‘The mind cannot carry away all that the mountain has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away.’ – Nan Shepherd
It has become a New Year’s Day tradition over the past couple of years for us to go for a mountain hike to commence the new year purposefully. So after enjoying the final sunset of 2017 on the beach we had helped clean earlier in the year (The Great British Beach Clean) we set out our walking gear and loaded up the rucksacks for the following day.
We set the alarm for early o’clock to make the most of the winter daylight, it was still dark out as we sleepily pulled on our layers of clothing, ate a huge bowl of porridge for breakfast and filled flasks with coffee. The weather forecast on one final inspection suggested that the mountains may be a little windy and there was a 10% chance of rain. That didn’t sound too bad for a January hike so with a final check that we had all we needed for the day we drove towards Newcastle, County Down.
Those early morning drives are my absolute favourite. The first sunrise of a brand new year just beginning to rise, its radiant light making everything glow with a golden sheen. Still sleepy boys in the back chilled out and happy to listen to some quiet music on the radio and there is a certain stillness about that time of day, before the world awakens, that is just magical and feels like a secret between close friends.
Once parked in Donard car park we stepped out of the car into a slight breeze, not unusual by the coast during winter, but nonetheless we were eager to get moving to keep our bodies warm. The initial part of the Slieve Donard trail goes through forest, following the Glen River upwards to the igloo-like ice-house on the other side of the river where the forest path then ends and the remainder of the trail is exposed.
After a quick pause here for a snack we continued on along the rocky path. A fair amount of rain over the festive period meant that the route was muddier than usual, this combined with a fairly strong head-wind, meant it was a somewhat slippery ascent towards the saddle, the dip connecting Slieve Donard and Commedagh. Several times we had to hunker-down low to avoid being blown over. It was seriously that blustery! Obviously the 3 boys found this to be of great hilarity and more than once we had to chase a stray hat or glove before it disappeared for good. Once we reached the Mourne Wall, we stopped for lunch, glad of the shelter the wall provided for us to refuel after what was a tough walk. We have summited Donard on many occasions and know that the experience of the climb is very much dictated by the weather. We’ve enjoyed spectacular clear sunny views, we have been up on an eerily silent and stunning snowy day, but walking into the wind was extremely challenging and we had to decide while we had our lunch whether or not to continue on towards the summit. We chatted to a few other walkers on their way down from the top who advised that it was very windy but still achievable. And, not wanting to give up, we made the call to keep going.
‘Eye and foot acquire in rough walking a co-ordination that makes one distinctly aware of where the next step is to fall, even while watching sky and land.’ – Nan Shepherd
So, with hats pulled down and neck-warmers pulled up we continued upwards alongside the Mourne Wall. There were still remnants of the snow from a few weeks previous, unfortunately it had hardened and turned to ice and was so slippy so we had to move out from the wall’s shelter onto more exposed ground. About a quarter of the way up the already strong gusts which were threatening to knock us off our feet picked up and then it began to precipitate heavily – we were hit with a combination of rain, hail, sleet and snow and suddenly the visibility was reduced to just a few metres in all directions. We huddled close for warmth and for safety. The hailstones stung our faces and for a brief moment I felt myself begin to worry. Were we totally mad to take kids up a mountain in such treacherous conditions? I had a vision of the mountain rescue helicopter having to come and pick us up and the news headlines the next day about idiotic parents taking their kids up the tallest peak in Northern Ireland flashed before my eyes. We were still warm and dry though, our protective clothing was doing its job, and spirits were still high. Undeterred we ploughed on.
‘What do I know when I am in this landscape that I can know nowhere else?’ – Robert Macfarlane
As we neared the summit the weather was at its worst, there was no view to enjoy whatsoever and the fierce gusts of wind meant we couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes before beginning our descent. This was the most challenging part of all. The wind direction had changed and as we headed downwards we walked directly into hailstones which caused one of our boys to start crying because it hurt his face so badly. I took off my scarf and wrapped it around his face to give him a little more protection. With only his eyes peeking through I assured him that he looked like a very cool ninja on a special mission and taking him by the hand helped guide him down the mountainside. Step by slow step we trekked, staying close and holding onto one another for balance.
‘Walking in mist tests not only individual self-discipline, but the best sort of interplay between persons.’ – Nan Shepherd
Visibility was still poor so I was relying on my previous knowledge of the mountain to gauge how far we had left to walk to reach safer terrain. After a few slips and falls we finally reached the saddle once more and regrouped here to have a drink and a hug – both to warm-up and celebrate our safe descent. I was suitably impressed not only with the boys’ physical endurance but with their determination of mind. That was by far the toughest hike we have ever undertaken as a family and although part of me wondered if we were mad and neglectful parents, one look at their smiling, red, faces told me that they had loved the challenge and that a deep-rooted resilience was being built into their characters. I immediately swiped away the guilt. Yes, it possibly had been dangerous in places, but we weren’t unprepared, we had first aid kits and mobile telephones should we have needed help as well as extra layers of clothing in our rucksacks. The conditions weren’t ideal, sure, but there was a moment on the side of that mountain, when I stood with my arms wrapped around my son to protect him that I knew what it was to think only of survival, to be simply engulfed in that moment. Awake. Alive. Free. The roughness of the day revealed to me our strength as individuals but also as a team. Words of encouragement and hands of support were freely offered. We were a unit working together.
The difficulty with facing such harsh conditions with kids is that it can leave you feeling extremely vulnerable and brings about the understanding also that the mountain cannot be conquered, that nature is our master. We can summit Everest or traverse the oceans but still nature holds dominion over us. That’s both illuminating and humbling and brings to mind the awe that the romantic poets once experienced when encountering the sublime – vast mountains or extreme landscapes. All of my senses were hypersensitive, I had a heightened awareness of my surroundings and also of my self as I trekked on that first day of this new year. I was wide awake to life, 2018 was being started with intent and purpose for a life of adventure, exploration, freedom and authenticity so although it was very hard I am grateful that we faced the challenge head-on and with great enthusiasm.
Once home and everyone had enjoyed a well-deserved hot shower, we sat by the fire chatting, trying to get heat back into our chilled and aching bones. We compared bruises and I asked the boys if they had enjoyed the hike this year. The response was a unanimous and resounding ‘yes’! Thankfully!
‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.’ – Nan Shepherd
I hope that 2018 is a year full of fun and adventure, exploration and understanding, learning and growing together, pushing limits, skipping boundaries, stretching of the body and mind and of experiencing wonder. It is my hope that you too enjoy life to the full, freedom and a sense of awe at our marvellous planet and the many gifts it has to offer if only we dare to step outside and go!
Happy New Year!