About this time last year, in a fit of insanity (or perhaps a fit of drunkenness - it was during a girls' night out), a few friends and I decided that 2012 was the year we'd tackle the Mourne Seven Seven Challenge.
The 77s is an annual event, and a few friends in my hiking group had done it before. Some do it every year, while others did it once and swore never again. The challenge is to hike up all 7 peaks in the Mourne Mountans which are over 700 meters. In one day. The total distance is approximately 29km, and the total ascent is 2,495 meters. Furthermore, the route isn't marked, so requires walkers to navigate for themselves, and there are an extra 2 mountains under 700m thrown in there just when you're trying to make it back to the car.
When the decision was made we had over a year to get ourselves into peak physical condition and learn to navigate, at it seemed entirely plausible that we could do it. As the year rolled on however, more and more friends decided the plan was foolhardy and in the end it was just me and my two friends Zoe and Jill, who thought it would fit in well with the training they wanted to do for their climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in September.
So the three of us set out to train. Most weekends and frequent days off work were spent in the hill. Wet weather and dry weather, we walked it all. We were determined. We nicknamed ourselves 'The Walkie Talkies" as we could hike for hours and not run out of things to say. We learnt to navigate, and though we got lost a few times we learnt a lot about the mountains we were hiking in. We also learnt that Jill was a great planner, organising our routes for us, splitting the challenge walk into 4 days, and then into 2, so that we knew the terrain well for the actual challenge.
Finally, last Saturday, the day came. We spent Friday night at Zoe's house relaxing (and worrying), preparing signs for the top of each mountain and packing our rucksacks full of as much chocolate as they could hold. Then, early to bed and up before 5 to make it to the start in time. As we were standing in the carpark putting on our gear it began to rain. We hopped into the car as the rain lashed around us, praying that it would stop. Thankfully it did, and was dry again by the start time of 7. The morning was extremely misty, but not cold.
We summited our first mountain in record (for us) time. Spirits were high and the fog was heavy. This is one of the few mountains on the challenge where, once you reach the saddle, you can leave your pack as you come back the same way, and on the way back down we met many of our friends who hadn't set out quite as early as we had and were still heading up. We were feeling good, and there was lots of chat and laughter.
Mountain number two was more difficult than normal, which we put down to the fact that we'd gotten used to walking without a rucksack, and now had the weight back on again. Still, we made it to the top without too much hardship. It may have helped that we knew that once we descended from this one we would have a nice long stretch of decent (ie flat) path before our next climb.
The next one was steep, but she always is. During our training she was not so fondly nicknamed 'Bearnagh the Bitch', and today she lived up to her name. A long steep slog with no real path, we were very pleased to see the summit through the still heavy fog. While it hadn't rained we were all fairly damp from walking through cloud.
We had our first sit-down rest at the top of Bearnagh and, fueled by chocolate, we were ready to tackle the next hill.
Mountain number 5 is a small one, and by this point the fog was beginning to clear. We knew we had a difficult slog ahead of us though, as at this point we needed to cross a large bog to get to the half-way point: Ben Crom Reservoir. Just as we started to descend, we came across three ladies looking after an injured lad who had broken his ankle. Seeing that he was well attended and after offering a spare emergency blanket we went on our way, unaware that he was a friend of ours.
But we carried on, across the bog down to the reservoir, legs getting spattered with mud and covered with midge bites. Then finally, the half way point - yay!
We had a short lunch stop at the dam and then pressed on. The climb to the saddle was tough, but we were spurned on by the knowledge that we were fast approaching the second point at which we could leave our rucksacks.
We dropped them with relief and headed on. And on. And on. Binnian isn't so much steep as long - you think you are near the top but you aren't. It's a beast of a mountain, and knowing that we had to return back the way we'd come was disheartening. But we made it, and only one more official (plus two un-official) mountains to go.
On mountain number seven, tempers began to fray. Close to exhaustion we snapped at each other, and the effort required to just put one foot in front of the other almost more than we could bear. But there was no going back - and so we went forward. And finally, the summit! A quick smile for the camera, and then we carried on: down and over Cove, then down again and up over Slieve Beg. On the walk from Slieve Beg to the saddle (remember that saddle where we'd been able to leave our bags before summiting the first mountain?) we regained our spirits, knowing that it was not too far to go. Long before this we'd reached the point where going downhill hurt as much as going uphill, but we knew we were on the
Then finally, 12 hours and 22 minutes after starting off, we reached the end. Our spirits soared and our legs ached, but for the first time in about 3 photos we all managed genuine smiles.
The night was not complete without a celebration, and we drove back to my house where John cooked us a lovely dinner (steak pie, chips and peas) and we consumed ridiculous quantities of alcohol, ensuring that the next day our heads would hurt as much as our bodies.