About 2 months ago I came up with a silly idea – climb a route on every crag in the Annalong Valley in a day. An Alpine day out in the Mournes. Scholars are divided on how many crags there are in the Annalong Valley, so we decided to go on the basis of the Mournes guidebook – ie everything under the section ‘Slieve Binnian’ counted as one. (perhaps a slight cop-out, others are welcome to try the same challenge including all the many crags of Binnian). As it stood, we decided on the following hit list:
Blue Lough Buttress
The Back Castles (Commedagh)
A total of 12 crags, dotted across the valley, meaning that a full horseshoe would be in order. Not only lots of climbing but also lots of walking and possibly some scrambling. Thoroughly Alpine.
Such a silly idea needed silly people to carry it out. Luckily QUBMC is full of these, and with a free day on Tuesday 22 July and good weather I was able to find 2 other accomplices in short order. Not a man to back down from a daft plan, our glorious President, Stephen Rooney, was somewhat annoyed when I told him of my intention because he knew he would have to do it, and that it would be grim. Conor Cadden has been known to do silly things in the Mournes with regularity (like walk up Donard in a full suit on the warmest day of the year) so he wasn’t hard to convince. In fact, he probably shouldn’t have come at all, as he was supposed to pick his sister up from Dublin Airport at 9.30pm that day.
We went for the student approximation of an Alpine start, reaching the head of Carrick Little lane at 9.30am. The bags were light, with a 45m rope and a light rack packed as well as lots of water and a token warm layer than we knew we would never need. Harnesses were worn and helmets ditched in the spirit of ‘fast and light’.
Early morning psyche
Conor Cadden has never been to the Alps, and does not understand the concept of ‘guide’s pace’. Off he shot up to Douglas Crag, planning to go as fast as possible to get it out of the way… he soon gave up on that. Wheezing somewhat, we arrived at the first crag in 35 mins and soloed a short Severe on the side called Fissure Bob. Douglas Crag isn’t visited very often but it looks great – the supposedly great E2 Amen corner particularly so.
So, onwards, to number 2 – Binnian. Out of the fog looms a buttress – will that do? Is it in the guide? Turns out it is – Binnian Lough Crag. We solo Blue Jay, HS. Rooney found some frogs.
From there, we went round the Blue Lough Buttress. Another new venue for us, it’s normally wet but the recent dry spell left Waterspout Wall bone dry. Diploma (VD) is soloed, with Rooney electing to use a mono at one point and Cadden getting slightly stuck on the grassy finish. There was no safe way down so we scrambled out upwards through some slightly overhung grassy steps. Indeed, grass climbing became a recurring theme of the day, and was probably harder than any of the rock! A similar experience to Winter climbing in that you grab a clump of grass, close your eyes, grit your teeth, and pull…
Buzzard’s Roost next. A great crag, unfortunately there’s not much easy stuff, and what easy stuff there is is hard. Cadden wanted to climb the Mournes’ only 4* route, the Sheugh, as part of the challenge but that was a silly idea as it’s a bloody ridiculous chimney.
There’s a small gully up on the left hand side of the crag whereupon one will find the ‘route’ Harp (HS). The rope came out for this supposed 8m extravaganza.But it’s in the guide. Cadden’s accidental bumslide off a grassy ledge was a noted highpoint. Rooney led the route in fine style, topping out literally metres above the start (4m to be exact, although it would be a nasty solo as it starts off blocks at the top of a gully and is quite tricky).
The world's shortest HS
Onwards, then, to Percy Bysshe via a stopover at Blue Lough to refill on water. There were ducks! It was fierce warm, and the tops were off in short order. Cadden’s factor 50 was much in demand.
Percy Bysshe is another nice wee crag, perhaps a good choice if it’s too windy at Lower Cove. We soloed Dandy (S) and then made our way over to Lamagan slabs to climb FM (VD).
Things got interesting here, as Rooney nearly stood on a half-buried live artillery shell from WWII. This would have been bad. The Lamagan area is plastered in unexploded shells and shell remnants from the war, when naval gunners used it for target practice. Electing not to keep possibly live explosives as a souvenir, we marked the spot with a big X and carried on.
FM is always great fun. Since it’s 160m long we elected to move together and climbed the route in about 35 mins. Onwards, then, to Lower Cove, and this time it was my turn to nearly blow myself up when I nearly stood on a fully intact and fully uncovered artillery shell. Oh, dear. Two shells in the space of an hour – and none of us had ever found one before! It’s a wonder the Allies ever won the war if they were so bad and making shells.
For once, the wind that blows down 1st corner gully at Lower Cove was pleasant. Tyro (VD) is another lovely route and presented no difficulties. The boggy trudge to Upper Cove allowed us time to think/ramble and we collectively decided that anyone aspiring to executive committee of QUBMC must do the Annalong Valley Challenge. All those successful will earn a commemorative patch, showing a hand grasping a clump of grass, Cadden’s distressed face, an artillery shell, and an ice axe, coz mountaineering. The patch will be design by Cadden’s sister.
Midsummer Madness (an apt name) was the route of choice at Upper Cove, a 30m classic VD. I went first, trailing the rope on my harness, then pulled the bags up when I topped out. This was acutally harder than the climb itself. A brief 5 min stop for food (our longest break all day) and then on towards Slieve Beg. The time was 4pm and Cadden’s chances of being in Dublin for 9.30pm were fading. Difficulties in crossing a steep gully on the side of Cove slowed us down a bit and gave us a chance to come up with some excuses for him to tell his sister – traffic/flooding/tornado/fire/fire tornado/many women requiring help in giving birth/all of the above.
On Slieve Beg we soloed Devil’s Rib (VD, 50m). This was unbearably pleasant and a bit airy. At the top, Rooney’s knee exploded.
Or rather, seized, and he lost the power of perambulation for a minute. He manned upwards and got on with it. Shortly thereafter, we all exploded, and things stopped being pleasant. The rope came out for Jobseekers’ Flake (S) on Slieve Commedagh. I don’t think it was particularly hard, but I was shaking all the way up it as I was shattered. The midge was also in attendance, in vast quantities. One advantage of our approach was that we were generally moving too fast for the midges to keep up.
Annalong Buttress managed to hide from us briefly but we soon found Bilberry Bhutia (VD) and soloed it. We were getting quite used to soloing at this point.
No legs left
One last route to go. During the boggy trudge along the faint ridge towards Hare’s Castle clouds started to roll up the valley floor and we were treated to some spectacular cloud inversions. The last route of the day was Block Route (Diff), thankfully also the easiest. By this stage, 10 hours in, Diff felt like HVS and the midgiest hole in the Mournes was living up to its reputation. But it was done. Cadden was very late but refused to turn back at any point so that he didn’t have to come back and do it.
Great day for it
We trudged back to the car, Rooney finding the remains of an artillery shell and keeping it to make a vase. We finished at 8.30 pm – 12 routes, 12 crags, 11 hours, 9 soloes, 6 mountains, 5 ducks, 4 frogs, 3 climbers, 2 live artillery shells and 1 Annalong Valley later.
Go do it. It’s a great Alpine day out, and would make an excellent training day. Lots of walking, lots of scrambling, lots of climbing, and lots of having to make decisions about whether to bother with a rope or to move together.
EPILOGUE: Myself and Lisa went back two days later with Sergeant Neil Graham of Warrenpoint PSNI to try and find the unexploded shells. Driving up Carrick Little track in a police Land Rover Defender was good fun. The first shell we found OK (marked with a big X, visible from Percy Bysshe) but the second one eluded us. We did, however, find the remains of several other shells. If you’re in the Lamagan area, watch out for them! And make sure it’s already gone off before you lift any souvenirs.
Can you find the X?
The easy way to get to Lower Cove