It was late in June of 2010, on Slieve Donard somewhere between the saddle and the summit. The weather was poor, with a strong wind and zero visibility. This, however, was not what was on my mind. I was in trouble. My heart was beating out of my chest. My legs were like jelly, burning at every step. I was unprepared and completely unfit. I had totally underestimated the hike to the summit of Ulster’s highest peak. I was merely about to turn thirty, and I had absolutely no excuse for being in such bad shape.
I grew up half an hour from the Mournes. From my school in Downpatrick I could see the iconic outline of Donard and Commedagh to the south on clear days. Why had it taken me until I was almost thirty before I first hiked up there? This is not only a question I am still unable to answer, but also a regret.
Sheer stubbornness and the fear of embarrassment got me to the summit that day in June of 2010 for my first ever Donard summit. Had the weather been nice that might have been the end of it. I might have been happy to leave the physically horrific experience behind me and never go up there again, but the weather wasn’t nice so I was destined to climb Donard a second time because I had to see the view. A few weeks later, after I turned thirty, I set out again. This time the weather was perfect. I was better prepared mentally, and I surprisingly felt a little better physically. I made the summit and enjoyed a Tuna sandwich in front of the Lesser Cairn while enjoying the breathtaking view looking north, over Newcastle, all the way to Belfast and beyond.
That day, while enjoying my sandwich and the view, something turned in me; a passion, a craving, something I have not since been able to switch off, nor would I want to.
I began ascending Donard on a weekly basis, more often in the summer months. I was working night shift at that time and I would often drive straight to the Mournes after work for a hike to the summit. At that point I developed an obsession with Donard. Sometimes extending to Commedagh also. I think Donard always drew me at the start because it is the highest peak. I knew the route via the Glenn River valley like the back of my hand.
In September of 2011 my hillwalking experience would extend to Ben Nevis with a charity hike with my sister. My training ground for this was of course Slieve Donard. Throughout 2012 and into 2013 my regular ascents of Donard and Commedagh continued. I challenged myself to go up there in the worst of conditions. March 2013 brought some severe snowfall to the Mournes and I was, of course, on the summit of Donard enjoying it.
June that year brought my first ascent of Carrauntoohil, the highest peak in Ireland. In September, along with a very good friend, I took part in another charity event. This time it was the UK 3 Peaks challenge. The challenge is to climb the highest peaks in Scotland (Ben Nevis), England (Scafell Pike), and Wales (Snowdon) – all within 24 hours. A few days after this, and still excited at our recent ascent of all the highest peaks in the UK and Ireland, we climbed Slieve Binnian for the first time.
The death of my father late in 2013 brought me to an almost overwhelming realisation that life is incredibly short and I wanted to do more with mine. I had previously considered other adventures, outside of Ireland. I very quickly had a trip booked to Kilimanjaro for October of 2014. In preparation, in early 2014 I finally broke my obsession with Slieve Donard and began to explore much more of the Mournes. Pretty soon I was familiar with everything east of the Moyad Road and increasingly familiar with every inch of all the high peaks. Spring and summer 2014 would have me disappearing into the Mournes for entire days on long hikes in preparation for the multi day trekking on Kilimanjaro. This included doing the Mourne Sevens for the first time (Climbing all seven of the highest peaks in one day), although not as part of the official challenge. For the first time I invested in some good quality hiking gear, including a new pair of quality boots that I still wear now. Up until that point I had been buying inexpensive boots and continuously replacing them.
After successfully summiting Kilimanjaro I went back to the Mournes with renewed confidence in my own ability. I had some real trekking experience under my belt now. By this stage I had already encouraged and guided quite a few friends to their first Donard summit. I wasn’t finished with multi day trekking and high altitude experience just yet though. 19,341 feet (Kilimanjaro summit) was a little too close to 20,000 feet for me to stop there, and the Himalayas were calling.
An Everest Base Camp trek with an Island Peak climb (20,305 feet) was soon booked for October 2015.
2015 in the Mournes was very similar to 2014 although my training for Island Peak was more intense than it had been for Kilimanjaro the previous year. Weekly I was hiking the Slieve Binnian circular route with my backpack filled with dumbbell weights. That summer I also ascended Lugnaquilla, the highest peak in the province of Leinster.
In preparation, I invested considerably in clothing and hiking gear. The Himalayan trip, and particularly the Island Peak ascent, was going to require some proper quality gear. A new down jacket, merino wool base layers, thermarest, down sleeping bag, new Osprey backpack and new walking trousers were just some of the items I invested in for the trip. All of which are now regularly used in the Mournes.
I successfully trekked to Everest Base Camp and also climbed to the 20,305ft summit of Island Peak in October. When I returned home to the Mournes I was infinitely more experienced, and prepared both physically and mentally. I needed something new to challenge myself…
Part of the gear I bought for the Island Peak trip was a down sleeping bag and a thermarest.
I had used that equipment above 18,000ft on Island Peak in temperatures well below freezing so I knew it was up to scratch. All I needed was a tent for my next adventure. I wanted to camp in the Mournes. I didn’t want to camp in the sheltered valleys or the forests though. That would be too easy. I wanted to camp on the summits of all seven of the sevens, and I was starting in winter. After buying a lightweight, robust tent I began my camping adventure with my first ever Mournes camp in November of 2015, and where better to start than on the summit of Slieve Donard. By summer of 2016 I had camped on the summits of all of the sevens. Most of them several times. I also had quite a few fantastic camps in the valleys. Mostly by myself, but sometimes with my wife or a good friend.
The summer of 2016 was also when I finally took part in and completed the official Mourne Seven Sevens challenge. Finally I had a certificate and I felt like I was a certified Mournes person.
My relationship with the Mournes has developed significantly since that day back in June 2010. I feel like they have tried to deter me so many times with wind, rain, blizzards and exhaustion, but I have persevered and feel greatly rewarded for doing so. Many people like to go to the Mournes in groups, but my time spent there over the years has been mostly solo, both hiking and camping. Hiking and camping solo compared with going with others are two very different experiences, both of which I appreciate for different reasons;
A very good friend of mine sometimes camps with me and I remember one specific night last year, camped right on the summit of Slieve Bearnagh. The conversation was very entertaining and after a couple of camping mugs of wine we imagined what it might be like to have Johnny Cash pull up a camping stool beside us with a guitar and play a few of his greats right there on the summit. A rather bizarre thing to be imagining but very entertaining and a welcome break from the routine of everyday life, the lights of which we could see far below on the clear night.
On the other hand, I remember a specific solo camp on the summit of Slieve Lamagan. The air was almost completely still as the sun was setting over Slieve Meelbeg to the west. It was an absolutely perfect summers night. As I looked around at the silhouetted outlines of the Mournes all around me I thought about the natural processes that formed them. The magma rising up but not quite reaching the earth’s surface then cooling, only to be finally uncovered after millions of years and several ice ages as the sedimentary rock on top was eroded away. The Mournes were here for millions of years before I was and will probably be here for millions of years after I am long gone. I find that quite a humbling thought, just how insignificant we are. When in the Mournes by myself, like that night on Slieve Lamagan I feel lucky that I have at least been able to enjoy the Mournes for an infinitely brief time in their history. I am not religious in any way, quite the opposite in fact, but I am most certainly in awe of the world around us and the natural processes which formed it as we understand them through science. For me, time spent solo in the Mournes, especially camping, is a very personal experience.