About twenty years ago I climbed Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest mountain, at night in June around the time of the Summer Solstice. It was a beautiful calm night, there was a full Moon, and sitting on the summit as the sun rose all combined to make it a very memorable experience. It was one that I have meant to re-create ever since but for one reason or another – mostly weather related – I was unable to do so.
The good weather over the last few days gave me an opportunity to consider another trip into the mountains to mark Midsummer. This time however I ruled out Carrauntoohill because of a forecast of thick cloud over Kerry on the night of 19th/20th June, my window of opportunity. So I chose someplace nearer home – the Knockmealdown Mountains north of Lismore, County Waterford. The forecast suggested that there would be good clear spells and the Moon was 88% full.
The Knockmealdowns are north of Lismore, County Waterford
I am very familiar with the Knockmealdowns. Knockmealdown, the highest mountain in the range at 794 metres (2,605 feet), was the first mountain I ever climbed and it has a special place in my affections ever since. The standard route is from the carpark at the Vee Gap up to the Sugarloaf Hill and thence via the ridge to Knockmealdown. The remains of a Famine-period wall mark the route so there is no possibility of getting lost even in poor visibility.
I started the ascent to Sugarloaf around 10:30pm. It was bright enough to negotiate the path without the need to switch on my head-torch. My pair of walking poles helped to give me extra momentum on the climb.
Just after sunset over the Galtees
There are a few stone cairns on the summit of Sugarloaf and I rested here for awhile and admired the views – to the North-West the Galtee range, the lush farmland of the Golden Vale in front of me and to the East, Slievenaman and the Comeraghs. It was dark now and the lights of the villages and towns were flickering in the distance – I picked out the ones I recognised: Clogheen, Ardfinnan, Clonmel, Cahir -and North-West of the Galtees, the glow of Limerick City shone into the sky.
And while it was dark there was still a glow of sunlight in the Northern sky and it never disappeared throughout the night. It shifted from the North-West, where the Sun had set, across to the North-East from which direction the Sun rose shortly after 5am.
I then started to make my way down from Sugarloaf to the ridge that would take me to Knockmealown. Even with the almost full Moon shining down on me it wasn’t bright enough to walk without artificial light so I switched on my Petzl head-torch which provided superb illumination. As I walked along, the light reflected off the eyes of the occasional sheep resulting in two bright green orbs staring out of the darkness at me every now and then.
I arrived at the summit of Knockmealdown around 1 am. Conditions were good- there was only a gentle breeze and the slight chill was remedied by putting on an extra jacket. There was a wonderful silence which was punctuated every now and then by the bleating of a sheep, the barking of a dog in a farm far below or the sound of an occasional car or motorbike making its way over the Vee Pass.
I sat and took in the magnificent view. Due South I could see the lights of Youghal and a little to the West of it the red flashing light of Ballycotton Lighthouse. Further along I could make out the Whitegate Oil Refinery and then the glow in the sky from the lights of Cork City. Directly below me were the lights of Lismore and further East, Cappoquin.
I took some long-exposure photographs (about 3 mins 30 seconds per exposure at 400 ISO) to pass the time and I used my head-torch to illuminate the foreground. The only point of interest in the foreground was the concrete triangulation pillar used by the Ordnance Survey. Knockmealdown is devoid of any stone cairns and is thus well named – the original Irish name was Cnoc Meal Donn: the bald, bare mountain. I was carrying a lightweight tripod with me which was not very sturdy and which did not have much height. I was very restricted therefore in relation to photographic composition. It would have been nice to have had my usual heavy Manfrotto tripod but there was no way I was going to carry that up the mountains.
I should add that photography was very much secondary in my reasons for doing the trip. My primary purpose was simply to do something out of the ordinary, something suitably eccentric, a piece of Midsummer Madness to mark the Solstice. It is strange that we don’t have any festival in Ireland or Britain to mark Midsummer. One would have thought that there would have been an ancient pagan celebration long since Christianised as is the case with Christmas, Easter and so forth, but no. This then was my attempt to mark such a significant time of the year by stepping out of everyday normality for a few hours. And it is good for us, I think, to do that every now and then. The sociologist Robert McIver has written that “the healthy being craves an occasional wildness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite, his own little festival of Saturnalia, a brief excursion from his way of life”. I certainly felt the better for it as if some ancient pagan impulse had been satisfied.
The lights on the horizon on the right are Youghal. Next to the trig-point are the lights of Cappoquin.
The glow on the left is from the lights of Cork City
My original intention was to stay on the summit of Knockmealdown until sunrise. That was still several hours away however and I had more or less had enough of the views at this stage. A bivy-bag (a small lightweight shelter) would have been nice to crawl into for a hour or two but I might have fallen asleep and maybe missed the dawn. Increasing cloud from the West also caused me concern. It looked as if it might spread to the East and obscure the rising Sun. All things considered, I decided to head back along the ridge to the Sugarloaf where, if there was a good sunrise, the stone cairns would provide a nicer photographic foreground than the concrete pillar on Knockmealdown.
I left the summit at around 3am. The glow in the sky to the North-East was perceptibly increasing in intensity and one could easily make out the outlines of the nearby mountains. This was what is called Nautical Dawn – when there is just enough light on the horizon to distinguish some objects – as against Civil Dawn – when there is enough light for outdoor activities to commence – which began at 4:24.
Dawn breaking in the skies over Slievenaman with the lights of Clonmel at its base
The Comeragh Mountains in the distance
When I arrived back at the summit of Sugarloaf it was bright enough to dispense with the head-torch. I was glad to see a sliver of clear sky where the Sun was due to rise and I prayed that it would remain cloud-free. I set up the camera in front of a cairn and pointed it towards Slievenaman. And at 5:04 am it rose and shone with magnificent splendour for about a minute and then disappeared into cloud. I felt blessed at having seen it. It was a fitting culmination to a wonderful night.
Addendum – 22 June 2013
I have since been asked by a couple of people about practical advice regarding venturing into the mountains at night. Probably the best advice is: don’t. Hillwalking can be risky enough in broad daylight; at night the risks are increased. Even with the best torch visibility is decreased and it can be difficult at times to judge the height and distance of rocks and other obstacles. Also, the impact of lack of sleep – even for the most chronic insomniac – while doing strenuous walking and scrambling can result in impaired judgment and the possibility of an accident.
But if you are still really determined to do it make sure you have a good head-torch. The one I use is manufactured by Petzl and they make the best. An ordinary torch is not recommended because (a) it might fall out of your hands and break on a rock and (b) your hands should be holding walking poles, another indispensable item of equipment for night walking, in my view. Not only do they provide added momentum on the ascent they help to keep you safe when descending by maintaining your balance and supporting you if you are in danger of tripping or falling.
Pick a mountain (or mountains) that you are familiar with and a route that you have done several times before. Be prepared for a sudden deterioration in weather (this is Ireland, after all). Would you be able to find your way back if fog or mist came down? Can you navigate your way out of trouble? A hand-held GPS unit is ideal in that you can plot your route with waymarks and then it’s just a matter of retracing your steps if visibility deteriorates. There are a few smartphone apps that do the same thing but the problem with smartphones is battery life. The very time you might need it the power might be gone.
A portable shelter like a small tent or a bivy-bag would also be very useful not only if bad weather comes down but for whiling away the hours until dawn. Needless to say, you should carry good warm clothing and an additional layer in your backpack for when you stop for any length of time en-route.
When you have finished the walk and are back at your car the temptation is to get home as quickly as possible in order to catch up with lost sleep. This can be lethal. There is a very real danger of nodding off at the wheel for a second or two. That’s all it takes to get killed. It is far better to snooze in the car for an hour or so before setting off. Drinking a can of Red Bull, I have found, is also beneficial for staying awake. I don’t know if the effect is physiological or psychological but it doesn’t matter – it works for me. I also find that taking off my shoes and driving in my stockinged feed helps me to stay alert (a tip that was given to me by a long-distance lorry driver years ago).
I suppose I should also add you shouldn’t do it alone – all the standard mountain walking advice says you should walk with at least one other person for safety. Maybe so but I think a night walk such as I have described above demands to be done solo in order to savour the full experience, the sense of something like the numinous that being alone at night on a mountain can impart. The chatter of another person – or worse still, other people – can dilute that feeling. Yes, it is risky going up alone but by God it is worth it!