The Avondhu - By The Fireside
To appreciate a sunrise on Galtymore in October, you need motivation (to get up at 5am), a torch that works (mine didn’t) and a pair of legs that won’t let you down in the cold (just about managed those).
Driving through Kilbehenny at 5.45am, I gripped the steering wheel peering for the sign for the Black Road carpark for my maiden voyage on this route. The road was narrow, and the ‘carpark’ nothing more than a bit of a gap in front of a gate. There were two Hiace vans parked up, and not a soul to be seen. It dawned on me that no one knew where I was, and it was hours before anyone would miss me. Leaving the car running while I pulled on hiking boots, I tried to convince myself that there was definitely, maybe, possibly, a good reason for those two vans that probably didn’t involve any high-profile criminal cases!
Approaching headlights eventually indicated that, at least, my walking companions had arrived. At 6am we took off for the six-mile route, headed for the summit clad in thick socks, fleeces and woolly caps. Immediately after crossing the first gate, my torch started to flicker, before dying. Sheepishly, I had no option but to trot on, using the torch on my phone like a pure rookie.
We had given ourselves two hours to ascend, and took off at a brisk pace, panting and chatting (but mostly panting) to make the dawn. Looking east, we could see the lights of Cahir and a faint red glow over the slopes of the Galtees, reminding us to get a move on if we didn’t want to miss the big show.
At intervals, sheep revealed themselves, looming out of the darkness like woolly phantoms, munching eerily in the pre-dawn light, ruminating and masticating. Sheep can be freaky like that. Chewing and staring at us, we said hello, and sped past them and their early morning meditations.
Galtymore is the highest point in the Galtee range, at 918 metres. Crossing both Limerick and Tipperary, its peak straddles the border and so both counties claim the mountain as their highest peak. Anyone can do it, someone once told me, as long as they can put one foot in front of the other.
The route didn’t take much navigation, from me at least. The instructions I heard were, “We keep going until the pile of rocks. Then we turn left.” Leaving this kind of high-level planning to my more experienced friends, I trudged on alongside them, with one eye on the lightening sky to my right.
At the cairn/pile of rocks, we veered left, skirting the hem of Galtybeg, the smaller sister of the Mór. Before long, we were sinking into the wet, boggy, marshy saddle underfoot, labelled the ‘Puddly Banks’ on my map. ‘Puddly Banks’ sounds like an adorable Winnie-the-Pooh landscape - it’s not!
To get across the saturated ground, we each took a different, thoughtful approach. However, to be honest, no matter how professional it begins, all our attempts turn into the same undignified dance of hopping and leaping through the black cold wet peat, taking wide-legged leaps from one dry bit of grass to another, frequently misjudging the distance. All trials end though, and up on drier ground, the real work began.
The hard pull of the slope came all of a sudden, and I was soon gulping air while trying to hide it from my comrades. The worst thing about walking with chatty people is that you usually have to chat back, and all I could do was wheeze. But, in a matter of minutes, the grey dry cold morning light throws us into relief. We tell each other to ‘move on!’, the peak now visible and the dawn racing in.
I put my head down like a bull and told myself to cop on and keep moving. When you’re going through Hell, they say, the trick is to keep going. At this point on hikes, I try tricks. Take five more steps and then you can stop. Name all the counties in Ireland. Try yoga breathing. None of it helps, of course, because I am never not aware that my calves are hopelessly little ineffective propellors against a 400 million year slope. ‘Up, up, up’, I tell myself; just put one foot in front of the other, why am I so unfit, sweet mother of mercy where is the top? Oh, there it is, oh no that’s just a ridge that looks like the top, this is a stupid mountain anyway… until we’re up.
HAD WE MISSED IT?
Unfortunately, our enthusiasm meant we were a bit too fast on the approach. Sunrise wasn’t due for another 30 minutes, and it was, in my scientific opinion, frigging Baltic. Like hobbits, we hunkered down behind some rocks to drink tea and eat anything and everything we brought – bananas and Snickers, breakfast of champions. I had no more clothes to put on, so resorted to putting my spare socks over my gloves and started doing star jumps. One fella jogged in circles. Cardio saves lives.
As it approached 8am, the fog hadn’t lifted. It was now properly light, and with grey fog in front of us, I didn’t want to say it aloud but: had we missed it? Did it rise behind the fog and we were waiting like eejits while the sheep watched us knowingly?
But then. The blue-grey-purple mist swirled like a bowl, then flowed and parted like a gauze curtain for us to get our reward. The sun was in front of us, red, a round disc with an aura. It was absolutely perfect.
The whole landscape moves from mist and doubt, to brightness and certainty so quickly and assuredly. In minutes, the slopes are bathed in the most glorious warm sunshine. The valleys are still asleep, in the night, but up where we are, and on the higher slopes, it’s a perfect sunny Autumn day already.
We start to move down, but can’t help stopping to enjoy the view every couple of feet. The sun is already warm and now, I can’t remember ever being cold.
Making our way back south, we saw a tent plonked in the middle of... well, the middle of nowhere. While we make jokes about the nutters that would camp overnight in October on the slopes of a mountain, I wonder were they inside the canvas wondering about the nutters who blundered past them in the dark two hours ago.
Back at the carpark, the vans were gone but I discovered that I had parked the car perilously close to a two foot deep dyke. Ignorance really is bliss.