This past weekend, my hiking partner John and I went for our final practise walk in the Mournes. It’s all in preparation for a trek up Ben Nevis on Saturday 17th September to raise funds for the Ulster Cancer Foundation.
Walking in the Mournes has quickly become one of my absolute favourite passtimes. It’s not only the exhilaration of conquering summits and battling against the elements. It’s the incredible names that some of the landmarks have been given: The Bloody Bridge, The Castles (a breathtaking formation of rocks that crowns the back side of Slieve Commedagh), the Brandy Pad, the Hare’s Gap, the Trassey Track. Honestly, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear the place had been invented by J.R.R. Tolkien.
John and I revisited the “Three Peaks” route that we’d tried about a month earlier. That first time round, we’d taken the prescribed route, but ran out of time at the “saddle” between Commedagh and Slieve Donard. We were adamant that wasn’t going to happen again.
So, on Sunday, we parked at the Trassey Car Park and headed into the hills. We ignored Slieve Bearnagh, climbing to the Hare’s Gap and immediately heading up Slieve Commedagh. The weather? Absolutely awful. Within half an hour, the baseball cap I’d been wearing had blown away, deep into a bog where I wasn’t likely to reach it.
Wind conditions were strong enough, and every now and then punctuated by spells of hard rain. Hard, as in having small pebbles thrown at your face. Painful, but perversely fun fighting against that buffeting. We found ourselves in the middle of a thick mist, which made some of the rock formations along the way look pretty eerie!
Tackling Slieve Donard
We ascended Slieve Commedagh fairly quickly. The wind at the top was fierce, and if you stood on top of the wall, brutal gusts would hammer you hard, forcing you to cling to the wooden stile. Slieve Donard was a tougher climb. Where Commedagh’s biggest challenge was boggy pathways, Donard is a steeper ascent. And while the path is mostly stepped, we both found it harder on our legs than the other mountain. Still, perseverance got us to the top.
One of the cool things about walking in the Mournes is the camaraderie between groups of walkers. You get plenty of hearty greetings as you go along, and from time to time a walker will stop alongside you for a chat. We were able to get advice on what type of kit to buy (waterproofs, boots, etc) and one walker whipped out his map to show us exactly what distance we’d covered. Other people happily suggested new routes along the Mournes that we should try out.
After a stop for a snack at the top of Donard, we walked back to the Saddle. We’d decided to avoid climbing Slieve Commedagh again, so we took the Brandy Pad – a path that circumvents the mountain and leads back to the Hare’s Gap. The conditions were horrendous though. The moment we crossed over the wall, we were fighting against awesome gale-force winds. But there’s something amazing about fighting against the wind like that, bracing your body against incredible gusts of wind. Luckily, when we got round the path, the mountains seemed to afford a little bit of shelter.
The Trouble with Bearnagh…
The icing on the cake was Slieve Bearnagh. It’s a different beast entirely – incredibly steep on both sides, it’s a challenging climb even on a dry day. And this was not a dry day! The ascent would have been hard work anyway, but a ferocious wind was pushing us backwards as we climbed. We got to the top in about 35 minutes, resting on a big rock at the summit eating oranges and being battered by wind and rain. Strangely, at that point the weather conditions barely mattered. Even in the midst of sheets of rain falling, it felt transcendent to be on top of that mountain, relaxing.
On the other hand, the descent was an exercise in survival! The terrain is much more fragmented, with loose rocks and earth making it harder to stand. And we were bracing constantly against the wind, leaning back at almost a 45 degree angle. Even through all of that, the wind was actually pushing us along the ground. Despite wearing proper hiking boots, our feet were skidding along the ground, which made walking treacherous. Even at that, we were at the bottom of Slieve Bearnagh within 15 minutes.
Onward to Ben Nevis
So, we take the ferry to Scotland on Friday morning and do the Ben Nevis climb on Saturday. Hopefully by that point the aftermath of Hurricane Katia will have died down a little bit. But it won’t stop us either way!