Climbing Trad Wicklow Mountains

St Kevin’s Traverse in Glendalough

I was weirdly nervous at the thought of doing St Kevin’s Traverse in Glendalough, but it wasn’t the difficulty of the problem that worried me – I had chosen this adventure as a gentle start to the climbing year. The day is basically a short hike with very small sections of roped exposure that various sources describe as anywhere between scrambling and V-diff climbing. No, what worried me was the lack of any available route description and my relative inexperience of route finding in a new place. With the “Beast from the East” storm on the way, this would be our only opportunity for a while to get out and it was the perfect opportunity to give it a go.

After some reassurance from the Irish Climbers Facebook page (basically, saying that route finding is easy) Amy and I arrived at the Glenadalough car park alongside coach loads of tourists, in bright sunshine and feeling excited to be back out climbing. Here we met up with friends from Club Cualann, our mountaineering club. With their help it would be much easier to find the way round. Also, being in a group makes standing around in the cold at the belay points much less miserable.

We needed to cross the river to start the traverse and decided that the Miners’ Village was the safest place to do this, so we set off down the main tourist path to get there. There have been fatalities in the past involving people trying to cross the delta-like sandbank, but further up the stream is narrow and shallow enough to not trouble even the ankles. After crossing the river we found a much narrower path that we followed along the lake edge, through a pleasant woodland filled with the chatter of long-tailed tits.

The first obstacle is a large cliff that is traditionally avoided (according to a few comments online) by wading through the lake. We didn’t really fancy being cold and wet for the rest of the day so instead we climbed around the corner using handholds on an overhanging tree and footholds on the cliff edge to avoid touching the water. Once back on a path, it was a short walk from here along the shoreline to Temple-na-Skellig, the remains of a 12th century church with a single grave stone standing outside. Here we were joined by a couple of confused-looking wild goats that weren’t sure why people were on their side of the water.

This is a really remote location for a place of worship, with the only access route being to hike in and then use a boat, or to scramble around as we had. It must have been used by people a long time ago there to seek religious solitude; it’s funny to think of people going to wild places to impress a God rather than to take photos just to impress strangers on Instagram. We stopped here for a quick lunch before setting out on the first section of climbing, which is basically 2-3 moves followed by a committing step outwards and a simple traverse around a corner.

We split up, with me leading with Amy as the second group. As usual, I brought too much gear: I had my full rack with me which was not needed at all. There were no real gear placements on the route, instead we had to use rusty-looking pitons hammered into the rock, which must have been there for a long time. My hands were cold and numb and I missed having sensitive climbing shoes that allow me to feel for holds with my toes. Instead, I had to trust my foot placement in hiking boots. Despite the slightly dodgy protection, It was nice to be back climbing outdoors.

After another short walk there was second section of climbing. An unprotected scramble (maybe diff grade climbing?) up to a gap in the rock which, being so focused on the climbing, I didn’t realise was St Kevin’s cave. St Kevin was a 6th century saint who slept in another cave (St Kevin’s Bed), below this one, which was first hollowed out as a tomb in the bronze age. The legend is that he was lead to the cave by an angel before being approached by a lusting young lady, who tried to drive him to temptation. Being a holy man, he refused all her offers, eventually throwing her into the icy lake below for her sins.

Thankfully, no one threw me into the icy lake water and we were able to safely traverse out of the cave and then back onto a path, only missing out on peeking into St Kevin’s bed by our own ignorance of where we were. There was, unfortunately, graffiti all over the walls which included the name “A. Scott”, chiselled deeply into the rock with the date 1877 below. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was the guy who placed the bloody pitons that we were trusting with our lives – they certainly looked old enough!

From here only one obstacle remained: an awkward one-move mantel over an exposed drop, and then we were back at the carpark. The route is as described; the sections of climbing are too small to call this a climbing trip but contain too much climbing to call it scrambling. You could also do the whole trip the opposite way around with a rope, abseiling down the challschmaling sections and avoiding the climbing all together (depending on how much you trust the pitons). Whichever direction you choose, the traverse makes for a really fun day out and is a much more tranquil way to see Glendalough: away from the tourists, and with the added bonus of a bit of climbing, a hidden church and cave.

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