Saturday, 19 April 2014

Knockboy : the adventure of climbing the highest mountain in Cork for astounding views

Photo: Andy Howell
This view of the cliffs of Caoinkeen shows the wild country around Cork's highest summit

  • Start-point can be reached by car or bicycle, adequate parking
  • Beautiful walk-in up road to Priest's Leap pass, note this is very steep at times
  • No way-markers, initial climb over boggy ground then rocky slope
  • Beautiful Lough Boy half-way up, ideal picnic stop
  • Recommended route up to south of the lake, picking your way over bog and rock
  • A true reward for your effort in a panorama of the south-west, incl. the Reeks
  • A long road climb, following by rough mountain walking, so good fitness needed

 At 706m, Knockboy / Cnoc Bhui ('the yellow hill') is the highest point in County Cork, with its summit sitting astride the border with Kerry around 16km to the north of Bantry. Guides will often point you further west on the Beara peninsula in your search for hills to climb, but I have a soft spot for Knockboy, which guards its secrets closely, sitting in splendid isolation above the mountain pass known as the Priest's Leap Road. It's also a mountain climb that is suitable for those who prefer hill-walking to true mountain-climbing, as there is no need to use your hands (in the sense of scrambling up steep rocky slopes for long stretches). But due to its height, it's still a long walk requiring plenty of energy and effort.

 Whether driving or cycling, if coming from the Bantry / Cork direction, you come out of Bantry towards Glengariff, keep on past the turn for Macroom and Gugan Barra, and at the next deep inlet of the sea, you'll see a turn to the right for Coomhola and Kilgarvan. Cross the bridge before turning right, and in a short while you'll come to a turn to the left for 'The Priest's Leap' (it's the first left you come to). The road you want goes up and to the right, and climbs steadily amongst farms. This road is a long climb, so bear this is mind if cycling (the pass itself is at higher than 470m, that's as high as you can drive or cycle).

 As you leave the last farm behind, the road climbs up into real mountain country, and narrows. You will see below on your left the narrowing valley above which the road will lead you. I recommend that, as the road becomes a one-car width road, you look for somewhere to park on the right. It's better to park as low down the route as possible, because if you meet a car higher up, it means one of you reversing for hundreds of metres, as there are few passing places. I saw a removal van coming over this road once, all I can say is, My God, were they lost!

 Make sure to bring water and some food with you, because it's 1.5km of walking up the road from here to the pass, and another 2.5-3km over the rough mountain to the summit. Walk straight up the road, which gets quite a few walkers in summer, and enjoy the views into the valley on your left, a classic U-shaped glaciated valley, with its fast-flowing river foaming over the rocks.

 There is a final steep push up to the summit of the pass, just below the height on the left called The Priest's Leap (marked with a cross), concerning which there are some highly questionable legends. From the road's summit, in clear weather there can be stunning views to the north-west of the Mountains of Iveragh, particularly the great mountain wall that is the Reeks.

 From the road's highest point, you must strike out to your right across the bog, and bring waterproof boots, and a stick to test the often wet ground (I'd avoid this walk if ground is likely to be very wet. Wait for a dry spell). You are aiming just to the right of the summit of the highest rocky hill you can see across the boggy ground, to your north-east. Take care on this boggy ground, looking ahead to plan a dry route (or otherwise you'll be doubling back on yourself endlessly) and aiming for the point I mentioned. Take care on the steep, rock-strewn ground as you climb the first hill, as it's easy to trip here.

 Once you come over the shoulder of the hill, you'll see Lough Boy in its hollow below, and Knockboy rising beyond, with another 150m in height to be climbed before you reach the summit. Some guide-books recommend passing Lough Boy on the left-hand-side (the north-west) from here, but I would recommend passing the lake to the right-hand side (the south-east side) where the river flows out. In summer, this is a great spot for dragonfly, which love these unpolluted lakes. I find the other route, and other walkers have confirmed this, involves a lot of boggy ground, and crossing and re-crossing a fence.

 The route I've chosen involves crossing the stream flowing out from the lake, and aiming for one of the rib-like ridges running gradually up towards the mountain's summit. Way-markers here would be a great help, but you'll need to pick your own route, avoiding the boggy ground as much as possible between the rocky ridges. Make as much of your way as you can up the dry ridges, and several times you have to cross level, wet ground to get to the next ridge. You have to cross two wet stretches before you reach a great rocky ridge running up diagonally towards the summit (which you can't see till you get there!). Please memorise the whole of your route up, using noticeable landmarks, and even write it down, as this makes descent much easier.

 This great ridge has large patches of bare rock, which make the ascent much easier and more pleasurable, after all the bog! After climbing for a while, you'll see a large outcrop of rock above you, where it seems you can't go any higher. Head up here, and shortly you'll be at the summit with its trig point. The colours up here will amaze you, the light and shade playing over the panorama of Kerry and West Cork. You'll see all of Bantry Bay, the Sheep's Head, the Mizen peninsula, and the inland Shehy mountains. You can see right down the Beara peninsula. In clear weather I've seen the white buildings around Cork airport, on their hill, many kilometres away.

 Return by the same route, taking care on rock and wet ground.

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