On 29th May, Pól O’Murchu, Andreas Kusch, and Paul Morrissey tackled the Denis Rankin Round. Here is their round report.
Our successful completion of the Wicklow Round in June 2015 had given us a thirst for more adventures and it wasn’t long after the dust settled on that one that we were looking around for the next challenge _ the Rankin Round was the obvious choice.
The recces started in October last year and that day out up Donard and clockwise on Leg 1 was undertaken in shocking weather. An appraisal of the maps beforehand led us to suspect that the Mournes would be somewhat of an alternative prospect to the much more familiar Wicklow Hills, most noticeably the tightness of the contour lines and their more compact nature. That outing confirmed these suspicions with the steepness of some of the gradients to be dealt with being the most obvious difference. There are only a handful of places in Wicklow where that degree of steepness can be encountered while the Eastern “High” Mournes each hill seems steeper than the last!
By the beginning of May this year we had our homework done, and it was now a case of waiting for a weather window. The end of May had been mooted as a possible date early on and this was now put out tentatively depending on nature’s grace…would a dry weekend in summer be too much to ask?
From the middle of May the long range weather forecasts from every source we could find seemed to be in an unprecedented state of consensus…the weekend of 28 May was predicted to be dry and settled…the excitement started to build and a frenzy of planning took over. As the weekend approached the forecast just got better and better…not only were we promised a rain free weekend, we were also told we could look forward to clear skies meaning we would have all important visibility. Our luck was in!
We travelled north on Friday evening in Andreas’ newly acquired campervan. The plan was to get up there early, get settled and hopefully get a couple of hours sleep before the off. To our surprise sleep was forthcoming for all of us despite the excitement. We woke a little groggy at 1.30 am and hastily gobbled a very early breakfast and readied our kit. By the time we were ready and had gotten around to the start it was after 2 am and we started the clock at 2.17am…this was it, we were off…
We made quick progress up Donard at a steady clip, enjoying good banter all the way and reached the summit in 1:13. It was clear and starry without a breath of wind, perfect conditions. We didn’t hang about and made our descent along the wall before turning uphill again towards Chimney. As we climbed a bank of mist rolled over us reducing visibility to a few metres. We had expected a morning mist and the worry now was how long would it linger? We bobbled along the summit ridge of Chimney and continued southwest past the summit with the intention of dropping down towards Rocky and avoiding the boulder field that covered much of Chimney’s western slope. In the mist we dropped down too early and encountered heather covered scree that slowed our transit. Once we dropped in height the mist vanished and we easily picked up the trail towards Rocky and before long we had bagged summit number 3.
Daybreak was now here and to our delight that threatening mist had lifted we could see all the way through the Annalong Valley and the rest of the mornings work – the chain of tops to the north from Slieve Beg to Wee Binian. We made for the wall and followed it as far as the intersection with the Brandy Pad and from here we enjoyed two kilometres of good running all the way to the foot of Slieve Beg. We took on the stiff climb to the summit and made short work of the descent. Cove and Slievelamagan were bagged in a similar fashion.
Next up were the various Binnians beginning with the North Tor. These are impressive looking mountains characterised by their summit tors and rock formations that millennia of rain, wind and frost have eroded into all manner of spectacular shapes. We weren’t tired enough yet for the hallucinations to start but you can let your mind wander here and let the imagination conjure a menagerie of wildlife from the rocks. There are elephants, whales and birds peeping out from among the crags.
The climb up Binnian North Tor was made easy by the excellent trail and cut stone steps and we were soon at the top and trotted quickly on to traverse to Binnian itself. Having located the summit we began following the wall on the descent. The descent from Binnian is painfully slow due to its steepness and it interrupted the momentum we had built up from earlier on. As the knees started to grumble and complain the conversation turned to how truly impressive a feat it is to complete the round in 17 or 18 hours as some have done and how quickly they would have to have moved over this very precarious ground.
We continued along the wall up and over Wee Binnian and into Silent valley and took our first breather of the day. We were a little under pace, but unconcerned as we had an hours cushion in our schedule and figured we could pick up the pace on the next section. A support stop here would have been very welcome however our arrival was too early to make this a possibility. We ate quickly and with the sun now breaking through the thin clouds we removed a layer or two and applied the sun cream. The worry now was about the fatigue that too hot a day might bring.
Leaving Silent Valley behind we made for Slievenglogh. We went west along the base of the mountain and chose a line that seemed to be the most free of the large boulders that encrusted the mountains upper half. Once up we scanned ahead to our next objective, Doan about 3km away to the north. We were looking forward to this section as the decent from Slievenaglogh and the trail as far as lake made for great running. We made good speed to the lake and continued on past it to climb Doan via the good trail that goes up it from the north. On a previous recce we had made the traverse to the next hill, Ben Crom, by taking a direct line from Doan down through the valley. This proved to be tough going so we had already decided that we would contour around to the north and take the gentler gradient to Ben Crom. The ground here was rough and progress was slow and with fatigue setting in we hit our first slump of the day. Morale was still high but the body was feeling the effects of little sleep and nearly 8 hours on the go. It is at times like these that you have to dig deep. We took comfort in the thought that we would be at Deers Meadow in a couple of hours and there would be a bounty of good food and cold drinks there waiting for us.
With Ben Crom done we headed north from the summit along a good trail with the intention of linking up with the contour path at the base of Bearnagh that would take us all the way to the stile at the base of Carn Mountain. We made good time on this flat ground until we fell off the trail and then ended up struggling through peat hags and heather. At least the ground was dry, it would another prospect altogether in Wicklow style sloppy bog. Once on the contour path we picked up the pace and trotted all the way to the base of Carn passing by a steady stream of walkers out early to make the most of what was shaping up to be a lovely day.
Carn and Slievemuck were straightforward affairs and from the top of Slievemuck it was a relief to see the road below. We made short work of the descent spurred on by the prospect of finally getting some substantial refreshment. No longer than 10 minutes was the agreement so it was a case of gobble and go. We wolfed down as much as we could and stuffed our bags with more for the journey ahead. It would be 8 hours before we would meet our supporters again and with the day warming up staying hydrated would be an issue.
Reinvigorated and with full bellies, we climbed rapidly up Pigeon and onto Slievemoughanmore. None of us had ever met Denis Rankin but we talked about him on the way up. All we know about him is what we have read and some of the stories about him that Andreas heard when he had participated in the first two legs of the BARF group attempt the week previously. We agreed that we were indeed privileged to be able run in the footsteps of such a mighty and inspirational man.
Looking South we could see the looming edifice of Eagle. It is an impressive looking mountain and we knew its steep slope would test us but first we had to take in Wee Slievemoughan to the west. The ground between Slievemoughanmore and Wee Slievemoughan was rough but the gradient was conducive to rapid movement and we were soon at the summit. We moved quickly on, crossing more rough ground to link up with the trail running parallel to a stream that would take us to the stile at the base of Eagle. Any conversation quickly petered out as the steep gradient on Eagle kicked up. Cresting the summit we encountered a very welcome cooling breeze and catching our breath we sighted Shanlieve only a short distance away. The compact nature of the Mournes means that you can pick off summits with relative frequency. This gives a great sense of progress being made despite the large number of hills on the Round. This is a great psychological boost.
From Shanlieve we had a long run to Finlieve along a high plateau. We picked up a trail that soon fizzled out in a maze of bog stacks. We took a line that brought us a little to the west to make use of more solid ground and better going and we soon had another summit bagged. Next we had the longest summit to summit traverse in the whole round – Finlieve to Slievemeen. Based on our recces we opted to forgo the seemingly popular route up through the forest that was visible to our right in favour of a direct line for Slievmeen itself. The descent into the valley was swift over nice grassy ground, and after pausing to replenish our dwindling water supplies from the stream that ran through it we began the long slog upwards. The heat of the day amplified the feelings of fatigue that we all had and it was safe to say that we suffered on this climb. Although we were past the halfway point in terms of distance we knew we still had a lot of work to do and some brutal climbs yet to face. This was another low point. If we were to do this again, a support stop at Slievemartin would definitely be arranged. After what seemed like an age we crested the ridge and saw the summit of Slievemeen about 500 mts distant. Finally reaching the summit was a boost psychologically and we rallied and were over to neighbouring Slievemartin in minutes.
Heading north again and next up was Crenville. We jogged down through the heather and aimed for a gap in the trees visible at the base of the hill, we then followed a fence for a short distance before cutting in through long grass towards the summit. Crenville is unlike any other hill on the Round. It is very boggy in places, partly forested and has very thick undergrowth that is physically draining to negotiate. We headed west from the summit through a forest making for a forest road that would take us to the bottom of Slievemeel. The forest was dense and a machete would have come in handy! Emerging on the road we ran quickly downhill to the edge of the forest at the base of Slievemeel before following a mountain bike trail that contoured around the hill to the left. We gained as much height on this trail as we could before cutting in through the heather and reaching the summit. We were still on schedule more or less but knew we would have to move quickly over this section and not lose any more time. From here we could see Tievedockaragh ahead of us and chose a line in the direction of the fence line that would bring us along the good trail past the pond, up through the woods and onto the foot of the mountain. We were moving quickly now and soon reached the top.
From this vantage point we could see most of the remaining hills between here and Spelga Dam. Deciding against the direct route to Pierces Castle which we found on our recce to be hard going, we chose instead to follow the wall heading east before joining a wide bog road that took us north again almost to the foot of the hill. This was an excellent route choice and before long we were up and over the top and heading via Tornamrock towards the second Rocky Mountain we would climb that day. There was a good trail to the summit of Rocky. We had recced both the direct route from Rocky to Cock Mountain and the somewhat longer route dropping down to the Mourne Way and attacking Cock along the gentler gradient from the south. Although longer, we found this to be a quicker route despite the quality of the way-marked Mourne Way trail being more than a little disappointing! Slevenamiskan was then quickly bagged and we were soon with our support crew at Spelga Dam car park for a badly needed refuelling stop.
We filled our bellies while simultaneously conducting a thorough kit check to ensure we had everything we would need for the final section, most of which we would be tackling in the dark. We had 5 and a half hours left. It would be tight, but should be enough we thought. We knew there was now no margin for error. We were tired, but nearly there, this was the home stretch. Both Spaltha and Slievenamuck were topped quickly and we dropped down to the road and followed the wide track towards Ott Mountain. We cut in from the track onto the open mountain and were soon at the summit and then descended towards the wall at the base of Slieve Loughshannagh. Our hope had been that we would have summited Ott and be at the wall before dark as the wall would serve as a reliable navigational guide for the last section. This we had achieved. The light was now dwindling but we managed to summit Slieve Loughshannagh without the need for headtorches.
With fatigue taking its toll, we now faced the hard part that we had been trying to put out of our minds all day – the brutally steep slopes of Meelbeg, Meelmore and the practically vertical western face of Slieve Bearnagh. There was no way around it, they had to be climbed, and as quickly as we could. We scaled Meelbeg and Meelmore at a steady pace. It was now completely dark and this was a very good thing at this point as we were unable to see the sheer wall of Bearnagh now in front of us. Both mind and body may have been forgiven for refusing to go any further had it been visible. We dug in and pressed on, putting one foot in front of the other grinding it out, zigging and zagging our way up to lessen the strain on our exhausted legs. The relief at reaching the top of Bearnagh was immense. That was the worst of it over and we still had over two hours to get to the finish. The Round was now there for the taking…but we had to keep moving. Passing the North Tor we were moving well but the long steep descent we were now on slowed us to a snail’s pace. We had recced this and thought we knew what to expect, a challenging, rocky, technical descent, but that was in daylight. It was now pitch dark and we had been on the go for nearly 22 hours and every muscle and sinew in our legs was weak and sore. We picked our way down the precarious slope, enduring regular slips and falls opting to slither down on our backsides in places to reduce the risk of a disasterous tumble. We finally got to Hare’s Gap but the slowness of that descent meant we were now right up against it…lets move! As quickly as our exhausted limbs would allow we got over Slievenaglogh and Corragh and attacked Commedagh. The adrenaline kicked in when the silhouette of the tower on the top of Commedagh came into view, that was it, that’s the climbing done, its downhill all the way from there. There was still the small matter of visiting the actual summit of Commedagh and we swiftly climbed the stile and raced over and back to it in a few minutes. We now had 50 minutes to get to the finish, just enough, surely!!
We ran down the slope of Commedagh over the stile and onto the rocky path down to the Glen River. Hitting the stone steps the soles of our feet began to ache as they took a pounding against the hard surface. We had to keep moving and fast! Picking up our legs as best we could to avoid a trip on the rocky path we ran on. We thought of the joking we had had on this very same path on the way up Donard nearly 24 hours before. There was no joking now, this was a blind, frenzied panic. We weren’t going to come up all this way and lose it at the last, we had to press on. That rocky path seemed to go on for ever, but eventually we were in the woods and under the trees, only 1000 mts to go now. Heads down to be careful not to trip on the tangle of roots we were suddenly on tarmac and looking up we could see the lights of the carpark just ahead..almost there. We sprinted across the carpark, delighted, arms pumping the air, the late night revellers that frequent that carpark are probably becoming accustomed to these scenes!! We passed under the arch in a time of 23 hours 54 minutes. We had done it, we had completed the Rankin Round with a mere 6 minutes to spare.
We would like to say a very special thank you to our support crew of Aoife Mundow and Karen Devenney whose logistical skill meant we didn’t go without anything. The completion of the Round wouldn’t have been possible without their support.