“I am invited to climb what?” I exclaimed partly excited, partly perturbed. “You know I am not a climber.”
Though once a great sportsman, I was now on the wrong side of 35 with a few extra kilos and having done next to no serious walking for several years.
Yet I often saw Slieve Donard, which stands at 849 meter (2786 ft) and claims to be Northern Ireland's highest peak, on my many visits to Newcastle. Majestic and beautiful, it beckoned me try. And this was the perfect opportunity.
After all, my friend had jogged to the top. Though younger and fitter than me, didn't I repeatedly beat him in our weekly volleyball games?
“The answer is YES!” I replied.
We Begin to Climb Slieve Donard Co Down Ireland
And so it was that one cold rainy June day we found ourselves at the foot of Slieve Donard.
Twenty six individuals. A few adults and the rest teenagers from our Youth Club. We parked our cars in the spacious Donard Park car park and set off.
The first part of the climb takes you through a stunning forest with brooks and little pools formed between the rocks. The water looks so clean and fresh that you want to dive in. If only it wasn't so down right cold...!
Soon the trees come to an end. From now on it is grass where sheep may safely graze.
On the left an deserted ice house were in olden days they used to store food in summers to preserve it in the earth's bosom cooler temperatures. “They would hardly need it in days like this” I muse to myself.
The trail so far has had gentle inclines and at places has been nearly level so I get more confident. This is a doodle, I think.
Oh No! Its Harder Than I Thought!
But the party is soon to end. Right in front of me the angle of incline steepens. I begin to climb and my pace slows down.
So far I had been chatting and laughing. Now I am awfully quiet. Rather than talk, I try to breath more efficiently. The lactic acid begins to build in my rested-for-too-long calve and thigh muscles. But I keep going following some, ahead of others.
About two thirds of the way up we reach a crest. On the left the path leads to Slieve Donard. On the right to Slieve Commedagh at 765 meters. Donard has the edge height-wise by a few meters.
We decide to stop for a snack. The wind up here is strong and cold, but we find shelter behind the Mourne Wall, a strong stone wall built a hundred year ago to enclose a reservoir's catchment area. Food sure tastes good when you are tired hungry.
Thirty minutes break and we are ready to resume the climb. The last part of the climb is not as steep as the previous, but now that the lactic acid has settled in and my muscles cooled down I find it harder to get moving. “Maybe we shouldn't have taken that break,” I think to myself.
The rate of climb is now slower, but I want to get to the top. “What will my dad think if I don't?” I muse. At 76 years of age, he is still a keen climber who usually leads the pack when he goes out hiking with friends.
I blame the modern lifestyle: home, office, car, supermarket. Maybe I should have become a soccer star, as I had dreamt as a child. Surely I would have been the first.
At The Top of Slieve Donard Co Down Ireland
My thoughts keep me busy and soon, voila!
I have reached the top!
I have conquered the mighty Slieve Donard Co Down Ireland!
“Don't celebrate too much,” I alert myself. “They will all realise you are a novice.”
The wind is fierce up here; fierce and cold. But the view is spectacular. On a clear day you can see for miles and miles in each direction; and thankfully, the weather has cleared.
To the east the eyes wonder far across the Irish Sea, to the south-east the intriguing isle of Man, to the south,north and west the beautiful hills of County Down will little towns dotting the landscape.
Right at the foot, cosmopolitan Newcastle, quiet during winter but teeming with life on weekends and in the summer.
We stand there, I don't know for how long. Joking and jesting, we absorb the views and let the air whistle past our ears.
The Descent of Slieve Donard Co Down Ireland
It is time to start heading back. We descend through a different route.
They say that descending can be tougher than ascending and in a way it is true. Going down the mountains seems so effortless that you are tempted to run. Yet with every step the legs and feet have to bear the weight of the body and tired from a long ascend it is easy to mis-step and fall.
But gravity tempts me and I begin to run.
Wow! it is exciting.
Within seconds common sense prevails and I slow down. Don't try to run down a mountain when you are tired.
Care For a Swim on Slieve Donard Co Down Ireland?
We are now near the foot of Donard but on the opposite side. Another brook again creates pools,but this time bigger and deeper.
“Shall we swim?” Someone suggests. To my surprise, quite a few jump at the idea. They have actually come prepared with bathing suits!
“These Irish are mad,” I blurt to myself. The weather might have cleared but it is still cold. And the water is even colder. Brrrrrrrr.... No thanks. They, however, seem to enjoy it.
At last we reach the bottom at a point called Bloody Bridge.
Although the route to Slieve Donard peak is only 5.5 miles, the whole affair, the climbing, the eating, the enjoying-the-view-from-the-top, the descent, the swim took about five hours.
As we get in the car and begin the journey home, I ask, was it worth it? Absolutely.
I have seen a new place, enjoyed stunning views, spent time with friends and... done my week's exercise!
So there, this is the story of an unfit dad that survived to tell the tale...
What is your story? Have you climbed Slieve Donard