Seven Slieves in Seven Months.

When we first moved over to Northern Ireland, back in November, I sat and stared at the mountains from our bedroom window, I saw the contours, the gentle meandering slopes and the stark rock formations. I watched and I waited. Each morning brings a different perspective on these hills. Some days they are outlines in the haze, some days every detail is clear. Some days the mist rolls on top, clouds hide then dance away and reveal the paths and summits in the distance. Sometimes they disappear altogether and are tucked away whilst the rain falls. I looked at them for 2 months and as I did I heard their call.

I hadn’t climbed a mountain in so long. 

We had children, I had a husband whose health was pretty bad for 4 years, then covid hit. Holidays were just about getting outdoors however we could, no time or space to dedicate to climbing mountains or long walks. They were about time with friends, times to get away from day to day life, times of compromise so we could all have a vaguely good experience.

I hadn’t climbed a mountain in so long.

I stared, I wondered if I could remember how to climb steadily higher and higher again. I knew I could walk, I’d been doing that for 2-3 miles each day for a couple of years. But my back was sore, I haven’t been able to run for a few years, I wondered if I would be able to go up. 

January came with sunshine and clear days. Routines were slowly established, I began to stare at our maps, at our book of walks in the Mournes. I tried to figure out the best introduction, the Slieve that could be fitted into a few precious hours whilst the boys were with their Aunty one morning. I plucked up my courage and planned a route up Slieve Meelmore. It looked straightforward and a good start to stomping up hills again.

I clambered up on a bright sunny day, I gasped in awe at the mountains all around me, I felt the nervous feeling as I drove down empty roads to the starting point. I was stunned by the silence, the lack of other people, the crags and mountain streams. I puffed and panted my way to the top proud that I could remember how to navigate and breathe. My back felt sore but not devastatingly so. I went back down and stared at my Christmas present from the husbandface, a picture of seven Slieve’s supposedly over 700m (let’s ignore that later people realised that Meelmore was just under at 682m). Which one would be next?

After a couple of lower level walks on my days off Slieve Bearnagh was in my sights. It’s craggy top sticks out sharply on the sky line from our windows and kept calling to me. I took the husbandface this time, enjoying walking with him and having someone to keep me confident as I stared at the steep incline in front of me with no discernible path after we’d made it to the top of Hare’s Gap. I was glad of his company on the hairy descent as well.

Slieve Meelbeg was next on the list, this time I took my Dad along for the journey, deeply grateful to be able to mountain walk with him again. I still remember his advice when I was little and trying out mountain climbing, small steps at a time, you use less energy than huge steps. 

After I’d done three I was hooked on doing them all. July came with better weather and more time to dedicate to mountains. The addiction grew.  

I took my sister in law up Slieve Binnian, I’d love to do this one again when it wasn’t covered with mist and with more time. I think it’s my favourite because of the potential views and amazing tors at the top. Also it’s really easy to get to from the Carrick Little car park, which is becoming one of my most loved routes into the heart of the Mournes. 

I went up Slieve Commedagh on my own, determined to climb it despite the large amount of cloud on top. The Mourne Wall is perfect for being able to go up some of the mountains with confidence in clouds, I love walking by its steady presence, glad of the clarity as the fog descends. I would love to do this one again on a clear day.

Slieve Lamagan was climbed in honour of my birthday. Husbandface was super kind in indulging my desire to climb it (another steep, lack of path scramble) and then extend our walk down the other side into a valley at the bottom and then round for a swim in the Blue Lough. So pretty, so exhilarating. The climb was the clearest this month and the views were breathtaking.

It seemed only fitting to then climb Donard a few days later. Especially as that neatly fitted into doing Seven Slieves in Seven months. From January to July. I decided to go up from the Bloody Bridge river, knowing there would be way less people than the more popular Glen River path. Also I’ve been up the path from the Donard car park loads and wanted to see different landscape on the way up.

As I climbed I gazed in awe at my new friends, the paths I’d been on, the many more to explore, the lakes I couldn’t see but knew they were there, waiting. I was stunned by the joy, the delight in mountains on my doorstep. I look at them differently now. I look up each morning and say hello, I know I’ll be back, wandering different paths, seeing how the seasons carry on changing and shaping the views I see. I respect these hills, and I am starting to know them. They are now friends and I am looking forward to expanding our friendship over the years. 

As I walked I was struck by two thoughts. Firstly the line from U2’s Zoo Station played over and over in my head ‘I’m ready to say, I’m glad to be alive’. Mountains make me grin with happiness. I love being out walking for hours on end. I love the achievement, the views, the vastness, the joy. I love the clarity it brings, the hush to the noise of my head, I love the isolation, the feeling that these hills are my friends. I am glad to be alive in this space. I am so glad we moved here. I am not afraid of saying that anymore. I am so grateful that these mountains are on my doorstep.

Secondly I think I realised that these mountains may be the mountains I need in this season of life right now. The Lake District and the Buttermere Valley have always been my first love but I don’t feel the tug anymore to get there at all costs. I think I may have moved on to a new love. 

Buttermere was clearly very important in my 20s (read about it here) and then there were the wilderness years where I thought I had to find my way back there with my family. But now I think we are finding a way forward into different times. These new mountains are ours together. The boys adore their slopes and may come to love ascending their heights (also they may not) but they do find great joy here.

I do not have to persuade them of the wonder of mountain lakes and streams and they have their own favourite places in these hills. I can go to the heights on my own, or swim in lakes with them. Husbandface can join me when he wants and I can be alone when I want.

The big revelation of my walk yesterday day was that I think I would be happy even if you said I could never go to Buttermere again, now I have the Mournes. Life has moved forward, moved on and I am so glad of these new friends I have found, this joy in my heart and this light in my eyes. 

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