28 July 2018
Six weeks after making a casual comment to Brian Layton as we were leaving Tring Running Club and the two of us were stood side by side beneath the Donard arch in Newcastle a few minutes before midnight on the last Friday of July. It felt familiar but all so different. We were setting off on a joint attempt of the Denis Rankin Round – a loop of 39 of Northern Ireland’s most significant mountains – to be completed within 24 hours.
The attempt had been somewhat thrown together during the tremendous heatwave that was taking place. A start date and time had been agreed in advance to try and coax some local support and knowledge out onto the hills. The only disbenefit of the fixed start time was being at the whim of the weather…
Leg 1 – Newcastle to Silent Valley – The Dark leg
A few final adjustments to laces and straps. Words of encouragement from Brian’s friend Simon, our faithful driver for the weekend and from club-mate Tom Sawyer and we were off. I was still chowing down on what turned out to be the first and last peanut butter and cheese roll as we made our way through the car park and alongside the Glen River, climbing through the woods. The river was little more than a trickle as we climbed strongly on a jumble of tree roots and wet rocks.
Apart from a brief work visit, my only other experience of Northern Ireland had been for a wedding some 10 plus years ago. The trip had included a couple of fleeting walks in the Mournes. I remember being impressed by the coastal views and the rocky outcrops on top of some steep sided mountains. It reminded me of Dartmoor, only more vertiginous.
As I started to overheat with my waterproof jacket on, my thoughts wandered towards the possible completion of this round. We would need to cover this route again to finish. I didn’t fancy needing to cover this technical slippery ground in a hurry, with time slipping away.
As we left the shelter of the forest, heading for the highest point in Northern Ireland, the rain started to intensify. It wasn’t long before our hoods went up. Visibility was just a few metres in thick fog, compounded by the bounce-back from our head torches. The full moon was of no relevance.
With the map tucked away I was reliant on Brian’s local knowledge – a connoisseur of 24 Mourne Mountain Marathons. At 580m Brian said ‘A little bit further and we’ll hit the wall’. Sure enough we did. The wall not being the figurative one but the Mourne Wall – built by the local water company in the early 1900’s to enclose the catchment area around the Silent Valley Reservoir. At 22 miles long and on average 1.5m tall, it is an impressive sight. We turned left and followed the wall up into the darkness.
We reached Slieve Donard at 853m a couple of minutes ahead of the armchair schedule we had agreed upon. It was a 23hour 59minute schedule based largely on the only published times we had managed to lay our hands on. It was very difficult to know how useful our schedule would be – without really knowing the basic speed of the person we had based them on, or whether that person was better at going up or down, or when they had their good moments versus their bad moments.
At the top we grabbed some food and reset our altimeters. They were something like 60 metres out, indicating a massive drop in air pressure. For whatever reason neither of us commented on this but the dye had been set for what was to come.
The next couple of hours were not my finest. We left the wall after a tricky descent and made our way without too many issues to hit Chimney Rock Mountain. What should have been more or less a retracing of our steps became a bit of a calamity as we veered to the north and struggled to even find the wall again. By Rocky Mountain we had lost 15 minutes, and I even momentarily struggled to re-find the wall on the short return from Rocky.
The next leg was no better. All the time we were fighting the wind, rain and fog. Hearing each other was tricky. Our moods were momentarily lightened as I repeatedly rubbed my chin looking for blood after Brian told me that I was bleeding – only for him to turn round and point at my bloodied shin.
We ran past the point we should have swung south-west for Slieve Beg and wasted another 15 or 20 minutes fumbling around, initially re-ascending and then over-compensating for the error. At Slieve Beg we were 33 minutes down on the 23:59 schedule. The only glimmer of optimism was that the faintest silhouettes of the hills were starting to emerge out of the darkness as we climbed to Cove.
Overall we neither made nor lost time for the rest of Leg 1. The descent of Slievelamagan was awful and I regretted not taking a bit of a risk and heading west off the summit as I had read somewhere. Apparently that would have kept us out of the worst of the boulders. Head torches were safely packed away after North Tor. During the descent from Wee Binnian, after a hot cross bun, Brian manfully initiated the conversation that neither of us wanted to have.
We discussed various scenarios. There were so many unknowns including the weather which was starting to look a bit more favourable, the available support both on the hill and at road crossings, the schedule and of course the 30 minutes that needed to be caught up. After a dispiriting night, we settled on a scenario that gave us both a chance of salvaging something.
Leg 2 – Silent Valley to Deer’s Meadow – The Warm leg
After seeing us off from Newcastle Tom and Simon had done their best to sleep in the car before walking in to Silent Valley. We explained the plan. After a quick refuel and resupply Brian, Tom and I set out over the dam and towards Slievenaglogh. We enjoyed some banter to the bottom of the steep part of the climb. My waterproof came off and we said our goodbyes and wished each other good luck. Tom was going to stay with Brian with the goal of completing the route regardless of time. I scampered up the hill with the aim of clawing back 30 something minutes over the next 17 hours.
The morning was perfect. Not much wind. No rain. Great visibility. I felt confident. On reaching the top of Doan I turned to see Tom and Brian making good progress by the side of Lough Shannagh. I simultaneously spotted a good path up Doan that I had missed, opting instead unwittingly for the heather.
The rest of the leg passed without too much excitement. The semi-tussocky ground after Ben Crom came and went. I re-joined the Mourne Wall and turned left, starting what turned out to be a very tough 10 hour loop south-western loop which would eventually bring me back to this point, just on the other side of the wall. Simply hopping over the stile was very tempting!
As I descended Slieve Muck the car appeared out of the cloud, which by now was shrouding the tops and starting to fill the valleys. Simon enthusiastically beeped his car horn repeatedly. I chuckled at the welcome I was being given. But it turned out that he was trying to get the attention of a local man who had come to offer some moral support. Whilst waiting he had decided to walk down to the Spelga Reservoir which was unusually low due to the preceding weeks of fine dry weather.
I sat down and read my times out for Simon to note down. I was bang on the arrival time for the 23:59 schedule. I popped my waterproof back on to keep warm. It wouldn’t come off again. I needed to think and plan carefully. There was unfortunately now no guarantee of seeing anyone at the end of leg 3, an exposed spot high above the car park at Kilbroney Forest. So I packed what I hoped would be sufficient supplies for the next 10 hours. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to know that I was well laden as I eventually set off, now a few minutes behind schedule.
Leg 3 – Deer’s Meadow to Kilbroney Forest – The Dig Deep leg
Pigeon Rock Mountain came and went. As I summited Slievemoughanmore I was distracted by a crack of thunder and a bolt of lightning, and the thought of Denis Rankin who passed away during the fell race named after this mountain. In my attempt to get off this high ground quickly I ran in the wrong direction, back towards Pigeon Rock before correcting myself with a very annoying heathery contour back round to Wee Slievemoughan.
At the top of Slievemoughanmore I discovered I’d accidently taken a long video on the GoPro from the side pocket of my rucksack. The battery gave up as I tried to take a photo on an increasingly windy Wee Slievemoughan.
The next hour was as tough as anything I’ve known in the mountains. The wind rose. The rain came in horizontally. The ground to Windy Gap was slow and tussocky. The climb up Eagle Mountain was steady. It was time to buckle down and concentrate on every move. By Shanlieve the visibility was down to 10 metres.
I was nervous about getting to Finlieve given my earlier night navigation. It was due to be a 2km leg over peat hags to what I understood was a nondescript top. I took to shouting at myself as I leant to my right to stay upright, whilst continuously checking the compass. Battling over the peat was surreal. The peat was rock hard, having previously been baked in the sun. My brain eventually accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to sink thigh, knee or even ankle deep in the peat, despite the fact that there was ankle deep water collecting and flowing over every square metre of this remote spot. My shouts of despair turned into a yelp of joy when four melon sized rocks that marked the top of Finlieve came out of the fog, right where I had hoped the top would be.
A careful bearing and I was off on a long leg. I quickly dropped out of the fog and did not have to contend with it again all day. It was just the rain and wind left now as I gradually got colder. I intended to hop into the forest for 1km, but decided against it when I saw how overgrown it was at what should have been the entrance. Forests are dangerous time-eating places when you get them wrong. Instead I stayed in the bog and marsh and wind and cold, heading eventually for a substantial telecommunications mast with a building where there was sufficient shelter to slowly put on my waterproof trousers.
I headed towards what was due to be the rendezvous point with Simon, but other events prevented him from being there. Essentially his car was being used to reintroduce some warmth into Brian and Tom, who unbeknown to me had decided to call it a day at the end of Leg 2. They had left a phone message for me, but my phone was buried deep inside my bag.
I was cheered however to see a figure come running out of the woods – Gareth McKeown – a local who had come out after the doing the Slieve Bearnagh race that morning. It was great to have some company even if making conversation was somewhat challenging due to the conditions.
Leg 4 – Kilbroney Forest to Spelga – The You Must Be Joking leg
Gareth guided me over a couple of tops, gave me some jelly babies and pointed me in the direction of Crenville. “You’ll know when you get to the top” he explained as we parted. “It’s marked by a couple of fence posts that I banged in myself.”
Words do not do justice to the next soul-destroying kilometre. Minutes slipped away as I fell more behind the 23:59 schedule. The knee deep tussocks had bright green grass covering them that had been blown and fallen like a Bobby Charlton comb-over. It was impossible to know if you were going to step on or between a tussock. I cursed as I fell over at least 10 times whilst taking in Crenville.
With huge relief I literally fell of this horrible terrain and onto a mountain bike track. I made hard work of negotiating a short section of forest before doing some slow jogging along a wide forest track followed by some mountain bike track before tackling another kilometre of horrible tussocks. It was mid-afternoon and my earlier confidence waned as I fell further behind the schedule.
It had stopped raining and was generally brightening as I startled a family of ducklings on a remote pond before getting a shock myself as I rounded a forest corner and saw the speed of the Yellow Water River. The water was knee deep at the ford and flowing straight off a 2 or 3 metre bouldery drop just downstream. I very deliberately made sure of every foot placement with my body facing upstream and rigidly braced against the strong current. Another two minutes were lost but I safely got across before seeing the only other person all day who was nothing to do with my adventure. His yappy dog clearly had not seen many other people either a it showed great interest in my ankles!
With the dog and the river negotiated I used some local knowledge that had been passed on by Helen Cassidy who had gone round 7 days earlier in a group of four. Helen had very kindly met us on Friday evening to pass on her intelligence. I stuck to the path doing a dog-leg but avoiding some tussocks to get to Tievedockaragh. I had seen enough of tussocks by this point. The detour created a short out and back, so I deposited my rucksack for a few minutes.
Pierce’s Castle and Rocky Mountain were easily taken in as I enjoyed the early evening views. My body was starting to fatigue. All this time my eyes were drawn down to the river below which was clearly in spate. I needed to cross two rivers just above their confluence. When I arrived the water was tumbling through just underneath a footbridge over Rocky Water, but there was no way I could cross Rowan Tree River.
I was pretty disconsolate, now being about 20 minutes down on the overall schedule. Faced with an uncrossable river I decided to call it a day and to return over the bridge and walk downstream to a road from. As I studied the map I spotted another river running parallel to the road, but there was no bridge marked. With repatriation from the road ruled out I decided that the next best thing was to walk upstream.
For whatever reason I did not sit down and have a rest or a sleep, but I trudged slowly upstream looking at the power of the water crashing through huge boulders in a small gorge. It had been a good day out and I decided that I was going to enjoy my stroll to the car as much as I could. After exactly 7 minutes the river inexplicably narrowed. With a huge leap I could make it onto a flat rock on the other side of the bank that was sloping back towards the river. I figured that I should be able to make it…
With that out the way Cock Mountain loomed up in front me. I decided to go up it rather than head straight to the car which didn’t look like an attractive route. After what felt like an age I checked my watch at the top. I was now 30 minutes down overall with less than 6 hours left. This was unchartered territory for me on a 24 our round but I was not as far behind the schedule as I thought I might have been. I reassessed my options and considered different scenarios.
I knew there was slack in the schedule over the next couple of tops. And there was 9 minutes resting time that could immediately be regained at Spelga car park by not stopping. I figured that it would be premature to retire. I hoped that Tom would be fit and willing to come out over the big mountains and relieve me of my rucksack. I rationalised the decision to continue by making a deal with myself to stop at Hare’s Gap and retreat to the tent at Meelmore if it wasn’t going well.
At half past six Tom was waiting for me at the end of the Spelga Dam. He agreed to the plan as we headed to the car. It turns out that he had only just warmed up from his earlier efforts with Brian. I calmly told him what I needed to be carried and that I’d do Spaltha and Slievenamuck on my own to give him time to sort himself and our kit out.
Leg 5 – Spelga to Newcastle – The Hallucinogenic Party leg
In the excitement of needing to perform a Formula 1 style pit-stop, only briefly pausing to take off my waterproof trousers, I left the map in the car boot and had to encourage Tom to chase me down with it. I had swapped my traditional rucksack for a pre-packed vest rucksack. This in itself was exciting having never used one before. Immediately I was more comfortable.
Helen’s local knowledge again came good on the early route to Spaltha, only to be spoiled by my final approach which saw me waste a couple of minutes. Before long I was over Slievenamuck and trotting towards the car, feeling increasingly confident. I ran through this last road crossing 8 minutes down overall, and now had Tom’s company and encouragement. I selfishly asked Brian if we’d see him at Hare’s Gap to which I think he said no – he was stiff and only just warming up.
Over each of the final 8 mountains, which are all fairly big with some stiff ascents and descents, Tom and I picked up time. We were aided by a lack of rain and some great views. It soon started to become obvious, that barring a disaster, a successful completion was on the cards. Climbing was not a problem. Descending, as ever for me, was slow and painful. Tom was an excellent supporter. Knowing the drill he responded to my grunts and various demands for drink. I was not eating enough and experienced a bonk which I noticed when my climbing speed fell into single figures. This was soon rectified with some food.
The food however did nothing to help the mild hallucinations that I was now starting to experience for the first time ever. It was around 10pm on Saturday night. For various reasons I had not slept well since Tuesday night (a bad dream at home on Wednesday night, travelling overnight on Thursday and lots of Irish people enjoying the campsite craic on Friday evening).
As we climbed I thought it was hilarious that some very small people had pitched a short stubby black tent on a steep mountain slope – only to discover on closer inspection that it was in fact a bag full of boulders for rebuilding the Mourne Wall that we were once again following. Later on I saw people sitting by the side of the path in the darkness. These people turned out to be rocks.
Brian however was not a figment of my imagination when he appeared just above Hare’s Gap. You can’t keep a good man down. We all chatted for a couple of minutes before parting. Brian turned back towards the campsite, pleased to be on the move again as the evening wind was chill and the first signs of dusk were occurring. Only 3 mountains to go. I started to enjoy myself, although I was always mindful of the final approach through those slippery trees.
The wind got stronger. Coming off the last top, Slieve Commedagh, Tom acted as a great windbreak. I decided to play it safe and to retrace my earlier steps back into Newcastle rather than risk a shorter route in the darkness which would have involved a long pathless descent followed by a section of pathless forest. This was no time to be introducing potential navigational errors.
It was head torches on just before we turned away from the Mourne Wall for the final time and down the path back to Newcastle. The banter started to pick up as we descended. I tried to explain the severity of the weather conditions on the same path some 22 hours earlier.
The remaining navigation was easy in theory. We just needed to keep the Glen River – now a raging torrent – on our right. I had been bleating on about the slippery roots for hours and Tom rightly thought I was over-exaggerating. They did turn out to be awkward and I was glad not to be racing against the clock. A few minutes later and we were jogging at what felt like a decent pace through the car park and back under the arch. The clock stopped at 23:23. Mission partly accomplished.
Thanks to Brian Layton for seeding the idea and for sharing his reminiscences of knowing Denis Rankin; to Tom Sawyer for his own personal 24 hour test of endurance and stamina; to Simon Townsend for his road support and general chauffeuring to and from the Mournes; to Helen Cassidy for her enthusiastic support and local knowledge; to Gareth McKeown for braving the elements at Rostrevor; to Dawson Stelfox at Spelga although we didn’t actually meet; and of course to Kirsty, Elizabeth and Jack for letting Dad disappear off and have another adventure.
|Donard arch – Depart
|Chimney Rock Mountain
|Rocky (Annalong valley)
|Binnian North Tor
|Silent Valley – Arrive
|Silent Valley – Depart
|Deer’s Meadow – Arrive
|Deer’s Meadow – Depart
|Pigeon Rock N top
|Kilbroney Forest Ex. Pt – Arrive
|Kilbroney Forest Ex. Pt -Depart
|Slievemartin trig point
|Rocky (Leitrim Lodge)
|Cock, NE top
|Spelga car park – Arrive
|Spelga car park – Depart
|Road crossing – Arrive
|Road crossing – Depart
|Donard arch – Arrive