Saturday, 10 January 2009

In the mountains

I took my first walk of the new year into the Mournes on Thursday and slipped and fell three times on ice – and slid once beside a very high precipice.
Although there was a bit of hoarfrost on the ground on the way up I really didn't expect it to be quite as treacherous.
I went up a route known as the Trassey Track which starts off as a dirt road that takes you up to Pollaphouca (which translates from Irish as ‘the Devil’s cauldron’) that lies between Slieve Meelmore and Slieve Bernagh.
But two thirds of the way up I cut off to the left and started clambering up a fairly steep rocky slope to the Hares Gap.
During the warmer weather you can often see carnivorous butterwort growing between the crevices in the rock - a sticky-leafed plant in which flies and small insects become caught and are slowly devoured.
I was busy looking for signs of butterwort when my foot slid from me and I ended up arse about tit and lying winded on my back.
A raven - the harbinger of death in Celtic mythology - cawed from above me before banking off towards Pollaphouca
I hadn't gone up too far at that point and of course the really proper, sensible thing would have been to sheepishly clamber down again, drive to Newcastle and go for a walk along the beach.
But, stupid, stubborn ould git that I am I went on and hadn't gone too far when once again my foot slipped on a rock and sent me tumbling.
I thought seriously then that enough was enough but then looked up and saw I wasn't that far from the Hare's Gap and so went on, determined to take my time and pay more attention to where I was putting my feet.
Once through the gate set into the Mourne Wall I was in the heart of the mountains and I thought it was worth the minor mishaps that had left me with a few bruises but nothing too serious.
Sitting there looking down into the valley below, surrounded on all sides by the mountains I was glad I'd continued. On a day like today there would be few people up here. Just me... and the ravens.
I set off along a track known as the Brandy Pad – named because it used to be used by smugglers to bring illegal goods landed on the rocky coast that runs along the Ballagh over the mountains and inland.
It runs along the slopes that lead up to Slievenagloch and Commedagh and under a buttress-like rock formation known as The Castles.
It was here that I fell for the third time. The beginnings of a river that cuts across the path had frozen solid. I could see the danger before I got to it and slowly edged my way across it using my stick to steady myself. It was no good, my feet went from under me and once again I was lying sprawled on the ground.
I got up and tenderly pressed the newest bruises to my growing collection but I was also apprehensive now because the route I planned to take down again was very steep.
It runs from the gap between Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Donard, known as the Saddle, down along the Glen River and into Donard Wood that sits above Newcastle.
When I first started walking in the Mournes with my Dad when I was kid this steep slope was covered with scree which you had to clamber up, showering anyone coming behind you with flakes of granite.
In recent years stone steps have been cut into it which makes life much easier going up and down, except that is when running water has frozen into sheets of ice.
I tried to stay on the hoary heather but this often meant walking precariously close to a sheer drop to my left.
I was like a blind man, tapping the ground ahead of me with my stick and trying to shuffle –not an easy thing to do when you are going down a 45 degree slope.
Long before I got to it I spotted an area where the steps had frozen solid but I was so busy being apprehensive about this that I did not notice that I was walking just inches from the edge of the step. This was probably a good thing, for when my foot slipped and hovered briefly in mid-air I didn’t over react, managed to balance myself with my stick and move back a bit.
It was only then that I realised how close I’d come to tipping over a 30 foot drop. When I got to the ice sheet there was nothing else for it. There was no way I was even going to put a foot near it and so lowered myself down onto my backside and eased myself across.
Back on my feet it took another half hour to get onto slightly less precarious ground and I cursed at myself for putting myself in such a situation and then smirked, proud that I had survived.


Gerard Brennan said...

Yikes! And there was me saying to the missus that I'd like to take a trek up there some time soon. I'll wait another month.



Tony Bailie said...

I'd stick to Mulough for now if I were you... mind you knowing my luck I'd probably trip up on a whin bush.