Keeper Hill is a keeper

Within a few short days of arriving in Ireland, we took a trip down to Limerick to pick up a few furniture bits for our new lodgings, and I will never forget driving down the Nenagh bypass (now incorporated into the M7) and gazing at the hills to our left, with a road map in my lap, trying to identify the landmarks of this new land we were calling home.  As I stared towards what I deduced (correctly) were the Silvermines, the clouds lifted and the summit Keeper Hill appeared behind them in all its glory.  I probably should add here that I was doing all my gazing and landmark research from the safety of the passenger seat, whilst the husband (or “the boyfriend”, as he was known back then) dutifully kept his eyes on the road ahead.  I remember saying that I wanted to go up there one day, which elicited a fairly non-committal grunt from the driver’s seat.  I can hardly blame him for his lack of enthusiasm or belief in my vow; at the time I was even heavier than I am now, was struggling with an undiagnosed thyroid issue, and would have very definitely been the last to be picked for a ‘Lets All Go Up Keeper Hill’ team!

Earlier last year, during a day out in the Silvermines, I was to recall that car journey and that vow, and spending the day with Keeper Hill in full view only served to strengthen my resolve.

But now I can proudly say that I’ve done it!  I’ve walked up to the summit of Keeper Hill, I’ve seen what can be seen, and it was worth every single step!

Many times over the past year, when planning where we were going to walk next, I’d jokingly said “Let’s go up Keeper”, but I’d realistically known in my heart I wasn’t ready, but this time I said it, and I meant it!  The weather forecast was good, and I felt good too.  The distance felt do-able, and I knew that if I just remained determined, I’d get there.  In hindsight, during the planning phase I’d made a fairly important rookie mistake, but I’m here, typing this up, having seen the views from the summit, so it wasn’t a truly terrible blunder, more an error of judgement, a miscalculation if you like!  More about that later, but in the meantime, kudos to anyone who can guess what my slight oversight might have been!

We parked up, took the almost obligatory map-board photo, and double checked the route and the distance.  This pic nearly always makes it on to my blog posts, but also acts as a quick route checking facility during the walk, being easier and faster to look at my phone than dragging the map out of my rucksack.

Immediately out of the car park we headed up hill, and continued heading up hill.  After a mile or so of steady ascent I was delighted that the husband was the first one to take the opportunity to stop for a breather check his boots and adjust his laces.  It gave me the chance to think about how many stops we’d have already taken by now if I’d tried this route a year ago.  We took this opportunity to offer water to Dolly too.

At one point we passed a highly coloured chalybeate stream, the vivid orange colouration indicating the iron rich nature of the water emerging from this spring. 

Chalybeate stream, rich in iron.

Chalybeate stream, rich in iron.

We got to the point in the trail where it was decision time.  We had agreed that we would see how I felt at this point.  One option was to carry straight on, and remain on the Ballyhourigan Woods loop, which would take us around Ballyhourigan woods, and bring us gently back down the hill to the car park.  Or, we could turn left, and carry on towards the summit of Keeper Hill.  All felt good, and from here the flanks of Keeper Hill didn’t look too scary, and so we turned left and enjoyed a very short, but sweet, downhill section, before resuming an uphill trek.

The trail took us upwards, always upwards, but also around the south-west flank of Keeper Hill and would ultimately leave the Slieve Felim Way to take us straight up the southern side.  We passed a few piles of small trees in brown paper sacks, which I assume were baby trees waiting to be planted?  And hopefully not dumped by some tree-clearing fly-tipper!  I can’t imagine fly-tippers would take the time and care to place each small tree into individual sacks.  The views up Keeper Hill actually seemed to get more daunting as we progressed, but all felt good with my legs, feet and lungs, and so we kept going.  It did help immensely the glorious views both upwards and down into the valleys certainly contributed to keeping my spirits lifted, and my legs moving.

This particular waterfall stood out to us, and we can only guess that this the ‘Spout’ as described in the Trail Description.  Alas, there was very little water around but we both decided that we’d love to come up here after heavy rain and see the waterfall in full spate.

The Spout - Keeper Hill

The Spout – Keeper Hill

The trail was fairly level as it wound around the side of the hill, and a lovely, but short, downhill section provided welcome relief to my tired legs.  But all too soon we left the Slieve Felim Way, and the incline got steeper.  I found I needed to stop to rest take in the views around us more often, and I was starting to flag. I found Keeper Hill to be quite deceptive. The incline reduces toward the top making the summit constantly appear to be just over the next ridge.  When you felt you were nearly there, you’d get to the top of that rise and find yet another uphill stretch in front of you.  In a moment of almost perfect timing we met a lovely lady coming down from the summit, who congratulated me on getting this far,  assured me that it wasn’t far to the top now, and that it would all be worth it.  There is nothing so good as an encouraging word to help you pick yourself up and re-focus, so whomever you were, thank you!

You knew you were finally getting to the top when the gentle breeze, which had turned into a stronger breeze, ultimately developed into a persistent wind.  Even on a beautiful clear, sunny day, the strength of the wind surprised me.  The first visual thing to greet us were the telecommunications masts and associated outbuildings, fencing etc, but I tried to ignore those as I took in the glorious views all around us.  We found our way to the trig point, and I scrambled over the boulders to pose for the almost obligatory Trig pic.  I can’t describe the feeling of being on top of a mountain that you’ve wanted to go up for so very long.  Keeper might not be one of Ireland’s ‘biggies’, but at 694 metres (2,277 ft), it’s a creditable No.57 in the Irish Highest Hundred List, the highest point in North Tipperary, and is a mountain that has captivated me ever since I first moved to this country.  Standing atop of it was a massive achievement for me, and I’ll admit I was grinning like a loon.  A sweaty, red-faced loon, but a loon nonetheless!

The photo of me, using the trig point to stay upright, partly due to the strong wind and partly due to my wobbly legs, is in my opinion hideous, so that particular photo remains for my eyes only, but here’s a slighty arty pic of the husband enjoying the views down over the Silvermines from the summit!

Keeper Hill summit

Keeper Hill summit

We found a small spot, out of the wind, to sit down, absorb the views and enjoy a well-earned cup of tea.  We shared a packet of wine gums with Dolly, and celebrated with a ‘Summit’ Snickers bar.  I checked my phone to see our progress on the Runkeeper app, and at this point, after a little bit of head-scratching, it dawned on me that I had made a bit of a silly rookie mistake!  Did you guess what it might have been?  I have been so used to doing looped routes and trails, that when I checked the trail distance for this route, I thought that an 8.2km (5.1 miles) route, incorporating the summit of Keeper Hill would be an admirable hike for someone of my size and fitness level.  It never occurred to me that, this being a linear route, the 8.2km was the distance in one direction.  It had occurred to me a few times, on our way up, that we had walked quite a way to get to the summit but just put it down to my mind playing tricks on me during the sections where I struggled the most.  Oh boy!  That made getting to this summit feel even better!  Although I was a little deflated to see one of those mad hill runners, looking fresh as a daisy,  sprint up to the trig point, touch it, and then sprint back downhill again.  I try not to let them make me feel inadequate, and firmly remind myself to walk my own miles, and not to judge myself against how others do theirs!  But deep down I’ll confess I feel a little jealous of anyone with the fitness levels, and strength of mind, to do something as insane as hill/fell running.

5 miles up meant 5 miles back down, and so we started our descent.  I’m always surprised to find that going downhill is almost as hard work as going up, although it always seems to go quicker. I discovered that the joy of an uphill linear trail is being able to enjoy the views even more on the way down, because you’re no longer concentrating on keeping up enough motivation to get to the top!  However, my legs were getting decidedly wobbly by the time the car park came into view, and for the first time ever my feet were really sore.  However, the achievement and memory of sitting with a cup of tea on top of my favourite mountain, combined with (mostly) coping admirably with the unexpected and unplanned distance that we’d covered, meant that I was still smiling as I finally dropped my rucksack into the back of the car and filled a water bowl for Dolly.

The DOMS hit me by about Tuesday, and Dolly certainly preferred her comfy bed to her daily walk for a couple of days…but Keeper Hill was absolutely worth every step, and I’m lucky that it is relatively local to me. I can’t wait to do it again!

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A little deja vu in the Silvermines.

I recognised the car park as soon as we pulled into it.  I’d been there before.  I think we parked in almost the exact same spot too!

01 Welcome

The last time that both my parents had to come over to stay with us I had taken them on a scenic drive around the Silvermines and Keeper Hill.  We’d stopped off in Toomevara, and purchased the makings of a picnic, and then we’d headed up into the hills.  Driving of course, not walking!  We’d stopped at this same car park, facing the majestic Keeper Hill, and we’d scoffed our picnic lunch whilst plotting on the road map the places we’d like to visit next.
Back then, if you’d suggested to me to get out and go walking for a couple of hours…well, after I’d finished chewing my mouthful of sandwich (good manners cost nothing!) I’d have either laughed at you, or sworn at you, or quite possibly both (good manners out the window at such a preposterous suggestion!)…but this time I was itching to get out, to get my rucksack on and to get going.  Still, I did take a small moment to cherish the memory of a happy day spent here driving around these hills with my late father.

We set off down a gentle slope out of the car park and hesitated briefly at the first junction until we spotted the arrow marker we were meant to be following.  We continued heading downhill, past an area of trees apparently planted by the Irish American Cultural Institute, and memories of the never-ending ‘uphills’ kept trying to crowd to the forefront of my mind.  The stunning views of Keeper Hill, opening up in front of me, tried their hardest to distract, but I knew that at some point all this ‘downhill’ would inevitably lead to the trail heading uphill.  At a Y junction, continuing downhill did look tempting, but that trail would have taken us in completely the wrong direction and so we turned uphill.

Monty & Keeper Hill

Monty & Keeper Hill

We did stop fairly shortly after starting the ascent, but only (truly!) because I’m trying to get into the supposedly good habit of drinking water every mile.  I find if I don’t make a point of telling myself to drink water, I don’t drink any at all.  And then when my head starts banging, well its too late really.  That dehydration headache has set in, and it’s just not going to shift itself.

The first half of the ascent didn’t seem too bad.  I still stopped for breaks more than I wanted to, struggled with not being able to ‘keep going’.  However the views across to Keeper Hill were fabulous, and spotting a couple of ponies ‘fly grazing’ in the bushes on the slopes below us, meant that when we stopped I could pretend I was stopping to admire the view.  The husband isn’t gullible, but he humours me.  At one point, we came across a big puddle full of frog spawn and tadpoles.  Alas, we couldn’t investigate further as a couple with an unruly labrador came down the hill towards is.  Their labrador and Monty very quickly decided they didn’t want to be friends.  So it was easier to just pick Monty up, hold him out of reach and to carry on up the hill away from them.

Ponies 'Fly Grazing' on the mountain

Ponies ‘Fly Grazing’ on the mountain

We stopped for snacks at the end of the forest track, and contemplated the steep section of muddy path ahead of us.  Once again I found myself looking up at the summit of Keeper Hill and being more and more determined to get fit enough to get up there soon!  We also looked across from where we were to the Silvermine’s West Top & Far West Top.  I knew realistically that I wouldn’t be up to getting there today, but I did think a diversion up to the West Top looked tempting and that I’d give it some more thought whilst we did the next trail section…so perhaps all the struggling I’m doing on ascents isn’t messing with my head so much after all, for me to even contemplate something like that as an option?

Keeper Hill (Sliabh Coimeálta)

Keeper Hill (Sliabh Coimeálta)

However, after pushing on up a short but steep section of mud, out onto a good, hardpacked trail…I looked towards our return path home and realised that if we diverted up West Top I would never have the legs to also go up East Top on the return leg, and thus we’d never get home!  I don’t think even the mountain goat husband expected the home-bound route to be as steep as the next section was!  Two walkers were just coming down off East Top and heading off up to West Top, and they paused to ask how we’re getting on.  Between breaths I said all was good but I was struggling, to which he replied that if I’d got this far, up the trail we’d just walked, then I couldn’t be doing too badly!  I sincerely doubt he has a clue how much that comment perked me up!  It certainly helped me pick up and walk in the direction of what looked like a vertical path, knowing I would get up there, even if I did find I was stopping almost every 20 strides to whisper sweet nothings to my extremely angry Achilles tendons!

Far West Top

Far West Top

The photo really doesn’t do it justice, it was steep enough, that standing upright at some points I could reach forward (without leaning forward) and almost touch the path in front of me!  But I took it in short sections, stopped for leg breaks when I needed them, and I got up there…I was gasping for breath and swearing loudly, and internally I was fist pumping too. My celebrations were a little curbed by two other walkers having a picnic in the heather just off the trail.  We swiftly walked on.

Path up to West Top (the first two 'roller coaster' bits are just teasers, 'warm-ups' if you like!)

Path up to West Top
(the first two ‘roller coaster’ bits are just teasers, ‘warm-ups’ if you like!)

View from West Top across to Far West Top

View from West Top across to Far West Top

The easy way back to the car park would be to have followed the forestry track around to the left, but our trail markers pointed straight on…into a bog…and so, straight on, into the bog we went!  It had been fairly dry recently, I wouldn’t want to attempt this section of the trail after any significant rain.  Not only would it be highly unpleasant (hey, I grew up on the New Forest and I cut my walking and riding teeth on bogs, but this was just deep, wet, gloop!) but the amount of additional damage you’d do to the ground trying to pick the driest route through it would hardly make it worth the effort.

22 Boggy

We came out of the bog and onto a slightly overgrown firebreak.  It was a steep enough descent in sections, and the path got a bit rough in parts.  However, alternative routes through the undergrowth had been made by previous walkers, and a few wheel marks showed that mountain bikers must have been this way recently too.  I slipped at one point, and once again landed on my arse in a patch of wet mud (thank DoG for dry clothes back at the car!).  I’ve finally bought myself a pair of boots, but I’m still at the ‘wear them at home on carpets’ stage, until I decide that they do fit well and are comfy, even when my strange feet swell in their odd ways.  But trails like this are just beyond the limitations for my walking shoes, I need better grip on the slippy stuff, and my feet and ankles need better support on the rough stuff!

Firebreak

Firebreak

The firebreak eventually deposited us back on to the trail section, less than 300 metres from the car park.  Thankful to be back on level, firm track we picked up the pace back to the car.  I was smiling to myself  inside, because when we set out on this loop walk, I was mildly horrified that the last section back to the car would be uphill, and I remember thinking that was really unkind and would be hard work on tired legs.  But now, after the few steep sections we had just tackled, it barely felt like a slope at all…pah, call that a hill!

Dry trousers, dry socks, comfy crocs, and a cup of tea!  The perfect end to a great walk in a beautiful spot.

26 Dry clothes and tea