One of the joys of only to have begun exploring the Mournes just over two years ago is that I still have a number of "firsts" to tick off my list. I still haven't summited Lamagan or - perhaps most surprisingly - Donard, the highest and most famous of the peaks. (I have this funny and irrational idea that, because it's many people's first summit, that I'll do it last!)
This time last week, I was busy ticking a couple more "firsts" off that list. My photography buddies Ryan Simpson and Jaime Collins and I were setting off for a summit that I had yet to hike up: Commedagh, the second highest peak in the mountain range. And we were setting off just before sunset for my first proper night hike through the mountains.
We left Cecil Newman carpark around 5.30, just about an hour before sunset. Our first goal was to try to get to the top of Slievenaglogh for sunset itself. Off we headed, as fast as we could, up Trassey Track and up the side of the mountain. Normally, the young fit mountain goat that is Ryan sets the pace and is scooting up the mountainside with barely a care in the world. Today was a bit different - Ryan was planning on camping overnight on the summit, whereas Jaime and I were going to hike back down in the darkness. Which meant we were travelling light. And so, for the first time ever, I was able to outpace the mighty Mr Simpson!
As we headed up the slope, the sun sank lower and lower in the sky and its light remained just that bit higher than us as we ascended. The views back down over Trassey Track we gorgeous in the mild early autumn evening - but would we make it to the top in time to catch the sun? It seemed unlikely. Travelling at the speed of light is something of a challenge, especially with a heavy pack on your back!
But, as we got to the top, to my surprise we had made it - just! The last few rays of sunlight were just about poking above the unmistakable tors of Bearnagh. There was no time to lose! Out came the cameras, and we busied ourselves for the next 15 minutes or so trying to grab those precious few moments of light.
After the sun finally gave up on one more day and sunk behind the outline of the mountains, it gave one last hurray, shining its warm light on the clouds that spread above us, painting the skies with that glorious light that so often arrives on scene just after the sun has left the stage.
Our sunset hunger sated, and a wee rest managed, we packed up again and pressed on for our goal: Commedagh. From Slievenaglogh to Commedagh is a lovely wee rambling up and down a gently undulating ridge, a perfect little dander as the twilight quickly faded and as darkness took more and more hold of the night.
As we came up the gentle rise to Corragh, it was time for one last stop for a final twilight shot down over the heart of the Kingdom of Mourne. By now, the clouds had cleared completely. A ribbon of vivid orange clung tenaciously to the western horizon, whilst the sky above took on a perfect deep blue hue. In the stillness, we could hear shouts and hollars drifting across towards us from the direction of Bearnagh's slopes. We looked closer, and saw the unmistakable lights of three head torches, the tell-tale sign of fellow hikers descending one of the steepest Mournes slopes. It looked like we were not alone in enjoying that exquisite evening in the mountains.
But, finally, it was time for the last part of our hike: the final ascent to Commedagh. Full of excitement and anticipation at bagging another summit, I set off with my buddies. The ascent, though steeper than any other we had done that evening, was very doable. And before we knew it, the slope started to level off and, out of the darkness, the summit shelter began to emerge - we had made it.
I wish I could tell you about the view into the mountains that I was treated to. But by now, it was completely dark. And, apart from the outline of those familiar summits in front of me, I could see nothing below. But it wasn['t really the view below that we had come for. The night hike was all about one thing: the view up above.
We helped Ryan get his tent up and got fed and watered and then set about our business for the night: photographing the Milky Way high above. At this time of year, the galactic core is just about still visible to the south just after dark. So we had no time to lose as we tried various shots and poses. And it's just as well. About 15 minutes after we started, mist started to close in, obscuring our views of the night sky, and causing our lenses to fog up like nobody's business.
Jaime and I perservered for about the next 45 minutes or so before deciding it was time to head down. I had a theory that the mist and cloud might be orographic in origin, forming as the moist air was forced to rise over the mountain top as it blew in from the north east. If that was the case, we might be able to descend down below it as we approached the saddle between Commedagh and Donard.
We bid our farewells to Ryan, got our head torches in place, and descended down into the darkness. And, within about 10 minutes, my theory proved true, as we emerged out of the mist into clear skies once more. Looking up, we could see the summits of both Donard and Commedagh drapped in mist. But the saddle was clear.
And so, out came the cameras once more. We set up for the style over the wall, with the wall disappearing off into the darkness up towards the summit we had just left - and with the all important Milky Way hanging high above us in the starry sky above.
Finally, as the cloud began to close in all around, we thought it was time to head down to Jaime's car, waiting for us in Donard car park, 2000 feet below us. The descent was slow and careful, the conversation flowed. Eventually we reached the forest, picking our wave carefully over the roots beside the Glen River in the pitch darkness. And eventually - and happily - back to the car!
The next day, when we checked in with Ryan to see how he had got on, we discovered he'd had his own first on the mountain top in the form of a nocturnal visitor. And, no it wasn't a scary clown. But rather a wily fox, who had smelled his food. It's quite the experience I am quite sure to waken up in a tent on top of a mountain to discover something pulling at your feet. Clown or no clown, it would give anyone quite a scare!
But he survived the ordeal fine. And we can tick off a few more firsts from our list. Although I really am going to have to get up to Commedagh again soon to see what the view down is like!