To me, i feel like I’m living my dream. Mountains have truly become my life. My work, rest and play and boy do I feel privileged and lucky to get to spend so much time in the wild high places of Ireland and in particular its most spectacular and rugged mountains – the magnificent – Na Cruacha Dubha, more popularly known as the mighty MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.
But what got me into the hills?
It’s a question I get asked quite a lot working for myself as a full time mountain guide, outdoor instructor, trail and path builder and mountain rescuer and one I’ve no real definitive answer to.
I suppose I have just always been into the outdoors in some shape or form. Growing up in the rolling country-side of beautiful East Cork back in the mid 70’s, early 80’s, when not in school you just naturally spent the majority of your time out and about, just messing around. In some ways we’d no other choice…for us there wasn’t much else to do. TV’s only had two channels, and even one of them didn’t start until 3 O’clock!!! Kicking a ball or pucking around with a hurl just wasn’t really my thing. I made a half-arsed effort but I was always the last to be picked and never enjoyed going through the motions.
Playing soldiers, exploring, making camps, cycling miles to some beach or adventuring for days in some dodgy crumbling ruinous castle, days getting lost and found in the forest, climbing trees and falling out of them, making forts out of small rectangular hay bails and defending them to the death, this was our childhood and little did I know then that these were the early beginnings of my outdoors apprenticeship.
Family summer holidays were spent on endless Youth Hostelling adventures around Ireland. All packed into a Fiat Ritmo along with the dog and off on tour. Many memorable nights spent in some of the most spectacularly wild, remote and idyllic locations. Back then the Irish Youth Hostelling association, An Óige possessed dozens of amazing hostels in the most awe-inspiring and truly breath-taking corners of Ireland. For a small nightly fee and of course our annual family membership, aswell as all staying guests assisting and completing in some small menial cleaning or maintenance chores before departure. I wasn’t too impressed on one occasion when I was allocated the lovely job of cleaning the lumps of hair from the communal shower blocks!
We roamed and roamed, discovered and explored, scrambled climbed and swam, immersed in this wild playground. Prior to departure and after the hostel warden had checked that all your allocated tasks were completed satisfactorily you would be returned your personal membership book, your An Óige passport, eager to view our newly gained cool individual hostel artwork stamp. Each hostel had their own unique stamp. Some just text stating the hostel name but the majority giving a simple but effective hint of the hostel characteristic, location or surround. A castle, a seascape, wildlife, a mountain. I still have my little book. My parents dated each stamp. Ballycastle YH, Castle Archdale, Beinn Leitrí, An Trian Lár, Dúros, BallyDavid, Bundoran, Killary harbour, Newcastle, Loo Bridge, Indreabhán, Tra na Rosann and many more gems.
Both my parents were also passionately involved as leaders in the local cub and scout troops and together with my two brothers we spent endless evenings, nights, weekends and blissful summer weeks on troop camps, jamborees and endless micro expeditions as my folks ticked off their various “badges” of scout leadership. Not to forget just as many “character building”, truly depressing drenched and dour wet days shrivelling up in smelly tents as the midges feasted on us. Ah the joys…
I’ve often heard it referred to as a mountain apprenticeship…the path of knowledge and gaining of solid experience and mountain “sense”. Every day’s a school day for the outdoors person, the mountaineer, the climber, the hill goer, the fisherman, the sailor, the surfer…
A fascinating and broad knowledge of our wild natural environment, natural history, bird & wildlife, our long human history, plant life, ecology, weather, navigation, movement, technique, cop-on, hill savviness, just dealing with whatever comes your way, learning from endless mistakes, field first aid as we patched ourselves up after yet another mis-hap, basically just gaining confidence and competence.
I can genuinely look back fondly to those endless care free days of my youth aswell as all those far from blissful and difficult times thrown in for good measure and trace all of these experiences, the good and the bad as the very beginnings of my life in the hills and wild places. The direct sowing of that wonderful life-giving seed and the river source of my start in this long amazing apprenticeship and deep satisfying love for the great outdoors.
And now I work, rest, play and literally breathe the mountains. I work alongside my wife Catherine, successfully running our own outdoor business and living in the shadows of Ireland’s most spectacular peaks. We work hard but are deeply satisfied with where life has led us.
I climb Ireland’s highest mountain – Corrán Tuathail quite a bit. Probably close to 200+ times a year, guiding hundreds of happy clients in the process and sharing with them the joy and delights of these mighty lofty peaks and rugged valleys that I love and adore so much.
I get asked all manner of things. Why are the sheep painted red? Are the lambs red when they’re born? (I kid you not!), Have you been up it in the dark? Have you done Everest (don’t get me started with this one!) How is bog made? What’s the fastest you’ve done it in? Have you ever had an accident? Is there wolves? Can you drink the water?
Almost daily that recurring question crops up…What got you into the hills???
I enjoy reminiscing. Some times the journey is just as memorable and important as reaching the destination.
First published for the Irish Explorer's Journal in 2020