This is a re-post of the original blog on the second anniversary of the first time I hiked up into the Kingdom of Mourne.
Read part 2 of the tale of Alistair H. and Alistair W.'s overnight climb to Slieve Binnian
When we last left our intrepid hero explorers, they were perched precariously on top of a 2500 feet mountain peak, having climbed its precipitous slopes in the semi-darkness and battled off the lesser-spotted giant hill frogs of Binnian all in pursuit of their holy grail of 'A Pretty Decent Photograph'. And finally, their battles fought, they dropped to the ground, exhausted, and succombed to sleep underneath the blanket of the Milky Way. (Well, it was something like that - check out Part 1 for more details of this somewhat unbelievable tale). But what happened next? Read on, dear Reader...
After having drifted off into a remarkably peaceful sleep on the mountain top, I awoke about an hour later around 3.00 am as the light of dawn slowly began to break over the Mournes. Sunrise proper was still about 1 1/2 hours away and the sun was due to emerge from around Slieve Donard (N. Ireland's tallest mountain). But even at this stage, the early morning twilight started to paint in the details of the top of Binnian that were only really hinted at under cover of darkness when we summited the mountain the night before.
And what a landscape was revealed. The top of Binnian is marked by a long and rather thin plateau, with large granite tors emerging at each end, and smaller ones all around. While not being the tallest mountain in the Mournes, it's close to their heart, and so it affords panoramic views of rounded peak after rounded peak, and sweeping valley after sweeping valley.
It was a truly surreal experience standing trying to take it all in. No doubt that was in part down to only having had an hour's kip! But it was much more than a sleep-deprived buzz I was experiencing. It is reported that the Mournes were a massive influence on the young CS Lewis (who grew up in Belfast and visited here often). Indeed he himself wrote that, "under a particular light the Mournes make me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge."
I'm not sure if the light that Lewis saw the Mournes in was anything like that we were treated to that glorious morning, but, as I looked out at the ridges and hill tops all around, it felt like we had fallen asleep in Co Down, only to awaken the next morning in some mystical land, Narnia combined with Middle Earth, where fantastical creatures would come swooping by at any minute and where the very sods of earth under our feet were the soil in which the greatest and purest of all legends must surely take root and spring to life.
Lewis's magical description of creation in The Magician's Nephew sprung to mind - Lewis describes the majestic Aslan as singing over Creation as he imagines it into being. I remember being so vividly struck by the poetic purity and sheer compelling beauty of his description the first time I read it. I was being swept along by the wonder of Lewis's prose - no, more than that, by the glories of his vision. The sweeping, unsurpassed epic nature of what lay before me lifted my imaginations to heights and drew from me a whisper of praise to that greater Aslan.
And so it seems right and fitting that the next few hours are something of a blur in my memory. I recall very vividly the intense emotions of the experience. I remember the places I visited on the ridge as I sought to frame my shots. But the details are hazy, like a photo that is slightly out of focus, like a dream slowly fleeing from memory on waking. And this seems very fitting for an experience that should be described but not analysed, treasured but not quantified.
Here are some of the shots that I took during these wonderful few hours. I tend to take panoramic shots anyway; it seemed totally fitting that this would be my shot of choice given the expansive landscape around me.
Eventually, after slowly pushing back at the darkness during the pre-dawn twilight, the sun made its appearance from beside Donard. Almost immediately, the temperatures began to rise again as we felt the warmth against our faces.
My greatest sense during the next hour of so was one of purest serenity. The air warmed; there was not a breath of wind, so the only sounds that floated around were the sounds of the animals stirring in the dawn: bees buzzing around the flowers, birds soaring high above periodically calling out.
But, eventually, it was time to leave. We headed down via the north tors - a different route to the one we had ascended. As the sun rose ever higher, the valleys below us started to feel its warmth. Just beyond the north tors, another amazing view opened up, as Ben Crom reservoir emerged before us. The light was still low, so the valley was side lit. A gentle haze hung in the air, picking out the rays of sunlight as they cascaded onto the valley side. In the background was a mountain whose name I did not know, rising majestically out of the landscape, side-lit by the sun, with the most dramatic of tors perched on top. I later discovered that is was Slieve Bearnagh; that morning, another glorious obsession was born, that had to wait until the heart of winter's snow to be fully realised.
Finally, we descended down into the valley back towards Carrick Little car park. By now, the sun was very warm, and our sleep deprivation was catching up with us. We settled into the companionable silence that often accompanies the descent from a mountain. Gorged on the experiences of the night and morning before, we walked along, lost in our own thoughts, reflecting on all this experience had brought to us.
By about 8.30 am, we reached Annalong Wood, glad of the shade from the sun that was now very warm and beating down on us. By about 9.00 am, we got back to the car - exhausted, roasted, sore and very thirsty. But full, and inspired, and amazed, and filled with a sense of wonder quite unlike anything we had experienced before. Our first time up the Mournes. Our first wild camp. Our first experience of this landscape so unique and unlike anywhere else in Northern Ireland.
Post Script, July 2016
Hiking up in the semi-darkness only to have the view around us revealed gradually in the breaking dawn of the following morning was surely the best way to be introduced to the amazing landscape that is the Mournes. It's like that classic of all reveals (no peeking, no peeking - ta-da!!), when the secret is kept from you until one full, complete and glorious revelation. It may well have taken me 45 years finally to head up into the Kingdom of Mourne - ridiculously far too long. But, having waited that long, I can't think of a better way of being introduced to the mountains. And I have been making up for lost time with a vengeance ever since!
If you know and love the Mournes as I have come to, no doubt you'll relate to much of what I have said. And if you have yet to pull on a pair of boots and venture up into the Kingdom, maybe my story can tempt you. But beware: once you start, you may just find that you can't keep away...!