Letterfrack: The Horseshoe

Funny how things can go.

As far as I’m concerned, I was mostly right about Galway’s skin-deep friendliness. It took me a disgracefully long time to get a ride when hitch-hiking to Clifden. In the end I was picked up by a woman who had to be near there, and was so kind to take the scenic route despite being in a hurry. By pure coincidence she dropped me off here in Letterfrack, where I wanted to go in the first place, but planning a night in Clifden because I didn’t think I would make it in one go. So instead of hitch-hiking further, I turned my back to check on the local youth hostel, the old monastery, where I had a bed reserved the next day.

First of all, let me try and describe this place. Where Galway was clean and crowded, this place seems about as random as the man who runs it on his own. This man could be John Cleese himself, in fact I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t him. Pictures will be posted when I get on a computer fabricated this decade, but here’s the gist:
The front is covered in cozyness, lacking a better word. Random objects, from deer antlers to christmas lights, are all over the place. The inside gives a less chaotic, but nonetheless surreal feel. The bathroom tops it all effortlessly. There is a German opera radio station always playing softly, and illumination is provided by strings of twinkling blue lights. The shower stalls in particular actually made me laugh. They are build out of rough concrete, the walls covered in see-though plastic plates. behind which more of the same light shimmer as though you just ended up in something between a clear night sky and a whorehouse.

The first night I was here all by myself, at least that’s what I assumed. The manager/cleaning crew/housecleaning had gone some place else, and I had dozed off with a book on the second world war’s political aftermath (politics have that effect on me) in front of the fireplace. I had wished I could at leat have someone to have a decent conversation with (and an evening of flirtation and a night of boundless sexual exploration if it’s not too much to ask) but as I woke with a start, I got way more than I bargained for.

Kids came in screaming and swearing, 7 of them and no older than 15, flopping down on the couch in front of me and babbling something about some horseshoe in a dialect I could hardly make out. I instantly grew an everlasting grudge against the parents and a rather soothing urge to strangle each one of those instruments of noise.

Not long after they were gone and I was joined by three adults, whom I presumed were the parents. During the conversation that lasted all evening I learned that the kids were in fact not theirs, and they were working for a government program that put troubled youngsters through an "endurance" program. The next day they would go through their final test, the Horseshoe.

There are actually two of those in Connemara, laying side by side and in that way making a sort of S shape, 12 mountains in total and thus called The 12 Pins. The path they would take, or improvise really, did 7 of those and could take up to 12 hours, putting these kids to the ultimate test. I was quite amazed to hear this, of course. The kids had gone through a 3 month training but even then, pulling this off would be a remarkable feat. It was only logic that I, with zero training and hopelessly underequipped, agreed to come with after about 2 minutes of hesitation when I was aked.  Almost instantly I had forged a bond with these kids that I will probably have with no one else.


I came to Connemara looking for a challenge. I bought a file of different walking routes and picked out the most difficult ones, but after doing one upon arrival in half the estimated time, I had given up on it. The view is absolutely breath taking and the walks quite exhausting, but I actually had to stray from the paths and go up in a straight line to make it actually hard on myself. The good part about being on your own is that no one thinks you’re trying to prove something when you want to go and do stupid things like this.

So after being told that this route has simply broken many an adventurer in half, I didn’t want to miss it. The person responsible tried to describe to me that there would be cliffs on either side and no way to go back, but I didn’t want to hear it. Going back was never an option to begin with. I wanted to be pushed to the edge so I would at least know where to find it.

As predicted, the weather had changed drastically overnight. The cold sunshine we had before was now a wamer rain front with strong winds. The kids were iddued professional rain gear and hiking boots, a rucksack with protective cover and all that shit. I had to make with my vest and fleece underneath, 2 year old walking shoes (not to be mistaken for hiking boots) and pants that I got in a hurry at H&M before flying over. Oh and a hip bag. When asked where my equipment was, I shrugged and said "I like to travel light".

The kids were, after all, quite enjoyable once I got to their level. Many of them were actually quite smart, they just have… a different way of expressing themselves. More than once our mutual greeting consisted of little more than,

"Hey, Dickhead."

– "Cock sucker."

I quickly started enjoying this, as for once people weren’t in utter shock at the language that I sometimes spew.


Anyhow. We drove to the foot of the range with a minibus, and went from there. The initial ascent to the first peak was already a killer, a 30 degree climb that just seemed to go on forever, into the low hanging clouds. Before halfway my shoes had filled up with water and my pants were soaked, my vest and sweater luckily doing a better job at keeping me warm. The kids were already nagging and asking to go back, despite having done much harder things in the recent past. The weather mostly was a bitch. As we neared the top, I had to put away my nifty rain hat, lest it would go flying. But yeh, we made it up, only to be submitted to the worst kind of weather I have ever experienced. Even the adults, who had done this track plenty of times, said that this is the worst they have ever had. The rain wasn’t all that bad and it was 8 degrees Celcius, but the wind just tore you off the mountain. At one time I reached a peak as the first and upon turning back to check on the others, I was hit with a gust of wind that literally made me clamp down on the rock not to get blown off right off the ledge. I kept signalling that it was a Very bad idea to bring the others up, some of which were quite a bit lighter than me, but the guide just kind of nodded, "Yes way" and lead us all on there. More than once I had to grab on of the smaller ones by the backpack to keep them from getting blown over.

After about 2/3rds of the trip, the guide decided that it was enough. We were all completely exhausted, soaked to the bone, and had gone through very dangerous situations more than once. Though lighter packed than the others, I too was having problems of my own. The profile under my shoes has mostly worn off, and I kept on slipping. They aren’t waterproof, and my efforts towards keeping my feet dry with jumping and going around puddles, wasted a lot of energy.
The guide (One of the responsible adults, that is) Went on ahead to get the minibus to where we would hit the road on our way down, and without second throught I marched after him, along with one of the youth.

What followed is kind of hard to descibe. Almost running down the slick edge of the mountain (slipping and tumbling in my case) we ended up un the very center of the horseshoe, and it took me a little while to realize that we had ended up smack in one of Ireland’s infamous bogs. It was nothing like anything I had ever seen before. It was not quite a swamp, as the turf is quite solid, but with each step you didn’t know if you were going to hit solid ground, slip on your face, or sink knee deep in a hidden stream. Looking around, I found myself in the middle of this gigantic marsh, completely surrounded by mountains, of which I could only see the base before they disapeared into the clouds, as though we were completely cut off from whatever was beyond. I had to smile at the Lord of the Rings-esque feeling I got as the three of us were moving on at a murderous pace. The guy’s got skill, I’ll tell you that.

The three of us made it to the van, aching, shuddering and cursing. Since I had no dry clothes on me, the ride home was utter hell. Looking back now, I still believe I would have walked it to the end, but in that weather the question would remain how I would end up today. Right now, my legs are bruised, my hand hurts for some odd reason, and I ache in places previously unknown to me. But it was so worth it.


All this made me realize something. The whole point of this journey was to give these young people a new chance, to show that they could do anything if they set their mind to it. And it certainly had that effect on me. Although I didn’t reach the end of my potential as I never broke down as I expected to, I did get to dig in it quite deeply.

I hate to blow my own horn (Lies!) but I am rather proud of wthat I did. At a certain moment, I looked to my side and saw my shadow projected onto the next mountain. It was puny and while the mountain had been there for millions of years, it would last no longer than a few seconds. But it was there, and so was I. What happened isn’t just some play of my memory, or a story that I cooked up to pretend. The things I did in my life aren’t just mere memories, they are who I am and I could do it all again if I felt like it. While I had come to believe that it was all  behind me and there was so little left, I showed myself that the potential is still vastly available and I, probably sounding very egocentric right now, can do shit few others can. Not because I am physically fit, as much as mentally capable. Doing this gave me a whole new surge of a specific kind of confidence, and perhaps that is exactly what I should have startd with. Time will tell.


NEXT UP is Westmore, with Mr. Hippy. The other guy has the flu (Sucker) so the path is clear. Thank god this place has internet, so I get to arrange things for the near future. One less thing on my mind.

After that I will (hopefully) be staying with one of the Tara Hill protestors who lives here in a place called Roosky. Looking forward to seeing him and his dog again.

Then it’s off to Ballina to stay with another couch surfing address, where they seem to have a profound hate for things called ‘Moy’ (Insider joke har har).


The best is yet to come!


Also, who do I hate to eat out to get a toothpick around here? No seriously. I mean it, bend over, let me get on my knees. Opportunity people, doesn’t it mean anything, in this place?


2 responses

  1. Femke

    Hey Maarten. Leuk om je avonturen te lezen :-) keep us updated.Knuff

    14 January 2009 at 14:40

  2. Pingback: Catch « Vermin's Nest

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