On the brow of Brandon is mist, and rest
from the racing sky:
the rollers break upon Brandon,
Brandon the blessed,
and the seagulls cry.– Geoffrey Winthrop Young
Mount Brandon (952m/3,123ft) or Cnoc Bréanainn is one of my favourite Irish summits. It is the highest point outside the chain of peaks that dominate the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and one of the finest mountains in Ireland. There is an unearthly quality, both powerful and uplifting, to be experienced on its lofty heights. Being so close to the sea, it is common for this mountain to ‘wear its cap’ on most days. But when it’s clear, the views from its summit are unparalleled, an irresistible cocktail of mountains and the sea with a charm that will inexorably draw you back.
This is as elevated and as close to the sea as you’ll get down in Ireland’s southwest; nothing restricts your line of vision making it a special place, especially at dusk when the sun dips below the horizon out to the Atlantic. It must have inspired St Brendan or ‘Brendan the Navigator’ as he was known in these parts, an important figure in early Christian times whom the mountain was named after.
Start and Finish
This walk is approximately 9km (6 miles) out-and-back so you’ll start and finish by the cul-de-sac (Grid Reference Q 494 120) at Faha, a townland in the foothills of Cloghane. There are places for several cars here but plan to arrive early, especially at weekends or public holidays, when it might get busy.
Into The Amphitheatre
The trailhead is signposted by a yellow ‘walking person’ symbol and leads up to a grotto. The trail crosses some stiles, gates and finally a gap in the fence that provides access to the hillside. The path is now marked by white metal posts and snakes it way uphill to a point just below the Faha ridge, the site of several aircraft crashes in the 1940’s. One aircraft, the Condor, belly-landed on top of the ridge in 1940: four crew members suffered broken limbs while two emerged unscathed. Another aircraft, carrying six Polish squadron members, involved in hunting U-boats, crashed and exploded on the slopes of Brandon Mountain in 1943.
The path takes a huge dogleg under the slopes of the Faha ridge and after passing the last white marker post keep an eye for splashes of yellow paint dabbed on rock for the way forward. Later, as the mountain path veers northwest, you’ll enter a boulder-strewn landscape before passing under sandstone crags of the mighty Faha ridge which now towers above. Another even more impressive view soon appears in the glacial-shaped valley to the left: you’ll see a string of lakes under the steep eastern side of Brandon Mountain. These are strung together like rosary beads and aptly named Paternoster Lakes – the largest of which is Loch Cruite ‘harp lake’, followed by Loch Nalacken ‘duck lake’, and a group of smaller ones – all nestled in rocky shelves.
Gateway To The Top
Yellow trail markers on rock now leads you into a boulder-strewn amphitheatre surrounded by sheer rocky walls and scree slopes that was carved a millennia ago during the Ice Age. This is a really stunning part of the mountainside, somewhere you might want to linger for a bit to soak in the atmosphere and take it all in. There’s a small tarn that the path meanders by before it arrives at the bottom of a headwall (Grid Reference Q 462 118). Turn right here and go up a very steep (the use of hands may be required) but straightforward gully that serves as a ‘gateway’ to the ridgetop.
Between Sea And Sky
All difficulties end when you top out. Now you’re on the ridgetop, somewhere between the sea and the sky, with only a moderate slope separating you from the summit of Mount Brandon. Turn left now and follow the obvious ridgetop path until you reach the summit. There’s a cairn, trig pillar and a cross on a pile of rock. It is also said that the remains of St Brendan’s oratory and a holy well was once here.
The summit decorations will only steal you a momentary glance but your eyes will now be drawn to the majestic surrounds. You’ll feel like you’re in heaven, for this is the mother of all mountain panoramas in Ireland. Brandon Bay curves into a cluster of hills in the distance, its stature beaten only by the razor-sharp tail-end of the Faha Ridge that soars up to Brandon’s elevated heights. Then to the west there’s the intricate Dingle coastline stretching from Smerwick Harbour to The Three Sisters, dotted by offshore islands that includes the Great Blasket. Finally to the southeast, cast your eye along the Brandon ridge itself which extends like an elongated prehistoric creature with sharp, angular fins. Reserve this for a clear day and you’ll not want to leave, it’s that good.
The summit of Mount Brandon is just over 800m (2625 feet) higher than the start at Faha. Due to its proximity to the Atlantic, high winds and low cloud are common. It is not advisable to attempt this route in strong winds or gales. Its eastern flanks are incredibly steep so stay well away from cliff-edges while up on the ridge. The route’s an out-and-back, making navigation a case of retracing your steps but despite this bring a map and compass (and know how to use it). If you find that the ‘gateway’ gully that leads to the ridgetop is too steep to reverse your steps for the descent, do not attempt it. Wear good hiking trousers (no jeans) and even in the summer, bring along a warm hat and gloves. Also make sure you pack an extra fleece layer and waterproofs just in case it rains. You’ll need good boots to do this hike, ideally 3-4 season ones with good ankle support. Carry a headtorch, a packed lunch and sufficient liquids to drink. Bring along a fully charged mobile phone and if you have to call for Mountain Rescue ring 999 or 112. In winter, under snow and ice conditions, this route becomes a serious mountaineering venture requiring the use of crampons and ice-axes.
Forecasting the weather
The temperature at the summit can be up to 8°C colder than at the start, and colder still if you add any wind-chill. The Kerry weather is influenced by changeable Atlantic weather systems, so check the forecast on the morning of your walk and be equipped for all conditions. Forecasting the weather is a bit of a specialist subject for me. I’ve come up with the knack of getting the forecast nailed over the years – as a photographer who climbs I need the conditions spot on to come away with the best images. My advice is to use yr.no – use the website not the App and always look at the latest update. Look up ‘Brandon Mountain’ there and dive into the detailed, hour-by-hour forecast – this gives you all the important information like cloud cover, the wind-chill factor, precipitation and wind speeds. Apart from yr.no, the met.ie Rainfall Radar and Atlantic Charts are also useful.
About The Blogger
Adrian Hendroff is a member of the Outdoor Writers & Photographer’s Guild and a Mountaineering Ireland approved course provider. He is a fully-insured mountain guide and runs regular navigation and Mountain Skills courses. Adrian has written several Irish walking guidebooks for the Collins Press and is a regular contributor to newspaper/magazine features. He also runs outdoor photography workshops. More on Adrian see www.adrianhendroff.com or www.fabulousviewpoints.com