What was the draw to the Western Mournes on a wet, blustery day, mid-February? There is no simple answer without having to deeply delve into why I, or any of our group, seem to never tire of walking through the Mournes every other week…. all year round… on a Sunday morning…whatever the weather. If we question our motives too far, will we doubt our reason for taking part? That’s a fearful question I for one would gladly side step. Last question: can you get tired of the same mountains?
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I’ve been hiking in the Mournes now for nearly 10 years. I once went to Binevenagh in 2012 and swore not to return. The weather was woeful and the thought of driving back again for near two hours for one mountain was too much to bear. Don’t get me started on that ‘stairway to heaven’. Like Donard on steroids, tripping over folk up and down a staircase, may as well be in a busy Belfast bar with a 6th floor toilet.
It’s the Mournes for me! In under an hour’s drive, the towering hills that are like a magnet to myself and many others like me are waiting and always welcoming, whatever the weather. Sometimes even the worst weather produces the best days.
I say the same soundbites all the time just to remind myself and my friends. No two hikes are the same. The scenery, lighting, the wild profusion of flora and fauna and most of all the craic. If there was no craic, I’d have hung the boots up a long time ago. We all like the wee lone wolf hikes once in a while to clear the old head of stress and that but if you’re in a crowd of people who are of similar wavelength to yourself, you are in for a great experience. The craic gets you through the fatigue, the self-doubt, eliminates the mundane and lifts you up to the point of elation, especially after a major personal challenge or conquering adventure.
Sometimes though we need a slight change. We as a group, usually steer clear of the Western Mournes during winter, given that it becomes extremely wet and boggy, especially after a wet spell. Through January, our group took it easy due to the possibility of post-Christmas drop in fitness levels in our members. We climbed the Meels and Slieve Loughshannagh at the beginning and Moolieve and the Binnnians mid-month.
I proposed to Alan, one of our planners, that we should really blow the cobwebs off on the next hike and put in a good shift for a change. The reason for this is simple: we could and always do a lot more. No point in going backwards.
The plan was a good one: Tievedockaragh, Shanlieve, Eagle, Eagle Ridge, then alongside Great Gully to Windy Gap. Slieve Moughanmore, Pigeon, Cock and Hen. 12.5 miles and 1579m ascent.
Looks challenging on paper, and it was. The hike was great, including a few cheeky climbs, especially Shanlieve (a very deceiving and tough ascent which was preceded by a bog – it was more of a field floating on a lake). Then, true to form for a February morning, came the gales, the hail, a lovely spell of sun for about 30 minutes then back to the gales, then the hail, just to keep us in our place.
Not going to lie, we started this hike with 16 people and only 10 finished at the descent of Hen having completed the intended route. I reckon part of this was that talking became quite difficult due to the weather and some of them were in their own heads questioning their life choices. It happens to us all.
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We’d be peeling off layers, putting on layers, only to be peeling them off literally minutes later. To me, that’s the real hiking experience. It’s not about getting the best sunrise pic or photo of you on top of a mountain stone giving your best pose for the Gram. It’s battling the elements with the proper kit, attitude and grit, all the while, trying to crack a smile and a thumbs up in between.
The Western Mournes didn’t disappoint. It was a good change to be there at that time of year. It was a reminder of how the Mournes are unforgiving and unwavering during the harshest of weather and it reminds us that, even with all the tough going we face during a difficult hike, if you turn to someone of the same wavelength as yourself, make an inappropriate joke or just smile, it’ll bring them out of a dark hole and up the next peak with an extra stride in their pace.