Coming off Tonlagee … at Night

30000 Harvey's Wicklow Mountains Map.
Tonlagee Mountain - 1:30000 Harvey's Wicklow Mountains Map.

It’s hard coming off Tonlagee at the best of times.

Every year, IMRA runs the Circuit of Glenmacnass, a 20km race that takes you up and over 1000 metres of climb, summiting Brockagh, Tonlagee and Scarr on your way. Though the race is consistently run in June when it is broad daylight, even in clear conditions, runners repeatedly come off Tonlagee in the wrong direction.

If there was a clear path from the top to Tonlagee to the Glenmacnass carpark, it would be fine. But there’s not. There is one marked on the map, but it is hard to find under all the heather, and only starts half-way down the mountainside.

Instead, you go down a steep descent to the saddle south of Lough Ouler. That’s if you’ve not already gone completely wrong and started running north towards Stoney Top. From the saddle, all you see is undulating bog and heather sloping down, towards what you hope is Glenmacnass waterfall below. It’s a fast descent to run, so very tempting to just abandon your compass and use your ‘instinct’ to take you in the right direction. It’s also tempting to follow the lad in front, a big risk to take considering he too could be running in the wrong direction.

Bernard Fortune running through Tonlagee heather. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.
Bernard Fortune running through Tonlagee heather during 2006 Circuit of Glenmacnass IMRA Race. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.

That’s why when I suggested running off Tonlagee in the middle of the night, Andrew thought I was a tad mad. I was still thinking about my Wicklow Round start time and was considering an attempt so that I would run from Drumgoff to Wicklow Gap in the dark. If I ran faster than expected, I would find myself on Tonlagee at night. I wanted to therefore check if it was possible to descend Tonlagee in the pitch-black.

It’s amazing how little you can see in the dark. All I could make out was what my head-torch lit up, which turned out to be traditional bog and heather all round. With nothing and no one to follow, it was a pure map and compass job. However, I kept kidding myself every time I found a small track, thinking that this would lead me straight to Glenmacnass. Each time I began to follow these sheep trails, Andrew pulled me back and pointed to his compass. “You’re going the wrong way. You’ll be in the valley and forests around Mall Hill before you know it”.

We followed a bearing of 69 degrees from the saddle. Then, around the 550 metre contour and after about a kilometre of running, we switched to a 76 degree bearing. With pure compass and map readings, we found ourselves by the road and waterfall. It was 2am by the time we got to the car.

It was exhilarating to have made it down in one piece, and amazing to have watched Andrew navigate with such perfection off a difficult mountain. Already he was thinking how fun it would be if in the future the Circuit of Glenmacnass was run at night. Under such conditions, I think he’d be the winner… and the only finisher.

In the end, I decided not to approach Tonlagee at night, but to tackle it during the day. The jury is still out regarding start times for the Wicklow Round, but I’m starting to think that doing Drumgoff-Wicklow Gap at night might be the only way.


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