At 7:15, my thigh began to vibrate as my phone alarm went off, lodged deep down in the sleeping bag I was curled up in.
Eyes still closed, I felt around for it between the folds of the bag and extra layers I had wrapped around my legs for warmth. In a semi-conscious state, my cocoon of warmth felt far more vast than it actually was, like Marry Poppin's magical-bottomless handbag. Finally, after digging through every square inch, I silenced the buzzing.
I took a deep breath of cool morning air, opened my eyes, and took in the oddly-satisfying stiffness that sets in from a night spent outdoors. I knew no one else in the group would be up yet, but I had woken a little early in hopes of catching a brilliant sunrise over the Dingle Peninsula.
The tent was pitched on the very edge of a grassy patch, with the door pointed directly out over the bay we overlooked. Having set up in the dark last night, I wasn't entirely sure of my bearing, but I was hoping the sun would come up directly over the water and in perfect line of sight; that was pending a morning in Ireland with little or no clouds. But in the first few moments of being awake, it looked like no such luck.
Exerting maximum effort, I rolled my eyes in a full three hundred sixty degrees trying to see if I could spot any glimmer of a sun ray streaming through the tent walls. Nothing but a dark grey hue and light breeze. Come onnnn Mother Nature I pleaded.
I'm not getting out of this warm sleeping unless I have to I vowed, so I rolled and wormed my way over to the door to pull the zipper down and have a better look at what the sky conditions were. I was in mental turmoil as I tugged on the zipper: please be clear so I can see the sunrise; please be cloudy so I can go back to sleep. A few quick tugs , the nylon door fell away, and I was left staring at one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen.
I grabbed my camera and was out of my bag in seconds.
Turns out I was not pointed in the direction I thought I was (far from the first time that has ever happened...) and the sun was rising farther to my right than originally expected, behind a ridge of low mountains. But, by the time I poked my head out, it had risen far enough that the rays were starting to shine around the far end of the peninsula and crest the ridge of the mountains. Jets of light in pink, orange and purple tore into the sky and lit up the glassy ocean tide waters with reflections of the landscape.
After getting through the initial shutter-vomit phase, I found myself a nice rock down by the water to sit on and soak in the moment. I was down on the western edge of Kerry to climb Mt. Brandon, Ireland's second tallest peak. I had been told the hostel we were staying at was actually really close to the mountain but I had yet to see it. That is, until I got up to walk back to my tent and was visually smacked in the face. Looking south, right in front of me, was Mount Brandon.
The Kerry Mountains are like mini Tetons; they have no foothills. They just go up. And they go up quite steeply. Mountain Brandon loomed over where I was standing -- all 3,100 feet of it. But, when you're standing at sea-level, 3,100 feet stands pretty tall. The actual prominence of the Grand Teton is only about 7,000 feet, so it was akin to looking up at half the Grand. Not a bad for Ireland.
Our path to the top started out by walking through sheep pasture where there were endless piles of sheep poop, and endless thickets of thorny bramble. A word from the wise, be careful where you place your hand to catch a fall in these mountains. Mine landed right in a bushel of bramble and came away pockmarked and bloody.
The trail wasn't really a trail so much, more of a pick-your-own-adventure and just keep heading in the right general direction. That general direction was circumnavigating this low hill that the pastures stood on. As we worked our way out of the pastures there was a harsh change in landscape. Small boulders and piles of stone suddenly morphed into massive rock cliffs that rose up into two, steep valley walls on either side. It's here that the climb up Mt. Brandon becomes fun.
The two valley walls came together to create a flat, near vertical face that was standing directly in front of us. I had been mentally guesstimating in my head as we hiked that there had to be a some steep elevation gain at some point; we had been getting closer to the summit but not much higher. This was that point.
There was a well defined trail on this portion of the mountain -- a series of switch backs covered in loose rock and cluttered by large boulders that zig-zaged its way up to the summit ridge. And, just to reinforce the stereotype that there are indeed sheep everywhere in Ireland, four or five of them stood atop different ridges monitoring our progress as we hiked. On the way back down, I realized I had become fully acclimatized to the culture when I walked within six feet of one, in the middle of the mountains, and just gave a casual "Hey, sheep," and continued walking.
The final walk up to the summit was a breeze (no pun intended, because it really was breezey) and we were treated to an incredible panoramic view of the southern coastline. Kerry really is a spectacular part of the country, far more rugged and mountainous than I had thought. With the sun cutting through the clouds, it illuminated the rugged slopes in all directions turning them into vibrant reds and browns.
I love hiking for two reasons. 1) The view at the top is something that is earned. Barring some unusual circumstance, no one carries you to the top. And so you are provided with a nice sense of accomplishment when you can look back down at the bottom and say "I got up here on my own two feet". 2) It's one of the great ways to put everything in perspective. Despite standing on the peak of something, physically higher than much of your surrounding area, you feel incredibly small by the vastness that spreads out in all directions. It doesn't matter one's wealth or power, we all look small when standing next to a mountain.
The hike down and rest of the weekend were equally amazing. Sunday morning was another early start but this time to go for a quick dip in the ocean after a night of Halloween celebrations. Safe to say, it was effective. It was by far the coldest water I have ever been in, but yet we still managed to keep a healthy ratio of smiles and laughter to the inescapable scream or curse. We picked the unfortunate time of low tide to do our polar plunge so there was a hundred meters or so of running through chilling water before we reached a point that was deep enough to do a full dunk.
But hey, ya do it for the memories and the story :)