In the latest article on his teams training for the upcoming Oxfam Trailtrekker event, Stephen Wilson gives an account of his successful attempt at the mammoth Mourne Seven Sevens Challenge.
So, at 6am on Saturday the 7th August 2010, myself and team mates Darren Graham and Eve Young, set off to Donard Park once again to take on the Mourne Seven 7’s challenge as preparation for the Trailtrekker. Despite the lack of sleep, the bacon bap’s provided by Eve had us in high spirits on the journey, but there was a definite sense of trepidation, and possibly some fear in the air, as we considered what we were about to take on.
The challenge is so named because it involves getting to the summit of each of the 7 peaks in the mourne’s that are over 700m high. What they don’t tell you is that in order to do that within a decent time you will also need to get over at least 2 other peaks below 700m! The only rule is that all walkers must reach the checkpoint at Ben Crom Dam by 2:30pm, and the route you take is entirely your own choice. Darren and myself did some limited research on the best route to take and opted to start with Slieve Donard and go anti-clockwise around Ben Crom reservoir. Hiking 29km, the target times were 10 –12 hours and we hoped to do it in under 12.
Slieve Donard 850m
Slieve Commedagh 765m approx ascent from saddle 200m
Slieve Bearnagh 727m approx ascent from Hare’s gap 289m
Slieve Meelmore 704m approx ascent from saddle 204m
Slieve Meelbeg 708m approx ascent from saddle 108m
Slieve Binnian 747m approx ascent from Ben Crom Dam 547m
Slieve Lamagan 704m approx ascent from base of Binnian 354m
After Lamagan you will also need to get over Cove Mountain and up Slieve Beg to the devils coach road, which I estimate to be about another 300m of climbing.
Total Height of the 7 is 5205m (That’s nearly Kilimanjaro!!)
Total actual meters climbed thru the day is roughly 2852m or 9357ft
N.B. All heights are taken from the 1990 edition of the OS 1:25000 scale map.
Setting off from Donard Park at 7:30am we had a spring in our step despite the looming clouds hiding Donards summit and we all set our heart rate monitors going to measure our time and calories burned during the event.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the best map reader in the world, but I am trying to hone my skills. When I look at a map to try and plan my route my instinct tells me two things. 1) Take the path of least resistance, and 2) Avoid treading the same ground twice. Unfortunately these often contradict each other, and it can be hard to judge the severity of terrain until you actually tackle it. We faced this very problem at the start of the challenge, as the traditional “easy” route up Donard would have us coming down the same way to get to Commedagh. To avoid this we choose to take the route less travelled over Thomas Mountain by crossing the Glen River at the icehouse. This was a pretty tough start to the day as the face of Thomas is almost vertical in places and the conditions were very poor with visibility at only maybe 15ft. I doubted our decision a number of times as we climbed through the fog, but the appearance of some other hikers going the same way lifted my confidence again. When you get over Thomas you are already more than half way up Donard so the hard work paid off, and I remember a certain sense of satisfaction as we passed walkers on our way down Donard who would have to descend over the same ground again.
We had conquered Slieve Donard in 1 hour and 45 minutes and were at the summit of Commedagh just 45 minutes later. It was nice to get down and hike through the shelter of the Brandy pad for a while before ascending Bernagh and getting to the top by 11:20am. As we followed the mourne wall to the peaks of Meelmore and Meelbeg we were in good form and impressed by our own pace, as we had now completed 5 of the seven mountains in just over 5 hours.
The weather finally began to break as we descended Meelbeg and the sunshine put a smile on our faces for the trek to the timed checkpoint at Ben Crom Dam. However, this optimism was soon turned to misery by the crazy terrain we had to negotiate. There is no discernable path or well trodden route to get to the dam, so we were tramping over thick gorse littered with hidden rocks to get to the Ben Crom river where we hoped we would find a path, but were met by sodden bog to follow all the way through the valley and around Ben Crom itself. This section really took its toll and I got my first real blister as well as my right knee starting to painfully seize up. Despite all this, we made it to the checkpoint with 30 minutes to spare but the hour and a half trek had seemed more like 6!
We took this opportunity to stop for lunch and some much needed foot maintenance and we met another team of walkers who had completed the Trailtrekker in 2009. They appeared to be of similar age and fitness to ourselves and they had completed in just over 25 hours, which we found very encouraging as we are hoping to hit a target of under 30 hours.
With blisters attended to, fresh socks and our water bladders topped up from the dam we set off to tackle Slieve Binnian. It is a very long slow climb, and our pace had definitely dropped. We left our backpacks on the saddle between Binnian and Lamagan, as we knew we would have to come back down this way. This loss of weight gave us a sudden lease of life and we actually ran the distance between the North Tor and summit Tor!! It felt great to properly stretch the legs. There was barely a cloud in the sky, and the view from the summit down across Carlingford Lough, where we will be walking to in a matter of weeks, was absolutely breath taking. It genuinely felt like being on top of the world, as it seemed we could see the majority of Ireland in every direction around us.
It was now almost 4 o’clock as we started to descend Binnian and the full height of Lamagan, our final mountain, towered in front of us. It was the first time during the challenge that we could actually see the summit of what we were climbing from the base, which seemed to somehow make it even more daunting. It’s a very rocky ascent, and thanks to our very tired legs, probably the slowest pace we had kept all day. But one foot after the other, and spurred on by a glimpse of the Red Arrows over Newcastle, we finally made it to the top at 5:45pm.
I estimate the hike from here back to Donard Park to be about 6km over Cove Mountain and up Slieve Beg. Normally an easy stroll but I think we were all flagging during this stretch. However, it was a lovely sunny evening as we came back down past Donard and Thomas, and we could survey the route we had taken at the start of the day… Would we have taken it on if we could have seen it in the morning? Maybe not, but we were very proud of what we had achieved.
The finish time on our certificates reads 12 hours 50 minutes, but this includes breaks of at least an hour, so in our heads we did it in under 12! And for those of you who are interested we each burned over 7000 calories during the event. It’ll take quite a few pizzas’ to replace that! All in all, it was an extremely tough challenge and not for the inexperienced hiker but I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to test themselves and take in the beauty of the Mourne Mountains at the same time.
I’d like to take this opportunity to extend a huge thank you on behalf of our team to the Spartan Red Sox Walking Club for a very well organised event, and a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The friendly smiles that accompanied the tea, coffee, soup, sandwiches and biscuits at the finish were just what we needed.
Coming up next, we have our fundraising walk on Sunday 15th August from Helen’s Bay to Whitespots Country Park. All welcome, we start at 12:30 / 1pm and here is the route: http://www.walkni.com/Walk.aspx?ID=329
After that we have only one more training walk before the big event and we still need donations for Oxfam. So if you enjoyed this article, please take the time to donate some money, no matter how little, simply click the link below:
Thanks, Stephen Wilson