Surprising Ireland – hidden nooks in Sligo

Ireland is full of legends and tales of fairies, pixies, and all manner of magical little people.  Co. Sligo is no exception.  Benbulbin is a striking rock formation that lies to the north of Sligo town, that majestically lines the valley that the N16 follows from Manorhamilton.  Waterfalls pour off the plateau into the Glencar Lough below and on this particular day the hilltops were covered in light dusting of snow.

Love stories of a bewitched woman, and jealous lover form the origins of the naming of the cave to which attracted our whimsical planning.  A mere 400m from the road it seemed a reasonable place to explore.  Unfortunately those 400m are a near vertical scramble on grass and rockfall and, unfortunately on this day, snow.  Feeling brave, and probably rather foolhardy, we set off from the old schoolhouse that lies in ruins at the zenith of the Gleniff Horseshoe drive, where yet another waterfall flows nearby.  The first 200m were a little boggy and rose reasonably steeply to the bottom of the main ascent, over the rise of a small mound.  Zig zagging up the snow covered grass, on what was now very steep terrain, we choose to aim to the left of a small bluff at the foot of the main rock face and traverse across to the foot of the fixed rope assisted climb onto the final section.  The traverse was covered in about 4cm of snow and it was at this point I was starting to question the wisdom of being up there.  At the foot of the roped section, and it became abundantly clear why it was roped, I peered up an ice covered rock-face with the rotten looking rope firmly encased in the mini frozen waterfall.  Go on, or admit it wasn’t a great idea to keep going, given my adventure buddy’s footwear (regular hiking boots).  I have to admit that I was rather pleased that I was wearing my Scarpa mountaineering boots (Mont Blanc Pro GTX), overkill but never a better time to be breaking them in.  Not one to be deterred easily we soldiered on.  Having freed the rope from it’s icy home with a few precarious yanks, and made sure we both had a secure footing at the bottom, I set off.  Leaning hard towards the grassy slope at the top of the climb, and along the rockfall the lead off to the right, I was seriously questioning the wisdom of what we’d done.  The rocks were loose, covered in snow, the grass was on shallow soil, slippy, and covered in snow.  The decent was not going to be fun, and slow.  It was nearly 3pm.


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The cave entrance was 20-30m wide, and around 10-15m high.  Large boulders lay precariously at the top of course gravel and soil.  The scene was stunning, looking out to the other side of the small valley, and left towards the Atlantic.  Broken icicles lay on the ground, reminding me that helmets would have been a sensible choice… Given the time we didn’t hang around, only to briefly contemplate what we’d achieved (and gotten ourselves into!) and that we still had to get down!  To do that, heels were used to dig footholds for my climbing buddy.  Wary of the risk of setting off a rockfall, it was a slow process, and one half metre slide accompanied by a sudden cessation of my heart / breath hold, we managed to get to the top of the not overly confidence inspiring rope.  Trying not to rely too heavily on it we lowered ourselves back to the relative safety of the traverse ledge.  I’ve never been so glad.  The rest of the decent was easier and uneventful, if not time consuming.

In the fading light, the boggy final few metres was full of thoughts and comments to the effect of “why did we do that?!” and “That was quite the achievement!”.  Looking back, and reading of how a group of climbers had gotten stuck on a similar part of the same traverse in much less severe conditions and had to be rescued, we realised that it was a rather foolhardy objective in such weather.  Thankfully we did great, but I’ll certainly be a little more prepared next time.  It was a great afternoon in a stunning part of Sligo that I’d never taken the time to explore until then.

I’d definitely recommend a trip, although climb into the cave at a more clement time of year… with a helmet… and headlight in addition to the standard first-aid kit… and sturdy boots/approach shoes with some grip.

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