to protect the foot from bumps and guard the boot against abrasion on rocks.

Selecting hiking boots
Aggressive sole pattern

The sole pattern will be quite aggressive, with a distinct heel step, which serves to give better grip on slippery ground and in descent. The boot will be a little stiffer and heavier as a result, but still with enough flexibility to make it comfortable to walk in.

This boot type may be worn straight from the box, but would benefit from a little breaking in before you took them out on a big day. Good for all upland terrain in Ireland and the UK, both on and off trail and would suit those hikers who head across open mountainside and moor in most weather.

They would not be suitable for full winter conditions where there is a lot of ice and snow about, and would generally be too flexible to take a crampon.

 

Mountaineering Boots

Designed for rocky alpine ascents, scrambles and difficult mountain terrain, this style of boot is similar to the mountain boot above. It would however be a good deal stiffer and more supportive, and will be in the category of B1 or B2. This could make them uncomfortable to walk in over a long day and therefore they would not be ideal as a hiking boot, though some hikers find the extra stiffness a help when suffering foot problems

They will have a heel notch to take a crampon for winter use, and may be cut a little tighter in the toe box to allow for a bit of ‘feel’ when climbing.

Winter Hiking Boots

Usually classified as B2, these boots are solidly made, stiff and with an aggressive sole pattern. A high ankle cuff is standard, as is a waterproof membrane and some insulation to keep the foot warm.

Specifically designed for winter use they will have fittings for attaching crampons, and a large ‘rand’ for protection.  Heavier than the other styles here, they are made for use in snow and ice in the higher mountains of Ireland and the UK.

 

Russ Mills is the owner of Mountaintrails.ie, a guided hiking and  mountain skills training business based in Dublin, Ireland.

Time: 6.5 hours         Distance: 13km        Height gain: 1040 metres

Galtymore is the highest inland mountain in Ireland and at 919 metres, is the 14th highest in the country. It sits squarely on the border between Tipperary and Limerick and forms a majestic centre piece for a tough horseshoe hike that takes in three great mountains, Cush, Galtybeg and Galtymore.

Galtymore is most often climbed from the south, via the black road, but this easier ascent misses out on the stunning views of the mountains north face, and of the several corrie loughs that sit under its imposing shadow.

Galtymore map

Our route begins at the forest car park at Clydagh Bridge about 5 km west of Rossadrehid. From here follow the minor road uphill for a few hundred metres to a stile on the left that leads to a wide path over rising heathery ground.

Continue uphill keeping the forest boundary to your left until you reach another stile, turn right here and ahead of you is a faint path that leads to the increasingly steep northwest spur of Cush.

 

Push on to the summit at 639 metres, where your route for the day unfolds before you and the mighty bulk of Galtymore dominates the valley.

Head south down the broad spur to reach a boggy saddle where before you lies the steep ascent to Galtybeg, a thigh burning 320 metres of steep grassy hillside and a somewhat daunting prospect. Stay strong, as the views from the summit of Galtybeg are stunning and the rocky crest gives ample shelter from any chilly westerly winds, making it a good spot for a lunch stop.

When you are rejuvenated head west and down to the badly eroded and peaty saddle before another longish pull up Galtymore. At 919 metres this fine mountain qualifies as one of the Irish Furth’s (a mountain over 3,000ft), and is the county highpoint of both Limerick and Tipperary.

Galtymore

The elongated summit ridge is marked by a large cairn at each end, the first of these being the higher and the true summit. Between the two sits Dawson’s Table, a flattish area of sandstone conglomerate rock, upon which sits a much-photographed white Celtic cross around 2.5 metres tall. Spare a kindly word also for the recently erected small statue of Buddha sitting on the broken trig pillar nearby.

A truly multi-cultural mountain!

Once the obligatory photographs are taken head west again to the second cairn before descending to a large boggy open area, bounded to the right by a steep drop and to the left by a stone wall. The wall acts as a navigation aid in poor visibility, and you can handrail it in a north-westerly direction until it funnels you towards the steeper ground below Slievecushnabinnia.

Galtymore

A faint path now leads you north, and gently rises before descending down the broad north spur of Slievecushnabinnia. In poor visibility care should be taken with your navigation here as it’s easy to lose the path on the hillside. Eventually you will reach a large cairn which marks the downward route on a clear path, follow this to a small hump and then follow post markers to the forest edge. Go over the stile and follow the well-made paths and forest roads back to the start point.

Russ Mills is the owner and principle guide at Mountaintrails, and has been hiking, climbing and guiding for over 40 years.  Mountaintrails guide hikes up Galtymore several times each year, you can find more details on their website at:

https://mountaintrails.ie/guided-hikes-and-mountaineering-courses/galtymore-cushnabinnia-horseshoe-guided-day-hike/

Time: 6.5 hours         Distance: 13km        Height gain: 1040 metres

The Mweelrea Massif encompasses five tops, aligned around an imposing horseshoe, and with two major named summits, Mweelrea (814 m) and Ben Bury (795 m).

Mweelrea sits in the southwest corner of Co. Mayo, on the northern side of Killary Fjord, where its imposing crags dominate the skyline. It is the highest peak in the province of Connaught and one of the great mountains of the 4-Peaks Challenge*.

The easiest and most often used route to the summit involves a start near the Silver Strand, on the western side of the mountain. However, this ascent though quicker than the route described here, misses out on some of the best rock architecture in Ireland, which is seen in the stunning north facing glacial corrie of Lugmore.

Mweelrea map
The route (in red)

Our route starts at a road side pull-in on at the northern end of Doo Lough (GR L828 696), there is room to park several cars here but if you are a big group it would be better to park in Leenane and car share from there.

Follow the northern edge of the Lough crossing a shallow stream before picking up a rough track that leads you southwest towards the mountain, you will need to cross another stream, this time using stepping stones or the makeshift bridge 50 metres north.

 

Mweelrea
Heading into the Lugmore corrie

Follow the track until it reaches some old sheep pens. From here follow the stream into the corrie over rough ground which is pathless and very wet after prolonged rain. Make your way to the back of the corrie where to the left side you will see a steep grassy bank between imposing crags. Make your way up this bank and around large blocks of fallen rock to where a small path heads up right, this is the start of the well-known ‘Ramp’.

You will now find yourself surrounded by magnificent cliffs and crags rising high above you for almost 400 metres. The rocks hereabouts are purple hued sandstones and conglomerates, laid down as river deposits during flash flood events some 450 million years ago. In some fallen blocks you can see the large pebbles, now lithified, that would have been washed into a broad basin by these long-ago rivers and subsequently raised up as mountains.

Mweelrea
A misty day on the Ramp

There is now an intermittent path to follow, winding its way up through the steep grass and scree of the Ramp. As you near the top the angle shallows and the Ramp narrows as the ground drops steeply away to your right. Exercise caution here as a slip on the precipitous scree or the rock steps would have very serious consequences.

Very quickly you will emerge onto the open mountainside by a cairn that marks the start of the descent route, up to your right are the open rocky slopes of Ben Bury.

Head in a generally westerly direction for around 1.5 km, contouring the slope at first and then gently descending left to reach the bealach (col) between Mweelrea and Ben Bury. This section is pathless and care should be taken in misty conditions not to drop too low and drop into the crags above Lough Bellawaum.

From the bealach set off south up the rocky slopes to reach a grassy cliff edge and the final few metres to the summit of Mweelrea which is marked by a small cairn (814m). On a good day the views from here are stunning, to the west you look down 800 metres to the coastal islands, while to the south lies the broad inlet of Killary Fjord and beyond that the pale mountains of Connemara and the 12 Bens.

Once you have had your fill of the views and photographed all you can, make your way back down to the bealach and this time head up the broad spur that takes you northeast to the rock strewn elongated ridge of Ben Bury (795m), the summit marked by a cairn with a rudimentary cross. More delightful views greet you, this time north to the Mayo coastline, Clare Island and Croagh Patrick.

Follow the summit ridge east to a second larger stony cairn before descending southeast down a gentle slope to reach the cairn that marks the top of the Ramp. This can be hard to locate in poor visibility so take extra care with your navigation here.

More care is required as the top part of the Ramp is negotiated again but once past this section you can enjoy the magnificent views of the cliffs ahead of you.

Mweelrea
Enjoying the airy views from the top of the Ramp

The steep descent back down to Lough Doo can seem arduous for tired legs but the sense of satisfaction is palpable, as is the thought of the cup of tea that awaits you in the Blackberry café back in Leenane.

Finally, a word of caution, this can be a difficult route in wet, windy or icy conditions. The narrow section at the top of the Ramp being particularly awkward. In poor visibility navigation can be difficult, finding your way back from Mweelrea to the cairn at the top of the Ramp is particularly challenging.

In these circumstances you would do much better to start your ascent from the Silver Strand and save this route for a clear weather day……

Mweelrea
Mweelrea seen from the flanks of Ben Bury

Russ Mills is the founder and principle guide at Mountaintrails, and has been hiking, climbing and guiding for over 40 years.  Mountaintrails guide hikes up Mweelrea several times each year, you can find more details on their website at:

https://mountaintrails.ie/guided-hikes-and-mountaineering-courses/mweelrea-guided-day-hike/

* The 4-peaks challenge involves climbing the highest point in each of the four provinces: Mweelrea in Connaght, Carrauntoohil in Munster, Lugnaquilla in Leinster and Slieve Donard in Ulster. It is most often attempted over 3 days.

 

Water is essential to life, and a lack of it will soon lead to serious health issues and ultimately to death. A lean person comprises around 70 – 75% water, losing just 1% of this will leave you dehydrated, losing 2% and things are getting serious.

Water carries heat away from the vital organs and transports it to the surface through your skin, where it is removed as sweat. The sweat evaporates from the surface of your skin and this cools you down.

If you do not replace this water you will quickly become dehydrated. Being dehydrated effects the efficiency of our muscles, and adversely effects concentration and decision making.

So how do we ensure we stay hydrated in hot weather? Here are our tips to staying hydrated in the heat.

  1. In hot weather drink before you begin your hike, up to 500ml if possible and drink it slowly over a period of time, as you are driving to the start point for example.
  1. Drinking plain water is good, but during intensive exercise or excessive heat you need to replace lost electrolytes, which are essential minerals and salts lost when you sweat and which are vital for the correct functioning of the body.
  1. Make your own electrolyte solution by mixing water and fruit juice in a ratio of 1:1, add a few pinches of salt. This will also contain around 6% carbohydrate, the same as in expensive energy drinks, but with less sugar and zero caffeine.
  1. Drink when you begin to feel thirsty, it is better to drink a little and often, rather than chugging down large amounts in one go. How much you need to drink depends on the level of exercise, the temperature, your own level of fitness, and your body mass.
  1. Check the colour of your pee, it should be a light straw yellow colour, if it’s a lot darker than this then you are dehydrated and need to drink more.
  1. Remember to drink after your hike too, skimmed milk is absorbed well by the body and has plenty of the essential electrolytes you need, as well as protein, which aids muscle recovery.
  1. In some instances, drinking too much can lead to a rare condition called hyponatremia, where important salts such as sodium are flushed from the body. This can result in a serious brain swelling condition and is life threatening.
  1. Try to keep your body as cool as possible. Cover exposed skin with light clothing, wear a hat to protect your head and try to wet it when you can in a stream, if possible wet a buff/neck tube and wear it around your neck to cool the blood going to your head.

Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and skills training business based in Dublin, Ireland.

 

On a recent winter hike with a group of clients to Lugnaquilla mountain (930 metres), I decided we had to turn back when we were on the plateau, and tantalisingly only 1 km from the summit cairn. Why did I do this and what were the thought processes that led to this decision, when is it a good time to turn back?

There is an old mountaineering saying, ‘The best decision you will ever make is the one to turn back’, and it is often true. To make this crucial call there are a number of criteria that must considered, and here I have outlined those I feel to be the most important.

Weather Conditions

The prevailing weather conditions are a crucial factor when considering whether to continue or turn back.  What is the weather like now, how will it change as you continue the ascent, what will it be like on the descent?

High winds are a game changer in the mountains, having a profound effect on safety and morale. What is the strength of the wind, how will this change as you ascend, will you become more or less exposed to it if you continue?

Strong winds, (those over 50-60km/hr), are going to slow your progress, and will significantly increase the risk of you being blown over and perhaps injured.  In addition, walking into a strong headwind for a number of hours will sap both your energy and morale.   Remember that the wind will strengthen as you gain height and can be more severe over saddles and at the top of corries.

The temperature is also an important factor to consider. As you gain height the temperature drops by approximately 1.0 – 1.5°C for every 100 metres of ascent, so if it is 1 or 2°C in the valley it could well be -10°C on the upper slopes of Lugnaquilla, for example.  If it is a cold day, then coupled with the wind, you may have a considerable wind-chill to take into account. Do not underestimate this, on a day when it might be -5°C on the mountain, a strong wind can give a wind-chill of -15°C or more, stripping heat away from your body very quickly.

Precipitation can add significantly to the chilling effects of the wind and cold, soaking gloves and hands and leaking through waterproof clothing to wet the layers beneath.  Perhaps not so obvious at first, snow is less of a problem than rain or sleet.  Is it raining, or is it likely to rain soon?

When is it a good time to turn back

Effective Equipment & Clothing

Do you have effective equipment and clothing to deal with the conditions anticipated? Your boots should be suitable for the terrain you are on, sturdy and waterproof boots with good grip are essential for the uplands of Ireland and Britain.

Is your waterproof clothing going to keep you warm and dry in heavy rain? Wet clothes can result in you loosing up to 20 times more heat than when you are dry.  You should have enough warm layers, either in your pack or being worn, to cope with the conditions, as well as a warm hat and gloves, plus spares.

Physical & Mental Condition

How are you and your companions feeling? Are you tired, hungry, cold, dispirited or exhausted? Maybe you are feeling strong, in good spirits and ready for the challenge. You should also ensure you have enough high calorie food to last the day, to keep your energy levels up.  Be honest with yourself and consider are you able to continue with the hike as planned.

These are important factors to take into consideration when deciding if and when to turn back.

Time

Think about how long it might be before you reach more comfortable terrain and more sheltered conditions, down in the valley or perhaps under the cover of crags or trees.

If you did a route card when planning the hike, monitor your real progress against that predicted, check if you are on time or well behind the clock.  If you continue on, consider how much time you have before it begins to get dark. Do you have the time to get down in the daylight, and do you have a torch in case you get caught out in the dark?When is it a good time to turn back?

 

Implications of an incident

All of the factors above will have a bearing on how you might manage an incident, should one occur. If you have an enforced stop due to injury or illness could you cope until help arrives, given the weather conditions you find yourself in?

 

Finally, think about changing your route if the circumstances dictate, perhaps you can do the hike in reverse and keep the wind at your back when on higher ground. If you are already committed to the hike then remember to have your escape route(s) planned and be prepared to use it if things get tough, or you get behind on time.

There is another commonly used mountaineering phrase, ‘If you think it’s time to turn back, then it probably is’.  If your gut feeling is that something is not right then give some thought to the above, change your plans if necessary, and stay safe.

Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails.ie, specialising in guided hiking and mountain skills training, and based in Dublin, Ireland.