Last weekend saw the first significant snow of the season on Ben Nevis. With winter close at hand perhaps it’s time to consider the plans we need to make to safely explore the winter mountains.
The winter mountains can be a magical place and offer some great rewards, crisp frosty mornings, misty valleys, long reaching views and snow topped hills are but a few of the wonders to be experienced at this time of year.
However, the Irish mountains can be an unpredictable place in winter too. With uncertain weather, they can also bring inherent risks such as strong cold winds; boggy and slippery terrain; rain, sleet and snow; shorter daylight hours and poor visibility. To cope with the ever-changing nature of the winter hills it is best to be well prepared and equipped.
Plan and Prepare
Check the weather forecast the day before your hike, and check it again before you head out. Pay particular attention to the wind speed and direction. It’s always more difficult to make progress with the wind in your face than at your back, so be willing to alter your route to take account of this.
Check the expected temperature at your intended height, and make allowance for the wind chill, be prepared by carrying extra clothing if required.
Check the likelihood of precipitation, (rain, hail or snow), how much and when?
Plan your route before you go. How long will it take? How much ascent is involved? What type of terrain do you expect to encounter? Check the likely time it will take you against the daylight hours available, remember we move slower in the heavy ground conditions of winter.
Always ensure you have plenty of high calorie food available, you will burn a lot more fuel in winter. Carry some extra calories in the form of sugary sweets in case of emergency. There is no rule concerning how much liquid you should take, though 1.5 litres is a good guide. Taking a hot drink in a flask when it is going to be cold will warm you up and is a great morale booster.
A map and compass are essential items for all hillwalkers. Do not rely solely on smartphone technology as batteries can fail when the phone gets wet and cold, which they frequently do in winter.
Carrying a map and compass on its’ own is not enough, you need to be confident and competent in their use. If you are not sure how to navigate yourself around the mountains with a map and compass then consider going on a course to learn how to master these essential skills.
(Check out our navigation courses here: https://mountaintrails.ie/mountain-courses/)
It is essential in winter to have good waterproof hiking boots with an ‘aggressive’ sole pattern and a good step in the heel for vital grip in the wet and slippery conditions you will encounter. Couple these with a pair of gaiters which will prevent snow, mud and debris from entering the top of your boots.
Protect your legs with good softshell pants, often made of a stretchy material for comfort, they are also windproof, will offer a degree of insulation, and may ward off the odd shower. Avoid jeans at all costs, they are made of cotton, will get heavy and cold when wet, will result in you losing a lot of important heat and bring with it the risk of hypothermia.
Layering your clothing gives flexibility and allows for better temperature regulation as it is easier to add or remove layers. A good layering system should include a base layer, an effective base layer should move moisture away from your skin, it should be comfortable and provide some insulation. The choice is usually between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino). Cotton should be avoided, as it will absorb a lot of water (sweat), and the hollow fibres of cotton won’t release it easily, so it stays with you and makes you feel cold and clammy when you slow down or rest.
Next comes the mid or insulating layer, this will provide most of the warmth by trapping air in the fibres of the material. Often a synthetic fleece, they provide insulation while transferring moisture to the outer layers to evaporate. They are generally not windproof so need to be used in conjunction with an outer layer or shell.
A shell jacket with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and can be both waterproof and breathable.
Soft shell jackets are becoming increasingly popular, they are windproof, provide insulation, and will keep off the odd shower, though once it rains heavily you will need your waterproof jacket.
Waterproof Jacket & Pants are essential ward off both rain and cold winds. Inadequate protection from either can make you uncomfortable at best, and at worst can lead to hypothermia, as the chilling effects of wet clothes and high winds are greatly increased in winter. Choose one with a breathable membrane to reduce moisture building up inside, and ensure it has either waterproof zips or storm flaps to cover the zip, this will prevent water ingress through the front. Make sure it has a good integral hood too.
To protect your extremities, make sure you have gloves and a warm hat. You will often see lost gloves and hats in the hills, so take spares in case you lose one. It’s also great to be able to change into dry gloves half way through a wet day. Fleece gloves are ideal for most conditions, but be prepared to upgrade to insulated and waterproof gloves when the weather dictates.
Here are 5 other essential items you should have with you when heading out into the winter mountains:
- Warm spare layer or belay jacket. You may have an enforced stop in the mountains, maybe a colleague has an injury, or perhaps you are stopping for lunch in an exposed spot. In this scenario a spare warm layer is ideal. A synthetic (primaloft) insulated jacket is best, it can be put over your existing clothing, including wet waterproofs, and will warm you up straight away. A fleece jacket could be an alternative, but they are not windproof, so you would need to put it on under your windproof layer.
- Survival or blizzard bag. This is rather like a plastic sleeping bag, bright orange, lightweight and cheap, and everyone should carry one in their pack. In emergency situations you can climb into this bag and it will protect you from the worst of the weather. They have often been attributed with saving lives in the winter mountains. You might consider upgrading this to a ‘blizzard’ bag, which has some extra layers to provide insulation.
- A group shelter. Also known as an emergency or survival shelter, this is a plastic tent-like cover that a group of people can get into to give protection from the elements. They come in various sizes from 2 to 10 person, and would be used to protect a casualty or as a shelter on an exposed lunch stop. If you are hiking as part of a group then a larger one could be carried between you.
- Head Torch. Essential in winter, and a good idea all year round, a head torch will provide you with light to get off the mountain should you be caught out in the dark, it can also be used for signalling for help. It’s a good idea to carry extra batteries, or a spare torch in addition.
- Goggles. Wind blown hail or snow can become a real hazard, stinging your eyes and making it difficult to navigate. A pair of ski goggles will allow you to make progress in even the most difficult conditions.
Finally, a word of caution. If you want to experience hiking in snow conditions, then the higher mountains are the place to go, but unless you are equipped with ice axe and crampons, (and know how to use them), stay away from deeply frozen icy ground. Be prepared to back off if the conditions get very slippery with ice and consolidated frozen snow.
There is still a lot of exciting hiking to be had below the snow line, with clear crisp air, superb visibility and stunning sunsets. Yes, the winter mountains can be a hostile environment, but by giving a little thought to preparation it is possible to experience some wonderful winter hiking in the Irish hills.
Mountaintrails provide guided hiking tours, navigation training and Mountain Skills courses in Ireland and the UK. To find out more go to www.mountaintrails.ie.
I regularly get asked by clients if using hiking poles is a good idea and my answer may sometimes sound noncommittal, ‘well maybe yes, maybe no’.
In reality it is down to the individual to determine whether hiking poles are for them. To help with making that decision I have laid out the major advantages and disadvantages below.
But first it is important to use the right technique when using poles, otherwise many of the advantages are lost. I see far too many hikers using poles incorrectly, to the point where they are doing more harm than good.
Adjust the length of the poles so that your forearm is at the horizonal when holding the grip. In cold weather you should shorten the poles slightly to have your hands lower than your elbows, this will help the circulation of warm blood into your fingers. You should also shorten the poles slightly when ascending steep ground, as you are placing them higher up the slope in front of you. Lengthen them again when descending steeply, as the ground is lower than your feet.
All this adjusting can be a chore, so clip-lock designs have a definite advantage over the twist-locking types.
Putting your hands though the straps as indicated will take a certain amount of strain off of your wrists. However, if you should take a tumble then the poles are flailing around your body, so some experienced users think it is better not to use the straps at all.
Keep the poles close to your body in both ascent and descent. Having your arms extended sideways so the poles act as stabilisers will not benefit your uphill and downhill progress, will ultimately reduce your ability to keep your balance and may act as a trip hazard for others around you.
In ascent use the poles slightly to the side or behind you, this will give added propulsion up the slope. On a steep descent, place the poles ahead of you, for support and braking.
One pole or two? This is a matter of personal preference, I often carry two poles but may only use one, leaving my other hand free to hold a map, camera or eat a snack! Long term use of only one pole has been suggested by some to cause imbalance issues with the muscles and ligaments.
- Reduces the impact on joints, particularly in descent. Anyone with sore knees or lower body joint pain will benefit from using poles on downhill sections, it will also be of benefit to anyone carrying a heavy pack.
- If you find balancing difficult when travelling over rocky or uneven ground, at night or through deep snow, then poles will definitely be of benefit.
- Using poles correctly will give a whole body workout, reducing the work done by the legs and adding work to the muscles in the core, arms and shoulders. This has the effect of improving your power and endurance on long uphill sections.
- In river crossings a single pole can act as a ‘third leg’, increasing stability and safety.
- In boggy conditions a pole can be used to test the ground ahead, to check if it is solid and will support your weight.
- An incorrect technique can markedly decrease the value of using poles at all and can lead to muscle pain and injury.
- They can be an inconvenience if you need to free up your hands. Be prepared to put away your poles if you need to use your hands for scrambling, to read your map, or to navigate with your compass.
- Long term use of poles can lead to a decreased sense of balance, especially when used as ‘stabilisers’. Be prepared to put them away on flat ground and easy gentle slopes.
- Carrying hiking poles adds extra weight to your pack when they are not in use. When stowing your poles ensure the tips are pointing downwards so as not to risk them becoming a hazard to others. Poles are best stowed down the side of your pack, either inside or outside.
- The rubber tips on hiking poles often come off and consequently litter the hills, so leave them at home.
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails.ie , a guided hiking and mountain skills training business based in Dublin.
Lake District Hiking Weekend 1-4 May 2020
Scotland Winter Skills & Ben Nevis Weekend – 14/17 March 2020
New to hillwalking? Check out these top tips to start you off in the right direction.
1. Love your feet
Getting the right footwear is possibly the most important factor in determining the success of your hillwalking career.
For tracks and low level routes when you might have only a light pack, then lightweight flexible boots would suffice. More demanding ground, such as rocky, high mountain paths would require a more rigid boot, with a stiffer more aggressive sole for grip and perhaps a higher level of ankle support.
Fabric and leather mix boots are now very popular, they are a good for general hiking use and would be an ideal first boot purchase. These boots combine comfort and lighter weight with a good sole unit for grip; they should also have a waterproof membrane. For rocky mountain trails you will need a more durable boot that has a semi-rigid construction, higher ankle cuff, toe protection and a high grip sole for security on steep ground. These boots were traditionally made of leather, a durable and waterproof material when treated properly; they are now also available with synthetic uppers and a waterproof lining.
This means little if your boots are not comfortable, and getting the right fit is the primary consideration.
Firstly, forget your shoe size, unless you are used to buying hiking boots, it will be of little use to you, get the store to measure your feet to determine the size and width that you need.
Secondly, wear hiking socks when trying on the boots, if you don’t have any the store should give you a choice to try. Once you have the boots on walk around the store, try some stairs if possible, good outlets will have a ramp to walk up and down to check for heel lift and toe squeezing.
Finally, try on several different pairs from different manufacturers, go to other stores if necessary, and get the best fit you can.
Buy some comfortable and cushioning hiking socks while you are there.
You will need to wear your boots in, work up to half day hikes before using them for a full day’s hillwalking.
2. Dress for Success (Think like an Onion)
Layering your clothing gives flexibility and allows for better temperature regulation. Cotton base layers and shirts should be avoided as they absorb a lot of moisture, have poor heat retention when damp and will chill your body in cold weather.
Jeans are definite out, they are heavy, cold and slow to dry when wet. Choose trekking or hillwalking trousers instead, yoga or jogging pants are also a good option, but be prepared to put a windproof/waterproof layer over these in cold and wet conditions.
A good layering system should comprise:
Base layer – a good base layer should move moisture away from your skin, it should be comfortable and offer a degree of insulation. The choice is generally between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino). Long sleeve versions are better in the colder months.
Opt for a front zip, as this will help with temperature regulation.
Mid/Insulating layer – this will provide most of the warmth by trapping air in the fibres of the material. Often a synthetic fleece, though wool mid layers are available, they provide insulation while transferring moisture to the outer layer to evaporate.
Outer shell – Consider getting a ‘soft shell’ jacket, this offers a degree of insulation, can be fully windproof, and will allow moisture to pass through, (in both directions). None of your moisture will condense on the inside and you will feel much more comfortable. Some softshell jackets are designed to keep out a light shower, but might be less ‘breathable’ as a result.
However, when it starts to rain you must exchange your ‘soft shell’ for a waterproof jacket. These come with a bewildering array of styles, models and features. A jacket with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and should be both waterproof and breathable. Jackets with full length zips are ideal as they are easier to take on and off.
Take some advice before splashing out on a waterproof jacket, but in general the more you pay the better the jacket will protect you.
3. Bring the right Gear
Apart from your boots the most important items you buy should be your waterproof jacket and trousers; these are literally a life saver in Irish mountain weather. Don’t skimp here, get the best you can afford, jackets that use breathable membranes such as Gore-tex or Event work best, other manufacturers have their own brand of breathable materials.
You will also need a hat and gloves, map and compass, a spare warm layer, small first aid kit, headtorch and bivi bag in case of emergency, and a small rucksack of around 25 litres to put it all in. Some folk like to use walking poles when hiking, but they don’t suit everyone, try to borrow some at first to see if they are for you.
This seems like a lot to buy, but you can compromise on some items and some supermarkets now offer a range of decent budget gear.
4. Learn to Navigate
It is important for any hillwalker to be able to navigate across open and mountainous country. Most Mountain Rescue call-outs are as a result of poor navigation.
Learn how to use a map and compass, perhaps get a proficient friend to teach you, or better still, enrol on a course, you can find details of Mountaintrails navigation courses on our website. Many hillwalking clubs will also offer basic navigation courses to their members.
GPS technology is a great navigational aid, but should only be used as a backup to map and compass skills. Batteries fail when they run down or get cold and you may lose the signal in deep valleys and in forests. Smartphone mapping apps using the inbuilt GPS are very popular too, but are notorious for running down the phone battery, and may fail if the unit gets wet.
5. Don’t go it Alone
Heading out alone can seem a daunting prospect, and can be risky. Unless you are experienced and proficient it is best avoided. Why not join up with a few friends and enjoy those shared experiences, or join a local hillwalking club?Mountaineering Ireland have a list of all the walking clubs in Ireland, and would be happy to help you find one nearby.
You can also join one of our guided hikes and enjoy a worry free day in the hills.
6. Stay Fuelled and Hydrated
When we exercise we burn calories, and the same is true of hillwalking, indeed, on a full day hiking in the hills you can burn in excess of 3,000 calories.
Part of the reason we go hiking may be to lose weight, but it is important to have enough energy to get through the day too. Fuel up at the start of the day. Don’t miss breakfast, and eat complex carbohydrates which release energy slowly, porridge with honey is good, as is muesli with dried fruit and nuts. A cooked breakfast will also give you plenty of fuel for the day, bon appetite!
At your lunch stop refuel with more slow energy release food, oatcakes, bananas and peanut butter sandwiches are all good examples. Chocolate bars and jelly babies make great treats too!
It is essential to drink plenty of fluids, especially in warm weather, dehydration is very debilitating, and can be life threatening. It is generally recommended to drink 2 litres a day, but in reality this varies with individuals, the weather, and the severity of the walk. Try to avoid caffeine rich drinks, like tea and coffee, as these are diuretic. For a warming drink in cold weather try hot chocolate, or a fruit tea with a spoonful of honey.
7. One Step at a Time
When you start out, consider your ability level, don’t try to take on too much initially, start small and build it up steadily, gradually increasing the severity of the walks.
Think about the proposed route, and ask yourself these questions, ‘how far is it, how much ascent is involved, how long will it take me, when does it get dark, can I comfortably complete this walk?’ Once you have decided on the hike, leave a plan of your route and the time you expect to return with a friend or family member, so you can be found in an emergency.
8. Be Weather Aware (And other Mountain Hazards)
Mountains have their own weather patterns, you don’t have to be a scientist to know it gets colder as you get higher. In fact it gets colder at an average of 1.5C for every 100 metres of height gain, so if its 10C on the coast it could be below freezing on the summit of Lugnaquilla!
Check the weather forecast and look out particularly for temperature, wind speed and precipitation. A combination of low temperature, rain and wind will produce a wind-chill much cooler than the air temperature, and can lead to hypothermia, so be prepared. After heavy rain, mountain streams quickly become torrents and become very difficult to cross, avoid crossing water if at all possible, and especially during or immediately after, wet weather.
On a brighter note, don’t forget your sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat in hot sunny weather, and take extra drink too!
9. Respect the Mountain Environment
The hills and mountains are home to many plants and wild animals, as well as providing a livelihood for many farmers and landowners. We have a responsibility to protect this environment and to treat it with respect. Avoid harming livestock, wildlife, birds, plants and trees, and leave nothing behind when you leave. When out hiking with a dog, keep it under control and on a lead when near farm animals and other people.
Remember to act responsibly and ‘Leave No Trace’ of your visit.
10. Remember to Smile (It’s fun after all).
Hillwalking can seem really tough at first, wet cloudy days, long and sweaty climbs, aching limbs and heavy packs. However, the more you walk the easier it gets, and the rewards are many.
Stunning mountain views and wonderful days out you will remember for years to come, increased fitness coupled with a tremendous sense of achievement. All enjoyed in the company of friendly and likeminded people.
Lugnaquilla is the highest mountain in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, and at 925 metres it is the highest point in Ireland outside of Co. Kerry. It’s also classified as a ‘Furth’, a mountain over 3000ft outside of Scotland (where they are called Munro’s) and one of 13 Furth’s in Ireland.
Shaped rather like a large upturned Christmas pudding with 3 large bites taken out of it, there are a number of ways to climb this mountain, all of which lead to the large stone summit cairn, topped by a triangulation pillar.
The summit plateau is a bare undulating surface of short, wind swept vegetation. Paths are indistinct at best, and very hard to follow in low cloud, which often shrouds this mountain.
To the northwest of the summit is the ‘North Prison’, a large glacial cwm with steep sides, carved out during the last ice age. Frequented by winter climbers, it offers the best chance of winter climbing conditions in the east of Ireland.
Close to the summit to the southeast is the South Prison, another cwm formed by the ice, also steep sided this can be approached through the forests of Aughavannagh.
Finally, the third ‘bite’ is a much larger but less steep glacial valley to the northeast, variously known as the ‘Green Corner’ or the ‘Green Banks’. Lugnaquilla can be summited with relative ease from this side, but beware, there are no paths and in poor visibility it is so easy to get disoriented here.
The three most popular routes up the mountain follow the three ridges formed by the intersection of these glacial valleys, to the north, east and west. They are described below.
To the west of the mountain lies the Glen of Imaal, a military firing range owned by the defence forces. There are two permitted paths crossing the periphery of the range, but they are closed on most weekdays, when firing takes place. It is important to note that the valley here, the ground between Table Mountain and Camarahill (blue boundary on the map below), is out of bounds and potentially dangerous even when firing is not taking place as there may be unexploded ordance in the area.
Plan your route
There are a number of ways to climb Lugnaquilla mountain, some are more difficult than others. Ascents via any of the three glacial cwms require confident footwork and capable navigation. There is no access to the North Prison from the floor of the Glen of Imaal.
The most popular three routes to the summit are drawn on the map below.
Many climbers return by their outward path, but there are some route combinations that can give a superb horseshoe circuit and return you to your start point.
From Baravore (red route)
Starting at the Baravore car park this route crosses the Avonbeg river and then heads up into Fraughan Rock Glen via a forest track. This track ends at a steep headwall which has to be taken on directly.
A faint path now heads west across the upper valley, rising as it does so to reach the north ridge below Cannow mountain. Turning south the path becomes clearer as it ascends before reaching the undulating plateau. Here the path becomes very faint and difficult to follow in poor visibility, but continues to the summit of Lugnaquilla.
The Zig Zags (yellow route)
Named after a switchback miner’s path that rises from the valley at Carraway Stick waterfall (where there is limited parking), this route is relatively easy to follow as it has been badly eroded to leave a scar on the hillside.
The path continues to the summit of Leohard (Clohernagh) before following the eastern spur of the mountain, gradually ascending towards the summit of Lugnaquilla. As it does so there are great views into the South Prison on the left. The path becomes faint as it crosses the plateau and is hard to follow in poor visibility.
From Fenton’s (green route)
This is the shortest and arguably the easiest way to climb Lugnaquilla. Starting at Fenton’s pub car park in the Glen of Imaal, the route follows an army access track before rising to Camarahill.
This route passes through the military range and it will be closed on weekdays when they are firing, you can check these dates on the Mountaineering Ireland website, or call the Army Information Centre at Seskin. It is almost always accessible at weekends.
From Camarahill the route continues on an easy to follow path to the plateau, where it becomes faint and hard to follow for the relatively short distance to the summit cairn.
Take the correct kit
Air cools with an increase in height (this is why mountains have snow on them), and it can often be several degrees cooler on Lugnaquilla’s wide plateau than it is in the valley.
There is also a considerable increase in wind speed from the valleys to the summit. These two factors in combination can make the conditions on Lugnaquilla much harsher than expected, and this often catches out those who are not properly prepared for it.
Make sure you have adequate clothing to deal with the weather, hiking trousers and not jeans, several warm layers of clothing (not cotton) and a warm and waterproof jacket, as well as waterproof overtrousers.
Good hat and gloves are essential, and should be carried year-round when climbing this mountain.
The paths on Lugnaquilla can also be very wet and slippery therefore it is important to have supportive and grippy footwear, hiking boots with a deep sole pattern are best.
Runners are not adequate and will result in wet uncomfortable feet, with the added risk of a slip or fall, which could potentially result in injury.
Finally make sure you have enough food and drink for the day, and don’t forget those sugary snacks, you have an excuse this time!
Brush up on your navigation
The ability to navigate with a map and compass is essential on Lugnaquilla. The weather here can be harsher than on adjacent mountains and it is often shrouded in mist. The plateau is likely to be cloudy with poor visibility, and this is where the routes are most difficult to follow.
Many climbers find their way to the summit but struggle to find their way off when the cloud descends.
Make sure your map and compass skills are up to scratch. If you use a GPS enabled phone app, ensure you have adequate charge and remember that rain and cold can have a drastic effect on the unit’s ability to work properly.
Check the weather forecast
Lugnaquilla is known for having unique weather, often cloudier, wetter, colder and windier than its neighbours. It has been known to get as cold as -15C with the windchill on the summit plateau.
Remember to check the weather forecast before you head out and be prepared for sudden changes in the conditions. If the weather looks unpleasant in the mountains, it will be much more so on Lug.
Don’t go it alone
Solo climbs of this mountain are for the experienced and well-equipped hiker only. Go with more experienced pals, maybe someone who is familiar with your chosen route.
Ultimately the safest way to have a successful and enjoyable day is to join a guided hike provided by experienced and qualified guides such as Mountaintrails.
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):
The 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.
To simplify it down a little let’s look at the five most common styles:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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……
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:
* 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.