Four Little Peaks – How Hard Can It Be?

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.

N'aaaww, ikkle Carrauntoohill.

N’aaaww, ikkle Carrauntoohill.

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) :

  1. 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.
    Only the Scouts would have the foresight to bring a carrot on a hike...

    Only the Scouts would have the foresight to bring a carrot on a hike…

  2. 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?
  3. 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:
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
    "Did I...did I seriously just climb up that?"

    “Did I…did I seriously just climb up that?”

  7. 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…”
  8. 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?

The Last Night of Camp

When it comes to camping, there are times when a bit of tiredness improves singing voices. As well as the croaky, heavy-smoker edge that fatigue gives to voices, it’s not unusual to see normally shy bleary-eyed Scouts belting out lines they’d never attempt when wide awake. Maybe it’s the anonymity the darkness lends, but there are no self-conscious singers at a campfire.

All the same, there is the point when tiredness robs us of all ability to sing, and there are people who don’t realise when they’ve crossed that point.

“We could’ve had it AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWLLL!” Emily croaked into the darkness. “Rolling in the deeeee-hee-hee-hee-heep!” She gave up as we all slumped into fits of hoarse giggles. It was sometime around midnight, and hours of singing every night for a week was taking its toll. Passively inhaling campfire smoke probably didn’t do our voices any favours, either. I knew I was going to wake the next morning with the voice of an old man.

Rosie coughed dryly through her laughter and wiped her eyes. “That was – that was beautiful, Em,” she chuckled. “Really, that was – aw, there’s no words for it.”

Emily sat up and giggled. “Yeah, I know, I’m a buerrrrr-iful singer.”

We had no campfire that night, not that we needed one. It wasn’t a cold night, and the little battery-powered lantern was bright enough to illuminate our sleepy little group. A cool, silky breeze had nudged the clouds aside, and the perfect white stars glinted down on us. A squeak emerged from the group now and then as a shooting star raced by overhead, followed by a hand reaching up to point at the spot the rest of us just missed.

The hours passed, and woolly hats were pulled on as the air grew colder. Eventually, even the hardiest of us called it a night. Tomorrow would be an early morning, with tents to be packed away and the campsite needing to be deserted by ten.

Tom picked his guitar up off the grass and absent-mindedly strummed it.

“Right, lads,” he announced, “one more song, then I’m goin’ to bed.”

Camping – What the Ventures Taught Me

1. Bring instruments like guitars or harmonicas to the camp if you can play them. Not only do they brighten up campfires and downtime, but people always like it if you know a few catchy tunes.
2. If you’re under fifteen years of age, go back to your tents when the leaders tell you. We Venture Scouts (Scouts between the ages of fifteen and eighteen) have to wait until you’re asleep before we can sing songs that are more, ahem, adult in nature.
3. Some Ventures, especially the newest members, may consider themselves too “cool” to sing along or dance at the campfires. To quote one of my fellow Ventures: “You’re in Scouts. You’re not cool.” Just dance and enjoy yourself! 🙂
4. One for the newbies. You’ll be camping in a field, so you’re inevitably going to find the odd insect in the tent. Please don’t scream every time you see one. Squealing at frogs, on the other hand, is excusable.
5. Don’t worry too much about getting cold at night. Chances are you’ll have a tent-mate who will spoon you in your sleep.
6. If you try to get out of putting up tents or making dinner, you’re on clean-up and snack duty. Don’t be lazy!
7. Showers on campsites can’t always be trusted. There are campsites where the showers don’t receive hot water until four in the afternoon, much to the amusement of all who heard the squeals.
8. Tents are not the place for private conversations.
I’m ashamed to say that I found out that tent walls aren’t soundproof the hard way. I can’t blame anyone but myself for this, really. I forgot that we say goodnight to each other every night through the tent walls.
9. Give everything a go on camp, whether it’s ice skating or caving. You never know what you might end up enjoying!