The Mourne 500’s, 39 peaks in the Mourne Mountains over 500 meters.
If you are thinking of giving this a go, please let us offer you two bits of advice.
Firstly, you can do it. The Mournes might be steep and rugged but they are compact and beautiful. It’s worth it and it is possible, if you keep moving, to walk the route in under 24hours.
Secondly, don’t do it the way we did it.
Since Rick & Davy came up with logging the idea in 2010 it has been talked about and thought about, however getting out and actually doing it never seemed to materialize.
Obviously we wanted to fully prepare for an attempt. To recce the course and devise our perfect route, optimum weather and ideal ground conditions.
This year, again injuries or other commitments, meant another year passed and the opportunities disappeared.
“Next Spring. We’ll definitely do it next Spring,” was starting to sound like a yearly Autumn mantra.
So receiving a text message on a cold, wet Thursday afternoon at the end of November, suggesting we do the 500’s that weekend, you would think would be easy to ignore. What about all the preparation? Hmmm.
There is, of course, a very sensible reason. We wanted (needed) 2 UTMB points before 4th January, to give us the option of maybe entering a ballot, which will mean we have a chance to maybe qualify for starting a race, in the hope that we might, possibly, complete it. It made sense to us.
We did prepare a little. We didn’t go to BARF training that Thursday evening and instead met in Kaffe-O on the Ormeau Rd, to discuss our plans over coffee. We canvassed opinion, and with advice from the wisest, we agreed to start at Ott carpark at 9pm and head clockwise. One reason for this is that the Mourne wall would give easier navigation in the dark which would leave the trickier Western Mournes for daylight. Another reason could be that we just wanted to make it as difficult as possible for ourselves. Well if we are going to do the 500’s at the end of November, we might as well start at night, when already tired, with an icy wind, with saturated ground and in a direction Joanne and Taryn hadn’t actually recced. As Joanne points out – isn’t it in the spirit of Trailbadgers to make it as hard as possible?
To be fair, it was stunning starting at night. The sky was clear and all the stars were out in full, glistening over the dark silhouettes of the mountains. It was beautifully silent and at 9.15pm on a Saturday night with perfect company, there wasn’t actually anywhere else I’d rather have been. Three hours later, getting blown sideways by an icy wind on the summit of a frosty Shan Slieve whilst looking down over the lights of Newcastle at midnight, knowing the NIMRA prize giving was going on in the warm, welcoming O’Hares below, admittedly I had other thoughts.
We weren’t aiming for a time, other than under 24hours. We estimated 20hours but our goal was just to get round, enjoy the adventure and get our 2 points. We were happily walking, chatting, admiring the stars above and the lights below, and absorbing the peaceful eeriness of the Mournes in the dark.
Descending the East side of Donard, heading to Crossone, seemed to be when the streets and houses below went to sleep on us:
“Head towards that light on the right”
“Oh it’s gone out”
“Aim just to the right of the large orange light”
“Aim just above the 2 little lights beside each other”
“OK. Aim directly below that bright star”
There must have been something popular on TV that finished at 2am, by 2.15am there was blackness. We were at the cairn of Crossone.
Navigating in the dark can be fascinating, it can also be frustrating. The Mourne Wall provides a useful handrail, but once away from such a solid feature getting from peak to peak relies on compass, map and altimeter (someone with knowledge is useful too.) The beams from a headtorch are adequate for clambering over rocks and heather underfoot, but not so great for finding paths that could be just to our left or maybe to our right or maybe not there at all. It slows the pace. In daylight you would instinctively move a few meters across to avoid boulders, slabs or bog ahead, at night you can be on them before your imagination even has time to work out what you’re standing on.
Sunrise arrived at 8am, we had been moving for 11 hours, now descending off SlieveLamagan. Funnily enough as the sun came up Joanne and Taryn’s navigation diminished ‘ever so slightly’, but not to be discouraged they continued. In hindsight we should have started running at daylight. Bumping into 3 runners on Binnian, one wearing shorts, who asked if we were out for an early morning walk should have been enough of a hint. Amused at how we must have looked, wearing every bit of clothing we had with us – leggings, waterproof trousers, 2 base layers, a thermal l/s, down gillet, waterproof jacket, buff, hat, 3 pairs of gloves… it had been a cold night. If we had known then what lay ahead, I doubt we would have stood on Binnian giggling at ourselves and taking photos.
On the return from the outleir Broinn Bhinneáin, we considered descending towards the lower wall and returning to the col via Binnian Lough. On a dry day in the summer this avoided some height gain, however looking down at the boggy ground scattered with icy puddles we decided to stick to the Binnian path. We had already trudged for 12 hours over saturated ground, even with extra height, the path was more appealing. At this point, of course, admiring the newly laid boulders that Gerry and Gareth had been working hard over the day before, volunteering their time to the Mourne Heritage Trust for path repairs. (So if you could just get the rest of it finished for next Spring that would be great?)
Heading across the dam we faced Ben Crom. Having approached from the opposite direction in a recce, it appeared needlessly long to traverse round the side of the mountain just to come back on ourselves to get to the summit. So we decided, foolishly, to boulder straight up. This of course is something we should have done in a recce. It was very slow. On the plus side we warmed up in the bright sun and soon had all our layers pealed off. It was a stunning day to be in the Mournes.
Sweeping round to Doan, Joanne squealed with delight when she spotted a paw print in the mud, “look, that must be Charlie’s!”
Greg McCann had encouragingly met us at the start and said he would aim to see us along the route on Sunday. Unfortunately we were taking so long we missed him. Kathleen had also come out to meet us excitedly wanting to join us at the finish, but again as we were out for so long she had headed home concluding she must have missed us.
Descending Slieve Muck we took a bad line over the crags, it took us the same time descending as it does to climb the West side of Muck. We seemed to labour a number of uphills that could have been runable coming the opposite direction and then gnarly descents that would have made little time difference if they had been climbs. If anything, at least we learnt that clockwise is not the direction to suit us. It made us really appreciate what a fantastic time Greg did this year for his clockwise 500’s in misty weather!
We were starting to feel the effort of being on our feet for 16hours. Although we hadn’t been running it was draining energy in the cold wind. We’d been on the move for 16 hours but we’d been awake for 30. Motivation was becoming less of an adventure and more of a slog. Our minds were quietly weighing up the possibility of using the experience as a recce rather than a round. At this point if one of us had suggested it, I don’t think there would have been much of a dispute.
We were met at the Pigeon Rock car park and it was nice seeing an encouraging friendly face giving us praise for our gutsy efforts.
Then came the words, “Do you want to continue? It might be an idea to stop here, you have 3 hours of daylight left and the next loop will take you at least 5 hours.”
Imagine telling two stubborn women they might not make it?
It’s ok for us to think it but if there’s anything to add motivation to our step, those were the words that were needed 🙂
Without even a glance, Joanne and Taryn insisted they were perfectly fine and headed on. Muttering, “huh, we’ll be faster than 5hours!”
We took six.
In fairness this next section Taryn had actually recced. It had taken Nigel McKernan and her 3 hours 30mins from Ott car park to the base of Muck – one day in the summer, with dry ground, fresh legs and coming the opposite direction. The path from Moyad Road to the Red Moss River was not water logged mud in August. The Red Bog across to Finlieve was not bitterly icy in August. Behind Finlieve looming in the distance ahead of us, the sun wasn’t blinding our eyes as it lowered in the sky, in August. ‘Damn it, why did we not start running earlier, it’s going to get dark!’ We started to push hard from here. We were counting down the minutes, literally, till darkness. It was important we got beyond Shanlieve and to the wall at least, before the light disappeared on us. Joanne’s feet were beyond numb. Taryn attempted to squeeze on yet another pair of gloves. This was becoming painful, but the adrenaline had returned and we were giggling again at our insane adventure, convincing ourselves we were ‘lucky’ to be now sinking into the muddy peat hags rather than the icy bogs.
Delighted, we got to Windy Gap and had started the climb up Moughanmore as everything became black. The Garmin battery died (even our Garmin’s had given up on us!) so we had no altimeter which didn’t help navigating at night, but we trusted our map and compass in the dark, whilst trying to ignore our imaginations.
Crossing from Pigeon Rock to Cock Mountain we took a straight line as we had little chance of finding a path in the shadows and by then we weren’t keen to take any chances with detours. We trudged through the reeds. The finish looked so close. The car lights on the Kilkeel Road felt cruel. The reed beds seemed to go on and on with water up to our thighs at times. We couldn’t feel our frozen feet so it hardly mattered that they were getting wet, although the words, “Are you sure we’re not heading into Spelga dam?” meant the compass was firmly kept in view. We could faintly make out the silhouette of Cock Mountain, both summits making it look very rounded as the perception of depth disappeared in the dark, and eventually the ground started to slope upwards.
We felt delighted with our smooth negotiations over Cock and round Slievenamiskan, probably fueled by a sense of relief. Joanne had to reassure Taryn that the noise of the dam was normal as we tentatively headed down to find the bridge. It’s incredible how noises magnify in the dark. “I don’t like this”, was mumbled a few times as we clambered over the narrow gate in the torch light with what seemed like a deafening noise of water bursting out of the dam beside us.
The tarmac passing Spelga car park has never felt so good. The temptation to leave out Butter mountain was creeping into mind as the warm car and dry clothes were nearly in sight, but as if 2 stubborn eejits would be beaten that close to the end. We descended off Butter and back to the car at 8.10pm. 22 hours 55 minutes after we had set out, after 41.38 miles and 4,351 meters of height gain.
The satisfied glow and pleasure of finishing took a while to arrive, I think we needed to thaw a little first so we rewarded ourselves with chips. It was at least 24 hours before we started discussing plans for a ‘better prepared’ attempt… next Spring.