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By Coly Rice
A couple of years ago I would have laughed if someone asked me to go for a walk never mind climb Slieve Donard! Let’s just say I was a very comfortable 16 stone and not into any physical activity that didn’t involve a knife and fork. I was stuck in a rut of work, eat, sleep, repeat as I’m sure many people are. It seems to be the norm nowadays, and if that’s your thing, that’s fine. I’ve been there and done it so I know just how comfortable it is.
Something changed for me though. It was that big of a change I remember the exact date. 12th June 2018. At the time it wasn’t that significant. it was just another day, when the wife decided we were going on another fad diet she had been reading about online.
This time, I decided I would join my local gym, DT Fitness, another place I thought I’d never find myself. I knuckled down to the diet and gym and soon got into a routine. The diet was going well and I was hitting the gym at least 3 to 4 times a week. An addiction was starting to bubble and before you know it I had lost 3 stone in just 3 months. Then another stone in 2 months, totalling 5 stone loss overall. I had never felt so good in my life.
Although I didn’t actually feel physically fit my mental well-being was through the roof. It was roughly about then (November 2018) that I decided I wanted to climb Slieve Donard someday. I then took into the running to help my fitness along. It’s been a long journey from then, I’ve fought off many injuries. One which seen me on crutches for a week and many more that have seen me laid up for a good while resting. From knee ligament damage to shin splints, you name it, I’ve had it.
Finally holding my weight at a solid 12st and feeling the fittest I’ve ever felt in my life, after many ups and downs, the day arrived for me and my 14-year-old daughter to climb Slieve Donard. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I had never been up a mountain before in my life, I decided to trail my 14 year old daughter along for the craic!
So, off we set. 7:30am on Thursday 11th July, a complete novice and a typical 14 year old teenage girl. The weather was spot on, actually couldn’t have picked a better day for our first attempt. It was warm, dry and a nice breeze.
We arrived to a surprisingly empty Donard park around 8am, jumped out, grabbed the backpack and off we set. There was some debate about which way to go at first as there aren’t actually any sign posts (well I couldn’t see any and nor could she). Just to be clear, you walk up into Donard Forest, up the hill and into the trees (NOT across the first bridge).
Once we got going, we followed the winding gravel road up as far as the next bridge and just to double check we were going the right way we stopped a group of young people with a map and asked for a little assistance. They showed us the map (might as well have been looking into space as far as I’m concerned, for as far as my knowledge goes with maps isn’t really worth talking about) and told us to follow the road up as it’s the quickest way to the top. We exchanged our thanks and off we went, up and round enjoying the shade of the trees, trying to find something to talk about to keep us occupied.
The views on the way up as the trees started clear in places were beautiful. I have never seen our little country from this perspective before so we stopped every once in a while, to take it in and snap a few photos.
We soon came to another bridge; this one had some information about the ice house (well worth reading about). To make things clear for novices, at this bridge you walk straight ahead (keep the river to your left and proceed up the granite steps).
This is where the walk starts to get a little tough. It’s rough underfoot and very uneven in places but definitely walkable with a little care and attention to where you’re going. Some amazing views at this part, the Glen River to your left, the forest to your right. Every time you look you’re looking at a different view point. You also pass the ice house on your left here (I never stopped to look as we were anxious to get to the top).
As it opens up you can clearly see the path to the saddle with the mammoth Slieve Donard overlooking to your left. At this point though the task at hand soon became apparent. My heart sank a little. With a 14 year old daughter beginning to struggle and seeing that path go on for what seemed like hundreds of miles I wasn’t actually sure that we were going to be able to make it!
I had no clue what lay ahead or how far we had left to go. We kept going, taking our time, stepping up, up, up. This went on for quite a while actually, getting steeper and steeper as we moved ahead. I kept asking was she ok? Did she want to turn back? But the assurance to keep going kept coming back.
At one point it did actually get too much so we stopped for a well-deserved break before the final push for the saddle. I had no idea what the saddle looked like, nor did I know how far we had to go. I just knew it was up there beyond us.
As we were resting, two obviously more experienced hikers stopped with us to make sure we were ok. Telling them we were considering going back as we didn’t know if we’d actually be able to make it got the words of encouragement flowing from them. They give us a quick brief of where exactly we were, how far we had to go to the saddle and what lay ahead of us after that. Honestly couldn’t have met these guys at a better time (I am forever in your debt, whoever you are). They set off on their way, and at that point we decided that we were going to make it one way or another.
We rested for a good bit more then we headed up for the saddle before stopping for lunch. Arriving at the saddle, I was speechless! The first view of the Mourne Wall and the task that lay ahead to the left! The views from here were something else. Such a beautiful place for a bite of lunch and well-earned break!!!
We sat for a good while, enjoyed our lunch whilst I mustered up whatever words of encouragement I could for my daughter. I could see her looking at the climb ahead, I would have given a million dollars to know what she was thinking! I was looking myself at this point wondering was it as steep as it looked or were my eyes deceiving me.
It got quite cool at this point, although it was nice at first to cool down, we were soon looking for our windbreakers to keep us warm. After a while, still checking she was ok to go on, we set off for the summit.
It felt like quite a treacherous incline, actually. Great care was taken here as it is very steep and sometimes a bit tricky to navigate your feet. As we got higher and higher, we stopped every so often for a minute just to get our breath back. Stop, start, stop, start. Something I didn’t actually mind, because I wanted us both to make it! And if that meant taking more breaks then that’s the way it was going to be.
Not before long we had made it!! The top of the highest peak in Northern Ireland and the whole province of Ulster! The sense of achievement, given where this had all started over a year ago, was actually a little overwhelming. The views were nothing short of breath taking, a little hazy at times but, the sun was trying its best to burn away the cloud to give us some of the best views I am likely to see in my life!
A proud moment. Proud of myself and super proud of my daughter for showing grit and determination (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). We sat for a while just taking in the moment, the views, the sense of accomplishment and most of all a well-deserved bottle of beer before making our descent back down. A truly epic adventure for us both. One I’m sure we will never forget.
This is the only hike I have ever done but it was so enjoyable and a must do for everyone. I have lived so close all my life and have never been anywhere near it! It’s actually a shame as I feel I’ve been missing out on one of the most beautiful places, and it’s right on our doorstep.
Having done it has given me a sense of achievement now. Feels like a summit to such an amazing journey. From being an obese lay-about, to being in the best physical shape of my life. I have the guys at DT Fitness and Eat Fit NI to thank for most of this. Great people, that helped me every step of the way, with advice, fitness workouts and most of all the motivation and inspiration to keep going.
A few helpful tips doesn’t actually sound right coming from a complete novice, but a few pointers nonetheless might help someone on their way. Keep an eye on the met office weather and plan ahead. The weather can change pretty quickly up on the mountain, so be prepared. Bring a backpack with plenty of water, a windbreaker, a hat and most importantly some food for energy (you’re definitely going to need it).
I’d recommend this hike for everyone. It’s not easy, actually quite difficult in places, but take your time, take plenty of breaks, enjoy the surroundings and you should make it no problem. If it’s your first time like myself I would set off as early as possible to give yourself as much time as you need so you don’t have to rush. It took us roughly 6 hrs at a moderately slow pace with plenty of rest breaks on the way.
A final golden nugget of advice? Don’t overthink it. Just go and do it. Prepare, take your time and enjoy every minute. It’s something you have to do at least once in your lifetime. You’ll thank me for it. I promise.
The Mourne Wall Challenge
The Commedagh Castles from the Bloody Bridge
Mountains and Megaliths: Treading the Boards on Cuilcagh and Cavan Burren
A record-breaking ascent of Slieve Donard
Belfast to Downhill: Driving the Causeway Coastal Route with Sixt
Belfast By Night
Percy Bysshe and Cove Caves
A Ring of Bright Waters: a Mourne hydrotrek