On Sunday last week I went for my second guest walk with the Bluestack Ramblers Walking Club. My first was out to Inishbofin Island a few weeks ago. Before joining the Club I wanted to try a mountain walk to see if the group dynamic would be any different.
Turning up at the meeting point it was nice to see some familiar faces from the first day, to be recognised by some and to see some new faces also. The group demographic was quite similar but tilted more towards the older 60+ range. This surprised me as I expected a younger group on the tougher walk. There was also a good few more men this time and the mix worked well for socialising.
The walk started high above Lough Eske just outside Donegal Town. It followed part of the Bluestack Way before heading off into the lower slopes of the Bluestack Mountains. The initial terrain was gravel track before changing to a grassland and bog mix. Ground underfoot was damp and boggy at times but easily manageable. I was surprised how much easier going it was in comparison to the terrain on Barnes Gap. I think this area has been used much more for sheep grazing which has kept the heather at bay and kept the grass at a shorter length.
On the way up we were following a faint track that was either a reasonably well established hiker track or a sheep highway. Either way it was a convenient guide to a small river crossing with a waterfall, that must be impressive in Winter, and a climb up a small gully that brought us to the first of many small lakes.
Retaining the height we had gained we continued along the lower slopes of the main Bluestack ridge and were soon at a great viewpoint high above Lough Belshade. We had a great view of the basin the lough sits in and a great feeling of the surrounding higher hills.
wide angle view
With a slight breeze and a great view this was to be our halfway point for lunch. However, the breeze quickly dropped away allowing the dreaded midge to rise, resulting in a very hurried lunch break and putting us quickly back on the track.
The way back was slightly different. We dropped down to a slightly lower level to wind our way among a few of the other small lakes and streams. This was a really nice walk back and I was surprised at the number and variety of little loughs as well as the small waterfalls and streams wending between each of them.
We soon arrived back at the gravel track and dropped down to the parking area where we started and I took the opportunity to enjoy the great views of Lough Eske that I missed getting ready to hike earlier in the day.
This hike was a very different experience for me. With it being a guided walk all the concerns about route and navigation were removed. While I was equipped and aware of my location, in case I got separated from the group, I didn’t have to worry at all about where we were going and I was able to relax, enjoy the scenery and chat to other members of the group.
While I won’t give up solo walking I’ve decided that I’m going to enjoy being a member of this club and have already signed up. There’s a hike every Sunday and I’m planning to go on a more challenging walk next week up Dooish in Glenveagh.
Anxiety and dealing with it has been on my mind a lot recently. A recent event really annoyed me and then I read Reg Spittle’s book “Camino Sunrise”. I reviewed it a little while back but essentially he writes about walking the Camino and dealing with significant anxiety issues before and during the walk. He describes a lifetime of anxiety and how it affected his life, his interactions with others and how it prevented him taking part in many social events and activities.
His story really made me think. I’ve had a few issues with anxiety over the last number of years but thought it was a recent thing. However, a number of his memories made me look again at events when I was younger. I was always shy and socially awkward as a teenager and a young adult. I found it difficult to make friends (still do to a certain extent) and found new and unfamiliar people and events difficult to navigate. I would worry about what could or might happen, would be concerned about being unliked or doing something embarrassing that would leave me open to ridicule.
I vividly remember one event in my first year at college when I made arrangements to go to a student night club with a group. One of the girls was on my course and the others shared a house with her. We arranged for them to pick me up on the way as we were all walking and they passed my digs. I remember hiding in the house with the lights off, pretending not to hear them at the door and claiming the next day that I wasn’t feeling well and went to bed early. All of this was caused by an intense fear that I wouldn’t fit in with them.
Other small events come to mind over the years, usually to do with social events and you can imagine how difficult it was to start dating! I cringe now when I look back at the first few times I met girls that I liked but was frozen by a fear of rejection and humiliation.
In the last few years I’ve had episodes of anxiety linked to big events but also for surprisingly minor undertakings. I remember binning at least one Audax cycle due to a fear of not being able to complete the route and worry about getting stranded with no way home. In the last couple of weeks I had a similar experience that really annoyed me.
I’ve done a few short and reasonably easy hikes in the last year or so and I have been developing a hunger for more challenging mountain hikes again. I’ve rooted out all my old books and rediscovered a circuit of the Sruell Valley that goes into the heart of the Bluestack Mountains and includes the highest point along the way. I made plans and pencilled it in for one of my days off. I was really looking forward to this hike for the best part of a week and had everything lined up days in advance and even the weather looked good.
The day before this all changed. I started worrying about all the things that could go wrong. My fitness is shot to hell, I’m carrying 10kg more than I should and it’s been 10-15 years since I attempted a hike with this kind of challenge. I was worried about the remoteness of the walk and my total inexperience of an area I hadn’t walked in before.
The morning of the hike I had an early appointment and I also had to be finished and back home by a certain time. My early morning anxiety manifested itself in an upset stomach and when the morning appointment went on longer than expected I was in a high state of anxiety. I somehow managed to convince myself to go anyway but the whole way to the starting point I was running through reasons to call it off. One of my ingenious excuses was to lie and say it was too cloudy as I could see a lowish cloud base on the drive over. By the time I arrived at the start this actually was the case. A weather system had creeped in that consisted of steady, heavy drizzle and a very thick, dark and low bank of cloud over the whole range. I couldn’t see anything above 200m and it was foolish to contemplate the hike in those conditions.
Within 10min of making the decision to abandon the hike and on my way home I could physically feel the anxiety lifting. It was like someone opened a valve and let it all drain out. The knots in my stomach that had been there all morning unravelled and I felt like I was floating with the decision made for me. It brought a sense of relief but also huge anger. I was furious and felt that I’d let the anxiety beat me and simply used the weather as an easy escape. I’m still not sure if I did or not but it certainly opened my eyes to how anxiety could and had prevented me from doing something I should have enjoyed. Reading Reg’s book a few days later really brought it all home to me but also gave me an urge to beat it.
Within a day or so I’d come up with an alternative plan, to complete a different challenging hike of a similar level but one I had done before. In fact on the way home that first day I actually scouted out the start point for parking as I hadn’t been there for almost 15 years. On Sunday I did that hike.
It’s a hike up Barnesmore Gap climbing Croaghonagh from the steep side and descending by a very steep gully. The first few kilometres follow the track of the decommissioned Donegal Railways line that ran from Stranorlar through the Gap to Donegal Town from 1889 to 1959. Walking this track there is ample evidence of the old railway. There are many of the original telegraph poles still standing, there are stone retaining walls on the hill to protect from landslides as well as stone culverts to divert streams under the tracks. The ground is clearly modified to provide a flat surface for the railway and the gravel used to grade the line is still visible on many sections. There is a subtle feel underfoot of the regular humps where the sleepers would have sat to support the rails.
After approximately 3.5km a convenient sheep trail provides a reasonably easy location to cross the old stone wall and get access to the hill. This is where the hard work begins. The next 45min was a slog through deep grass and heather, dry and brittle from the winter winds and the last week of dry weather. This is trackless terrain that is best traversed using vague sheep trails to avoid the worst of the boggy ground and hidden holes that could easily result in a broken leg or twisted ankle. Around and between craggy outcrops, crossing a couple of small streams and climbing a steep, grassy ramp eventually gives you your first clear view of the summit having climbed approximately 280m in 2km. The final push to the summit dips and climbs across a mixture of peat hags, boggy grassland and eventually a short steep climb up an enjoyable rocky outcrop.
The rocky summit is spoiled by 3 masts surrounded by fences and support cables but the views are amazing. Despite the haze there were great views out over Lough Eske and Donegal Bay to St John’s Point and Slieve League just about visible in the far distance with the Dartry Mountains to the Southwest and Benwiskin and Benbulben clearly visible. Eastwards you are looking out over Lough Mourne and the bleak expanse of bogland stretching into Co. Tyrone as well as down the Finn Valley with the Sperrins clearly visible and the mountains of Inishowen in the far distance. Close by the craggy hulk of Croaghconnellagh looms just across Barnesmore Gap.
Lunch was had in the shelter of a large boulder with the wind thrumming through the mast cables sounding like a jet engine readying for take off. Out of the wind it was warm in the strong sunshine and I sat for almost 45min enjoying the view.
It’s possible to descend from the summit using the access track for the masts and forest tracks for approximately 5km. However, I opted for the much more direct option that follows a gully just below the summit that drops over the edge and the very steep drop back to the earlier approach trail. This is an incredibly steep and demanding descent that requires great care to choose the best line. Rushing here and a resulting trip or fall could have disastrous consequences. After the dry spell I probably had the best possible conditions for attempting it. Reaching the bottom my thighs and calves were throbbing with the effort and my knees were aching but looking back up I had an intense feeling of satisfaction for having done it.
The last 1.5km trace the original path in through the forest and back to the parking spot. A difficult, challenging but very rewarding hike.
Altnapaste is 364m high and located on the Eastern edge of the Bluestack Mountains just a few kilometres west of Ballybofey. It’s a hill I’ve had on my radar since I first started looking at my Local 50 peaks on Mountainviews.ie a couple of months ago. A number of cycling routes pass near Altnapaste and although it’s not that high it is fairly distinct.
At the time I climbed it there wasn’t a specific GPS track but there were a number of logs giving good descriptions and waypoints and I managed to create my own track quite easily.
The first section of the walk is along a farm/forestry access lane so there was a good wide area for parking at the start. The first few kilometres on the track gave me a good chance to warm up the legs before I turned off track and onto the rough grass/heather hillside along the edge of a small pine plantation.
The hillside soon turned steep and the going was pretty tough with no track and deep grass and heather. After a few hundred metres the ground eased off a little and continued climbing until I reached a fenceline that was easily crossed. With a bright clear day I was easily able to plot the route ahead and crossed a flatter area before hitting a grassy ramp that climbed between two sections of the hill. Although the ground steepened the grass made the going a lot easier to manage and I soon reached a second fenceline. I knew this one went all the way to the summit and that I was only a few hundred metres from the top.
The final climb was once again through steep, rough ground, heavily overgrown with knee deep heather before levelling off on a rocky flat summit with a short walk to the summit cairn. The views were fabulous in all directions, especially to the west where the sun was starting to set and appearing below ominous grey clouds but creating one hell of an atmosphere.
The breeze was bone chilling and relentless so I didn’t hang around too long before I started to retrace my steps and returned the way I’d ascended, this time enjoying the great views that were mostly behind me on the way up.
At the bottom of the hill I diverted into the pine plantation to have lunch and some peace and quiet. I’d brought my gas stove to heat water for a fresh cup of tea. This is a recent change for me and one of the best things I’ve started doing out walking this year. A fresh cup of tea beats a flask any day of the week and is more than worth the little bit of extra weight in the rucksack.
This spot turned out far nicer than I expected from my very brief glance on the way up. Once through the branches at the edge the space opened out nicely with lots of deadfall allowing loads of light in and enough space to feel surprisingly open for a plantation. It was so peaceful out of the wind and I could have stayed there for hours. I didn’t think my mind needed clearing but that half hour definitely did.
The last couple of kilometres, back along the lane again, were a perfect finish with great views again of the sun setting behind the main Bluestacks. What a cracker of a day!
The reason I have delayed so long in writing this post is that I also filmed the walk. I finally got around to editing the footage yesterday to be able to add it to this post. Link below as usual.
I’m struggling to get the audio to align with the video. It’s out of sync on the original, synced up fine in the app and then seems out of sync again once finalised. I’m not sure if it’s my camera, the app or me but it’s very frustrating! I may try a different app next time to see if that works better.
edit (29.12.21): I think I’ve now worked out how to correct the out of sync audio and keep it in sync during the finalisation process. At least the morning commute was useful for something 😆