By selecting the right clothing you can enjoy the hills in all conditions.
‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’, is a quote that has been used many times and in various forms. It simply means that if you have the correct clothing then the weather should pose no threat or impediment to your day’s hiking. With proper clothing you will remain warm and dry, even in the worst weather.
In reality, one of the biggest challenges of cold weather hiking is managing sweat and keeping yourself from overheating.
Multiple layering will keep you comfortable all day.
You will need a clothing system that will keep you comfortable across a wide range of activity levels, from standing still to strenuous exertion, and in varying weather conditions, from cold and crisp sunny days to windy and wet outings. Sweat will evaporate much slower in winter than in summer and even small amounts could leave you feeling cold and clammy once you stop exerting yourself. Keep comfortable by moving at a pace that does not result in overheating and remove layers as you warm up.
Remember that you will spend some time during the day not moving, perhaps waiting for other group members or eating lunch.
Your clothing will need to keep you comfortable in all these varying conditions.

A Basic 3 Layer System:

 

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 usually between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino).

Synthetic base layers are generally cheaper, more durable and faster drying, though they will smell with use. Merino wool is more comfortable against the skin, offers more insulation, and is naturally antibacterial, making it a lot less smelly.
There are now hybrid base layers available, typically 85% polyester and 15% merino wool, which aim to combine the best of both wool and synthetic. For winter use they are my current choice.
Opt for a long 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.

There are ‘softshell’ layers available which combine a thin fleece with a windproof outer layer such as ‘pertex’. They offer high moisture wicking with good insulation and wind resistance, and work well on cold dry days, avoiding the need for an outer shell jacket and helping to avoid overheating.
A full length zip will allow for a greater degree of temperature control.

Outer shell – a jacket or smock with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and should be both waterproof and breathable. Many people prefer the products made from ‘Goretex’, though other materials such as ‘Event’ also work well. Some manufacturers have developed their own waterproof/breathable materials.
Jackets with full length zips are ideal as they are easier to take on and off.

Synthetic base layer, fleece mid layer and outer shell jacket.
This simple system can be varied depending on the weather and temperatures encountered. The mid layer can be replaced with a thin insulated jacket of down or synthetic material like ‘Primaloft’, and softshell jackets that combine layers, (as described above), can be used with or without an outer shell.
Layering in this way offers maximum flexibility to stay comfortable and warm in all conditions.
Legs should not be forgotten, good softshell pants will provide insulation and be windproof. Some will keep off a shower, but should be combined with breathable waterproof pants for full weather protection.
A fleece hat or beanie and waterproof gloves should complete the kit, a lot of heat can be lost through the head and cold hands can make for a miserable and potentially dangerous experience.
Finally, cotton clothing has no place in your cold weather kit, preferably not even socks and underwear. It will absorb moisture, trap it next to your skin, and keep you cold and damp all day, leading to possible hypothermia once you stop.
To learn more about Mountaintrails guided hikes check out the following pages on our website.

The forested hillsides of the Pyrenee-Orientales region of southern France,
with the Pyrenees in the distance.
 I am back from a recent holiday to the Pyrenee-Orientales region of France, that’s the bit on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border, close to the eastern Pyrenees.
Here the rock is predominantly limestone, often typified by karst-like terrain and tall pale limestone cliffs. The valleys and lower hills host myriad vineyards, while the steeper and rockier ground is predominantly clothed in a forest of drought stunted small trees and shrubs. 
European praying mantis, this one is a female, the male is smaller and
 a dull brown colour, (and often gets eaten by the female during mating).
On the lower, uncultivated rockier ground that is parched by the sun,  the dominant flora is scrubby rosemary, lavender, juniper and cypress. Whilst the higher forested hills are mainly evergreen oaks, (holly oak and cork oak), field maple and tamarisk. These forests cover these hills to the summits, which rise to a maximum of 1200 metres. 
Reaching the summit or the 940 metre Pech d’Auroux.
Where there are breaks in the tree cover, and the thin soil allows, dry grasses and aromatic herbs grow. Here we found the ubiquitous crickets, ‘chirping’ their incessant call by rubbing their back legs together. The European praying mantis, clumsy looking but deadly if you are a potential meal, and the common wall lizard, well camouflaged and skittering nervously between the warm rocks.
Butterflies are everywhere, some species are recognisable, like the small blue and the fritillaries, but others are more exotic, like the creamy yellow and brown swallowtails. There is the occasional flash of bright colour, golden yellow or deep blue, as yet another unknown butterfly hurries by.
Spot the lizard, (common wall lizard?), well camouflaged
against the pale rocks.
Pungent lavenders still flower late into the summer, the perfumed oils concentrated by the dry, hot weather. Here and there we spotted the bright pink flowers of the wild colchicum, a native of these hills, and leafless until the spring. There was also the familiar scabious and knapweeds, the flowers pinky mauve rather than the blue shades we were familiar with.
There is very little water here, as you would expect in limestone country, but nearby the river L’Agly, (eagle river), cuts through  the hills to form the deep and impressive Gorge de Galamus, a popular tourist destination.
We never saw any eagles, or any large birds or mammals. However, here and there we saw  the typical scratching and ‘rootlings’ of wild boar, no doubt hiding deep in the forest and perhaps peering at us as we passed by.
Wild colchicum, or autumn crocus.

The route ahead passing through the forest, in this case the GR36.

Last weekend, with the weather set fair, myself and a couple of friends decided to use the two days to hike the ‘best bits’ of the Wicklow Way and spend Saturday night camped out in the hills.
Any cursory glance at the maps will quickly reveal that the Wicklow Way stays predominantly to the east of the range, avoiding nearly every summit as it does so. In addition it spends a good deal of time on the coniferous forest tracks, and a fair bit of the remainder on tarmac roads. So where is the best bit?

Summit of a windy Scarr
Upper Glenmalure

Looking down into Glendalough

Undoubtedly, the section from Crone wood, past the Powerscourt waterfall and on to the slopes of Djouce, and then over the White Hill  to Pier Gates is very pleasant, ( it does go over the summit of White Hill, but this is hardly a major top).

But that’s about it.

The rest of the route subjects the traveller to dark forest track or busy road with none of the wide sweeping views of sea, hill and moorland that the Wicklow Mountains can justly lay claim to, and I cannot help but think that the route planners really missed an opportunity here.

Surely one or two accessible ridges would make for a better hiking experience? Why not take in Scarr instead of the road section to Laragh, or the Mullacor/Corrig ridge that seperates Glendalough from Glenmalure? Why can we not give the many hiking visitors to these hills a sample of the stunning views to be had?

Maybe there were access issues, or perhaps safety concerns, but these hills are no Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, there are few steep drops or serious navigational challenges, and they can be easily avoided by thoughtful route selection.

So we gave up on the idea of sticking to the Wicklow Way, and spent the two days meandering over hills and ridges.
The sun shone as we took in the summits of Corrig, Lugduff and Scarr, enjoying the wonderful views down into Glendalough and across the rounded granite mountain tops to the west. We crossed the lovely wooded valley of Glenmacanass and gazed down on the curvaceously shaped Lough Dan. We looked out to the pointed Sugarloaf and the sea beyond and we picked out the prominent mountain tops of Lugnaquilla and Tonlagee.

And so I hope many more of our visitors will eschew the Wicklow Way for the wider vistas of the whaleback ridges and rolling hills of this lovely part of Ireland.

With good weather forecast for the west of Ireland over the August Bank Holiday weekend, I decided, along with two friends, Piotr and Natasza, to head for the mountains of Connemara.
These quartzite hills, (hills or mountains?, this became a discussion point over the weekend,) have intrigued me since I first visited them back in January, and I was keen to explore them further.

Approaching the summit of Leenaun Hill.

We arrived around Saturday lunchtime, and parked up in the small lough side village of Leenaun, snuggled at the eastern end of Killary Harbour, a long narrow fjord, (the only true fjord in Ireland).
We had decided to warm up on a horseshoe walk that has the grassy Leenaun Hill at it’s head. The hill over looks the village from the south, and at 618 metres is no lightweight.

It was breezy, with grey, high, fast moving cloud that dumped the occasional shower, but the horseshoe was free from hill fog and we enjoyed an invigorating hike, getting the wearying travel stiffness out of our limbs. The views down Killary Harbour and over to the Twelve Bens to the south and Mweelrea to the north were excellent, and we were in good spirits as we headed for our weekend base, camping at the Connemara Hostel.

Sunday dawned clear, sunny and with very little wind, the forecast was for the weather to hold for the next two days.

Killary Harbour from the shore below the Connemara Hostel

We had discussed the possibility of doing Carrot Ridge before we came away, and the weather gave us every opportunity, so having sorted our climbing gear, we headed for Gleninagh.
Parking can be difficult here, but after some crafty negotiation with a local resident by Natasza, we managed to park at the last house on the private road leading into the valley.
We were ready to go.

 

 

 

 

Carrot Ridge

The approach to the ridge is across the boggy basin floor of the Gleninagh valley, after the recent hot spell the bog was spongy but essentially dry, neither the river crossing nor the surrounding bog presented us with any problems. This is followed by a steep pull up a rocky, peaty slope to the start of the ridge proper at the base of a pinkish quartzite slab.
These quartzites are very fine grained, pale and smooth; no doubt they would present a tricky challenge when wet, but thankfully we had warm and dry rock to work with today.
Carrot Ridge is the prominent line, in centre of shot, running
 slightly right to left.
Reputedly the longest rock climb in Ireland, at 370 metres, Carrot ridge is graded as a diff climb, but as we were climbing in boots, I think it was a grade harder. There is also a couple of sections of scrambling. Though not particularly difficult, the first few pitches are notable for the lack of positive holds, and combined with the evident exposure, we decided to stay roped up for the most part.
Piotr and Natasza led alternate pitches, and it was soon evident that we were doing longer, and fewer, pitches than suggested in the topo. However, we were finding good belay stances and placing enough protection to keep us reassured, so were not too concerned.
Piotr leading on the first pitch
Where we could, we took coils and moved together, this was limited to the scrambling sections of the route,  which amounted to about 190 metres.
As the day wore on the sun came round and bathed the ridge, we were climbing in glorious sunshine, warm and content……
Natasza negotiating a narrow ledge.
Moving together high up on the ridge
The main face of the crag, with Benbaun in the distance.
Carrot Ridge in profile, the paler band running left to right.

Reaching the top of the climb hot and thirsty, we took a break, before heading over Bencollaghduff and down to the col at Maumina. It was good to stretch the legs, with the rocky west ridge of Bencollaghduff offering a few challenges of its’ own.

Heading for Bencollaghduff, Bencorr in the background.

The views all around were stunning, the rocky mountains of the Twelve Bens surrounded us, and more distant, the shimmering sea acting as a blue frame for this lovely picture. Further off we could see the cliffs of Moher, and all the while the warm sun filled the blue sky.

We got back to the car at 8.00pm, and agreed that fish and chips, washed down by a few pints, would be a great end to a great day, and so we headed to Letterfrack to quench our thirst.

Maumturks

Monday, and we opted for a day hiking in the Maumturks, the weather was fine, though it was cooler and breezier than the previous day.
We intended to hike part of the ridge and finish on Letterbreckaun, the second highest mountain in this small range at 667 metres.
We started our walk on the narrow road that doubles as the Western Way, at a pull in opposite the small Lehanagh Lough, and made our way into a grassy, damp valley, called Illion West. Red ochre coloured cattle grazed here on the lush vegetation.
We headed up to the col at Maumhoge, the stiffness in our legs a legacy of yesterdays exertions, before heading northwest up to the summit of Knocknahillion.
Letterbreckaun, (667m), from Knocknahillion
As yesterday, the views were magnificent and long, and we enjoyed a superb hike along the broad but narrowing ridge towards Letterbreckaun. This undulating rocky ridge was dotted with small pools and minor unnamed loughs, sparkling in the sunlight, and providing an harmonious blue to the pale grey of the quartzite rock.
We stayed a while on the summit, reluctant to leave, but eventually had to make our way down via the sloping picturesque valley of Benadolug and back to rejoin the Western Way, and the walk back to the car.
As we packed up ready to head back to Dublin, the clouds rolled in and rain showers blew through the hills, we had made it just ahead of the weather.
We were tired but very content as we headed home after a wonderful three days in these stunningly rugged and craggy mountains.

Yesterday late afternoon, while walking on Cloghnagun, ( a small, 557 metre, heathery granite hill in the Dublin Mountains), I came across a small clump of white Bell heather nestled in the soon to be flowering ling, and a little later the skittering flicker of a viviparous lizard. These chance encounters are the little jewels that punctuate a trip to the mountains, unexpected and delightful.

The unusual white flowered Bell heather

Some people, I have observed, hike head down, grim faced and determined, and see little of the environment around them whilst others chat away to friends as they walk, smiling and laughing as they go.
Some relish the physical challenge, improving their fitness and stamina, perhaps having a challenging goal which pushes them; the Irish four peaks, Kilimanjaro or Croagh Patrick. Others seek the open skies and fresh air.

The reasons we have for taking to the hills are many and varied, but for me the chance encounter with a wild resident, a fox, grouse, deer, frog, dragonfly or finding a flower or plant I cannot identify, certainly rank high among them.
The beauty of the natural environment, it’s sheer detail, the tranquility of a chuckling mountain stream, the wide sweeping views, even those brooding misty days when the hill fog is down, all these give me a great sense of well being and peace of mind, they re-charge my batteries and help me deal with the daily challenges.

John Muir, the Scottish born American conservationist and founder of the National Parks movement, once wrote;

‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flow’s into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares drop off like autumn leaves.’

I really couldn’t put it any better.

The strange geology of the Burren – Slieve Roe from Mullaghmor in the Burren NP.

The Burren, on Ireland’s west coast in the county of Clare, is an area of limestone rising to a modest 300 metres above the nearby sea level.
The limestones, from the Carboniferous period, were formed 340 million years ago in a warm shallow sea, and subsequent erosion and the scouring action of glaciers that receded 10,0000 years ago, have exposed these limestones at the surface.

Fossil corals

This is a karst landscape, weather worn into limestone pavement of clints, grikes and runnels, with sink holes and underground cave systems.

Fossils of tabulate corals are fairly common, particularly on Mullaghmor.
Sea urchin, ammonite and crinoid, (sea-lily), fossils can also be found.

Despite this astonishing geological landscape, the Burren is probably best know for it’s unique mix of arctic-alpine and Mediterranean flora. As the glaciers retreated, the newly exposed land surface was colonised by plants that today are found on the arctic tundra and on mountains above 1500 metres.
With the warming climate, these arctic-alpine plants hung on in the Burren, and were joined eventually by plants of much more temperate areas. Indeed, the warming nature of the Gulf Stream and the heat retention properties of the limestone enabled plants that would normally be found much further south to thrive here, giving a unique and remarkable assemblage of flora, and in such abundance that can leave a lasting impression on those who visit the area.

Mountain Avens

Burren in Bloom is a festival that celebrates this abundance, and takes place throughout the month of May, the best time of year to see the wild flowers. However, we visited in early June, and due to the late spring this year, still saw a glorious display of diverse colour on the limestone slopes.

Most abundant was the Mountain Avens, a plant associated with climates much further north, it’s ground hugging foliage covered in a mass of yellow and white blooms.

 

 

Spring Gentian

We walked the green roads, un-metalled tracks, over the low hills in search of the Spring Gentian, and were rewarded by finding this solitary piercing blue flower in abundant clumps.
It is said that if you pick this flower and take it into your home then you will be struck by lightning, but we contented ourselves by taking photographs.

Orchids are another of the Burren’s iconic plants, and there are several species that can be found here.
One of the most commonly found orchids is the Heath Spotted Orchid, but it is often hard to identify correctly as the species has a very variable nature, and there is a strong degree of cross breeding between the species. 
Despite this, we confidently identified the Heath Spotted as well as the Early Purple Orchid.

Heath Spotted Orchid


We identified many more plants, but one of the more unusual to find here would be the Mossy Saxifrage, a plant of the Arctic tundra regions and mountain ranges between 1900 and 3000 metres. Yet here found at a modest few hundred metres above sea level.

Over 70% of Ireland’s native flora can be found in the Burren, not all flower in the spring, but it is certainly the best time to come and enjoy this spectacle of colour and abundance.

I never really tire of it, and will certainly be back again next spring, and I hope the weather is as good as it was this year!

Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach from Stob Coire Leith
 
After my week on Skye I was looking forward to a different view, different terrain, and to meeting up with some old friends I had not seen for a little over 12 months.
It was a beautiful sunny day as I drove down through Glen Sheil and Glen Garry, with magnificent views of glimmering lochs, bright green forests and snow flecked mountains. I was heading for Kinlochleven, at the head of Loch Leven, to stay at the Fell and Rock Club hut there,  as a guest of my good buddy Les Meer.
 
Sunday dawned cloudy and cool, but crucially there was little wind and the cloud was high, so four of us decided to go for the Aonach Eagach ridge, on the northern side of Glencoe. This iconic serrated ridge boasts two Munro’s and some of the best scrambling in Scotland, and is usually done east to west, with a finish at the Clachaig Inn, and this indeed was our plan.

The route ahead from Am Bodach
The ridge is a mix of easier walking sections and some grade 2/3 scrambling, most notably the Pinnacles, where the exposure is breathtaking, and a good head for heights and a steady nerve are required.
After the long pull on a well made path up to our starting point, Am Bodach, we picked our way along the ridge, first negotiating the down climb from Am Bodach, and then on to the first Munro, Meall Dearg. From here the going got harder as we approached the Pinnacles, and to add a little spice to the day it began to rain, making the well polished holds slippery and needing extra care, so much so that the camera stayed firming in my pack over this section!
Les and Dave posing for the camera
 
 
The rain eased and eventually stopped and too soon we reached Stob Coire Leith, pausing to take in the stunning views all around. To the north, Ben Nevis and the Mamores; to the south the huge bulk that is the complex mountain, Bidean nam Bian, still with a reasonable covering of snow;  and to the west Loch Leven, Loch Linnhe and the seemingly never ending panorama of mountains beyond. 
 
From here the route became easier, more of a ridge walk than a scramble, as we made our way on to Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, the second Munro and the end of the ridge.
 
Looking back along the Aonach Eagach ridge
 
 
 
 
 
The old, traditional route down from here is the Clachaig Gully, but this has become eroded and very dangerous, so we headed across the slope below Cnap Glas, getting more magnificent views down Loch Leven and beyond, before reaching the road and our transport back to the Clachaig Inn for a well earned pint.
 
Day 2 – Monday, we planned to head down into Glen Etive and climb the 1078 metre Ben Starav and it’s neighbour Glas Bheinn Mhor, at 997 metres.
Again the day was cloudy, but a little warmer than the one before, and it felt it as we began our ascent of the long north ridge of this imposing Munro. The summit drifted in and out of the clouds and light rain showers accompanied us as we climbed.
On the north ridge of Ben Starav

Here too, the upper corries still held winter snow, and we felt the chill as we made the final push to the summit over a difficult and greasy boulder field.
Winter had hardly released it’s grip on these mountains, the sparse grasses were brown and blasted, with very little sign of any new spring growth anywhere, despite it being the beginning of June.

Lunch at the summit of Ben Starav was interrupted by more rain and we soon moved on along the pleasantly narrow summit ridge to the subsidiary top of Stob Coire Dheirg and then down the rocky east ridge to the bealach.  From here an undulating whale back ridge continued north east to Glas Bheinn Mhor, our second summit of the day.

Ben Starav from below the east ridge

After a steep and scrambling decent to another bealach, we followed a lovely rocky path alongside the Allt Mheuran. Small tumbling waterfalls and the babbling rush of this small mountain stream delighting us as we made our way back into Glen Etive, down here in the glen there were signs that spring was beginning, with chattering birds in the brightly green birch trees and butterworts glowing yellow in the wet hillside flushes.

 

2012 was one of the wettest years on record in Ireland, and particularly so in the west, so this February it seemed like a good idea to head to Connemara and see for ourselves. Not as daft as it sounds, as February can be a cold, dry and sunny month, great for long views and memorable mountain days. However, our trip was presaged by the prospect of heavy rain showers and cloudy, windy weather.

Our base for the four days was Clifden, a lively little town on the southwest of the range, but at this time of year,half closed for the winter and very quiet. From here we could access the Twelve Bens, Maumturks, Connemara National Park and Kylemore Abbey, (who do a fine line in tea and sticky cakes).

The first day was windy with patchy blue sky, hill fog shrouding the tops of the higher summits.we decided on the Bengower horseshoe,a route that took in Benglenisky, Bengower, (664m), and Benlettery. The hills of Connermara are mostly comprised of quartzite, a hard pale rock, which is essentially metamorphosed silica rich sand, (baked under high pressure).There are outcrops of granite too, but the quartzites define these hills, and give them their silvery grey appearance when wet, (which they often are), and their glaciated, ice scoured, steep sided form. The lower slopes are boggy and infertile, sphagnum mosses, lichens,and molina grass dominate, giving poor grazing for the sparse sheep that dot the slopes. Higher up you will find crowberry, heather, cowberry, clubmosses and lots of bare rock, ice smoothed and rounded outcrops dominate the higher slopes. Hard angular blocks and weathered gravel litter the ridges and summits, ready to trip any unwary foot, but make for great walking after the steep slog up from the sodden lower ground.

Bengower from the ridge adjoining with Benglenisky

Day two dawned windy and wet, with a dark, glowering sky and a cloud base around 150 metres. Clearly not the best of hill days, but undaunted we set of for the National Park visitor centre and a hike up the 440 metre Diamond Hill, (aka Bengooria), so named as it glistens in the sunlight when the rock is wet. Like so much else here in winter, the centre was almost completely closed, with only the toilets remaining open, the cafe being closed for refurbishment. Diamond Hill has a rounded top, rather like an upturned bowl, with an elongated summit ridge. The route is popular, and largely on boardwalks,paths and stone steps, an easy route to follow on a cheerless, wet and cloudy day. So leaving my map and compass in the rucksack we took to the trail and were back at the centre by early afternoon, chilled and damp we fortified ourselves with a flask of tea and returned to the car to spend the afternoon touring the coast roads.

Another windy and showery day followed, and so we decided on a forest walk in the Derryclare Nature Reserve, in the south of the range. This is a strip of mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland, dominated by birch and willow, pine and spruce, and sits between Derryclare mountain and the lough of the same name. There have been reported sightings of red squirrel here, but suffice to say we never caught a glimpse of any squirrel, red or grey, we we did come across lots of frogs and associated frog spawn, croaking amorously in the flooded puddles and drainage channels alongside the forest tracks. It stayed dry long enough for a quiet lunch by the lough, but we soon chilled, and hastened back on our return route.

Derryclare Lough

On our final day we headed to Kylemore Abbey at the northern end of the Twelve Bens, here there was ample parking, and the prospect of tea and muffins after our hike. Our route was a horseshoe taking in the summits of Benbaun, Benbrack, (582 metres), and Knockbrack. The grassy flank of Benbaun, (this is a smaller hill than the Benbaun in the centre of the range and its highest at 729 metres), rises steeply after passing a megalithic tomb and a holy well in the Mweelin valley. We tasted the water for good luck, soft and cold, before beginning the slippery and unpleasant ascent on the steep and damp grass of Benbaun. As we approached the summit and began to anticipate the respite from the hard ascent, the cloud came in and a soft drizzly rain started.

The misty summit of Benbrack

There are meant to be fine views from here,but we were completely in cloud for the rocky ridge traverse up to the summit of Benbrack, an eiry, silent world, muffled by the hill fog around us.The cloud stayed with us as we decended the broad west ridge toward Knockbrack, eventually clearing as we approached the last hill, only to return again as the rain set in more heavily. By this time we were decending into the valley and a determined final push saw us at the tea shop half hour before closing, good timing!

So was the trip worth it? Absolutely, the ridges connecting the summits of the Twelve Bens make for superb hiking, and with the longer daylight hours that come with summer, bigger days can be planned and more stunning walks contemplated. And there are still the Maumturks, which we never got a chance to look at. We will definately be back to explore the area more fully in the near future.