Updated: Mar 11, 2020
I recently saw a top 10 list of things to do in Northern Ireland. Sites such as the Giant’s Causeway, the Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede bridge are on the list, as you might expect. I’d actually visited all but one.
I’m a Canadian who has been coming to the north since 1992. For my sins, I married someone from the north, and his family remains my primary reason for visiting. We always make it a holiday when we come, though, which is why I’ve done 9 out of the top 10 things to do. Everything but visit Rathlin Island, which is still on my bucket list for Ireland.
On our last visit just a couple of months ago, I did what was possibly the most difficult of the top 10 – climbing Slieve Donard. When you’re 50 years old and of moderate fitness, it should make you think twice. It nearly killed me.
At just over 2,700 feet, Slieve Donard is the highest mountain in Northern Ireland. The trail is 90% (my personal observation; not an actual fact) uneven, wet rocks, at increasing elevation (read: straight up, at an unforgiving rate of elevation). I found myself constantly rebalancing myself, stepping carefully to find a good footing, and spent so much time looking down, I forgot to look up at the dark Mourne mountains around me that slope down to the sea, as the song goes. These are the mountains that inspired CS Lewis's Narnia.
“A doddle,” said Paul, my husband’s nephew. This is a man nearly 40 who carried his mountain bike UP the mountain, all 2,700 feet, and broke his arm riding it DOWN.
Never believe an Irishman who says it’s a doddle.
His sister, Michelle, and I trailed our group by at least a kilometre, finding the climb to be quite challenging. Even stopping frequently to get our breath – well, finding any excuse, really, to take a break; an untied lace, a snack, a drink of water, adjusting a hat – and shake out the aching legs, we barely made it to the top. Each time we caught up to the rest of the group, who’d been resting while they waited for us, they’d pick up and head on, leaving us struggling to catch our breath and forego our rest. Paul’s son, aged seven, and my daughter, 12, effortlessly zipped up the mountain and back down again – first ones up and first ones down.
The closer to the top we got, the rainier, foggier and windier it became. We couldn’t see the top – visibility was limited to about 50 feet – so we really didn’t know just how much farther we had to go. Which made it very tempting to quit even as we passed the “saddle,” the point about two-thirds of the way up, where the trail zigs to continue up the mountainside along a dry-stone wall. And thank goodness for that wall! Surely, if it wasn’t for the wall, we would have been blown off the mountain by the strong winds.
“Not too much further,” others told us (they could see we obviously suffered); I swear people had been telling us that all the way up. Several times, Michelle and I stopped, looked at each other, questioning silently first: why are we doing this? And secondly, are you going to quit? And then each would burst into laughter at the futility of it – we both knew we’d keep going, but if one of us showed the slightest inclination to quit, the other would have crumbled, too.
But we did it! We persevered, and we climbed to the top, which was enshrouded in a cold fog so thick, it appeared we could drop right off the top of the mountain if we strayed too far, even though the trail flattened out and continued on to neighbouring mountains in the chain of the Mournes. At one time a cairn or “passage tomb,” the pile of shale at the top, Paul explained, contained at least one grave, and likely the ashes of many others who considered Slieve Donard to be a home of sorts – a well-loved mountain that gave them a sense of place, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of belonging.
After downing a hot drink, we realized we were losing our light – it was now well after 3 p.m., and in January, it begins to get dark around 4:30. We began our descent; going down was just as tricky as going up the slope; you really had to choose your footing carefully.
The descent gave me at least one dramatic moment of excitement.
Everything was wet. I moved off the rocks onto a dirt track many hikers before us had made, and in places there were clumps of dirt and loose rocks. My foot slipped on some of these, and instead of falling backwards and breaking my fall by sitting down, the slope was so steep I fell forwards into a rather frightening somersault. Thankfully, my instinct told me to tuck my head in and roll, and I didn’t quite have enough momentum for more than one somersault, so I came to a half-standing position and sat back down. I mentally noted my injuries – I’d felt a terrible pull in my right calf, and I hoped my leg wasn’t broken. My left hand was scraped, as was my right knee. I was out of breath, realizing just how close to a terrible accident I’d come. I stayed where I was until I was sure I was okay. I decided my calf issue was just a pulled muscle, not a broken leg.
Getting up was a bit of a challenge, and the effort of continuing the long journey to the bottom seemed to fix whatever had happened to my calf. But I was extra careful walking down the rest of the way – I moved slowly and deliberately, and thankfully didn’t end up being any the worse for wear, with the exception of some very sore muscles (more likely from the arduous climb to the top) for the next three days.
By the time we reached the bottom, it was dark. Guided by Paul, we went off-track to follow a mountain bike trail along a stream. And eventually made it to the bottom – sore, triumphant and very hungry.
There is, no doubt, a sense of accomplishment that comes with testing your limits. When I was a teenager, I used to organize three-day group canoe trips; some had long portages, where the group would have to carry canoes and all gear – 50-lb backpacks, often – over a path between lakes. Sometimes, portages were more than a kilometre, and sometimes we’d have to go back for more gear. We encouraged each other by telling ourselves, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
Climbing Slieve Donard, I felt fit, healthy, and driven by a desire to push myself. This is a good thing, because I am planning to walk the Camino Primitivo in northern Spain later in May, Oviedo to Finisterre in Portugal, a distance of almost 400 kilometres. But I admit I am left with a sense of dread. I Googled the highest peak on this particular camino, which winds through the Cantabrian mountains.
It’s at least another 1,000 feet higher than Slieve Donard.
I can only hope the trail is smooth, my spirit is strong, and that my legs and lungs are stronger.