A Very Windy Slieve Donard Hike
The plan today was simple, climb the highest mountain in Ulster, Slieve Donard. Donard sits at a modest 850m (2790ft) but don’t let that fool you. If you park in Donard Car Park in Newcastle (which we did today) you are starting from pretty much sea level, so it is a decent climb. I was joined by my good friend Conor Fitz today. Fitz is an old Scout friend and together we have shared some great adventures.
There was rain forecast for the morning, so we had a bit of lie in and started our hike at 10:40. We made our way quickly through Donard Park following the Glen River. You have to cross a series of bridges, but the river is always there. Leaving the forest, we past the ice house on our left-hand side. A well-trailed hike of around 2km will take you to the saddle between Donard and Commedagh.
The saddle was our first stop where I cracked out the Jelly Babies. There were several sections of the path made tricky with snow and we were really starting to feel the affects of the wind. I’ve stood at the saddle on a calm day and been blown about by the wind. Today was a windy day across the country so the wind was powerful up here. We found ourselves losing our balance as we were leaning into the wind, which tended to stop without warning, making us stumble.
At the saddle, we turned left. Northern Ireland is such a small place, even here in the middle of the mountains, Fitz bumped into a group of people he knew. When we were catching up with this group, Fitz lost his hat. Blown straight off towards the cliffs – gone. We’d be walking under those cliffs later, so we’d keep an eye out. Fitz, always with some headpiece, quickly wrapped his head in his Buff. At this stage, we’d been steadily heading uphill for over an hour and my legs were starting to burn, I consider myself fairly fit, but I was finding this tough. Our quick pace slowed to a moderate pace.
It took around an hour and a half for us to summit Donard and the views were spectacular. To the north we could see Cavehill overlooking Belfast, despite the sporadic clouds, we caught glimpses of the Wicklow Mountains to the South. To the east, we could see the Isle of Man, alas we could not make out Scotland today. It was so windy, I tried taking a video and I couldn’t hear myself speak. I had no idea if it made any sense until I saw it at home. To be honest, I’m still not sure if it makes any sense!
Fitz and I made it. For a brief moment, we were the highest people in Northern Ireland.
From the saddle, we had been following the Mourne Wall. I’ve written about the Wall before; it’s a 100 year-old, 22 mile long wall which encircles the Mourne Mountains. It’s original purpose was to protect Silent Valley Reservoir. The Mourne Wall is a marvel, made completely out of cut blocks of granite using dry wall techniques. It summits 22 mountains. One day, I plan to hike them all in one expedition.
Once we past the summit of Donard, we keep following the wall, turning south. Our plan was to head down to the boggy area between Donard and Rocky Mountain. I was messing about walking along the snow and taking running jumps into huge skids. My sore legs a distant memory. When suddenly, I went waist deep. Climbing out I fell. Snow went up my trousers and down my boots and slowly but surely, I could feel it start to melt. Wet socks for the rest of the walk…
When you reach the stile at the bog, you could follow the path left, down to Bloody Bridge where I was bouldering last autumn. We were heading right though onto the infamous Brandy Pad. The Brandy Pad is an old smugglers’ route which links Bloody Bridge with Trassey Track. We followed the Brandy Pad for around 20 minutes before taking a turn towards the saddle where we first got the jelly beans out.
We bumped into that crowd again that we knew. In fact, the whole mountain was pretty busy. On the summit, there was around 6 groups of people. At the saddle, there was around 20 people. Some in the middle of their day’s walking, some like us on their way down. Some groups in jeans and trainers with lunch in plastic bags for whom the saddle was their goal for the day. As we made our way down from the saddle towards Donard Forest, the path was bunged. We were constantly having to take over people, pause to let groups past or slow down while others crossed tricky or technical sections.
When we were about 400m from the forest, the heavens opened. We’d had it pretty good up until now. It had been windy but it was dry. Not anymore, the first rain came on the back of a huge gust of wind. We weren’t sure if it was rain or if the rain had picked up water from the Glen River. It was rain.
To me, Donard Forest has a bit of reputation. The forest is used for underaged drinking and a free campsite for those who wish to party and leave behind a mess. We were stopping for lunch in the shelter of woods and I had packed a plastic bag to pick up the rubbish left by others. The whole forest is littered with fire circles and fire damaged trees. There was no litter though. What there was, was a large tepee style shelter. Patricia and I saw these all over Sweden when we were travelling there. The semi-permanent shelters are left like a skeleton and then when you want to use it, you arrive and wrap your tarp around it. This was definitely made by someone with bushcrafting knowledge. The paracord, the tight tripod lashing, the reflector fire, there was even a pot hanger hidden in the uprights. I suspect who ever built this was also responsible for tidying the place up.
I’m all for shelter building but to be honest, I’m a little uneasy about this one. It’s about 15m from one of the busiest mountain trails in the country. There are already dozens of fire circles in this area too, so why make another one? If you come at this from a Leave No Trace element, this fire area has damaged the ground and the large granite boulder. In my opinion, shelters should be inaccessible, hidden and when you’re finished with them, there should be nothing left. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Fitz and I had lunch in the woods cooked on the Trangia. A tasty and easy Pesto Pasta dish with a cup of coffee!
With the rain off, we made our way out of the Donard Forest and followed the track down to the car park. All in all, we had an enjoyable day in the Mourne Mountains. We summited the highest mountain in the country and made a delicious lunch in the forest, all in around three and a half hours.