Continued from Track 3227.........With five counties behind us and the night starting to creep in, we left Errigal behind and set out on the longest drive of our weekend adventure. Earlier in the day we had driven through a few areas with flags and bunting out. Put up by men who like to go out for a walk themselves, although we were thankful we didn’t meet any of their planned walks along our travels. Moving through Donegal and Fermanagh we were now met with very different flags, as these neighbours would face up against each other in an Ulster County Challenge of their own in Clones within 24 hours. For the Gaels of Dhun na nGall the challenge of winning an Ulster title is not all that challenging anymore and this was noticeable in the sparseness of their colours. However, despite the fact that Fermanagh is a county half made up of lakes and possibly the smallest GAA community in the country, their hunger to leave Wicklow as the only county in the country without a provincial title was evident in their decorating. As it would turn out, their hunger would persist.
But, I digress, we were out to get to the top of counties, not worry about how they were getting on in the football championship. The original plan for this epic effort would have had us tackling Cuilcagh, the joint county top of Fermanagh and Cavan in the late evening. On this plan, we would take the classic route from the Bellavally Gap on the Cavan side. However, now that we were tackling it completely in the dark, the more sensible option was to avoid the cliffs of this route, even in the moonlit night and head up the much sanitised and some would say controversial Legnabrocky trail. On arriving at the gates we disturbed a young couple, shall we say courting in their car! We pulled up just past the gate and allowed them time to compose themselves and drive off as we got our gear together for the three hours plus we would spend getting up and back to this 665M summit. I mentioned in my earlier writing about this challenge of an aversion that I might have to weekend strollers, when we are clearly out on such self-important business as a challenge walk (I’m just a grumpy git really)! Well the Cuilcagh boardwalk is a monument to bringing them out on to the hills, but at least at one in the morning they had all gone home. In truth the benign trail and then the bouncing boardwalk were beneficial to our wary minds and starting to ache limbs. We allowed ourselves a break as we reached the railings, on what would be a stairway to the heavens on this clear and starry night. I say it with no shame that I gripped those handrails hard as we dragged our bodies to the summit plateau. On reaching the end of the stairwell we were confronted with what can only be described as something akin to a wooden patio, all that it was missing was the rustic looking table and chairs, a few tiki torches and a large gas barbecue. What we were met with was a barrier and a sign saying that the trail ahead was closed, no doubt due to the increased numbers this very boardwalk was bringing to the summit plateau and significant erosion and littering being caused as a result. We were of course very disappointed by this and dutifully obeyed the sign, turned on our heels and wondered could we still do this challenge now within 24 hours by approaching from the Cavan side. Yeah, we did alright! With the elegance of characters from Last of the Summer Wine some of our team climbed, clambered and crawled over the edge of the patio and headed off for the summit. The way marking posts are still in place on the way to the summit, a little strange we thought, if they are trying to keep people from eroding this particular track. The summit cairn could be seen in silhouette from a distance away, but never seemed to get nearer. On eventually reaching it we lurched up the cairn and grabbed the trig, as our resident photographer did well to get a night shot of us, because of course, how else could we ever prove that we had been there. Then off we went again, spirits somewhat lifted by the fact that we had another two counties ticked off our list and all that was left now was a descent and two county tops that on paper should not prove difficult! At this time of year the sky never gets fully dark and just as the outward part of this journey had been illuminated not just by head torches, but a near full moon and starry sky, on the way back we could look towards the very slow creep of the rising sun.
Next on our agenda was Slieve Beagh South East Top in the county of Monaghan. This is not a mountain, it isn’t even a hill, it is a small bump in the bog on the side of hill whose top is in another county. While there was agreement that Errigal was the highpoint of our trip, our walk out to the north-western edge of county Monaghan was the low point. The Paul Clements book, The Height of Nonsense opens the chapter on this county with the following Paddy Kavanagh quote:
You have made me the sort of man I am
A fellow who can never care a damn
For Everestic thrills.
Given that Paddy was from Inniskeen, I am sure that he was more familiar with Knockbridge than Knockatallion, but still, his words hold true for this hump on the side of a hill.
The first thing to note on our arrival to the start point of this walk was that we saw something that none of us had seen for a long time, mist, fog, cloud. Even in this unprecedented period of brilliant summer weather Slieve Beagh and its surrounds were cloaked in cloud. The next thing to bite us, quite literally, were the midges. The little feckers were all over us once we left the car and they certainly added to the inhospitability of the place. We weren’t hanging around here any longer than we needed to. Having had false hope of Trostan and Sawel being drier under foot than normal there was no such expectation of getting it easy as we crossed this bog, but we certainly didn’t anticipate it to be as horrible as it was. We all spent a winter walking in gaiters; none of us had even considered throwing a pair in the depths of the car boot this weekend. Within a few metres of entering the track we wished that we had! Even the track part of this walk had us soaked to our knees as the long grass and heavy early morning dew beat against us. However, anyone who has taken in this county top will know that this is the easy part of the walk, as the final part is over boring featureless bog. On a clear day, with a clear head, navigation to this “summit”, can be rather straight forward. Our sleep ravaged minds were about as clear as the muggy Monaghan sky at this stage in the challenge. The heather had clearly made up for its late start in growth caused by our long winter and was now dragging at our legs as we stumbled forward towards this hump on the side of the hill. The clouds abated somewhat towards the pinnacle of our journey, enough to allow a decent photograph, well it would be if there was anything decent to photograph. Yeah, we had gotten there and again we questioned our sanity, but not for long, as we headed back, bedraggled over the bog to where we had once began. Reaching the track and getting off the open bog was such a relief, the relief of not having to navigate. To be able to switch that part of the brain off and just zombie like trudge back to the car while grazing on fruit and biscuits. As mentioned earlier, our budgeted times for each county top were surprisingly accurate. For this seemingly benign walk of just over 6km, with only 120M of height gain we overshot our projected time of 80 minute by a full 25 minutes! We had not been any more than a couple of minutes over our projected times on any of the main mountains, but this hump on the side of a hill left a wet midges biting mark on us. So when we got back to the car we pretty much bailed in on top of our napping driver bating them midges away and burned rubber to the relative safety of the outskirts of Monaghan town. Both of my compatriots swore that they would never be back near that place ever again. To be fair, just for the record I have twice visited it before on my own in November and February a few years apart and never found it to be anywhere near as tough as it was that day, it just goes to show!
Pulling into a petrol station just north of Monaghan town it was time to compose ourselves again, as we were going to enjoy this last part of the trip. Change those wet trousers for shorts, hang the last half decent pair of socks out the window to somewhat dry them before our final assault and get flat whites and muffins. It was at this stage about 8.30, we were gloriously eating into our buffer time, initial estimates would have us at Gullion in ten minutes and summiting it just after nine. That was not going to happen now, nor did we care a jot. Once we eventually pulled out of this station we were heading towards home, familiar territory. There was no more navigating needed on the road or on the mountain, we knew our way to Gullion from here, even those tight and windy roads from Hackballscross to Forkhill, it was all so familiar. A quick ten minute power nap for Compo and Clegg as our driver carefully snaked up the forest drive to the high carpark and we are there, only one more short walk to do.
The purists do not like the track from the top car park to the summit of Gullion, indeed they probably disagree with the type of challenge we embarked on also. At moments like that, we really didn’t care. A lad I knew ran past, no doubt training for the 8km run on the mountain the following weekend, looking suitably bemused at why we looked so shook, sure all we were surely doing at this time on a Sunday morning was walking Gullion on the tourist route. We did not care a jot. We put on the shades, made sure that the bottle of red wine was in the backpack and headed off on the most leisurely walk that any of has ever made up that track before. After over 40km of walking, over 800km of driving, nearly 2,700M of ascent and in 23 hours and 33 minutes we had visited the top of every county in Ulster within 24 hours. We were so glad to finish on this mountain, for some of us it is close to home, for some of us it is mythical, for some of us it is beloved, as a team we can agree that it is was and always will be a special mountain to us. After the requisite summit shot we crawled down the cairn to the shelter of its northern side, where we could bask in the sun and glory of what we had done, look over to Donard where we had started it all 24 hours earlier and enjoy a cheap but tasty tempranillo. We spent a good hour relaxing on the summit, taking time to “smell the roses” and reflect on the good, the bad and ugly of the weekend. Thanks to our amazing driver, we could then move on to the local village of Meigh, for one glorious pint of porter before heading for the take away breakfast, a bag of cans and falling asleep in front of the Sunday Game. What a weekend… watch out Connacht, we plan on taking you next and within 12 hours, but we won’t be waiting four years to do that, in fact, we won’t even be waiting 4 months! Connacht County Tops, here we come.