Mournes seven sevens

It was Barry’s turn to entertain the old Kilimanjaro group with a walk in the Mournes, about 1 hour south of Belfast. Feeling that he couldn’t present us with anything other than a challenge, Barry organised for us to have a go at the Mournes Seven Sevens challenge. The idea of this is to do a circular trek up the seven highest peaks in Northern Ireland, all of which are above 700m high.

Quick obligatory moan about Ryanair. I hate them. How can they single handedly have made flying such a miserable experience? £0.99p flights turned into £100 flights by the time taxes, single bag and checkin were added. Carmel graciously treated Neil and I to a gin and tonic (and two small tubs of Pringles) on the plane. We were amazed how the air stewardess kept a straight face when asking for the £26.50 in return. Other annoyances include the lack of anywhere to rest my head (how short are the seats?), no seat pockets for your bits, anger-inducing jolly tune if you land on time etc., etc. And all for £0.99 (plus taxes).

We stayed in the completely average Golf Links House Hotel about 15 mins from the town centre of Newcastle, Co. Down. The website is the best part of the hotel. Not sure how they managed this, but they made us feel slightly welcome and slightly weird at the same time. Strangely the restaurant closed about the same time as the large bar – at 8:30pm, so we didn’t spend much time in the hotel.

The walk itself started off straight forward. We started shortly after 8am from Donnard car park at the end of Newcastle’s promenade. With seven mountains to climb, we thought we’d go for the biggy first so took a fairly unmarked trail from the top of Donnard Forest to the summit of Slieve Donnard at 850m. This was a tough start with the upper half of the mountain in cloud we plodded on up a fairly constant gradient. Once at the top, the cloud cover started to disperse and we were treated to our first view of the impressive Mournes laid out in front of us.

The next couple of mountains were fairly uneventful, so we trudged on in the increasingly hot weather over Slieve Commedagh and onto Slieve Bearnagh for a spot of lunch. On the way up this third peak, while walking in single file and sweating profusely, we were overtaken by a couple of lads who it turned out were training for Kilimanjaro. They chatted all the way up about football while we panted and struggled to breathe without saying a word. If our group can get up Kili at our level of fitness then I think they may actually have overtrained. The view from Bearnagh while we ate our lunch at 1:30pm was amazing though – the best of the trek.

The fourth and fifth peaks, Meelbeg and Meelmore, looked very near so we were pleased we could quickly get those out of the way next. However what we missed everytime was the huge dip down to low altitude between each peak, meaning that even though they were close together that they took a fair effort to walk down and then back up steep mountain sides to get to.

The walk to the sixth peak, Binnian, was an ordeal. The worst part of the day. It took over 3.5 hours to get from the fifth to the sixth peak. The walk involved a lengthy and mind numbing traverse over boggy peat and heather land with no path. This eventually led us to the Ben Crom dam where, after a water bottle refill in the reservoir, we headed up to Binnian. This mountain peak was deceptively far from the first plateau but the views were pretty amazing so kept our minds occupied. By the time we got to the summit it was 7pm – and we realised we weren’t going to get off the moutains in daylight. (There was an option of not climbing the seventh peak – but, of course, that was never entertained.)

The climb up to the seventh and final summit at Lamagan was tiring, but expectedly so. The problem was the daylight. When we got to the summit at 8:30pm we witnessed the sun disappear behind the mountains and realised we were in a race to get as far as we could towards home before the daylight completely disappeared. Between us we had just one single head torch to light our way – which would be far from ideal when it has to lead 5 people across very rocky mountain paths.

Daylight finally left us around 9:30pm and from then on it was a slow careful walk with the person with the torch taking up the rear and everyone sticking together as closely as possible. This slowed us down immensely as we kicked and stumbled over rocks on our way back to civilisation. We had to navigate two small peaks, paths of various sizes and boulder fields before we finally came to the last challenge in the dark – the forest. How we all managed to work our way down through a forest without serious injury in the dark with one torch is anybody’s guess. The branches, tree roots, mountain streams and embedded rocks did their best to catch us out but finally at just after 1am the following morning we emerged from the forest back into the car park.

We were probably very relieved and pleased with ourselves, but I can’t remember. What I do recall is that the car park which was earlier full of walkers was now full of teenagers from the local night club. Thankfully this meant that they had attracted a chip van which provided us with a late dinner. Whilst we got out of our stinking walking boots on the far side of the car park a police car drove up to see what we were all doing with our car boots open. I think it took a short while for them to believe that we really were walkers returning from a little trek – but perhaps the fact that we were all walking around bare foot in muddy clothes helped persuade them that we weren’t dealing in anything illicit.

On the Sunday we took it easy in the morning and had a quick visit to Maud’s for elevenses. Then headed back to Belfast for lunch at the Pavillion Bar before flying home. The big news of the day was Everton’s penalties win over Man Utd in the FA Cup semi-finals. It was never in doubt.

In summary, it was a great walk – one of the best I’ve ever done. Lots and lots to remember. Here’s a few photos:

Leaving the top of Donnard Forest at around 9am, about 1/3 of the way up Slieve Donnard (1 of 7) with the seaside town of Newcastle in the background:

On the Brandy Pad (an old brandy smuggler’s path) with our next target of Slieve Bearnagh (3 of 7) in the distance:

Near the summit of Slieve Binnian (6 of 7) with the final peak behind my head in the centre and Slieve Donnard on the right:

Sunset on top of the Slievelamagan (7 of 7):

The track overlaid on Google Earth (they really need to update the quality of their satelite maps for Ireland):

Altitude profile (count the 7 peaks):

Duration 16:42 hours
Distance 20.5 miles
Total ascent 3,219 m

Path (Google Earth)