Trail Running: The Dartry Mountains, 11/06/15

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
– The Stolen Child, WB Yeats


A peat hag pretending to be Benbulben, high in the Dartry Mountains. Click any picture to view them a bit bigger.

We are into the seventh day of a remarkably-tenacious high-pressure system, and once again tiny white clouds float lazily across the bright blue Sligo sky. This child’s-drawing-made-real is reflected in the filmy water at my feet, where tendrils of waterlogged grey wool swirl and merge with the clouds in the perfect mirror image, torn and scattered every now and then by skittish water boatmen.

I am several days too late, but the tragedy unfolds before my eyes: a young lamb, not more than two weeks old, has fallen into a deep puddle in the peat bog, the sides far too high and steep for it to climb out. His mother, in a panic, jumps down after him and tries to nudge him aloft with her muzzle, but all she does is churn the narrow edges around the stinking water into a slick, sucking ooze. Weighed down by his filth-caked wool, the lamb cannot have endured more than a few hours of the exhausting struggle to escape, and his mother might have lasted a few days more before finally collapsing on top of him, pushing them both down into the quagmire. The distant buzzing of chainsaws, clearing forest in the Gleniff Horseshoe far below us, is mimicked cruelly by fat droning bluebottles as they crawl in the empty space where eyes once were.

It’s sad, but I’ve stopped and stared for selfish reasons: the same sun that brought the unfortunate lamb here to drink glares violently down on me, and as I scrape the sweat from my forehead again with one hand, I reach behind my back with the other and wobble the contents of my hydration pack through the thin mesh fabric – I have maybe a pint of lemony electrolytes left, but the day isn’t even half done, I’m already pissing yellow, and, with a corpse in every puddle, there certainly isn’t any fresh water to refill with up here. Picturing the map in my head, I draw a new line that swings past a shop and the chance to resupply, but it trims about eight kilometres from my original intended route. “Thank god for that,” I mutter as I set off across the bog again, waving politely to another nearby ewe and her lamb as they gaze at me suspiciously.


Song thrush eggs

What a difference a blue sky and a warm sun can make: the last time I was here, stumbling blindly through thick November fog and howling gale, and navigating my way compass-in-hand over muck and heather, slowly, by the occasional hint of a contour, there hadn’t been much of the outing that would be considered enjoyable by most people; but today, with a panorama that extends for thirty kilometres in every direction, the heady scent rising from a sea of tiny wildflowers as they are crushed underfoot, and a double concerto of song thrush and bumblebee ringing heavily in the air, it is impossible not to grin from ear-to-ear.

A long, lazy, early-summer’s day had allowed the time this morning for a full breakfast and a late start, and with a belly full of black pudding and scrambled eggs, I had been dropped off at the end of a tiny farm track, a tunnel through overhanging bramble and rose hip, as it winds its way up towards the south face of Benbulben, through a maze of bright yellow gorse and wool-strewn barbed wire. A single sign hanging over a gap in the fence politely requests that I piss off, and I am reminded that there have been questions over the access to Benbulben from this direction, but I believe that as long as you don’t behave like a prick and have a little respect for your surroundings, people will generally let you get on with it.

Picking through Benbulben's south face
Dartry Mountains

A sweat-inducing warm-up of a steep 400m climb up an obvious wide gully drops us at the long plateau that leads west to the classic ship’s prow shape of photographic fame, where I find two chaps dangling their legs over the edge and sunning themselves as they snigger at my running tights. After taking a moment to locate a few narrow-but-skiable couloirs for future reference, if only it would snow here a little more often, I retrace my steps east for a few minutes and then carry on to the flat, relatively anti-climactic true summit of Benbulben, before pressing on across the bog towards Slievemore, and the incredible cliffs of Annacoona. These refreshingly-airy, cave-pocked cliffs towering hundreds of metres over the Gleniff Horseshoe, and the long, wide saddle leading north to the shark’s fin summit of Benwiskin, provide a jaw-droppingly beautiful view of the surrounding forests, rolling farmland, and scarred peat moors, the millpond-calm waters (today, at least) of Donegal Bay, and, hazy in the distance, Carrigan Head and Slieve League; and to the south and west, magnificent but foreboding, a litany of peaks and points scattered across the Dartry Mountains and my immediate future: Truskmore, Hangman’s Hill, Keelogyboy, Leean. The day has barely even begun.

Breche in Benbulben's south face North to Benwiskin
Truskmore, sheep, cutting turf Benmushroom
The Cliffs of AnnacoonaBenwiskin north face, Mullaghmore Benwiskin

When I reach the top of Benwiskin, I creep towards the edge to get a good look down the terrifying drop of the sheer north face, and my balls shrink up into my stomach as I lose faith in the grip of my last-legs running shoes on the slick grass, with my toes poking through holes and the tread all but worn through. Ravens soar overhead and the wind buffets me impatiently, and I suddenly realise that despite having gone barely ten kilometres, I’m already starting to feel the strain a bit. It’s a symptom of the same mistake I make every time I come here, I underestimate how much more difficult traveling over terrain with little-or-no established trail is, and it takes a great deal more time and energy to cover the same distance as it would back home on my familiar Alpine trails. I crawl back from the edge, grasping at clumps of sedge for poorly-chosen security, then I suck down an energy gel before picking my way gingerly down the steep north-east ridge to a brief but terribly-exciting downclimb on a short section of mossy rock, and over a few hundred metres of barbed wire hurdles to the comfort and safety of a sun-baked tarmac road which leads to the other side of the Gleniff Horseshoe, and the start of the second significant climb of the day.

Truskmore from Benwiskin, across the Gleniff Horseshoe

Looking east across the Gleniff Horseshoe towards Truskmore on the right, with the radio antenna…

Slopes to Truskmore Benwiskin

…and looking back west across to Benwiskin

I pad along the road until an obvious path towards Truskmore presents itself, and as I peel left I am forced to hop another couple of fences. A solitary figure a few hundred yards uphill notices me and watches me plodding along for a few seconds before returning to his work, cutting turf and laying the sods of peat in neat rows to dry, but I still make sure to treat the fragile fences with extra care and attention. The ground underfoot gets gradually steeper, and soon an occasional steadying hand or a bracing knee is required to make progress, until, closer to the summit plateau, we are back on the bog, with its peat hags, stinking puddles, sun-bleached skulls and freshly-drowned sheep. After waving back at the men in high-vis vests, I stop under the shadow of the radio antenna and force a bacon sandwich and two chocolate bars into my stomach as I study the map, halfway through the adjusted route and at the highest point of the day, a respectable 647m above sea level. From this vantage point, peering south into the distance, I can start to think about the details of the new route sketched out in my head: I can see a handful of paths and trails creeping up through forest and field into the Crockauns and Keelogyboys, but the ever-present question of access rights can make things far more difficult than they should be.

Keelogyboy from Truskmore

The Keelogyboy Mountains in the distance, seen from Truskmore

Knocknarea from Truskmore

Knocknarea seen from under the radio antenna’s wires on Truskmore


Largandoon moors, below Truskmore

With the first weary sigh in an increasingly-common procession of them, I haul myself back onto my feet and descend Truskmore’s tumbledown south face, then yomp over the barren but beautiful Largandoon moors, and I am treated (for the second time today) to a few kilometres of actual running down the Glencar track, built to allow access to the peat bogs and a ready supply of fuel during the coal shortages of the Second World War, but now providing a blissfully-easy route to the cafe perched on the shores of Glencar Lough and an ice-cold bottle of Club Orange. I sit and refill my Camelbak under the confused glances from a score of chubby Americans in fanny packs, squirt another energy gel into my gob, and limp away on shin-smacking tarmac up the N14, in search of a path to the route’s third and final major climb.

Glencar Lough

Glencar Lough, where flapping herons wake the drowsy water rats, with Hangman’s Hill and the Keelogyboys on the left in the distance.


My first attempt ends at an undeniably-visible and quite-convincing sign suggesting I go no further, and, confidence diminished through fatigue, I have to retrace my steps back down the N14, gnashing my teeth and spitting abuse at the car tires that speed past mere inches from my aching feet, until a second potential route leading up into the hills appears. I zip up the path gratefully, my eyes resolutely on the ground to avoid seeing any “No Access” signs, speeding up as much as my legs and lungs will allow until I am far enough up the hill to be away from any human interference. Breathless and dripping with sweat after a mercifully quick-and-brutal ascent, I am soon at the top of Hangman’s Hill, a deliciously evocatively-named summit with a commanding view over both the previous few hours’ toil and the shrinking list of summits yet to come. The world is absolutely silent except for an insistent breeze, and it takes every available ounce of willpower to not just plonk myself down and absorb it all through passive meditation, but I manage to convince myself that a dozen equally-engrossing views are waiting at the top of the next few hills. At a distance, I can clearly see the black mouth of a deep cave near the top of Keelogyboy’s northern summit, and powerless as I am against the childish urge to explore such things, I have to make a detour of a few hundred metres to rummage around in its depths. Lacking helmet and headtorch, however, I am quickly turned back, only to be treated at the entrance of the cave to the exciting spectacle of two furious crows mobbing a pair of ravens, their shrill cries echoing off the dripping rock walls as they swoop and dive around the much larger birds. But it’s cold in the shade, and as I start to shiver I realise, annoyingly, that I am lingering because I am slightly exhausted, and that I am deliberately delaying the last few kilometres of the route. So I shovel what little fuel I have left into my face and kick myself out the front door of the cave, up to the summit, and past the uninspired-but-aesthetic Sramore Lough.

Slievemore and Truskmore from Keelogyboy North

Slievemore and Truskmore in the distance from Hangman’s Hill

Keelogyboy East from Keelogyboy North East

Keelogyboy East from Hangman’s Hill

Keelogyboy Cave

In the mouth of Keelogyboy Cave

Caves on Keelogyboy

Two crows from Keelogyboy Cave, not pictured: two harassed ravens.

Sramore Lough

Sramore Lough

The last of the caffeine and sugars that I brought with me kick in, and with no fluids left my pack is as light as a feather, so I am soon hopping with renewed vigour across a hallucinatory landscape where the early-evening sun has started to cast long, twisted shadows across the time-carved limestone, the ground spread with a tapestry of a thousand hues of heather and heath. A steep, speedy descent through crumbling blocks of stone down to Sramore drops me right in front of two men with sledgehammers, their quad bikes piled high with fence posts and coils of barbed wire.

Keelogyboy East, The Doons

Keelogyboy East, and The Doons, seen from near the top of Keelogyboy North

“Hello!” I call tentatively, desperately trying to keep the lid on a bubbling pot of anguish and remorse over every strand of barbed wire I’ve clambered over today, with another two  freshly-constructed barriers just fifty metres away from us, blocking the route to the top of my next summit. “Umm, do you think you would mind if I just hopped your fence there? I’ll be ever so careful…”

“Sure, go mad,” one of them replies cheerily. “Where are you headed?”

“Oh, up this side, down the other, on to Leean Mountain, then down towards Lough Gill and Parke’s Castle…”

“Well, rather you than me, anyways!” the second fellow chuckles. We wish each other a good evening, and I set off across the heather, over their new fences, and up a slope that turns out to be much steeper than it looked from across the valley, and happens to be suddenly and shockingly studded with the odd particularly-malevolent patch of bramble and bracken, the former gripping my calves with keen claws and the latter encouraging a spontaneous descent. But I can’t slow down whilst the eyes of these two kind-hearted strangers are upon my back, and it is red-faced and wheezing that I explode onto the summit of Keelogyboy East, out of sight of an audience who I inexplicably thought I should try and impress, and onto the floor.

Frightfully embarrassed for myself, after pulling myself together I stumble down yet another steep and grassy slope, contour through and over the clustered hillocks of Fawnlion, tip-toe through one last stretch of sucking bog, and trudge, slowly but determined, to the top of today’s final summit, Leean Mountain, having managed to squeeze around 1800m of ascent from the rugged, undulating hills of Sligo and Leitrim. I make the call to my rescue party, who promises to have water and a change of clothes waiting for me in the car. I take one last look at the string of summits behind me, then set off down the remaining few kilometres to the road, that hallowed ribbon of tarmac that leads to cold beer, hot shower, and grilled meat.

Leean Mountain from Fawnlion

Leean Mountain in evening sunlight

Lough Gill from Leean Mountain

Lough Gill seen from Leean Mountain


This was the final big run I was able to go on whilst training for the Mont Blanc 80km later this month. Hopefully it’ll be enough. I’m running the Mont Blanc 80km to raise money for the North West Hospice in Sligo, and there is still time to donate if you have anything to spare, but if not, maybe you would consider sharing the link below among family and friends. Thanks for your help, it really is appreciated.

Benbulben green

Benbulben, right, seen from the north, a few days earlier

Dartry Mountains route info:
38km distance, 1800m ascent, potential issues with access. Respect your surroundings, don’t break any fences, don’t drop any litter, if the landowner is around then ask for permission, and if they aren’t, then run like hell and you’ll probably get away with it.
Link to map, profile, route info

Dartry profile

About Pete Houghton

Chef in the Chamonix Valley
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