By Mark Jameson
On the 1st June 2019, 14 of us took on the popular but gruelling Mourne Mountains Seven Sevens challenge: hiking 19 miles over seven of the highest peaks in the Mournes, plus clambering over another four other peaks on the way. There are numerous events like this throughout the year – individuals do it, groups do it, charities organise it. We don’t consider ourselves special, but we do consider our own experience special to us. This is our story.
An early start, meeting at 0500 at Donard Car Park, Mid-Ulster Mountaineers Seven 7s T-Shirts on, bags packed with loads of food, water and our own hand-painted summit stones. Looking round, everyone had a look of anticipation, excitement and an obvious strain of trying to hide any self-doubt mixed with quiet determination. This was it! We were ready!
Six months previously, a handful of the party had never set foot in the Mournes until they joined our fledgling group. Four of us had completed the 7s before and the others had been training hard for the event. We had been hiking together every other week from January, taking in up to 3-4 peaks at a time, trying to ‘get the legs’ for the big one. In the weeks before the event, we invested in the professional help of a sports psychologist to coach us on positive mental preparation. An elite marathon runner came to see us and give us great tips on how to take care of our feet before and during the long slog ahead. We had meeting after meeting to get the whole thing right, complete it safely and most of all, we wanted everyone to have a memorable experience.
As you can see, we were taking this very seriously. Well, we are perfectionists. The agenda for our meeting before the event was about going through everything that was needed on the day. Supplies, first aid, will power, most importantly, the aftermath beers and burgers, which would be supplied by our support party, or as they called themselves, The Sherpas. Our motto, given to us by Phil, was, ‘start strong…finish strong’. Some of the less experienced group voiced some concerns that they would be left behind by the faster group. That was never going to be the case, and they were relieved to hear unanimously that we all will be starting together and finishing together as a team.
On the morning of the big hike, everyone reported little or no sleep, rubbing their eyes through moans of “what are we doing?” and “let’s get this over”, obviously not morning people. As everyone started getting ready, a buzz of excitement gradually filled the air, when unexpectedly one of the support party appeared. Arvy pulled up to give us some support – he’ s an excellent motivator and a lover of group hugs. After a few inspirational words, a group hug and a photo with our chosen charity banner (Southern Area Hospice, Newry), we were off.
After all the really bad weather reports from during the week, which gave heavy rain for part of the day, the morning forecast thankfully changed for the better, much to everyone’s relief. It was a lovely bright morning as we made our way towards our first summit, Donard. The heavy panting and lack of talking was evidence of our group going through the motions of regulating their breathing and waiting for their legs to warm up. By the time we were on the descent of Donard the craic was starting, everyone was feeling positive and the usual slagging and swearing which we have become accustomed to was flying!
As we made our way to Bearnagh via Commedagh we were picking up a good pace. Bearnagh isn’t a popular climb for some of the group and I’m sure they were glad they were getting it out of the way near the start. As the clouds dropped, visibility was non-existent – it may have been a small help to those with an abhorrence towards this, in my opinion, glorious mountain. A small break at the top (I say small because it was very windy and cold) and we were off on the direction to Meelmore and Meelbeg. We were making up good time and everyone was still in pretty good form, but as we descended Meelbeg everyone knew what was coming next.
Jemo and Phil completed a dry run of the 7s in March and committed the cardinal sin of thinking they knew better than go as the crow flies across the boggy, ditch strewn land between Meelbeg and Ben Crom Reservoir. This assault course made up of very tall hags, streams and floating grass sucked the energy out of them so much, they barely spoke for the second half of the course. The wall was hit and they couldn’t shake it off. They told everyone about this area, maybe scaring some off from doing the 7s, but they had to know, they had to be prepared, the worse thing to happen to you is to come across too many nasty surprises. To make the area less scary, we named it ‘Bunga-Bunga land’. It was like a bogey man who may be under your bed, but was much worse – this thing was real. Thankfully though, Alan, one of our route planners, did a bit of exploring around Bunga-Bunga land the previous week and found a path. This path led us to the reservoir via the Ben Crom River. All myths and fears were dispersed and the mood was lifted, thankfully. We may have even looked a bit smug as we viewed other hikers stumbling and cursing as they negotiated the route we took only weeks before.
Pretty soon though, the cheerful, fun crowd we started off with were displaying signs of digging deep, the onset of fatigue was evident and personal battles were coming to the fore. The climb from Ben Crom reservoir really took a lot out of some of the group as pain was setting in. “Start strong……finish strong” sounded like a wild dream. It was at this point the Calvary came! The self-styled Sherpas in all their fresh faced, fresh legged glory, and what a sight to behold! Hugs, lots of hugs, even tears, more tears followed. It was like a long-lost reunion. They even bore gifts. Water, food, energy supplements and lovely, lovely tray bakes. The mood was lifted, thankfully.
Off we set to Binnian. ‘Such a long slog and really unnecessary’ was the common speak, but we didn’t care because we met our friends. Funny how that works. We had only been with each other 6 hours and a fresh face lifts your mood so much. Dropping down off Binnian, then up to the rocky, uneven challenge of Lamagan, Cove and Beg. We were met with a pea soup consistency of fog and dampness but we were in tremendous spirit, tired but happy. Well, we now had Arvy and Phil (Phil picked up an illness and unfortunately couldn’t take part in the first half). We were playing music, singing and greeting passers-by like old friends.
The walk from the saddle back towards the carpark seemed to last forever. We knew there were some ‘Sherpas’ at the end with beers and a BBQ, but we weren’t prepared for what came next. We did as we said we would, we finished together patting each other on the back towards the finish. Then in the near distance, we spotted our friends. They had a finish line! A whole table and chairs effort along with a massive BBQ. It got too much for Andrea, she broke ranks and ran to the finish line with a new found energy, still swearing the whole way – we cheered her on in fits of laughter.
As we came to the finish line, Angie let off blue smoke flares. Grown men and women were crying, it was unbelievable. 15 hours with the same people, doing the same thing, hard as it may be, brought us all close together. In the couple of hours after, everyone was on a high, smiling laughing and relieved, maybe even slightly intoxicated.
We started strong, we finished strong, together.
The best part of it all is we managed to raise over £2,000 for the Southern Area Hospice. The help they give the terminally ill and their families is second to none. We were glad to be of a small help.
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