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.