Ulster 1997 - Cuilcagh

Ulster MPC - Cuilcagh Mountains, Cos. Cavan/Fermanagh
17 - 19 October 1997

Sheet 26 (Lough Allen) Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Scale 1:50,000 Magnetic Variation 8 degrees

Cuilcagh (665m/2188ft) presides over south Fermanagh, sharing the county and international border with north-west Cavan. Its long ridge is easily identifiable on the skyline on the approaches to Enniskillen, from where it has an implacable presence 19km/12 miles southwest of the town. There is no higher ground between the summit of Cuilcagh and the Mourne Mountains. All of the Fermanagh lakelands lie northwards, including Upper Lough Erne and its islands. The limestone hills along Cuilcagh's northern foot are known as 'reef-knolls' and are thought to have been formed from shell banks in the seas of the Carboniferous era over 300 million years ago. Clear weather reveals all the northwest's landmarks, from Slieve League to Muckish, over 100km/60 miles away. Southwards, the scarped edge diminishes towards the Bellavally Gap (our starting point), which is backed by the Iron Mountains east of Lough Allen. Cavan is something of a lakeland labyrinth, boasting, it is claimed, 365 lakes with some of the finest fishing in the country. Its other noticeable geographical feature are the drumlins - small hills of boulder clay dumped as the last great ice age melted 13,000 years ago. A natural barrier of these hills runs in a swathe some 48km/30 miles wide from the Irish Sea in the east to the Atlantic rollers of the west, separating the nine counties of Ulster from the rest of the island.

Directions to start: If travelling from Dublin (160km/100 miles), take the N3 to Cavan via Navan, Kells and Virginia. For anyone travelling via Cavan, take the N3 northwards (following signposts for Enniskillen) through Butlersbridge, Belturbet Ballyconnell and Bawnboy. From Bawnboy, follow signposts for Glengevlin. Turn left at Derrynacreeve (H185 229) onto the R200 for Sligo and right almost immediately. A little more than 2km/1.25 miles after Blackrocks Cross, there is a track on the right into the forest at Bellavally Gap H120 245. There is limited car-parking available here at the road, in another lay-by further down the road and up the forest track. Be warned, the track is rocky and uneven from overuse by forestry machinery - best to off-load scouts and equipment at the road before travelling up the track to park. If travelling via Enniskillen, take the A32/R202 to the junction at Derrynacreeve (4.5km/2.8 miles south of Swanlinbar at 185 229). Turn right at Derrynacreeve onto the R200 for Sligo and right again almost immediately. Turn off after Blackrocks Cross as above.

Friday, October 17th
Bellavally Gap (380m) H120 245 to Base camp, forest clearing H122 256 Take care on Friday night as the forestry in the area is no longer as mapped. This can be confusing in daylight, not to mention in darkness after travelling a long distance... After parking your car and checking out, walk back along the road to the forest edge at H121 245. Cross the gate here on the hinged side (leaving things exactly as you found them) and walk up the track, keeping the fence on your left. You will come to a corner in the fence at H121 253 - leave the fence here and take a bearing for H122 254. Follow the cliff edge to its eastern end at H122 255 and descend into the forest. Camping is available in the clearing at H122 256.

Note - The route on Friday night will be staffed and marked with flags and lights as this area (especially the cliffs around spot height 539) can be tricky in darkness or in the mist which is quite common this time of the year.
It is advisable to fill your water bottles in the stream that runs on your left hand side as you walk in. (Above the remains of the small quarry is best). There is no reasonable water supply at base camp, so make sure to bring all you will need for Friday night and Saturday morning. Streams have a habit of appearing and disappearing depending on the weather and the underlying limestone.

Saturday, October 18th
Basecamp (H122 256) to Spot Height 539m at H121 254
You will be given a team number and a start time - you should not leave before then. From base camp, ascend the steep ground to 539m. Take your time to find your rhythm and don't rush this, the first steep climb of the day. Take time also to admire Cuilcagh which you will climb later in the day.
Spot Height 539m to col (500m) H115 260 Drop down a little from 539m to the col. There is no definite feature to aim for so good navigation is important. If your navigation is up to scratch, you should find the source of the stream in the col at H115 259! Weather permitting, you will be able to see the cars parked in the Gap below you and across to Benbrack (502m).

Col to beginning of cliff (560m) H115 271 >From the col, head uphill in a northerly direction for 1km to the start of the cliff which forms this side of Cuilcagh. After about 500m you will pass a small brackish lake down the steep ground to your right. Beginning of cliff to Cuilcagh (665m) H123 280 Take care not to let your path take you below the cliff, leaving you with steep, dangerous ground to ascend. Climbing all the time, you will pass above a second small lake which is not marked on your map. Cuilcagh is topped with a large cairn which is itself topped with the OS pillar. Cuilcagh to Cuilcagh Gap H099 296 As you move along the crest above Lough Atona, beware of fissures in the rock, some of which are very deep and open into "caverns measureless to man". This hidden underworld is of the same type as the Marble Arch Caves which are open to the public. The entire area was first explored by a Frenchman, E. A. Martel, 100 years ago in 1897, while Gareth Jones has documented the system in The Caves of Fermanagh and Cavan. Cuilcagh Gap is the obvious bite out of the ridge where large blocks of sandstone have fallen away. The fence here is the only evidence of the county and international boundary which runs along Cuilcagh ridge.

Cuilcagh Gap to Tiltilbane (573m) H092 299 >From here the moorland stretches away towards Tiltinbane. Ground conditions can frequently be wet, making the going somewhat heavy. A small cairn beside a rocky hollow on the Fermanagh side of the ridge marks the summit of Tiltinbane. You have now travelled 3.5km from end to end of the Cuilcagh ridge. The stream rising on the northern slopes of Tiltinbane is the newly discovered source of the 402km/250 mile-long River Shannon (not at H050 320 as originally thought!). The river takes its name from Sionna, grand-daughter of Lir, the god of the seas.

Tiltinbane to 500m contour line (beneath Cuilcagh Gap) H099 297 Drop off from Tiltinbane in a northeasterly direction. Take care on the steep ground descending immediatly from Tiltinbane and remember that 90% of accidents happen on the way down when you're tired and losing concentration. Take care also not to lose too much height, contouring around beneath Cuilcagh Gap. Once again, there is no definite feature to aim for so good navigation may be required to find the checkpoint.

Beneath Cuilcagh Gap to High Camp, Lough Atona H110 291 Continue from beneath the Gap to High Camp at Lough Atona. Remember to check in with the staff here before pitching for the night. You are free to ramble among the rock formations around Lough Atona but please don't attempt to climb. Look out for hidden holes in the ground too as you can easily twist an ankle or worse...

Sunday, October 19th When your site has been inspected, check out of the campsite and ascend to the cliff end at H113 287. Cross the Cuilcagh ridge here and take a line down the ridge for the track end at H102 268. Check out here - transport will be available to take your driver back to collect the car at Bellavally Gap.