Slieve Donard: The Fourth Peak

Before I moved to China I was already heavy into hiking. I managed to peak Ben Nevis, Snowdon, and Scafell Pike. But I never made it to the highest peak in Northern Ireland. Since I moved back to Dublin, I decided it was finally time to complete the fourth mountain.

A Brief History of Climbing

While I was growing up in the Lake District I was a member of the RAF Air Cadets. It’s an organisation that aims to give teenage children interesting after-school activities, as well as encouraging people to join the RAF. We would learn how to shoot rifles, take flying lessons, go on camping trips, and climb mountains. It was the time spent as a cadet that took me up both Snowdon in Wales, and Scafell Pike in England.

Later, when I had decided to leave the UK and move to China, I made a list of the things I wanted to do before I left. Among those was climbing the highest mountain in the UK: Ben Nevis in Scotland. I reached out to some friends and we climbed together. I had now completed 3 of the 4 peaks, but for some reason I never even thought about the fourth peak. Perhaps at the time having done the highest was enough.

Several years passed, and a friend started the Shanghai Cacophony Society, modelled after the original Cacophony Society in San Francisco that started SantaCon, and would also go on to create Burning Man. It quickly developed an obsession with raccoons and renamed itself to the Raccoon Society. Another obsession came when a member saw a T-Shirt that said “Praise Slieve Donard”, turning the society into a satirical and absurdist cult that worshipped someone named Slieve Donard without knowing what it actually was.

When I first heard who our new Lord and Saviour was, it itched the back of my mind. I had missed one. There are four countries in my country. And I’d only been to the top of three of them. I needed to climb the fourth peak.

The Return

When I decided to leave China, I ended up moving to Dublin. It was convenient – I was working for Demonware who had a studio there, and as a British Citizen I didn’t need a visa to work in the country. This meant I now had an opportunity. I could finally travel north and peak Slieve Donard.

Which is why I didn’t bother for over 6 months. I could climb it any time. What’s the rush? I kept thinking about it and not doing anything.

Then I had a blood test and got told I had high cholesterol. I wasn’t high risk yet, but I wasn’t going in the right direction. I got advice on how to lower it. Eat less meat, drink less alcohol, do more exercise, and so on. I really don’t want to give up meat or drinking, so I had only one choice left. And I’d achieve it by climbing a mountain.

Of course, I did some preparation beforehand. I discovered that there was a Newcastle-Not-Upon-Tyne in Northern Ireland, which is a town close to the mountain. Guides to the mountain said it would be a tough climb, especially near the top. If I was younger this wouldn’t have fazed me, but at this point I’m probably the least fit I’ve ever been.

The weather wasn’t looking too great either – there was a good chance of rain. But I was determined. I wanted to get this thing done. So I bought myself some new hiking boots, waterproofs, and a thermos; booked my wife and I into a local hotel and it was set. We would be climbing this mountain no matter what.

Hail Slieve!

To get to Newcastle we first had to ride a train from Dublin to Newry, then take a bus from there. We left our home around 7 in the morning. It took us around 4 and a half hours to get to Newcastle. As we rode the bus to Newcastle the countryside reminded me of the Lake District. I watched as the Mourne Mountains came into view, partly concealed by clouds. We wouldn’t be getting any good views at the top, but that wasn’t why we were here.

We got to Newcastle just before 2 in the afternoon. I had wanted to start as early as possible. The whole climb can take around 4-5 hours, but with my fitness level I figured it would take longer. Heavy rainfall was predicted for later that night well into Sunday morning, so we didn’t want to be walking through that. Sunset was around 8 in the evening which would give us 6 hours, so we decided it was best to start there and then.

We followed our map to the car park where the entrance to the Glen River route could be found. The lower part of the route is part of a park with a few different footpaths. Our path was the obvious one: follow the river up the mountain.

As these things always do, the walk started out easy. We were following a stone path uphill through a forest. When we came out the other side we got the best view we would have for the whole hike – Newcastle, the beach, and the sea.

We would soon come to our first obstacle. The low clouds meant that the tops of the mountains were covered in fog. We had prepared for this, so we pulled out our gloves and waterproofs and pressed on.

When the path veered away from the river I knew we were getting close. The path started getting steeper and we had to cross several streams. This must have been the Saddle I’d read about. The final stretch to the peak. But there was something missing – where was the Mourne’s Wall that I had read about?

I ignored this and focused on the climb. After a short while the path flattened out and we saw a cairn. For a second we thought we had made it. We were ready to take a rest! Then we noticed the hill next to us. If we were at the peak, why was there still higher ground? Through the fog we could see what must be Mourne’s Wall. Ah. So this was the start of the Saddle, not the end.

I knew we only had around 600 meters left at this point. Confident that it was almost over we started following the wall. Then the mountain taught us how tough it could be. The path was so steep we wanted to stop every 2 minutes. We kept complaining to each other and encouraging each other as we climbed. Every time we thought we were getting closer, another hill would come out from hiding in the fog.

More experienced hikers walked past us as we slowly made our way up the hill. The winds were stronger up here, and the clouds turned into sideways rain. We were getting colder but we pressed on. Eventually I saw it: the Great Cairn and a tower. This was it. For real this time.

It was fucking freezing up there. I could feel blood draining from my fingers so I knew we couldn’t stay here long. We took a couple of pictures as quickly as we could (we needed proof, after all), before making our way back down the Saddle. We had wanted to take a rest at the peak, but the weather that day wouldn’t afford us that luxury.

We were knackered by the time we made it back to the Lesser Cairn. We took shelter from the wind and rain behind some rocks, so we could take tea and eat some food. Once we were warmed up and our bellies filled, we made our way back down.

Apart from being exhausted, the climb back down was uneventful. As we moved back under the clouds the view of Newcastle came before us again. We went back the way we came, and when we found the beach we got ourselves some well deserved ice cream.

No More Peaks..?

As we left the next morning it was raining hard. The clouds had descended even lower, obscuring the Mourne Mountains entirely. We were glad we didn’t wait to climb it. Still, we saw a group of young people wearing waterproofs and carrying large rucksacks that were also covered in water protection. The rain wasn’t stopping everyone that day.

So that was it. I was done. I’ve been at the highest point of all four countries in the UK now. I have nothing left to climb anymore. It’s not like I live in Ireland now and have started obsessing about Carrauntoohil. No. I’m done. No more hiking…

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