Having had it in mind for some time to make a kind of pilgrimage to Donegal (in order to see for myself what kind of land it is that produces such music -- that music of surpassing potency), the day finally arrived; one fine Irish day, in June, 2004.
Naturally, just being there almost implied the pilgrimage should include an ascent of Errigal. As mountains go it is not high, but still imposing. Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh (who sings and plays fiddle for Altan) when on tour in the Pacific Northwest, once compared the view of Errigal from Gweedore to the view of Mt. Rainier from Seattle (that was in her trip report).
Not bothering about the weather forecast I set off. Drove through Kincasslagh, heading east. Usually this kind of a thing is no big deal, but here I was, in a rented car, on unfamiliar terrain, driving on the Left. That’s right, the left, shifting with my left hand (if the feet were also reversed it would have been hopeless). Not much traffic, though – with the exception of the occasional speeding boys, hustling along on their urgent errands. Not sure where they were going and why. It probably made no difference. Rural boys speed, that’s their fun in life. Made a pit stop in Crolly. No sign of Enya, but I collected some bottled water for my expedition. This was from a little shop (an síopa)
inhabited by an upbeat proprietor. He spoke English to me, and wanted to know where I was from (me being in my climbing jacket). In addition to the water the shop was full: full of all kinds of rubbish: candy, cookies, sweets of all description; all packaged and decked out in their deceptive and decadent finery. Donegal has been and is certainly remote, and they still use Irish here and there, but I couldn’t help thinking all that junk in the shop represented a kind of an invasion of that territory by technology, capitalism, big business – Enlightenment Philosophy and the modern world in general. It was too bad.
Continuing east (I mean it was only about 10 miles) the weather took a turn for the worse: rain, wind, and plenty of clouds. Pulled over on the LEFT, stopped the car and took pictures. Considered what the experience on the mountain would be like in the wind and the rain. In Oregon, climbing with the Mazamas, usually a lot of clouds, wind, rain, not to mention snow, means the climb will be cancelled. Not today. This is virtually it. Maybe it will clear up. So I took in the view for a few more moments – just hesitating in a b.s. of indecision – got back in and continued driving. Without incident, made it to the parking lot on the east side of the mountain.
There were a couple of cars already there. Usually parking lots near mountains are of a certain size: big, he-man, manifest destiny, wilderness-sized lots. This one is small, and enclosed by a low stone wall, exactly like ones thereabouts used to pen sheep. Neither is it flat (it adopts the grade of the terrain). I always seem to have a hard time fiddling with my gear before finally getting going. While I was doing this a couple of other cars pulled in. Obviously they were fixing to climb the mountain (there’s nothing else to do from that parking lot). I imagine I confused them by taking off back down the road away from the trailhead.
My objective was to climb the North ridge. It’s actually more like the Northwest ridge, so it meant I had to walk all the way around the mountain to get to it. It was downhill, and on a road, so I wasn’t worried about it. And in the meantime it had stopped raining. But actually, I was worried. Worried about how strenuous this was going to be, and whether I had enough energy for it, what with my chronic fatigue. I always worry. But it was easy enough descending the road, although of course it took a hell of a lot longer going back on foot than it had coming up driving.
Eventually got to a little hamlet, Droichead an tSratháin Ghil.
That’s what it says. Right there on the map. It’s directly below the southwest face of the mountain: halfway there. It had a gas station and a church (this is Ireland, you remember). Took the first possible road leading toward the north. Didn’t get far when it started to rain again, pretty hard. Took a picture. Kept going. Got to a dead-end, which is what I was looking for, but look at that: fences. The whole area is sheep pasturage, and they’ve got fences blocking the approach to the start of the climb. How inconsiderate. I pondered approaching one of the houses and asking whether I could get over the fence in their back yard. Decided against it; thought it might be a little in bad form. Consulted the map while avoiding the sheep excrement. I almost gave up. But the sun came out (a “sunbreak” is what it would be called in Oregon). I’ve got plenty of time, it being only around 10:30 in the morning. So, feeling extra-adventurous (for once), I retraced my route on the road a little, and headed around and down on an alternate route. Pretty day. How green it was. It must get a lot of rain. Relatives from California occasionally visit me in Oregon, and they, being sensible enough to arrive in June, gush about how beautiful and green everything is. Uh-huh. They don’t see it in November: in the forty degree wind and rain days, that makes all that vegetation possible.
As it happened, it was not long before I rounded a bend and noticed the fences had disappeared. A straight shot up the hill to the base of the mountain. So, here goes. I imagine it was someone’s private property, but I hoped that if anyone were watching they would understand I wasn’t after their sheep, only the glory of another summit. Still I was a little apprehensive. This is Sinn Fein territory, so to speak. IRA, actually. Come to think of it, my great-grandfather, the one who struck it rich in the gold rush – and who was originally from Co. Antrim -- was told one fine day that unless he left the country, he’d be killed (Troubles). At least that’s the romantic version my mother tells. So he left and struck it rich. I was just a little worried. You don’t want any weird correspondences, shadows of the past, to pop-out at you when you’re trying to solo an unfamiliar route. At least nobody was going to take a shot at me, was what I was thinking.
Except one time somebody actually did take a shot at me when climbing. This was at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. My partner and I were attempting a route on the West face of Monkey Face. I was about 10 feet from the wall belaying, lying on the ground. The bullet came between me and the face (up though, nearer my partner, where she was “pinned” to the wall). I don’t think they were trying to hit us. Just some kids, having some fun. Or maybe they didn’t like us doing the A2 rather than the 5.12b.
I kept going, slogging up through the short grass. It’s deceptive. You look at it from a distance and it looks just like grass growing out of, well, the logical inference would be soil. But actually it’s grass growing out of water, especially if it’s at all flat. The water table, so to speak, is above ground level. Very green. Cloudy (see photo). It was windy, but warm. Must have been about 50 degrees F. That’s what you get at 1,000 feet in the summer in Ireland.
Came over the top of a rise and expected to see the base of the actual route. Instead was confronted with what seemed like dry gullies carved through peat. Some of them were pretty deep, around six feet or more. So there suddenly was some micro-navigation to do. The peat overhung the sides of the channels. It looked weird. Eerie. And there was no sign of any other climbers, nor sheep, or anything mammalian (no Venus, for instance, as some climbers claim to observe in the mountains). Another thing: there were no signs of old, established campsites either.
But after a few more minutes I actually did find myself at the base of what you could call the route: the North ridge. I finally got above the grass, the peat, and the water. It looked and felt like the mountains: rock above, and underfoot. This was about three hours after leaving the parking lot.
So here it was. I don’t know why I still felt worried. Fatigue and worry often go together. Just then it clouded up again and started to rain yet again. When in doubt take a picture. Unlike Yosemite, there will be no second chances.
I didn’t know what to expect in terms of route difficulty; I was assuming it was Class 3 or less. Class 3. I soloed Alta Peak once; it had a Class 3 summit block. Class 3 is just Class 3, but soloing it there is no margin for error. Here the slope rose at about a 35 or 40 degree angle. It looked like scree but was actually a fairly consolidated talus. Up and up and up. The trekking poles were marvelous: I could have used them very persuasively on all the climbs I used to do, 30 years ago. Really it was just no big deal going up that talus slope, and the views started to open up. I figured, from the map, that it was about 1,500 feet to the summit from the “base” of the ridge. I got to a prominent shelf on the ridge after about 45 minutes. It must have been from this point I took the picture of Loch Altan. That was the one thing I really wanted, to take a good picture of the famous lake (at any rate it’s famous if you’re interested in Irish music). I had good fortune: the clouds created a shadow below the mountain, without obstructing the view to the ocean. Thank you, Lord God, creator of heaven and earth. Exposed one frame. It came out.
From there it got steeper and more rocky. At some point I noticed a footprint, which was comforting (a lot better than the dead bodies they come upon on Mt. Everest). I detoured off to the right (south) looking for a line of weakness. I probably should have stuck to the ridge proper. Exposed bedrock. Definite Class 2. Wet. Eventually I ended up in a scree gully between rock buttresses. I followed this up; it narrowed, and got pretty steep. It also had wads of grass and, of course, was wet. If it had been just slightly steeper and slightly longer it would have been grading into something dangerous. As it was with some final huffing and puffing I stood again on the ridge, quite near the summit. The sun came out (I’m not making this up, it actually did come out: a definite sunbreak). All that worrying was for nothing. A fine view, and the ascent, assured.
Without much more ado I was standing on top of the west summit: a successful climb, for all my doubting.. I had the summit to myself, probably because the previous front had chased everyone else off. It was relatively clear for me, however. I enjoyed the three hundred and sixty degree view, and attendant far vistas. A very respectable view, I thought, as I got down to the serious business of photographing it. The camera had remained relatively dry. Satisfied, I wandered over to the east summit, and settled in for the traditional summit lunch, not unlike your average day on Dog Mountain.
After about half an hour of a splendid semi-angelic repose, a very hyper Englishman joined me after finishing his run to the summit, coming up from the other side. I still wonder if he was on drugs. He looked older than I, but probably was younger (most people my age look way older than I feel – at least the way I used to feel before the chronic fatigue). After chatting a bit he took off running again, this time down the way he had come up. Odd, but certainly far less odd than encountering a climber carrying a piano up Ben Nevis (which actually happened to me once upon a time).
With the traditional summit agenda having been fulfilled, I set off down the East ridge: the Normal route. It looked like a well-worn usage trail. About halfway down yet another storm front passed through, this one with more strength. Ugly, wet, misty wind. Angry wind, necessitating a clothing break. It blew in right when I had arrived at the point where some low stone walled enclosures occurred. Do people bivouac up here? They were about 700 feet up from the parking lot. After that point the route degenerated. It probably could use some proper grading and maybe some paving, like they have on certain trails in Yosemite. Eventually I encountered grass. And here, surprise, surprise, exactly as on the western side: mud and a ton of casual water. There isn’t exactly a marked trail down to the parking lot; it’s just slogging through bogland. It made me nervous. I was thinking back to The Hound of the Baskervilles
– the 1959 Hammer version with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee -- where a couple of the characters were lost in the mire: the Grimpen mire.
Avoiding that fate I arrived back to the parking lot. It was pleasing. I had traversed the mountain, with no reconnaissance, just like Hornbein and Unsoeld. It was a good climb, not just a walk-up. And I hardly saw anybody: no one at all on the North ridge. It took about six hours, in all. As I was driving away – on the left, always on the left – I was musing about whether or not I still might have the wherewithal to get up Mt. Shasta. But these musings gave way to concentration upon the driving. I mean, just because they were absurd enough to drive on the left earlier in the day, and the day before, didn’t mean that all of sudden they’d be sensible and start driving on the right, while I was gone up there in the fairyland of the mountain.