Without wanting to belittle (pardon the pun) the natural geography of my home country, Ireland isn’t exactly known for its towering peaks. Yes, they are a lot of things: pretty, postcard-friendly, millions of years old, majestic in their own quiet way, but tall they are not. The highest mountain in the country is a cute little 1,038 metres above sea level. I’m fairly sure that in parts of the Alps, that would be considered a speed ramp.
So when the Venture leaders suggested doing the Four Peaks Challenge during the spring, I was the first to sign up. Hike up the highest mountain in every province with around 20-30 teenagers, and earn a nice little badge when we’re done. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson: “How difficult can it be?”
Not easy, anyway, as it turns out. Not a matter of life and death, I grant you, but tough going all the same. Therefore, it is with great pleasure, badly blistered feet and a nifty little badge ready for sewing onto my shirt that I give you advice for attempting the Four Peaks Challenge (or any series of midget mountains) :
- Irish people don’t need to be told this, but what our mountains lack in height, they make up for in unpredictable weather. A sunny, breezy day at the foot of the mountain can turn into a minor hurricane halfway up. Wear clothes that will keep you warm and dry, but wear a t-shirt underneath in case the weather actually – gasp! – warms up. Trust me, you’ll need that hat and gloves. Yes, and the scarf. I don’t care if it’s May, this is an Irish summer. We built a snowman on our first peak, about a month after the snow had melted everywhere else in the country.
- Wear decent hiking boots. Yes, call me Captain Obvious, but an English tourist died on Carrauntoohill a few years ago after stumbling on the way up and falling into a river. She was wearing high heels. You can bring the stilettos if you want to pose for a quirky picture at the top, but not for actually walking in, you hear me?
- Bring a camera. Any camera. You might not think of yourself as much of a photographer, and it might be foggy most of the way up, but you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t have any camera when the fog (briefly) clears and you get a view like this:
- Mountains can make you religious. When climbing Mweelrea, we needed to walk along a ridge near the top. Now, the ridge wasn’t narrow, but there was a cliff on either side. Naturally enough, the fog and the wind both decided to act up now. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled along the ridge, praying under my breath that I wouldn’t be blown off the edge. I don’t think a single person reached the end of that ridge and claimed to have no religion. As the fog wrapped around us like a duvet and the wind came at us sideways, you could tell that everyone was whispering to whatever god, gods, spirits or other superior being they believed in to keep them safe.
- Blister patches are your new best friend. Applied before the hike, they’ll be there for you as you stumble awkwardly on aching feet off the mountain and along the mile’s walk back to the leader’s jeep. Spare socks are no harm either.
- I know everyone’s always told not to look down from a height, but given you don’t suffer from paralysing vertigo I think the occasional glance down can be encouraging. When you’ve spent the previous 20 minutes scrambling up a ridiculously steep slope, sit down for a minute at the top of that slope and look down at what you’ve just accomplished. Give yourself a little pat on the back and help someone else up, you did great.
- Sing if you can, and even if you can’t. No-one’s expecting you to be Frank Sinatra after hiking for several hours in cold mountain air, and it’s good for urging people to keep going. One guy in my group decided he was going to sing at the summit of every mountain, just to add to that feeling of triumph and achievement at the end. All together now: “To reeeeeeeeeeeeach, the un-reach-ab-le staaaaaaaaaarrrr…”
- Remember not to get too worked up about the height if you found the climb tough. Height and difficulty aren’t the same thing, and maybe the smallest of the four peaks turns out to also be the hardest. I made the mistake of looking up Mweelrea’s height after I was finished. Who would have thought that such a terrifying mountain could only be 814 metres high?