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Our Trek NI A, B and C groups met at Meelmore Lodge a little earlier than usual at 9.30 to tackle a variety of routes. All groups included the mighty Slieve Bearnagh which at 739 metres is one of the Mourne’s highest peaks. I was happily in Group C which was only tackling Bearnagh and I was sure this was going to be more than enough for the day.
It’s always nice to see the mix of new and familiar faces so there were a few minutes to mingle, meet and catch up while we waited for everyone to arrive. I had time to grab a couple of jars of local honey from Darren and Vanessa, and hear ideas of what to use it in from the rest of the group (including on hot buttered toast, in porridge and even in a wee dram of whiskey).
Graham also took the opportunity to hop on the wall and say a few words of thanks to all our volunteers who help organise and lead the walks, and hand out some gifts.
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A quick check of the Meelmore stone and glance up at how quickly the clouds were moving across the mountain reassured us that it would be dry and clear by the time we would reach the top, so we all set off up the lane.
The first challenge was getting across the river where we joined the Trassey track, but with some nimble footwork and helpful hands to grab, everyone made it across safely. The B group headed off to do a slightly different route and we made our way up the path, taking right before Hare’s Gap and then along the path towards the Bearnagh-Meelmore col.
Our C group likes to take a relaxed pace and saunter a little more than the A and B groups. Some of us particularly like to appreciate natural wonders, especially if it’s getting steeper and we’re in need of a bit of a breather.
During the last walk in Kilbroney we appreciated several fine trees, and this walk we appreciated several fine rocks as well as the views on the way up. We paused at the Mourne wall for a quick snack before clambering over the stile, and then we were at the base of Bearnagh.
We went up the rocky side with the Mourne wall on our left, which is challenging enough because of the rocks and general steepness. We also had a gusty wind and mud to add to the mix, and it got chillier as we got higher. I was very glad I’d remembered my hiking poles as they provided some extra grip and stability.
We quickly learned that coming out a few feet away from the wall made a big difference, as did hunkering down with our backs to the wind until the stronger gusts died down a bit. There was a rhythm to working out when to clamber over the rocks, and when to take a slightly longer, meandering route around them.
It is a steep climb, but I found it easier than when we did Binnian last year. I’d like to think it’s because I’m maybe a bit fitter now, but really after this many months of lock-down and cupcakes that seems unlikely. It’s probably more because on Bearnagh you have natural pauses when you’re looking for where to go next, and you’re concentrating that hard on your next few feet of progress, you don’t realise how far you’ve come. Taking moments to pause and look across to the right to Doan provided beautiful views which opened up more as we ascended higher.
Slieve Bearnagh is distinctive with two large Granite tors at its peak. When we got to the top, our leader Graham (who I suspect may in fact be part mountain goat) climbed up and perched on one of these to enjoy the views and keep an eye on progress being made by the last few in our group.
The views from the summit are well worth the effort. People talk about the light in the Mournes and how it moves across the mountains. We could definitely see that on Saturday – there were times when you could imagine glowing volcanoes, the fires of Mordor or the magic of Narnia when you looked at the light moving across the valleys and mist collaring the peaks. It really was breathtaking.
We had our lunch, sheltering from the wind at the base of one of the tors, and some of us wandered about savouring the views and taking photos.
We descended down the less rocky side to join the Mourne wall on our left. There were beautiful views of the valley on our right, though the ground was very soft and slippy. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t have one or more Bambi-on-ice moments. Thankfully no-one came to any harm, although we were all fairly mucky by the time we got to the bottom.
Amongst lots of other things, there was chat about different types of boots, whether crampons would be any help in the muck, and how useful the hiking poles were. It is one of the things that I love about our group – everyone is very friendly, encouraging and helpful. I’ve learnt a lot from listening to other people’s experiences and swapping ideas. It is a really lovely, gentle group of people and I always feel better for spending time in their company.
There is a saying that if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. I think our C group embodies that for me – yes, I love the scenery and the feeling of achievement of completing the hike, but I also really enjoy the camaraderie, knowing that we’ll all help each other out and get to share some great moments together. It’s a great feeling looking across a beautiful scene to see someone else smiling and giving you the thumbs up because they are enjoying it as much as you are.
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But I digress, back to the walk.
At one moment I did have a bit of an out of body experience as we made our way down a particularly steep piece. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a guy who wasn’t with our group sliding past practically on his back in slow motion and unable to slow his momentum for several metres. He caught my eye and said “Come for a walk they said, I wasn’t expecting this!”. Graham helped him pick out a bit of a safer route through the next part and off he went. He was still smiling (just about!), and he’ll certainly have a story to tell from his day in the mountains, though I think next time he’ll probably not try to do it in trainers.
We continued on down through Hare’s gap and chat continued on about the Brandy Pad, smugglers and caves, as well as our plans for the rest of the weekend. We crossed the river where it cascades into mini waterfalls, and managed to bump into the B group.
There was a good hum of happy conversation on the last leg of the walk as we made our way through the valley and back to the car park. Some people stayed on to grab a coffee in Meelmore Lodge and enjoy some more chat as the sun set over the hills on another very enjoyable trek. Looking forward to the next one!
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