Having been too busy for around a month or so to get into the hills, I decided it was time for a good two night camp in the Mourne Mountains. It had been planned that night one should be at the saddle of Donard and Commedagh (which was shaping up to be a solo) and night two was to be in Annalong with fellow HikersBlog author John and our good friend Yak. How I filled my time between the two was planned much more loosely.
After work I got the next bus to Newcastle where I had a light bite. Walking down the promenade I felt the gusts of wind coming down off the hills, it was pitch black on the hills and anywhere else not adorned by the warm sodium glow of the street lights. I had deliberately packed heavy (around 19 kilos plus water) in order to get a little conditioning out of my first trip in nearly four weeks. The pack felt entirely manageable at this stage as I strolled through Donard Park. I looked up at the pitch black of the hills and a gust of wind blew some rain into my face, this was to be a fun hike.
As I was walking alone, I took my time plodding up through Donard Wood and along the Glen River path. Once I reached the Ice House the windy conditions became apparent, with gusts of wind not quite strong enough blow you off your feet, but certainly enough to upset your footing were you careless.
Nights like these I often find are the best. A dark, cold night, a steep hike, high winds and an oppressively heavy pack. This was the kind of hike where you don’t let your mind wander, but rather you focus on every step and become immersed in the physical experience of the walk itself. Not unlike a meditation of sorts and in its own way it’s very refreshing.
After a nice gruelling hike I was met at the ferociously windy saddle by fellow HikersBlog author Claire and her wee Beagle – Cash.
The wind was coming up the Annalong valley, so we had direct shelter from the Mourne Wall. I threw my bivvy down right next to it and enjoyed the spectacular view.
We had a few cups of tea while Cash darted about, fascinated by the scent of all the abandoned scraps of food trampled into the dirt by hikers. The area wasn’t heavily littered by any means, but the wee beagle’s keen senses were flooded.
Claire spoke of the Mourne Skyline race she had completed and how the windy conditions were as bad, or worse. It seemed almost unthinkable to be running downhill in those kinds of conditions. Fair play to those who competed!
Before long I was in my bivvy for the night, shielded from the elements, while Claire and Cash sheltered in their tent. Despite the high winds and occasional rain shower I slept extremely well and awoke to find Cash sitting by my bivvy bag, apparently intrigued that there might actually be a human inside that strange, shapeless bag of goretex.
Claire and Cash headed back down the Glen river path and I casually set about fixing some breakfast on the Reactor stove.
I always leave my stove within arm’s reach of my bivvy bag when camping. There’s something about being able to boil up a cup of tea and a ration pack for breakfast without having to leave your sleeping bag. The warmth you build up stays with you and sets you up for the day. It’s a definite mood booster!
I had discussed meeting with my friend Chris and while we hadn’t agreed anything for certain, I had suggested we meet at the saddle. I gave him a quick call and plans had changed, we were to meet at Cove instead and Chris was at Newcastle at this stage. Breakfast already taken care of, I packed up and climbed over the stile.
The winds which met me as I stepped up onto the stile were absolutely ferocious. Were I not holding onto the stile with both hands I’d have been blown right back off it again. It felt like I had to almost push myself down each step. Every step from the wall towards the Brandy Pad was a definite struggle, as I was being blown off my footing quite a few times. Despite this, the view was quite nice, the fast moving clouds clearing and obscuring the view of the hills from one moment until the next.
I decided that taking on the steep descent directly onto the valley floor alone, in high winds with a heavy pack would have been foolish, so I detoured a little further along the Brandy Pad towards Slieve Beg. Passing the devil’s coach road I took my descent along the Kilkeel river to where it joins the Annalong river. Over here I was relatively sheltered and could make a more confident descent. After a few attempts at carefully negotiating the boggy open ground with dry feet I decided just to press on and tramped through the mud down towards the valley floor.
When I hooked back onto the Annalong valley trail the high winds were once again battering me. At least this time I had already made my descent however and was only walking along a flat, well trodden path.
I reached Cove Cave and Chris and his friend Deborah had already began to descend the gully. I headed over towards them when I heard Chris shout in his country brogue “I’ve wrecked me ankle!”
We sat down in Chris’ bright yellow bothy bag, waiting to see if it was merely a sprain which would pass or something more serious. After a few minutes rest we realised the ankle was not going to be able to bear weight. I had no reception but luckily Deborah did. She phoned mountain rescue and gave them our location. We sat and waited in the bothy bag, the fierce winds flapping it around ferociously. Were it not for the protection of the bothy, sitting around in such high wind would definitely have lowered our body temperatures to uncomfortable levels!
I offered Chris a cup of tea or some food as I had packed for a two day trip and had plenty left. He said he felt fine however and was happy just to wait it out.
Before long we saw the lights of the new Mourne Mountain Rescue Team Landrover making its way up the track at an impressive speed. The team got out and started moving towards us. Fellow HikersBlog author Eamonn was first on the scene. Chris laughed about three guys from HikersBlog being in the one place by chance, One dropping by, one being rescued and the other doing the rescuing!
The MMRT assessed Chris’ situation and immobilised his ankle, then moved him into the stretcher. Chris laughed and joked the whole time, true to his usual form. Once Chris was secured the stretcher was on its way back to the landrover. To my surprise I was asked to carry a corner of the stretcher and I jumped at the opportunity. Chris is a pretty big fellow and the more help the better. Still carrying the camping pack, the shortcomings of my lightweight Merrell Grassbows became evident. When at the back of a stretcher you have pretty much no choice in foot placement.
You really do need a good stiff, sturdy boot when dealing with this amount of weight. We loaded Chris into the landrover and Eamonn and I got a chance to chat as we followed it down the track. Eamonn convinced me to start wearing my Mantas more often when wearing a heavy pack, by walking over to a sloped rock and standing on it with the outer edge of his boot. A stiff boot definitely brings less comfort, but having those extra options for foot placement is invaluable when carrying weight. It was great to see Eamonn on a chance encounter, although it was unfortunate the circumstances weren’t a little more positive.
Reaching my final destination for night two we came across Dave (Yak) and Jonno and his son Pete from Ni-Wild. They had been over on Binnian exploring the villages and had seen the rescue unfold from there. Yak had left his pack in Jonno’s car at Carrick Little so I walked with them to the car. It was fantastic to run into another group of friends over the course of the trip and I really enjoyed catching up with Jonno and Pete. Realising that Yak would be camping with me lifted my spirits too, as fellow HikersBlog author John wasn’t due to join me until very late in the evening.
Probably noticing I was a little beaten from lugging a pack all over the Mournes and skipping lunch, Jonno offered to drive Yak and I to the quarter road filling station and back to get supplies. At this point I would have eaten anything, but just hadn’t had the chance to stop and boil up the stove. We gratefully accepted Jonno’s offer and picked up all manner of rubbish at the filling station. Donuts, Malteser squares, Oreos. Anything which would rapidly get some sugar back into my tired muscles before I tanked was on the menu.
Jonno drove us back to Carrick Little and was on his way home as we started back up the track. I decided to eat a couple of the donuts while I walked and undoubtedly it was a hilarious sight. I wish Yak had have turned his camera on me for a few moments as I’m sure the sight of me at that point would be amusing to look back on.
After the drama of the rescue, strolling along the path with Yak and reminiscing on our past walks was the perfect way to wind down for the evening. We strolled into Hotel Annalong (Annalong wood) and fired up the stove, getting some hot ration packs and a few sweet treats into us to restore our energy.
The recent high winds had left plenty of fresh, fallen wood for us and while Yak gathered some quick lighting wood around the fire pit I started sawing up some logs of fresh, dry pine. While I cursed the weight of the bow saw in my pack all weekend, now it was proving its worth in helping to quickly build a comforting fire.
I noticed a couple of hikers had stopped into the wood for a rest and asked them over to our fire for a cup of tea and a chat. Agnieszka, an outdoor pursuits instructor and her partner Niall had been visiting from Dublin and they joined us around the fire for some coffee, food and a chat. The three of us sat for hours talking about everything from hiking to politics, sport and recreation. Mentioning to Aga about the strange looks I sometimes get on public transport with my massive hiking pack, she reassured me this was not uncommon as the glances she gets on trains with her surf board are equally amusing. Niall shared some really tasty Quinoa with us while Yak and Aga discussed their experiences being vegetarians over the years.
This had been a weekend of unlikely circumstances. Shortly after the drama and adrenaline of Chris’ rescue, we had randomly met the nicest and most interesting pair of complete strangers you could hope to meet. As we hopped around from seat to seat, avoiding the smoke from the fire in the changing winds Yak and I were reminded of how richly rewarding it is to sit around a fire with other people and share in their experiences.
Niall and Aga headed off down the track and after a few hours of chilling around the fire, Yak and I saw John’s head torch moving up the track. John set up his tent next to where Yak and I had pitched and we enjoyed a fantastic evening around the fire. Even though I do enjoy the occasional solo camp, I find it far more enjoyable to meet up with people at various stages in a multi-day journey. Each time a new friend strolls in to say hello or join you for the evening it brings new craic around the fire. Yak and I were glad to see John and weren’t short on stories to share after the day’s events.
We lay down for the night and rested well. The comfort of the warm sleeping bag and the bivvy bag was the perfect restorative after a long day in the hills and I slept on until shortly after sunrise.
John had risen early to take a time-lapse of the sunrise from the forest and had kindly built up a fire to boil water for breakfast.
Feeling restored after a good night’s sleep, we sat around the fire eating our ration packs and having some tea. Shortly afterward another HikersBlog author, Spud joined us with his wife Catriona. We relaxed around the fire for a while before heading up the track towards Percy Bysshe caves.
I hadn’t known Spud and Catriona would be joining us, so as the weekend drew to a close this was the perfect final meetup to finish up a great weekend. We strolled up the short track to Percy Bysshe in the ferocious winds and had a little explore around the caves.
After exploring the cave we climbed back down to the track while it was calm and headed back to the car. Everyone was feeling a little peckish, especially myself and Yak, so we decided to drop into Docs in Newcastle before heading our separate ways.
Food always tastes great after a weekend in the hills and this was no exception. A hot fish supper and a mug of strong tea, at a proper table, while sitting in an actual chair with back support. While I had enjoyed the weekend, the food at the end was like manna from heaven and it gave us all a chance to relax and have a chat about the weekend’s events and some upcoming walks we have planned.
It was a weekend of the unexpected, from Chris’ unfortunate injury to the chance encounter with Aga and Niall – The refreshing focus of walking alone to the fantastic company of Claire, Yak, John, Spud and Catriona. There was even a brief chat with Jonno and Pete thrown into the mix. The weekend was impromptu with little planning, but turned out to be the most eventful two night trip I have been on to date.