Monday, 19 January 2015

The Mourne Wall

The last wee while I have for some reason gotten quite into running, with vague intentions of doing the Belfast Marathon and some silly long runs in the Mournes.
On St Stephen's Day I ran the BARF Turkey Trot, a short-ish 9 km run up Trassey Track to Pollaphuca, round Slieve Meelmore and down the Mourne Way back to Trassey track, in a bit of a blizzard. I wasn't particularly fast, and it didn't help that my somewhat inappropriate trail running trainers gave no grip on snow then proceeded to fall apart near the end, but it was great fun.

Several days later, armed with better shoes and a favourable forecast I went out for a lap of the Annalong Valley with Alek, starting from Carrick Little and taking in Cove, Beg and Donard. Alek injured his ankle on the Bog of Donard but we still managed the whole thing quite quickly. Movign fast in the hills is fun.
With Alek on Cove Mountain

The Mournes are a compact range, with an unusual feature circumnavigating some of the highest peaks - the Mourne Wall. This tremendous navigation aid was built in the early 1900s to demarcate the catchment area for Belfast's water supply. 35 km in length and composed entirely of dry stone wall, this superb folly crosses the summits of all of the Mournes' highest peaks, except Lamagan. Naturally, it makes for a perfect and challenging circuit.
The Mourne Wall route. Accepted practice is to avoid the horrible river crossing between Long Seefin and Carrick Little by going to the Head Rd, as well as crossing Silent Valley dam rather than following the edge of the waterworks.

I never really went outside much until I was 15, when i got dragged up Donard by a few friends from school. Considering ourselves instant experts on the Mournes, we decided to attempt the Mourne Wall on the subsequent occasion. Wearing jeans, a cotton t-shirt and carrying enough kit to keep a small family going for a week, we set out on the warmest day of July 2007 from Newcastle, getting as far as Hare's Gap before being put off by sweat and the steepness of Bearnagh. We camped at Ben Crom, got eaten alive by midges and walked back along the road to Silent Valley, giving up.
Over the next year or so we made several further 2-day attempts, each a bit less stupid and a bit more successful than the previous, but never actually completed the circuit in one go.

Several glorious attempts, all failed.

Last week, the idea came to me to try it again, but in one day, as fast as possible. Once I have an idea like that it kind of grows and grows and then I have to go do the thing, I don't really get a choice in the matter - even if it meant trying it on the coldest weekend of the Winter, which apparently last weekend was.
On Saturday 17 Jan, Owen Largey, Stephen Armstrong and myself set off from Carrick Little car park, up the track towards Binnian. The plan was a clockwise circuit, getting the worst of the ascent out of the way at the start, and avoiding the horrific crossing of the Annalong river at the end (which I'd struggled across in 2007 and had no intentions of ever doing again).

Setting off up the Carrick Little track, and Owen just before we bailed

It was cold but clear, with quite a lot of snow on the hills. However, on the ascent of Binnian Stephen developed back pain and although he was keen to push on, it was decided that the most sensible thing to do was to abort and return to the car.

There are, of course, two days in a weekend, and the forecast for Sunday was similar. Owen wasn't free on Sunday, and I didn't really want to try it again on my own, so I texted Adrian Curran, who's normally up for silly long runs and the like.

I picked him up on Sunday morning and he informed me that he had had 3 hours sleep after doing a VJ set in El Divino the night before while eating a pot noodle in the car. "It seems wrong not to be a bit hungover when going out in the hills anyway". Fair enough...

My little rear-drive couldn't make it up the icy hills on the Head Road so we parked at Dunnywater (which we'd have to come through anyway) and got the road running bit out of the way at the start. This would have been grim at the end anyway.
Ice skating on the Head Road

Off we went up Binnian, passing Saturday's highpoint quite rapidly. Before long we were breaking trail in sometimes deep snow (amusing in trainers) and strong winds but were making good pace. Descending the steep reservoir side of Binnian was slow going in the snow but 1hr 50 mins in we arrived at Silent Valley and were going strong.


We knew the next section to the top of Muck would probably be the most difficult and weren't disappointed. The bog from the dam up to Slievenaglogh was as sodden as always. I was glad of my decision to pack spare socks but held off on their use until such a point as I started to lose feeling in my toes (thankfully this never happened).
Adrian was going strong while I struggled up Slievenaglogh, realising that I hadn't really brought enough food. One energy gel later I was a new man and only 3 hours in we were starting up Slieve Muck, the most appropriately named peak in the Mournes and the halfway point. Muck is steep and mucky, and the Banns Road side doesn't see much traffic (for good reason). The snow became quite deep and we were breaking trail, sometimes as much as knee deep. All quite demoralising.
Adrian on Slievenaglogh

At this point, Adrian had been moving longer than he had slept and started to flag. Some proplus and a sandwich kept him going. Caffeine is the business.


Once over the top of Muck things sped up. We were now back on well travelled ground, and the snow was nicely ploughed by plenty of footsteps. Deep snow slowed the uphill but made downhill fast and easy (and spared my knees).

Meelbeg and Meelmore

Adrian started getting bad cramp but an energy gel sorted that out (magic stuff those gels). Quick progress meant that only 2 hours passed from the top of Muck to Pollaphuca (col between Meelbeg and Meelmore). A short slog up Bearnagh saw us at the summit by 5.5hrs in. Here we met what seemed to be halfof QUBMC out walking and were gratefully refuelled by Owen and Aimee. I've never come down Bearnagh so fast. The Hare's Gap side is quite steep but the snow made for very rapid progress. It was no more than 5 minutes from the summit to the top of the steps at Hare's Gap. Only 4 more peaks to go.

The last couple of peaks from Bearnagh. Slievenaglogh, Slieve Corragh, Slieve Commedagh, Slieve Donard

With about 25km and 2200m of ascent done so far, Adrian was suffering quite badly on the uphills at this point and had resorted to adding a cold & flu rehydration sachet to his water bladder in an attempt to get more energy. We made slow progress across Slievenaglogh (different mountain, same name) and Slieve Corragh and up the steep ascent of Commedagh, leaving only Donard and its bog. However, Adrian looked absolutely shattered and although stubborn it wouldn't've been wise for him to carry on over Donard. Thankfully, it was possible for him to follow the Brandy Pad track from the Commedagh-Donard col to the stile on the Bog of Donard while I carried on over the last summit.
I learned it is not a wise idea to eat a sandwich while trying to ascend Donard at a brisk pace, as chewing was enough to get me quite out of breath! I had the summit to myself and enjoyed the view of the sunset over the Wintry Mournes before legging it down the far side, meeting a much-rejuvenated Adrian at the stile.
View SW from Donard
Donard shelter

Normally, the Bog of Donard is a nasty, soggy, ankle ambushing morass which slows progress significantly, but on this occasion it was slightly frozen, allowing quick progress. As the light dimmed we covered the 5km back to Dunnywater in good time, arriving, shattered, back at the car in a total time of 8 hours, 39 minutes.
Obligatory victory photo

All in all, a great day out. It's hard to saw whether the snow slowed us down or not - it made us slower on the uphill, certainly, but downhills (except Binnian) were significantly quicker and the cold froze the Bog of Donard. Adrian could certainly have done with more sleep beforehand!
Attempting the Wall after a warm spell with dry bogs would be quicker but in the usual sogginess of the Mournes it might not be. Might just have to find out!
I never needed my spare socks, the Inov-8 Mudclaws keeping my feet warm enough (if not dry) and I brough enough clothes and water. Thick gloves were a godsend. If I were to do it again, I'd bring more gels and food, though.

GPS data here (distance is shorter than reality, somehow)