I reached for the Oxford English dictionary. It was time to settle this once and for all.
‘A hill is, and I quote, ‘a naturally raised area of land, not as high or craggy as a mountain’, so I’m right, you’re wrong, case closed!’
Having settled the argument, I now had to settle on a peak.
I decided on Slieve Meelbeg, its name in Irish, Sliabh Míol Beag, meant mountain of the little ants.
After having successfully climbed the last six mountains without falling, I felt confident that I could bring my camera with me this time and it wasn’t long before I found my first subject, a sheep with a punk hairdo, who happily posed for me.
We walked up the grassy bank towards the saddle between Slieve Meelmore and Slieve Meelbeg, stopping at the stone shelter on the way up.
From there we crossed over a crumbling stone wall and walked up to the Mourne wall.
Crossing over the stile, we turned right and began our ascent up Slieve Meelbeg.
Sadly, there wasn’t an ant in sight!
At the top, there was a clear view across to Slieve Meelmore and Slieve Bearnagh.
We looked down on Doan.
And Lough Shannagh.
The cairn was on the other side of the wall.
Having enjoyed the spectacular views from the summit, it was time to start our descent.
We followed the path round Slieve Loughshannagh and then crossed back over the Mourne wall.
Our route took us down to Fofanny Dam.
I arrived back at the car, tired but triumphant. Another peak had been scaled, Polaroids had been taken and Prosecco would soon be popped. Yay!
I was so happy to get back to the Mournes after a long lockdown. There had been no peaks due to the pandemic but now, thanks to a hugely successful vaccine rollout, restrictions had eased and mountaineering was back on the menu!
In order to pick my next peak, I decided to consult the oracle that is YouTube. I wanted to see where I was going and see just how difficult the climb would be. I wanted to see the terrain, how many risky river crossings I would have to make in order to get to it, how many rocks were on it and how steep the incline was. I wanted to see with my own two eyes just what I would be facing on my next mountaineering adventure.
So, with the map of the Mournes spread out in front of me, I went in search of my next challenge and by challenge, I meant the easiest mountain I could find to climb. After my last death-defying, descent from Slieve Meelmore, I felt I was in need of something a little less daunting and dangerous.
I first looked for the nearest mountain to a car park. Less walking would be a good thing. I saw that Slieve Loughshannagh was right beside a car park and the little wiggly lines were quite far apart, which meant that it would be a more gradual climb. Perfect! I would start there. I typed in Slieve Loughshannagh and up popped videos posted by other Mourne mountaineers.
This was a great idea! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I decided to watch ‘Walks with Harvey’, a gorgeous little dog who loved to climb mountains. He set off with Bob, his owner, who gave great commentary en route. They were also joined by Holly, a beautiful German Shepherd and I watched as they all walked along a path. An actual path! So far, Lionel had taken me off-piste and path, on both Hen and Cock Mountain and we also spent precious little time on one on Slieve Meelmore too!
‘Lionel,’ I hollered from the kitchen, where I was conducting my invaluable research.
Apparently, thinking that I had met with some untimely accident or that the kitchen was on fire, he came charging in to my Mournes Adventure Strategic Headquarters, or M.A.S.H for short.
‘Sit down,’ I barked orders, like Sherman T. Potter from the hit series with the same name.
‘Look,’ I directed his attention to Harvey, who was now blissfully bounding up the grassy slopes of Slieve Loughshannagh.
‘What am I watching?’
‘You are watching Harvey, Bob and Holly take a walk,’ and I put great emphasis on walk ‘up Slieve Loughshannagh, that apparently by Mournes standards is basically rock free and compared to where you last took me, it literally looks like a walk in the park,’ albeit a 617m uphill walk.
‘Okay, we can do that,’ he said, checking out the map, ‘and we could do Doan too.’
‘Now, hold your horses! One peak will be quite sufficient!’ I don’t know where Lionel thought I was going to get the energy, or stamina to do two huge mountains.
‘Slieve Loughshannagh it is,’ I folded up the map and went to pack my rucksack in preparation.
The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was perfect conditions for me to conquer my next peak. We set off from Ott car park, which Lionel found first time. It was an auspicious start! We walked up a stony path, that gave way to a boggy bit, as predicted by the Mourne’s guide and ‘Walks with Harvey’. A short climb then took us to the Mourne wall, where I met my nemisis, the stile! Fearful I was going to fall, I clung onto the sides for dear life. I’ve never been good with ladders, or bogs, or heights but other than that, I was born to mountaineer!
Buoyed up by blue skies and the fact that I had successfully clambered over the great big wooden contraption, I was confident I could do two peaks! So, channelling my inner Edmund Hillary we set off in the direction of Doan.
Lough Shannagh sparkled in the sunlight.
We followed a clear rocky path that led to the summit of Doan. Unfortunately for me, it also led to a mass of much steeper rocks that stood between me and the peak. If I was to reach the summit, I would have to scramble up the steep incline to the top. This was not fazing any of my fellow mountaineers who gambolled up like mountain goats.
A fear of losing my footing froze me to a spot eleven twelfths of the way up Doan. As I waited for Lionel to scale the summit a gorgeous German Pointer bounded onto the boulder above me. I watched as she bounced fearlessly over every precarious rock in sight. Clearly my canine counterparts didn’t suffer from vertigo. Her owners, who were sure-footed, experienced Mournes walkers told me there were fantastic 360 degree views of the entire mountain range from the summit but today, I would have to settle for the spectacular views, slightly lower down.
I looked back towards Slieve Loughshannagh and Slieve Meebeg. Paths were etched into the parched, dry landscape. Sadly, a few days later, a huge gorse fire was started on Slieve Donard. More than a hundred firefighters battled for three days to put it out. It was tragic loss of fauna and flora, in an area of outstanding natural beauty and it will take years to repair the damage done by the devastating blaze that tore across the mountain.
Annoyed that I hadn’t reached the peak of Doan made me more determined to make it to the top of Slieve Loughshannagh. As other hikers made their way back over the Mourne wall, I braced myself for the burn and breathlessness of yet another ascent, although it was a joy to see a basically rock-free, grassy path to the top. I did have to stop a few times on the way up (about 10!) but I managed to huff and puff my way to the peak! Yay!
And I was rewarded with a stunning view.
A cairn marked the 617m peak and I noticed a small, smooth stone sat near the top. I read the inscription and stood in silence for a moment, moved by the memory of a young man I had never met.
It was so peaceful, so beautiful and we spent time taking in the spectacular views out over the surrounding Mourne mountains before beginning our descent.
On the way back down I was super excited to spot a real life Leprechaun hole in the Mourne wall.
I had learnt this from my YouTube research, Stephen J Reid had said so in his vlog, although I did wonder why these renowned cobblers had diversified into the construction industry. From the scattering of stones in the doorway it was clear they were in the middle of some building work.
Soon we were back at the dreaded stile and I stood aside to let a steady stream of climbers cross before I shambolically stumbled over it.
‘Why couldn’t they put in escalators?’ I engineered a much more suitable alternative as I clambered over.
‘They were going to but the sheep, like the rest of us, preferred a stile.’ I was pretty sure that Lionel was being sarcastic. I hadn’t seen any sheep crossing it but that didn’t mean they didn’t. Maybe if I left a note for the Leprechauns the next time, they could build one for me. Yes, that was a good plan.
‘Congratulations on another peak,’ Lionel toasted, when we arrived home and popped the Prosecco.
‘Thank you,’ I clinked glasses and celebrated not breaking my neck as I crossed the stile and of course, reaching the peak of Slieve Loughshannagh and nearly making it to the top of Doan!
I had one last opportunity pre-Christmas and pre-Covid lockdown to climb Slieve Meelmore because if at first you don’t succeed, you have got to put your walking boots on and try again! Conditions were perfect in the Mournes; there was no rain, no wind, visibility was good and I was confident that, this time, I would conquer another mountain on my ‘Peaks, Polaroids and Prosecco’ challenge.
Sandwiches had been packed and porridge consumed. It had lined the stomachs of Scots for centuries and if it managed to keep them warm in the Highlands, then I was sure it would do the same for me when I climbed the heady heights of my next Mourne Mountain. Plus, they only wore kilts and I was layered to within an inch of my life, with wind and waterproof clothes to keep me toasty warm.
We parked at Meelmore Lodge, which has a coffee shop and toilet facilities. Neither of which they have on any of the mountains. Personally, I think there’s an opening for both.
Lionel and I set off up a path that led us to a stile. It was my first ladder like structure of the day and by the time I set foot on the other side of the wall, I’d lost circulation in my hands. Not a good start!
Already somewhat grumpy because of the side effect of eating a big bowl of oats two days in a row. I turned into a real moaning Minnie when my fingers went numb.
‘I think we should turn back,’ Lionel said.
I didn’t want frostbite or my aforementioned digits to fall off, but I also didn’t want to fail, again! This mountain had defeated me once before, I was determined it wasn’t going to do it a second time, so I ploughed on.
Our route was taking us along the wall at the base of Slieve Meelmore. We were going to ascend from the far side and come back down to the Trassey Track. We squelched through soggy ground and I took my life in my hands, stumbling across rocky river crossings.
‘You should’ve built me a raft,’ I said as Lionel stretched out his hand to help me over.
‘More water comes out of the tap at home,’ he told me, ‘it’s barely a trickle.’
Hmpff! that, was a matter of opinion!
I got a little worried when he stopped to consult his map. Surely to goodness he hadn’t lost another mountain?! He had managed to do that on a previous expedition. As it turned out, he’d just lost the path up it.
Once found, I hauled myself up the grassy incline, stopping every little while to take in oxygen and ask, ‘are we there yet?’
I was struggling and wondered if I’d make it to the saddle, which apparently was the little bit in between Meelmore and Meelbeg. More rocks began to appear the higher up we went. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I was thankful when we finally made it to the Mourne Wall. The view from the other side was glorious. Slieve Bearnagh towered up beside the peak of Slieve Meelmore, light shimmered on Ben Crom Reservoir and Lionel pointed out Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Donard in the distance. I stood admiring the beautiful landscape that made every step of the climb worthwhile.
But we weren’t at the summit yet and as I clambered over more rocks, I was paid a visit by my old friend vertigo. I stopped stepping up and when I went to start again, I couldn’t. I turned around and looked down, which was a bad idea! Fear froze me to the spot. All I could think of was that if I stumbled and fell, I would hit my head and die! Lionel came back to help me and not for the first time, I put my trust in him to pull me up and out of harm’s way.
Thankfully, rocks gave way to grass and a more gradual incline as we approached the summit, following the wall along to the stone tower that marked the peak.
I’d made it! I’d conquered Meelmore (680m) and another peak in the Mourne’s. Prosecco was back on the menu! Sadly, Polaroids weren’t. When I pressed the button, there was a sound, but nothing came out. I’d managed to finally make it to the top and now I wouldn’t have my Polaroid as proof. I was gutted!!
Before we began our descent, we stood for a while, taking in the spectacular views of majestic mountains and incredible vistas out over Newcastle.
Out came the map again and Lionel decided that the best way down was over a landslide of very large rocks! I was convinced that we were never going to make it and that’s when I lost circulation in both my hands. I couldn’t feel my fingers, or move them and complete panic set in.
Horrific images of black dead fingers that would fall off with frostbite flooded my mind as I sure-footedly skipped over stones that had previously scared me. My whole focus was on my fingers, or soon to be lack of them. I wasn’t worried about my footing. The air temperature came up a little south of the wall and thankfully, so did the circulation in my hands.
We kept going down over the familiar stony path that took us back to the Trassey Track and as we walked back to the car, I reflected on my latest mountaineering expedition. Cold, cross and with no circulation, I’d still managed to conquer Meelmore. Yay! I was ready to go home, pop the Prosecco and plan our next peak.
Peaks: A big 680m mountain!
Polaroids: None because as I later found out, the cartridge was empty. Oops!
I had picked my next peak, Slieve Bearnagh. Standing at 739m, it was the third highest mountain in the Mournes. I’d only climbed Hen Mountain and Cock Mountain before but even though they were two of the smallest peaks, added together they were about the same size as Bearnagh, so basically, this would be no problem for an extremely talented mountaineering novice!
I was excited and couldn’t wait for the challenge. Lionel consulted the weather forecast but it was all doom and gloom and gale force winds.
‘Check again,’ I said, five minutes later, hoping that it would change. Weather can do that.
‘It’s still saying 60mph winds on the ridges and summits.’
‘So what day are we going?’ a little bit of wind wasn’t going to deter me.
I was ready to go. I wanted to go. We were going!
I must point out that patience is a virtue I don’t possess.
‘Are you sure you shouldn’t wait?’ Lionel cautioned me.
‘Yes, 100% positive,’ I was uber confident that the windy conditions would not prevent me from continuing on with my ‘Peaks, Polaroids and Prosecco’ challenge and I went to put a bottle of bubbly in fridge.
Tuesday morning was dry, the sun was breaking through the clouds and, in my eyes, perfect mountaineering conditions. We arrived at just after 9 o’clock and there were only a few spaces left in the car park. I was eager to get climbing but first I had to put on my new gaiters.
I had discovered that gaiters didn’t in fact live in the Everglades but on your feet. You wore them over your boots to keep them nice and dry. I zipped them up before stepping out of the car and into howling winds. It will blow over, I told myself as I strapped on my backpack, now filled with all the essentials for a hike.
Despite the hurricane winds we set off for Bearnagh. The path from the car park took us up the Trassey Track. Maybe once upon a time it had been a track but that was before the rock fall that had clearly occurred. I waded through puddles and tramped over stones of all shapes and sizes.
It was tiring and time consuming, as I had to stay focused on where I put my feet. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a young girl bounding over the grass with her two dogs.
‘We should’ve gone that way,’ I said to Lionel, adding, ‘I don’t like stones!’
‘Well, there are a lot of them in the Mournes,’ he pointed out.
I took a moment to scan the surrounding mountains and saw that he was right. Every slope was scattered with them and the path ahead was rocky. There was no escaping granite on this climb. Damnit!
‘Where’s Bearnagh?’ I took a moment to get my bearings.
‘To the right of Hare’s Gap,’ Lionel told me, pointing to a pass that rose up in the distance.
‘Why’s it called that?’ I was curious.
‘Some say it was named after a farmer called O’Hare who used to graze his sheep there.’
I looked around at the rocky terrain and thought he could’ve picked a better place. There wasn’t much grass that I could see.
‘But it could’ve been named after one of the smugglers who carried contraband goods through it on the back of small ponies.’
I much preferred that option and imagined a swarthy, swashbuckling lawless O’Hare taking on the mountain, as he transported his illegal, ill-gotten gains back across the treacherous terrain. Lost in the fiction and fantasy of yonder year, I forgot how laboursome my present-day walk was and before I knew it, we had come to a fork in the path.
Ahead of us, was Hare’s Gap. To the right was Bearnagh, its summit hidden under a great big cloud. And to the right of Bearnagh was Slieve Meelmore. Lionel had taken out his map and was deciding on a route.
‘I think we should do Meelmore,’ he shouted over the wind that was getting worse. ‘Save Bearnagh for a better day.’
I reluctantly agreed.
Lionel took out our poles and bracing ourselves against the blustering wind we began our ascent over more rocks. I was worried that the water flowing over them would make them slippery, but it was the soft earth in between that proved perilous. More than once my foot sunk deep down, and I lost my balance. It was a slow climb, made ten times worse by the strengthening wind that threatened to take my feet from under me.
I wished now that I’d listened to the weather forecast and stayed at home!
A group of walkers were slowly descending, each one sporting the Mournes favourite accessory, a dog. Their leader, with his large Alsatian, stopped to warn us of the dangers ahead.
‘Be careful, there are gale force gusts on the other side of the wall.’
I wasn’t sure if he had noticed but they were on this side of the wall too!
They walked on and I began to question if it was wise to carry on. Although, stopping to discuss this was a bad idea. The wind hurtled down the mountain and caught me, causing me to wobble.
‘Use your poles,’ Lionel shouted.
I dug them into the ground and clung on for dear life as the wind battered me again. I really wanted to conquer Meelmore but I didn’t think I’d make it. I deliberated and dithered, looking up at the peak, that seemed so near and yet so far away. The winds would be stronger still on the ridge and summit. As much as I wanted to go on, if I couldn’t cope with the gusts here, then there was no way I’d manage on the other side of the Mourne wall.
I reluctantly decided it was best to go back and with great regret, we began our descent. The wind was now pummelling us from behind and I was worried about my balance and my footing as I picked my way slowly over the stones. More sure-footed walkers with small dogs passed us on our way down. It galled me to think that they would succeed, where I had failed but as Lionel pointed out, confidence would come with experience. And this climb had taught me that I was still lacking experience.
We veered off and onto another path that led us to a quarry. I looked up at the peak that had eluded me today as I ate my sandwich and in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, swore, ‘I’ll be back!’
According to the app, we had walked 5 miles and reached an elevation of 524m. It was another 180m to the top of Slieve Meelmore and another 215m to the top of Slieve Bearnagh. I was determined that next time I would conquer at least one of them! So, stay tuned and fingers crossed, I will make it to the top! I’ve ordered a flag!
At last, we were on our way back to the Mournes and I couldn’t wait to climb my second peak, Cock Mountain, which was a heady 505m high! Unlike the last time, I was suited and booted in appropriate mountaineering regalia. I was windproof and waterproof from head to toe. Well, more or less, I was missing proper walking trousers but on the plus side, I was wearing a pair of very funky and fashionable leggings. A case of style over substance that I was sure would impress the fashion police.
I was also sporting a brand new backpack! Which is basically a handbag for the hills, and I got just as excited going rucksack shopping as I did when I went in search of the latest arm candy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as au fait with the designers in this field. As I had discovered before when going in search of mountaineering clothes, fashion designers that I was familiar with hadn’t branched out into the great outdoors. As far as I could see, this also applied to the accessory market. There were no Louis Vuitton, Chanel or Gucci logos adorning the assortment of backpacks on display in Cotswold.
That’s right, I was back in my new favourite shop for all things mountain related! I gazed up and down the different backpacks hanging on the wall, there were so many to choose from. How was I going to narrow it down, I wondered? A fellow mountaineer who was also pondering this selfsame dilemma, walked up and down the vast array of rucksacks before grabbing one from the wall. I watched as he took the contents of his own bag out and stuffed them into the new one. Oh no, he was going to steal it! I looked around for security and instead came face to face with another friendly shop assistant, who had appeared to help me. I didn’t want to say anything, in case the thief heard me so, instead I nodded in his direction to alert the girl. She looked round and back again, oblivious to the crime being committed right in front of her face. I continued to violently nod. The man had now zipped up the backpack and was strapping it to his back. She looked round again. Nothing! Instead, she asked me what I was looking for while the rucksack robber was walking off!!
‘I really think you need to see to that man first,’ I had to point out the shoplifter who was marching across the floor with a piece of their merchandise on his back.
‘Yes, of course,’ she smiled and danced over to the man.
Oh no! what have I done?! He could be armed and dangerous, like the criminals I’d seen in police dramas on TV. She could be in mortal danger!
I watched as he took off the backpack and set it back down on the floor. He was starting to remove everything. Phew! I felt very proud that I had played a major part in preventing a crime.
The girl was back at my side, ‘and what can I get for you?’
Other than a medal, ‘a rucksack for my next mountaineering adventure.’
‘Are you camping out?’ she was moving towards the gargantuan sized sacks that would fit not only a tent and sleeping bag but also a small child!
‘God no!’ I was definitely slower than the average mountaineer, but I was confident I could still make it up and down in a few hours.
‘A day sack then?’ and she thankfully moved in the direction of the smaller bags.
‘Thanks, I’ll take it,’ the man shouted over.
‘Great, glad you found what you were looking for,’ she said before turning her attention back to me, ‘it’s always a good idea to put your stuff into a bag and make sure it’s the right size,’ she explained.
So, he wasn’t a shoplifter after all. I felt really bad for falsely accusing the poor man.
‘Do you know what size you need?’
‘Umm,’ no! I quickly glanced at the bags and pointed to the smallest one, in a light grey colour that I thought would match my boots.
‘My husband uses that when he’s running in the hills,’ she told me, ‘I think you might need something bigger for a day’s walking. What about this one?’ and she handed me a Hike Lite by Osprey. ‘You’ll be able to fit in your waterproof trousers, a fleece, extra hat, socks, gloves, map, compass, first aid kit and torch. You know, all the essentials you need for a day in the hills.’
No, I bloody well didn’t know! My essentials were a hairbrush, compact and lipstick!! No one told me I needed all this other paraphernalia. Never mind a rucksack, I would need a suitcase and a big one at that!
‘And let’s not forget your gaiters,’ she added something I’d never heard of to the long list.
The only gators I knew of, were 12ft long and lived in the Everglades. I had no desire to carry one of them up a mountain and they definitely wouldn’t fit in this bag.
‘You can pop your water bottle or flask in here. I take both with me,’ she told me.
I didn’t have either!
‘So, what do you think?’ she asked.
I think that I’ll never get to Cock Mountain because I don’t have any of those things, I wanted to cry! Instead, I told her I’d take it home and try it.
‘Lionel,’ I burst into tears as soon as I walked through the door, ‘the girl in the shop told me that I need alligators and a hip flask and waders, like fishermen wear and a whole pile of other stuff that I don’t have that I have to shove in here,’ I wailed, holding up my new Hike Lite.
‘That’s nice,’ Lionel ignored my histrionics and admired my new rucksack. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have everything you need’ and he kept his word. After a flurry of online purchases that arrived before the big day, I was packed and ready for my foray up the mountain.
A group of walkers were gathering in Hen Mountain car park as I proudly strapped on my lovely new rucksack.
‘Can you show me Cock Mountain?’ I was surveying the undulating mountainous masses, trying to decide which one it was.
He pointed to the peak behind Hen Mountain.
‘That’s where we’re headed,’ he told me and then it disappeared.
We had consulted the map and decided to walk around Cock Mountain and come back over it in the direction of Hen Mountain.
It actually felt very mild for the time of year and we had to stop to shed a layer. It was so peaceful and quiet. There was no sign of the gang of walkers and the only other people on the track behind us were two people on horseback, led by a man who was taking them on a trek. They stopped for a chat on the way past as we left the path to begin our ascent.
The map had showed a short path, that Lionel thought he’d found.
‘This isn’t a path, it’s a river,’ I pointed out as I stepped over rocks and through water.
‘It’s a path,’ he was adamant.
‘Well, it’s not a very good one,’ I muttered under my breath, as I followed in his wake, water washing over my boots.
Then it disappeared completely, and we had to negotiate very boggy, soft ground peppered with tall clumps of grasses that even the sheep didn’t want to graze on. Mr Horseman had told us that the sheep had caught diseases from the ticks and so they took them away. Of course, at the mention of ticks, I had a full-scale panic attack.
‘You should’ve told me there were ticks here,’ I accused Lionel of withholding important health and safety information.
‘It’s the countryside, there are ticks everywhere.’
‘But what if I get a tick,’ I moaned, ‘I could get Lyme Disease!’ I remembered one of the Desperate Housewives had got it from one of the burrowing, blood sucking little creatures.
I felt my skin start to crawl.
Lionel ploughed on, picking his way over the flattened mounds of tall grass. It was tough going and I felt duty bound to tell him so.
‘We shouldn’t have come this way. There’s no path,’ I complained and then the cloud that had shrouded the peaks, descended down the mountain. I had yet another panic attack. I couldn’t see where we were going. This was too dangerous. We’d be lost on the mountain, although I wasn’t sure which one. Lionel was veering to the right and I was convinced Cock Mountain was to the left.
The cloud was like pea soup and I prayed that it would lift, so we could see our way. Someone up above was listening and suddenly the sun broke through. We were at the base of Pigeon Rock and with Lionel’s navigational skills, we would have been climbing it instead. Back on track, we began our ascent of the right mountain. We still had no path and slowly made our way up the grassy, rocky slope towards the summit. Cloud came down again but finally cleared as we approached the rocky tor that marked the peak. It gave us the most breath-taking views and we scrambled for our phones to take a picture.
I quickly set my rucksack down and sat on one of the rocks to get my Polaroid out. I hadn’t realised that the ground was covered in sheep poo and the rock was soaking wet! I ended up with a wet bum and a smelly rucksack. However, nothing spoilt the spectacular view from the top. We stood in the sun and took in the stunning scenery from the summit. It was beautiful!
All too soon, the cloud swirled round us again but not before we had spotted the path that would lead us back down the mountain.
I was so thankful to see it. I didn’t like going off-piste. At least, not when I couldn’t see where I was going. The descent was steep, and we had to take our time and use our poles. Even so, it didn’t prevent my first fall. One minute I was standing and the next, my feet went from under me. The mucky ground was so slippery and it showed me, just how easily it could happen. Thankfully, I didn’t fall on a rock and I had a soft landing. Picking myself up, I made sure I used my poles and took care with every step.
We knew that we could come over Hen Mountain on the way down. We couldn’t see it, but we knew it was there, so when the ground started to ascend again, we started to climb. It should’ve been a straightforward ascent to the summit. We fully expected to find the path that we had previously come down, but nothing is straightforward in low lying cloud. I understood now how people got disorientated and lost in these conditions.
‘I can see why a map and compass are essential kit,’ I said to Lionel, who had found a narrow, ledge-like path that he was convinced circled below the summit of Hen Mountain.
I didn’t want to be under it! I wanted to be on it! And ASAP.
‘I have those,’ he assured me.
‘Well, why don’t you consult them and find the path we came down before,’ that was wide and walkable. This teeny tiny one was freaking me out.
‘I have the compass but the map’s in the car,’ he confessed.
‘A fat lot of good it’s going to do us there,’ I was not happy.
Lionel had to step up onto a rock and that was when I froze. Vertigo descended like the cloud and swirled around me, shrouding me in fear. I was certain that if I stepped up onto that stone, I would plummet down the steep slope. I was terrified!
‘I can’t do it!’ I cried.
‘Yes, you can,’ and he reached out his hand.
I looked back. I could turn around, which was a perilous procedure in itself or, I could face my fear and trust my partner. I took a deep breath and reached for his hand. He pulled me safely up onto the ledge.
Thankfully a little further along and we saw the tor rise up in front of us.
‘We made it,’ I cried out.
A sheep that had been grazing on the eerily quiet summit raised his head and looked at me.
‘And I’m alive,’ I told him, delighted that I hadn’t fallen to my death from the treacherous track that Lionel had led me up.
Note to self, I was in charge of all essential life-saving equipment on future expeditions.
The sheep looked as surprised as I felt.
This time we decided to descend on the path that most walkers come up the mountain. It was the most direct route back to the car. Heavy footfall over the years had gouged out indentations. Initially we walked the well-trodden path, following in the footsteps of the many others who had come and gone before us. However, this came with its own dangers, as both I and Lionel were soon to discover. Muck is more slippery than stone in the Mournes. For the second time, I took a tumble and Lionel had a stumble. Injury averted we walked down the rest of the mountain and made it back to the car in one piece.
I couldn’t wait to get back home and pop the Prosecco, to celebrate inadvertently climbing not just one but two peaks!
I rummaged around in the backseat.
‘What are you looking for?’ Lionel asked as he started the car.
‘The map,’ I told him.
‘To pick our next peak?’ he looked happy and I didn’t have the heart to tell him, that it was to make sure he didn’t get lost again on the way home.
‘Aha,’ I said as I perused the peaks and made sure that he stayed on the right road.
I was quite enthusiastic about doing my next peak, but time and circumstances meant that a trip to the Mournes would have to wait a little longer. Instead, I decided to walk up Cave Hill, which was closer to home, and while it wasn’t a mountain, it was still a steep climb. Our destination was Napoleon’s Nose, a promontory that jutted out from the cliff face and offered fantastic views over Belfast. So, basically, I picked a nose and not a peak!
We parked at Belfast Castle, which has lovely gardens and a café! Under normal circumstances we could’ve had a coffee after our climb, but sadly, we weren’t living in normal circumstances. We were living in a lockdown and the café was closed.
Lionel had never done the walk before, so after layering up, I led the way. We walked through black, wrought iron gates and took the gravel path to the left. In the winter months, or after any rain, the path can be very muddy in places. I was glad of my boots! The first part rose steeply, and I had to dig deep into my lungs to haul myself up it. As I slowly dragged myself up, other walkers, small children and dogs, strode past me, barely breaking breath!
I suggested we stop for a photo op, after a stepped incline.
‘But there’s no view,’ Lionel pointed out, as I leaned on my poles, panting.
‘There’s trees. I love trees!’ I couldn’t go any further until I’d gotten my breath back.
I knew there was worse to come and the rest helped prepare me for the brutal climb through trees that took us to the first vantage point. I wanted to collapse onto one of the four stone seats, but it had been raining and the bum shaped indentations on top of the columns had filled with water. Instead, Lionel took in the views and I took in much needed oxygen!
The wind was really getting up and I struggled to take a photograph with both the phone and the Polaroid camera.
This was a much more gradual climb around the Devil’s Punchbowl. We walked up a narrow path that circled the deep hollow, stepping up onto the bank to give way to sure-footed runners coming down from the top. Another short flight of steps led us up to the second vantage point. Cave Hill rose up behind us and below us, the city was spread out. A hazy morning light falling on the iconic landmarks that we were able to pick out from our lofty viewpoint. But there was still higher to go.
A flight of waterlogged muddy steps took us up to the top, where we turned left and followed the path that continued to climb along the cliffs. The wind was howling now, and my eyes and nose were streaming. My neck warmer prevented me from doing up the top button of my coat, so my hood wouldn’t stay up. My cashmere woollen hat did nothing to prevent the wind chill. So, by the time we fought our way to McArt’s Fort (Napoleon’s Nose) I couldn’t hear, see or breathe!
Unfortunately, the wind continued to pummel and punch us, preventing us from appreciating the panoramic views of Belfast, that can be enjoyed on a good day. It goes without saying that no Polaroid was taken. The camera as well as the photo, would have been blown away!
With the wind now thankfully at our backs, we retraced our footsteps and made our way back down. The path along the cliff top is quite rocky, so we took our time. I didn’t want to slip and land on my bottom. As naturally padded as it is, it still would hurt falling on sharp stones.
Even in the inclement conditions, there was a steady flow of walkers and excited dogs making their way to the top. Cave Hill is a popular walk, all year round and in all weathers.
We squelched our way through muck and like the stones, I took care and tried not to slip. I didn’t want a wet bum, any more than I wanted a sore one, thank you very much! My lovely grey boots had turned a muddy brown colour, but my feet were still dry, so I knew they were waterproof. Yay!
Before long we were walking through the trees again and shortly after that, we arrived back at the car, windswept but victorious. Another peak/promontory had been scaled and I would celebrate later with a glass of Prosecco. Right now, all I wanted was a coffee!
Although I had walked Cave Hill before, today’s venture up made me realise the importance of dressing appropriately. If I was going to pursue my mountaineering adventures, then I would definitely have to think about what I was wearing. Nothing I owned was designed for a hill walk, let alone a mountain. So, I was going to have to go somewhere I had never been before, an outdoor shop!
I have only ever owned one piece of outdoor clothing, a North Face fleece and that was a present from my brother, years ago. I remember it well because I was horrified when I opened it. I had no earthly use for it back then but now, I wish I’d kept it. It would be one less thing I’d have to buy before my next expedition. Maybe I should have a glass of Prosecco, in preparation for my shopping trip because right now, that was a much more intimidating prospect than any peak in the Mournes!
Wish me luck, I’ll keep you posted!
Peaks: 1 (2 in total)
Polaroids: 2 today
Prosecco: 1 glass
Join me next time…
If you would like notifications of new posts, please follow me. Thanks x
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!)
If you would like notifications of my next post, please follow me. Thanks x
Hi, I’m Tracy, a newbie to the world of hillwalking and blogging, but rest assured, I’m up for the challenge of conquering posts as well as peaks on this journey. A journey that began back in October when I decided I was going to do something I’d never done before; go somewhere I’d never been before. Something that would take me out of my comfort zone and force me to face my fears. I was going to climb a mountain!
This was a challenge of epic proportions for someone who found climbing a flight of stairs a major feat. So, after acquiring additional life insurance and updating my will, I was ready to go the Mournes, a mountain range in Northern Ireland, which I imagined was just like the Himalayas. A perilous place packed full of great big peaks.
Unable to find a Sherpa to accompany me on my expedition, Lionel, my partner agreed to be my guide. Like so many people I know, he had a passion for hillwalking. I had never shared his enthusiasm or understood his preoccupation with scaling peaks. It was punishing, painful and in no way, pleasurable. Mountains were inhospitable places made for sheep, goats and Ben Fogle. I wasn’t born to scramble up the side or scale the summits of these colossal masses but, stupidly, that was the challenge I had set myself.
I hope you’ll join me on my journey, in a struggle to overcome all obstacles to reach the top. And in a year that has been particularly challenging for all of us and when we have all had mountains to climb, I hope that my adventures bring a little light relief and hopefully a smile to your face.
On my next adventure…
If you would like to receive notifications of new posts, please follow me. Thanks x