Weekend in Ireland? Yes, please…

I love all mountains, but some of them I love bit more… Carrauntoohil is one the very special ones. The highest peak in Ireland, part of the Reeks. Over the years I walked to the top of Carrauntoohil using different routes. Zig zag, O’Sheas Gully, Caher, to name a few. Few years ago we decided to reach Carrauntoohil from the Black Valley. Walking up was fantastic, we were in awe of the beauty of the valley, of the remoteness, of a quick way up. Only coming down, we realized why there was none choosing our route…. Going up very steep slopes is fine, going down few hours later is less fun, actually it is a hard work. We spent a good bit of time trying to find an easy way down, with very little success.

Few years ago we discovered camping. After few nights spent at campsites we decided it is time for the real thing, the wild camping! Going to the Reeks was going to give us two full days to explore the area and to sleep wild.

We left our car near the Black Valley hostel and joined the Kerry Way trail. For first few km we walked on a quiet countryside road, getting ourselves ready for what was ahead. Later we left the road and took a path leading into a forest. A few km further by a small farm yard we started climbing Cnoc an Chuillinn. The way to the top was extra hard this time, as we carried heavy backpacks with gear, food and water for two days. After 2,5hrs we were on the top of the peak (958masl) and cooked a small meal and had some tea and cake.

After the well deserved and needed break we walked along the ridge towards Carrauntoohil. The views on both sides were purely stunning! We had clear views of Lough Callee and Lough Gouragh and all the way along Hags Glen. In the other direction we could see as far as Kenmare Bay.

It took us few more hours before we stood on the top and enjoyed even more views.

At that time it was getting late and we had to decide where to spend the night. We noticed few tents near the Devil’s Ladder and thought it might be a good spot for pitching. The only disappointment was, we would not have the place to ourselves. There were already two tents there, but we hoped to find a private spot. The whole idea was to have the place to ourselves, right? But it was late and tiredness was kicking in after a long hard hike. Suddenly, on a slope facing Black Valley I spotted few big rocks, and a bit of flat ground in between. Bingo! This was a perfect place for us. We quickly pinched the tent and cooked some food. Choirs done, time to seat and stare in the nature, admire the landscape, enjoy the space. Experiencing the now and here moment.

We had a long sleep after a day of long hiking. I woke up few times to the sound of wind shaking the tent, every time the wind was stronger…. In the morning we got up to mist and poor visibility. The sunny weather and clear blue sky seemed to be a distant memory! There was no time to complain, as we had again a long hike ahead of us. We started going up to the top of Caher (1001m) and to Caher West (975m). Following the route was easy thanks to little cairns placed within view from each other. We tried to walk down the ridge. This was relatively easy, even with the poor visibility, as there was a clear path to follow. After a long walk down and few stops for a cuppa we finally joined the Kerry Way track. From then it was all pretty easy, but long. Few hours later we finally reached the car. The trip finished. Considering the length (30km), the weight of our backpacks (12 and 16 kg) we agreed that the walk was EPIC.

Practicalities:

For the walk we used map printed by osi, Adventure Series, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Killarney NP, 1:25000, this time compass was forgotten, but we had GPS. We had Vango two people tent weighing 3 kg, so not ideal. Our sleeping bags were 3 season, we used silk inserts too, and we were just fine for the night. We always take light mattresses, for the comfort. We ate freeze dried meals, leftovers from our trip to Peru. We had some protein bars and home made cake. We carried 8 liters of water, 4 liters for cooking, 4 liters of sparkling water for drinking. Next time we will take more water and more snacks.

For more details on packing check my another post, click here.

For more hiking ideas in the region please read my another post.

Take your time! High altitude hiking

Over the years, I have heard many tips and theories about preparation for high altitude. I have heard as well many misconceptions about the topic. Before I was lucky to get advice form experienced mountaineers I had experience the consequences of not doing it the right way. I can say now, I learned about the altitude the hard way.

The first ‘real’ high altitude holiday was in Iran in 2016. Our aim was to climb Mt Damavand. The highest peak in Middle East, the highest volcano in Asia, trekkable 5671masl. In the first year (yes, there was year two) we followed advice of taking it easy and slowly and we will be OK. I had strong doubts about this method, but as it was advice of our guide for the climb, we took it. Small disclaimer here: as we live at the sea level, every time we start acclimatization, we start practically from zero.

For the start we spent few days in Tehran, which is at 1148masl at average. Afterwards we traveled to the start of the trek at 3020masl. After leaving our luggage with porters, we started walking up the mountains. Slowly. Very slowly even. And as the walk progressed, we got even slower. We took many breaks, to help acclimatization, or maybe to keep us alive, not too sure now. Somehow we made to the base camp at 4200masl. Considering how sick I felt, I still think it was a small miracle, or maybe it was my stubbornness. Following two days we spent crawling around base camp, forcing ourselves to eat, taking very strong pain killers to stop headache, tossing and turning on rock hard beds for long sleepless nights. I was too disappointed to even feel sorry for myself. And I was so jealous of all the people, who made it to the summit. I seemed not to notice all of those, who were too sick to move anywhere. I did not make it, this was the most important thing, the source of bitter taste in my mouth. On the way down to the lowlands with air full of oxygen, I made an announcement, that we are coming the following year. I had this impression that none believed me.

In July 2017 we traveled to Almaty in Kazakhstan to start our preparation. Our destination were Tian Shan mountains. After few days at a camp at 2200masl and a hike to 3000masl we moved higher into the mountains. We flew by helicopter to a one of the base camps for Khan Tengri peak. The camp was at 4200 masl, surrounded by high peaks. First two days were brutal. Headaches, stomach upset, overwhelming tiredness. Still staying at 4200 was much easier this time, the gradual preparation already paying off. Day three was easy, unfortunately the following morning we were leaving.

Next two days we stayed at lower altitude in Almaty (850masl) and Tehran (1148masl). On spare day before traveling to Mt Damavand we walked to the top of Koloon Bastak (4156masl). An easy, very enjoyable, very relaxed day.

Next three days we were walking to and from Mt Damavand. Yes, we made to the top, yes it was hard, but it was a totally different experience than the previous year. In 2016 walk from starting point (3020masl) to base camp (4200masl) took us 8 hours. Moving from base floor to first floor of the shelter was causing huge headache and heart palpitation. In 2017 I was flying between the floors, wondering what was the problem? But the biggest difference was the walk up to the base camp. In 2017 we took our time too, talking, taking photos etc. and reaching the shelter in less than …. 3 hours. This very fact sent a powerful message to me. A stroll in the park compering to a zombie walk. What would you rather experience?

In our memories Mt Damavand is the mountain number one. Not only because it was the first we attempt to climb, but because it was an important learning curve. It was an experience which made us the hill walkers we are now. Does not matter how small, or big the mountains are, they still require planing and preparation. They require TIME.

Hiking in Albanian Alps

Is visiting a truly remote place on your must see list? Unspoiled mountains, far from touristy trails? In Europe? Yes, read on.

In spring 2011 I traveled on organized cycling tour in South East Asia. Lots of sightseeing, lots of cycling, lots of money spent ….. and an average experience. Afterwards I spent few weeks thinking what was my most memorable trip ever? One stood out, a five day trek along Polish Slovakian border. Five days of having stunning scenery only for ourselves, walking the hours, and camping in desolated places. Just the two of us and unspoiled nature. Idyll? For five days I carried heavy backpack, there were no showers, or even running water, we eat meals from a can and dried noddles. But still this was a perfect trip!

Back to 2011. After few weeks of planning I bought the cheapest air tickets I could find, and we landed in Skopje in Macedonia. We spent the first night in a very friendly b&b, were given breakfast with shots of raki (local very strong spirit) and a lot of advice. The next destination was Ohrid, by the lake of the same name. We again stayed in a lovely b&b, eat local food, cycle and walk around. Than while visiting old church I spotted road sign saying ‘Albania’ and this is where the real adventure started……

Next day we were on a bus traveling towards one of the most enigmatic countries in Europe. Our destination was Theth in the mountains. True ‘middle of nowhere’ as is often described.

In order to go to this high in the mountains village we boarded minibus from Shkodra. For next 3 hours we were lurching back and forward, left and right as the driver was negotiating road full of huge potholes. Local music was blaring from the radio, plastic bottle full of raki was passed around, and the views outside windows were more and more picturesque. The road vanished after a while and we were traveling on a narrow track through the mountains. On our right was a steep slope, on our left was an abyss.

Views on the way to Theth.

Cramped, but happy we disembarked and walked to our accommodation in a local house. For few days we walked around the village, exploring the nearby treks, soaking in the tranquil settings. The weather was pleasantly warm, the food was fresh, the views never failed to impress.

Road users in Theth.

Our next step was a walk to another village. Valbona lays on the other side of mountains. The path goes up from Theth, reaches high pass and goes down again, till the next village. It takes roughly 7 hours. For this step we joined 3 others and together we hired guide and a horse to carry our luggage. We needed no horse to carry our light pack, but we thought, doing so will add to the experience. It turned out to be the right thing to do.

Short break while crossing the pass.

For the whole day the five of us walked on the track through the forest, followed by ‘our’ horse, followed by the guide, who was for the entire time on the phone. After reaching the pass we stopped to take few photos and to enjoy the moment and fabulous views. After few more hours we reached Valbona. We decided to stay with family of another ‘guide’, whom we meet on the way down. The accommodation was very basic, but beautifully set. This was a smallholding with few farm animals, what we discovered a bit of unusual way. Firstly, the cow arrived. She walked through open gate to the front of the house and without hesitation entered the kitchen. It took me a while to alert the landlady to this fact, as we share now common language. Only the laud munching from the kitchen betrayed the cow…. Then there were two pigs. They waited patiently outside the closed gate. Our companions wanted to go for a walk around the village and started opening the gate, the pigs went for it. For few moments three people were leaning against the gate trying to close it. The pigs were standing on their back legs pushing the gate open. They won. There were few chickens moving around, but later on they disappeared, only to be ‘found’ at the dinner time.

Following morning we took a ‘taxi’ to the Komani Lake. The taxi took a bit of unusual route, because we drove through river bed for first hour and a half. Another long drive on a gravel track and we arrived at the ferry pier. Boarding few cars, animals and small group of people was easy and quick. Bobbing indicated start of our journey, strap of water between ferry and land growing wider and wider. Sudden noise broke the tranquility. Out of nowhere a truck appeared, racing towards the pier, loud constant sound of horn piercing the air. Ferry stopped and slowly started moving back towards the pier. Group of men jumped on land and helped the driver to unload his cargo. It was … a cow. Who was sending a cow by ferry and where, we never found out. Nevertheless it added to the local flavour. Time to move.

Next few hours we spent basking in the rising sun and admiring our surroundings. We traveled slowly throughout a gorge, white cliffs closing and opening the lake at the front of us.

Beautiful views while on the ferry.

Sitting in the cafe back in Shkodra we were not saying much. There was no need for it. We both knew, we found our perfect way to spend holidays, our way of traveling and collecting valuable memories. Picture of the horse still hangs on a wall reminding us where all this started.