Errigal dominates the landscape of North-West Donegal. Everywhere you look, it is there. In the photo above, it is the fuzzy triangle at centre right, while, in the one below (taken from Horn Head), you can see its distinctive scree slopes catching the evening sun.
I was reminded of the Hebrides in many parts of Donegal, and Errigal is a mountain very similar to the Paps of Jura — a shapely quartzite cone rising dramatically out of the surrounding bog. It is a fabulous looking mountain, appearing around every vista as if to say “climb me,” and so this is what we did.
I should mention that I had managed to forget the battery of the camera I like to use, and that this walk is not-altogether-successfully documented with a wee camcorder. These three seconds of shaky footage taken from a moving van give you a reasonable sense of Errigal’s dramatic appearance as we approached it from the West.
There are a number of different ways up the mountain from the R251, all of which involve a good half hour of picking one’s way over squidgy bog before beginning the ascent proper. Here, at this point, are Tom, Bruce and a whole lot of scree.
At 2464 feet, Errigal is not a tall mountain, but it posed serious difficulties for me. The ascent involves scrambling up a scar in the scree, and herein lay the problem. Quartzite is sheer and slippery, and quite apart from the physical effort of climbing up it, I had to think about the placement of my weak leg and foot with every step – this was completely exhausting.
The other two mountains I have climbed since my stroke have been ‘easy’ in that they didn’t involve a lead-in walk, and their ascents were steady, on clearly marked paths. On Errigal, after some tiring and tricky bog-stomping, I faced ground that was steep and uneven and slippery. I was becoming very weary by the time I approached the upper slopes.
The summit of Errigal is really rather fun – there are two points separated by a wide ‘ridge’ that is simple to cross – and the views really are fantastic. But I think you can see in this next clip that I am totally bloody knackered.
If you have no experience of neurological disability, the motor deficits caused by stroke can be quite difficult to explain. It is really, really tricky for me to walk on uneven ground – not because my leg is physically damaged in any way but because it does not know what to do. The foot has no stability, and, when I get tired, my brain simply stops sending the right messages – I become unable to point or lift my toes – essential actions for walking. This is the stage I was at by the time I reached the top of Errigal, and I was not looking forward to getting back down again. There is no footage of the descent because it was horrible. There was falling over and arse-sliding. There was getting to my feet, and falling over, and sliding on my arse again. I cursed my leg and brain and my stupid body for having had a stroke. I cursed the mountain. I threw my sticks at the scree and shouted at it. Getting back to the van was a drawn-out and deeply unpleasant affair, and, if I am honest, my attitude did not help matters.
The problem is that I often still think like someone who has not has a stroke: someone who would skip up and down a mountain like Errigal in a goat-like fashion and – here is the rub – take pride in that skipping. I used to be a physically capable person, and, though I didn’t ever consciously think about it, I really enjoyed that capability. I loved being quick and nimble in the hills; I loved exhausting myself. Now I am all too easily exhausted, and am frequently appalled and even embarrassed by my body’s refusal to do what I want it to. I hate being slow and ungainly, and I also hate being seen to be slow and ungainly. It is at moments like this that I really wish I had the HELLO, I’VE HAD A STROKE T-shirt. I think to myself: if they knew what had happened, they wouldn’t look at me as if I was a slow, silly girly, the unwilling partner that a clearly-fitter bloke was dragging up a mountain. They wouldn’t, as they saw me struggle, sympathetically turn to Tom and mutter “you might want to watch out at the top, the ridge can be a bit tricky.” At such moments I want to tell these numpties to FOOK RIGHT OFF and that I’VE HAD A STROKE BUT I CAN STILL HANDLE A BLOODY RIDGE WALK!!
I, of course, used to be one of those numpties. Without thinking about it, the physically fit often sneer at those who are less capable, and I will be honest and say that there was certainly a significant element of this in my pre-stroke character. In the context of being out in the mountains, my particular sneering was composed of two-thirds hideous prejudice, and one-third (misplaced) feminism: if you are a serious hill walker, you often encounter women who are clearly being dragged around the landscape by their men, and one thing I knew was that I was not one of those women. Why was I so bloody judgmental? And in my present circumstances, does it really matter what people think at all?
Of course it doesn’t matter – I absolutely know it doesn’t matter – I know that I am tackling mountains in my own time and at my own pace; that it is amazing that I can do so at all; and that folk can think what they like or go hang . . . and yet it is true that the point at which I became most angry and frustrated on Errigal was when we were passed by an elderly couple who were finding the descent a total breeze. Clearly, I still want to be the scree-dashing, nimble person – and in some ways that is very important since it is precisely this desire that makes me work hard at recovery and attempt to get up mountains in the first place. But things get tricky when the impulse to succeed comes up against not just an uncooperative body, but the most stupid and unpleasant aspects of one’s own psyche. I will be honest and say that, though I got up and down it in the end, Errigal very nearly did for me. As well as encountering my physical limitations, I think I met the limits of my own hubris in Donegal.