County High Points — Climbing to the Top of County Cork

Ben Dillon
11 min readAug 7, 2020

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“I don’t understand it. How did that happen?”

“Yah.”

“I don’t get that now. How the hell did that happen?”

“Alright Gus.”

“That doesn’t make sense now.”

“Alright, come on. Get over it.”

“Doesn’t make any fecking sense.”

“Will you get over it, Jesus. Come on, let’s go.”

We’re sitting in the front seat of Gus’s jeep. Ours is the only car in the secluded two car capacity car park at Priest’s leap. Five hundred metres above sea level, less than two hundred and fifty metres below Knockboy, Cork’s highest point. If you are climbing to the top of the county, Priest’s Leap is base camp. Base camp but with less tents, oxygen tanks and very slim possibility of altitude sickness. If the Rockies are the epitome of sheer jagged mountains, here is the epitome of rolling grass hills. Gus is agonising over an old county map, trying to figure out where he went wrong. He tuts his head every once in a while and mumbles to himself.

It’s been over three hours since we got lost. It’s 2:40 P.M. on Friday October 18th and our walk is done. We’ve made it to Cork’s highest point and back. We’ve dried off, changed clothes and are ready to start the final leg of outing number one. Yet Gus is still flummoxed.

“It just doesn’t make sense.”

I close my eyes, “Oh my God, get over it like. It doesn’t matter.”

The incident that Gus is now replaying over and over in his head, happened before we even set foot on Cork soil. Gus had travelled down from Tralee in his jeep and I had driven up from Cork City. We rendezvoused near Kilgarvan where Gus took over the role as captain for the rest of the journey to Knockboy. About five minutes prior to our intended arrival time, Gus put in an order for attention.

“Right, keep an eye out for a slab of stone that says ‘Priest’s Leap’ on it. That’s where we’re starting.”

That block of stone never comes. I pull out my phone and consult Google Maps.

“Hate to break it to you Gus. This map says we’re forty minutes away.”

“What, ah no, no, no,” Gus elongates the word “no” through repetition in that oh so Irish fashion. A method similarly used to turn the word “bye” from a three letter word into a forty-six letter word when hanging up the phone, “that can’t be right.”

Gus pulls up on the side of the remote mountain road. He looks at Google Maps and reaches into the glove compartment to confirm that yes, it could be right and yes it was right. Somehow we had gone wrong and we were now on a completely different road. Instead of being five minutes away from our destination, we were forty.

“How in the name of Holy God did that happen?”

Getting lost for anyone else would be fine. However, Gus is Mr. Kerry Countryside. He knows Kerry better than anyone and would be pretty proud of his knowledge of the county’s outskirts (i.e. West Cork) which we are now in. A mistake of this magnitude is unheard of. It’d be like taking the lawnmower out back and accidentally cutting your neighbour’s lawn. Thus the subsequent agonising dissection of his map and my growing frustration at having to endure it.

Finally, Gus puts the map away and drives off down the hill. Although he’s apparently finished analysing his mistake, I can tell that the cogs are still turning. For the next five minutes or so, I don’t get much talk out of him. The internal questioning eventually passes and he is, once again, a fully present occupant of the jeep.

Gus turns to me. “Well, that’s the first one done. Weather was on our side. It won’t get much easier than that.”

****

Before the confusion, before that first trip and before Gus’s impromptu scenic route selection, there was July 1st, thirteen days before my thirtieth birthday.

The big three zero is a funny one. You’d be a fool to think you are getting old but even more foolish if you didn’t recognise middle age’s impending arrival. You aren’t exactly settling down to a life of slippers, Werthers Originals and Reader’s Digest. But adjectives like nippy, sprightly and perky may never be used in your bio again.

As my thirtieth birthday approached, I had an unshakeable desire to embark on an adventure or test myself with some major physical undertaking. Everywhere I looked people were running marathons or training for triathlons. I wanted something a bit more meaty, a bit more alive. One guy rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. That was appealing, if not a little suicidal for someone who can barely swim. A Limerick woman swam the English Channel. Again, tempting, but you know, the whole inability to swim predicament. As my desire grew, examples of people conquering their own metaphorical Everest kept crossing my radar. Or literal Mount Everest as was the case for eight hundred or so people in the year gone by.

I wouldn’t label my desire to take on a landmark challenge a midlife crisis. But then again, that sort of staunch denial goes hand in hand with midlife crises. No, I wanted to do something that got me outdoors, that brought adventure, something that got me away from screens, podcasts, social media and d’internet. But more than any other practical reasons, the biggest truth of all was that I didn’t know why I wanted a landmark challenge. I wanted an excuse to do something that I’d remember forever. And preferably, I’d like to do it with Gus.

In my apartment, I sit upright on the couch with my knees close to my chest. My thighs support the notepad as I rhythmically tap my pen against the paper. My girlfriend is pottering around me, making small adjustments to lamps, candles, books and other bits in her attempt to make the apartment ‘Monica-clean’.

“I think I’ve got a good one,” I say.

“Yah.”

“There’s a thing called the County Tops. Climbing to the highest point in every county in Ireland — The 32 peaks challenge. It’s not exactly hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I doubt you’ll see Reese Witherspoon playing me on the big screen any time soon but I kind of like it.”

“Thought you wanted to row the Atlantic or free solo El Capitan?”

“Ah yah, those might be put on the backburner for now. This is a nice gateway drug to that though”

“Has anyone done it before?”

“Oh yeah, lots, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Gus surely has done it before?”

“No, definitely not. It’s such a Gus thing to do that I’m almost positive he wouldn’t do it.”

“Yeah. Too commercial for Gus is it?”

“Too expected of Gus.”

“Yah.”

“I like it though. I think this is it. We could do it in a year, that’d be a pretty good achievement, we’d get to visit Longford.”

“Does that mean spending 32 weekends of the year climbing mountains though?”

“Good point.”

I begin to research my big quest. It turns out that the thirty two peaks challenge is actually twenty-six peaks as many counties share a high point. Most of the mountains are pretty small too so there’s lots of potential for double or triple checking off mountains on a weekend trip. With a few weekend excursions, I estimate that it could be done in eleven or twelve outings. Gus’s jeep could provide us with basic overnight accommodation. That would appease mine and Gus’s aversion to needless spending. And it would make a bit more Into The Wild.

It isn’t a maverick quest by any stretch. A quick Google search takes me to the blog of a kid who is trying to finish the challenge by his eleventh birthday. I also read about two madmen from Donegal who completed the challenge in sixty hours and thirty five minutes. I’m impressed by the physical accomplishment but more impressed by the logistics and organisation of it all. Synchronising vans to carry you all around Ireland is no mean feat. It shows a lot of get up and go.

My lack of get up and go, means it takes me three weeks before I make it to the bookstore to buy the first tool needed on our quest. Kieron Gribbon’s book on the 32 high points is the bible for all would-be county top finishers. Purchasing it is the first step in what could prove to be the biggest challenge of all, convincing Gus to come along with me.

****

Gus is my dad.

But dad isn’t one of the monikers he generally goes by. My mother calls him Ferg, friends call him Fergus, I’ve heard a few people call him Gussy, his children call him Gus or Fog. The latter coming from my eldest sister’s failed attempts to mimic my mother as a toddler. The refusal to call Gus “dad” isn’t some form of childhood rebellion. Rather it’s a higher term of endearment. Calling him dad doesn’t seem as loving for some reason.

Gus is a classic dad. He tells dad jokes, he’s highly embarrassing, he’s controversial in the way that every auld fella is controversial. He masks curses with words like “feck”, “fup” or “flip”. He used to bore my siblings and I to death by trying to teach us about the stars, the moon and the world around us. He flirts with young wans. He reads the paper after dinner. He talks incredibly loudly on the phone, as if he doesn’t trust that the device can carry his voice long distances. He drives slowly, except en-route to mass where speed limits apparently don’t apply. He basically ticks all dad boxes.

But on the other hand, he is shockingly uncommon. He has been to the Great Wall of China, driven to North Africa, road tripped through the Route 66 to Vegas, bought a flight around the world, captured photos of whales in Antarctica, spent time in Everest Base Camp, accidentally brought me to an, ahem, “adult club” in Thailand as a teen, and climbed the Alps. Such is his diverse range of interests, he’d be able to hold his own in conversations with Neil Armstrong, Ernest Shackelton or the local ornithologist. But similarly, he’d manage just fine down in the local, discussing the latest amendments to GAA rules or how Joe Murphy managed to somehow get planning, and he obstructing the neighbour’s wonderful view.

Gus is also infuriatingly contrary. Even more infuriating, I’ve been cursed with his contrariness. It’s the reason why I have to fight an urge to say “no” to almost every suggestion and I’m terribly unspontaneous when it comes to social outings. Gus however, takes contrary to another level.

One time my brother-in-law asked if I thought Gus would like to go with him to the Ulster Football Final in Belfast. He ended by saying “it seems like something he’d love”. I urged him to never use that line again. A presumptuous line like that would immediately rule Gus out. I told him to instead flirt with the topic in a dismissive way and used a throwaway line like “I really doubt it would be of interest to you but..”. This tactic proved much more fruitful.

Convincing Gus was installed on my list of high points as peak number one, dwarfing Carrauntoohil, a much taller feat than that.

But, it was much easier than expected. Of course Gus scoffed at the first suggestion of it. And the second and third. Buying Kieron Gribbon’s book was seen as a sign of my seriousness. By the fourth and fifth suggestion, he was warming to it. I was shocked to find him even a little enthused. By the end it was Gus who was putting in the greater prep time. It was he who suggested we start at Cork, end in Kerry and climb the country in between. As long as we have a celebratory drink after each peak.

****

This has all brought us to Knockboy, mission one of our quest — Cork’s county top.

And what could be said about Knockboy?

What strikes me about Knockboy is how unCork it is. This is the self-proclaimed People’s Republic. There are maps of Ireland displayed in Cork pubs which don’t show the typical division of the country into thirty two segments. Instead there are two — Cork and not Cork. Its people sincerely believe they’ve won the genetic lottery to be born there. A video does the rounds of one Corkman appearing to claim he’s the Lord Saviour himself. That to me is Cork, confident and painfully proud of itself. Knockboy however is quiet and unassuming.

In terms of county tops, Knockboy is the 13th highest. It’s mid-table, it’d be Bournemouth in soccer, Ian Poulter in golf, if it were a celebrity it’d be someone like Rob Lowe or Kelly Clarkson. The Rugby World Cup is currently on so I check the world rankings to get a rugby reference point. Tonga are ranked 13th in the world. Yes, there is something very Tongan rugby about Knockboy. Heavy and sluggish, not very flashy or remarkable. You’d expect a slight challenge but be pretty confident you could beat it.

Knockboy is located in West Cork, far from the hustle and bustle of the English Market. It admittedly showcases Cork’s most beautiful region and it’s apt that in a quest to see the beauty of Ireland, we start in West Cork.

As for the walk itself, it’s tame, a good one to start on. A fence guides the path from base camp to peak, leaving little chance of error. However, the mist and constant similarity in the surrounding landscape mean that errors often occur when people stray from the path.

The walk is short. As Gus comments, “you’d barely have caught your initial breath by the time you hit the top”. We’re there in less than an hour. Back in the comfort of the jeep two hours and ten minutes after we left, lunch included. I’m surprised at the brevity of our quest. I bet Cork people claim it takes an overnight trip and an oxygen tank to summit.

By ten to three, we’re making the journey from Knockboy to where we left my car outside Kilgarvan. We’re about to part ways once again, the first step of the mission complete.

Gus sees something on the road and turns around.

“That’s it,” he says, looking over his shoulder at a sign on the side of the road.

“What’s it?”

“That’s where we got lost.”

“Huh?”

“That sign says ‘Priest Leap’s Circuit’. That’s the loop around here that takes in Priest’s Leap. That’s what I did, I followed Priest’s Leap Circuit. I should have gone straight to Priest’s Leap.”

“Well thank God for that. That would have kept me up all night,” I say. “I can call the Garda Investigations Bureau now and get them to close the case.”

“Haw, haw,” Gus says.

We decide to have a drink at Jackie Healy Rae’s Pub in Kilgarvan to celebrate a job well done, and a gripping mystery well solved. I stay in the car momentarily, as I gather my belongings. Gus walks up to the door and pushes, but there’s no give. He tries a second and third door but admits defeat and turns back.

“Can’t even get a pint at 3 o’clock on a Friday,” Gus shakes his head in disbelief as he steps back into the jeep. “Ah, this country’s gone to pot.”

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Ben Dillon

Everything I write is half nonsense. The other half is pure gold. Not on InstaTwitBook but please connect on LinkedIn — /dillon-ben