A glorious obsession

The day I conquered Slieve Bearnagh

Part 1: Anticipation

The summit of Bearnagh rises majestically over Ben Crom valley, bathed in the shafts of some winter light.

It is the staple of many a great romantic movie. Our two main leads are in a bar. It is, inevitably, crowded full of people and conversation and energy. But all of this pales into the background, lost in silence, in that instant when their eyes meet for the first time. The sound fades away; the frenetic activity around them becomes still. And all that remains in this gaze and the connection it represents.

Of course I could have saved myself from writing that last paragraph by simply quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald from his short story, The Popular Girl:

Their eyes met and in an instant, with an inexplicable, only half-conscious rush of emotion, they were in perfect communion.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

There is a summit in the Mournes that had a similar effect on me. From the first instant I saw it, it captivated me. And although it didn’t exactly cause all other peaks to pale into insignificance, I knew that one day I must climb it. It felt like all the climbs prior to this one were simply a prelude, an hors d'oeuvres, when the true feast was waiting for the day I climbed to its summit.

And what is the mountain? Two words: Slieve Bearnagh.

Bearnagh rises invitingly above Ben Crom reservoir - this was my first proper view of the mountain that was to captivate me.

My introduction to this peak was last July when I was descending from my first Mournes all-nighter on the summit of Slieve Binnian. As I descended at around 07.00, the sun’s light was shining from the east, casting the western flanks of Ben Crom valley in shadow. In the distance, rising proudly into the sky, was Bearnagh (although at that stage I didn’t know its name). The low sun both bathed one side in gorgeous purple and misty light, while the other side was cast into deep shadow, and the darkened outline of the mountain spread far as the eye could see to the west. On top of the peak were the twin summits and the massive granite tors, craggy monuments that seemed designed to bear witness to the majesty of this mountain. There was even a winding path laid out directly in my line of sight that seemed to bid me to climb. I was captivated. This was the mountain for me.

Even though it's not on the perimeter of the mountain range, Bearnagh is tall and distinctive enough to be visible even from the outside. Can you spot its craggy tors poking above the ridge line just about a quarter of the way in from the right?

Even the shadow of Doan itself seemed to point towards Bearnagh, as if to pay homage to its grander brother.

But, unbeknownst to me at that stage, it was going to be six months before I realised that ambition. Half a year of anticipation and of fascination. Of seeing the photos that others had taken from the top that just fed my obsession. Of seeing the peak rising up every time I climbed Doan in the months that followed my Binnian all-nighter, calling to me and inviting me to ascend its flanks.

And when that day finally came a few weeks ago when I came face to face with those summit tors, it was to be another epic Mournes adventure, on a day when the glory of these mountains was on full display. It was the most breathtaking of Mournes days for me so far – literally, due to the relentlessly steep final ascent that Bearnagh demands as a reward for its unsurpassed views – and metaphorically, as the vista that opened up for me that day is like nothing I have ever witnessed in Northern Ireland.

This, then, is the story of the day I climbed Bearnagh. Come with me on the adventure, let me introduce you to this stunning mountain. And as your eyes meet in a crowded computer screen, let’s see if it begins to win over your heart too…


Next: Part 2 - Emergence

The story of an early snowy start, an icy initial ascent, and the time I climbed over the wall into the heart of Narnia itself.

At 727 m high, Bearnagh looks down imposingly on most of the other peaks of the Mournes

The twin tors of Bearnagh loom large in the distance in this view from the Brandy Pad