FOR EVELYN BEATTIE
A red squirrel silently scurried across my path. In the early morning stillness of Donard Forest, I stood for a moment and watched as he looked around, caught a glimpse of me then rapidly bolted up a tree, leaving me smiling at having spotted him and filled with a sense of hope that I could indeed complete the challenge I had set myself.
The previous night was an entirely different story…as I lay awake at 3a.m. stressing about the possibility of being struck by lightning following a worrying weather forecast I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to achieve my goal. I was setting out to climb Slieve Donard, the highest summit in the Mourne mountain range, to raise money for local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, and as I tossed and turned all night long anticipating a soggy solo walk in the rain I seriously doubted whether or not I had the physical and mental endurance to complete the challenge.
When my alarm beeped at 6a.m. I crawled wearily from my bed, not feeling at all rested and raring to go like I had hoped I would. I said a tearful prayer, gave myself a good pep talk and half an hour later armed with a pocketful of jellybeans, I managed to get myself out the door and enroute to Newcastle.
Parked-up and by now feeling more awake I set off at 7.40a.m. delighted that the carpark was deserted, that the sky was clearing and glimpses of blue were visible overhead and a warm breeze beckoned me onto the mountainside. There’s nothing quite like that early morning stillness in the mountains to soothe and calm the anxious mind and following the glimpse of the red squirrel I felt my spirits lift and a flutter of excitement in my tummy. Could I really do this? Only one way to find out…
I had thankfully packed my rucksack light, with only a few snacks and water, because before long the air turned much warmer and humid and I needed to discard the many layers I had piled on in anticipation of rain and wind. Suddenly, there I was, treading up the lower levels of Slieve Donard wearing only a t-shirt and leggings…I felt so wild and free and heard myself laugh into the quiet as I realised that I was actually enjoying myself. I told myself I was at least giving it a good go if nothing else! It was a glorious morning to have the mountainside to myself and I made sure to halt every few minutes to take in the views as the world awakened to a whole new day of opportunity. Suddenly, it felt possible that I could actually do it. I looked upwards at the path that lay ahead and marched onwards as fast as my bare feet would allow!
Tiredness was soon forgotten and I picked up a decent pace as I fixed my eyes on reaching what I viewed as my halfway marker towards the summit – the Mourne Wall – always a welcome sight in the Mournes and often the place where walkers halt for refreshments.
As I reached the point where I would cross the river before the steep climb to the wall I heard voices behind me. Two men were soon alongside me and asking me why I was walking up the mountain with no shoes on. I explained my challenge for Cancer Focus and they offered words of support and encouragement before taking my picture, then left me to my upward climb as they continued their own hike. Their kindness spurred me on and as I watched them rapidly ascend into the distance I felt my own pace quicken, determined not to let the fact that I had no shoes on hold me back!
My competitive streak had sprung to life and as I reached the Mourne Wall my phone notified me of a message – my Mum wishing me well for my hike! She was delighted when I responded to say I had already reached the wall and told me to keep going, she knew I could do it! As I paused for a few minutes I read a few other messages from friends and family which were exactly the motivation I needed to ‘keep ‘er lit’ as they say here in Northern Ireland.
Off I headed for the steepest part of the climb, but secretly the part I was most looking forward to! This is a mountain I have climbed in the rain, sleet and snow, but rarely have I ever tackled Donard on a dry day, never-mind a day where the sun was shining so brightly and the air warm – it felt like a good sign that the weather was on my side and I again had to keep pausing to marvel at the stunning views afforded by the final ascent towards the summit.
Sweat poured down my back as I reached the top and I was fit to burst with elation when I finally dropped my rucksack onto the ground and climbed the cairn at the summit.
For several minutes I sat in the sunshine, and for those few moments in time, I was physically the highest person in the country and my sense of accomplishment was soaring too! I had been dreaming about this challenge for quite some time, and although a few people had mentioned that I was potentially insane when I’d mentioned it, I had done it and I was so pleased and also so completely calm as I sat atop Slieve Donard enjoying the spectacular vista. There are times in life when you just feel you’re in the right place at the right time and that for me was definitely one of those occasions – all was well with the world! A few snapshots later and I began my descent…at first slowly, knowing that often my knees don’t always appreciate the downward climb (old age!) but soon I noticed I was actually jogging downhill, the surge of adrenaline from having managed to complete the climb to the summit barefoot pushing me onwards. I was no longer paying as much attention to where I was laying my feet, it was all happening naturally, I felt grounded, at one with myself on the mountainside and connected with the earth. Soon, I realised tears were streaming down my face. I was overwhelmed by emotion and halted to look around me and analyse my thoughts for a moment or two.
Standing there my thoughts turned to my Mum, her words of encouragement ringing in my mind and knowing how proud she would be of me for doing what I had set out to do. My fondest and most vivid memories of Mum during my childhood are of her padding about the kitchen barefoot singing: ‘Que sera, sera…whatever will be will be’ as she prepared dinner for our family of 7, and throughout my life to date her message to me has been to choose kindness above all else, to dance to my own tune and to do the things that make me truly happy. Mum is without question the quiet champion of our family and she is a massive inspiration to me with her strength, resilience, generosity of spirit and deep reserves of patience. Sadly, Mum lost her own Mother, Evelyn, to stomach and ovarian cancer the year before I was born. She was aged just 42, that’s 5 years older than I am now, and she left behind a husband and 6 children. Her death understandably devastated Mum and the entire family, yet somehow they continued, rebuilding their lives amid the pain and sadness and over the years Mum and I have had many conversations about Granny as we’ve admired her simple elegance in black and white photos dotted about the house – a military wife, she was always radiant at special events and undoubtedly the belle of the ball.
As I descended Slieve Donard on 10th July, I thought of her and cried – I didn’t know until that moment stood there alone on the mountainside that it was entirely possible to love and miss someone you’ve never met. Isn’t love a powerful thing? I wondered too if Granny’s story might have been different if she had had access to the treatments and services that wonderful charities like Cancer Focus have fought so hard for.
In Northern Ireland alone, over 12,000 diagnoses of cancer are made every single year – so many lives are impacted by this devastating reality, not only the person suffering, but also the wider family circle and beyond. It seems that anyone you speak to in today’s world is in some way affected by cancer and its wide-reaching ripple, and that’s why it is vital to continue to raise money to support and enable the continued work into research, treatments, care and support and the multitude of services provided by charities such as Cancer Focus Northern Ireland.
I am so so unbelievably grateful that the weather was more than kind to me as I completed my challenge. My irrational fears of being struck by lightning were thankfully unfounded! Phew! As I continued the final section of my downward journey physical exhaustion took over despite my elation, surprisingly my feet weren’t feeling too sore, but my back and neck were feeling the strain. A lingering on and off pain from an injury following a previous challenge was niggling and I was so pleased when I finally reached the base of Donard Forest to see my husband and one of my 3 beautiful sons waiting on me.
My online searches suggest that no-one else is recorded to have trekked Slieve Donard barefoot, so I may actually be the first person to complete that challenge which is pretty cool in my opinion! I had set out to raise £500 for Cancer Focus and so far my total sits at £475 – not bad I know…but I would love to reach the £500, so if you feel compelled by my story to donate to the wonderful work of this amazing charity you can do so my going to my JustGiving page – it takes just a few minutes to complete your donation but means a huge deal to those it will support.
Can I also take this opportunity to say a HUGE THANK-YOU to the extremely generous family, friends and strangers who have kindly sponsored my Donard Barefoot challenge – you are incredible and I love you all dearly. Sincere thanks also to everyone who took the time to send me words of support – your belief that I could do it kept me going when I really doubted myself and I am so grateful to you all!