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.