My birthday had been compromised by the Covid situation. Pampering and partying were no longer an option, so I had to come up with a plan B. For some strange reason I came up with the idea to climb my first ever mountain. Replacing pleasure with pain and celebrating with a challenge seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m still not sure why!!
Unfortunately for me, I made the mistake of sharing this idiotic idea with my partner who got very excited and immediately went in search of his map. Before he met me, Lionel had a passion for hillwalking that I unfortunately didn’t share. I struggled to walk up a flight of stairs, let alone a big rock formation. I watched and listened as he pointed to a lot of wiggly lines and large numbers that I discovered were the inclines and altitudes of the monumental monstrosities that I had stupidly suggested climbing.
The numbers ranged from 354 to 850, they weren’t just big, they were huge!! This was insanity. I would never make it. I don’t know why I’d ever come up with the crazy idea. Maybe I’d been drunk. Or had a fever. Oh no! I quickly ran to get a thermometer and check. All was normal. In the meantime, Lionel had dug out his walking boots and was brushing off the cobwebs from his Berghaus. I looked at his excited face and realised that I couldn’t let him down.
There was no way round it, my birthday would be spent ascending one of these perilous structures that I’d spent a lifetime avoiding. Friends and ex-boyfriends had tried and failed to get me to join them on hiking expeditions. I’d never seen the attraction. Mountains were cold, desolate, dangerous places. One ex had even suggested camping, which I discovered entailed a tent and not a hotel. There was no plug for a hairdryer and worse, there was no en suite bathroom. Needless to say, that idea and relationship came to an abrupt end.
And now, here I was, preparing to spend my birthday tramping up the side of Hen Mountain, which was one of the smallest peaks in the Mournes. Lionel reassured me, that like its name, it was small in stature and really quite harmless. He was confident that I would have no difficulty in climbing it. I, on the other hand, was not quite so optimistic.
The big day arrived and instead of putting on my glad rags and getting dolled up, I reached for my thermal underwear and the 67 layers that I knew I would need for my expedition. All mountains were cold, windswept places, so I was dressing appropriately.
After taking a wrong turn, Sally the Sat Nav guided us to the car park, which was full. I took that as a sign, that we should turn back and go home but Lionel was having none of it. Cars were parking along the side of the road and a steady stream of walkers were making their way towards Hell Mountain. Now that I had seen it, I thought that a much more appropriate name. There was nothing teeny, tiny about it and it looked downright dangerous!
‘Apparently on a Sunday, a lot of people like to go mountaineering,’ I remarked as I looked at a line of ant-like people marching up to the top.
‘It’s not mountaineering,’ Lionel told me.
‘Yes, it is! The clue is in the name. It’s a mountain and we’re going to ‘eer’ up it.’ Doh!
He shook his head and went to put on his boots. He didn’t argue because clearly, he knew I was right. A young girl got out of the car in front of us wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I mean really! The youth of today, going out half-naked. She was going to catch her death mountaineering in that outfit. Oblivious to the impending pneumonia that awaited her at the top of Hell M, she trotted off in her trainers.
I squeezed my feet into walking boots, that I’d recently purchased for the occasion. Apparently, the mainstream stalwarts of the shoe world have not yet diversified into designing footwear for the foothills. In the absence of a Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo, I had to settle for the prettiest ones I could find in the shop. A light grey pair with pink laces, that looked cute.
I was wearing two pairs of socks and had a spare pair in the rucksack Lionel had lent me, in case my feet got wet and I needed to change. I looked up at the sky. It was bright blue, and the sun was shining. But this was Northern Ireland, rain was never far away.
Families filed past us and there wasn’t a coat in sight! It might be sunny and warm down here but up there was a different story. I had no intention of getting hypothermia, so I pulled on my woolly hat and ignored the strange looks from the passing masses.
‘Right, let’s do this!’
‘That’s the spirt,’ Lionel said and set off at a brisk pace.
I was out of breath less than half-way up the path and had to stop three times. Once through the gate Lionel said we shouldn’t take the same route as everyone else. We should go left and weave our way up the mountain.
‘Is that an easier path?’
He had climbed this beast before, and I was hoping he knew a short cut.
‘Of course, it is,’ he lied and like a lamb to the slaughter, I followed behind him, stopping every five minutes to catch my breath and moan that I’d never make it.
I huffed and puffed my way over the grassy tufts with the help of my walking poles, which were a godsend!! Lionel had got them for me, and I was so grateful! They gave me support, balance and they stopped me from falling flat on my face when I was bent over gasping for breath! This had nothing to do with a complete lack of fitness, it was because the oxygen levels were dropping as we approached the peak. There were times as we got near the top that I thought I was going to pass out, it was that bad!
Thankfully, I spied a great big stone that made a perfect place for me to rest my weary bones. I clambered up and collapsed onto it as I tried to pop my ears that had blocked from the altitude.
‘Are we there yet?’ I whinged as I wheezed.
‘Nearly at the top,’ he assured me, looking down as I lay prostrate on the rock.
I sat up and looked around to see that there was still a long way to go.
‘No!’ I cried, when I realised that he had told me another big, fat lie.
My wailing spooked one of the sheep who’d been happily grazing on the grass below me, the other one who hadn’t stopped chewing since I’d collapsed in front of him, continued to munch away, unperturbed by my outburst. I’m saying ‘he’, but it could’ve been a ‘she’, I’m no sheep expert. After a rest, I girded my loins and carried on with the ascent.
Finally, the ground plateaued out. I’d made it!
‘Yes! We’re at the top!’ I could’ve danced for joy; except I had no energy left.
I was ecstatic. I’d done it. I’d conquered a mountain.
‘Not quite,’ Lionel burst my bubble and pointed up. ‘That’s the top.’
I looked over at the rocky tor and wanted to burst into tears! There wasn’t just one but two tors that marked the summit. People stood on top of both of them and more waited at the bottom of each. It was like Piccadilly Circus! Lionel suggested we find another nice stone and wait until it got less crowded. A very good idea!
It was the perfect opportunity to take some photos. I had wanted to bring my Sony camera with me, and I would’ve loved to have had the opportunity to do some photography, but I was worried both by the extra weight it would mean to carry it and also, if I fell, it would be bye-bye camera. So, instead, I brought my Polaroid, that I’d had since I was little girl. It was a birthday present from my dad, and I remember taking it with me on a family holiday to Switzerland. One of the first photos I took was on top of Mount Pilatus and now, the first photo I was going to take, years later, was on top of another mountain. And this one, I’d actually climbed!
I wasn’t even sure the camera still worked. I tentatively pressed the button, out popped the Polaroid and after an anxious wait, it was a joy to see the image develop. It brought back so many memories and now I was making a new memory.
I took a moment to take in the beautiful views, looking out over rolling green fields and other mountains in the Mournes that were still to be conquered. It was then, that I decided, that was what I wanted to do. The sense of pride and achievement that this first birthday peak challenge had given me was inspiring me to continue on. Yes, I was going to ‘eer’ up other mountains but first, I had to get to the official top of this one.
It was still busy with climbers wanting to reach the summit and the top was packed with people taking photos. The short walk up was steep, which I managed fine but then I turned round and panic set in. I felt like I was going to fall! Grass had given way to stone and not only did I think I was going to fall; I was also convinced that I was going to slip. It didn’t matter that young children were gambolling up and down it, like newborn lambs, or that men, with babies strapped to their backs were effortlessly advancing up and then down the steep, stony peak. I was going to fall!!!
‘I’m going to die on this mountain!’ I silently screamed.
‘Are you okay?’ Lionel realised something was wrong.
The colour had drained from my face, my eyes were wide with fright and my feet were frozen to the spot. However, my pride was still intact, and I did not want to cry like a baby, in front of everyone who was pushing past to get a selfie at summit. Taking baby steps, Lionel guided me back to terra firma. The good news was, I had survived both the climb and the descent, the bad news was, I discovered en route that I had vertigo. This could put pay to my dreams of climbing any more mountains in the Mournes.
I tried not to think about that, as we began our descent. To avoid the mountaineering masses, we decided to go round the back of the mountain. I thought coming down would be a doddle, but it was a lot more tiring on muscles that I’d clearly never used before and which were now turning to jelly as I tramped over the grass and through the mud. Even though it was a warm, dry day, there were still boggy bits, and I was thankful for my boots.
When we reached the path again, all that was left, was a leisurely walk back to the car. We went to sit at a picnic table and celebrated my first climb with a glass of Prosecco, that Lionel had brought because it was my birthday.
‘I think I should have a glass of Prosecco after every peak,’ I said, sipping my drink under the shade of a tree.
‘So, there’s going to be more?’ Lionel looked pleased by the prospect.
I took the Polaroid out of my pocket and looked at the grainy black and white photo, proof that I’d scaled my first peak. I might’ve clambered and crawled, rather than climbed Hen Mountain but I felt proud that I had achieved my goal. And I did struggle for breath on the way up but the view from the top, took my breath away.
‘Yes, there’s definitely going to be more peaks and more Polaroids.’
‘Here’s to peaks and Polaroids,’ Lionel toasted.
‘And Prosecco,’ I said, raising my glass.
So, that is how my blog, ‘Peaks, Polaroids and Prosecco’ came to be.
I hope you’ll join me again soon for my next mountaineering adventure!
Prosecco: 2 (glasses, not bottles!)
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