For weeks I worried, stress levels were high and my anxiety was on overdrive. As Sunday May 20th approached I had nothing else on my mind except the Mourne Wall. I was completely consumed by fear.
The day before I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the challenge that lay ahead. I wasn’t naïve about this hike; I knew full well that this was a trek that I wasn’t physically capable of. I hadn’t trained enough. I wasn’t at a level of fitness that I needed to be to give myself a good chance of completion. But, I knew I had to give it a shot. This charity is too important to me. I remember coming away from the information night and knowing in my heart of hearts that I was going to walk the wall.
Fast forward several weeks and I was packing my rucksack, hands shaking and heart pumping. My knees had been strapped and toenails cut. The alarm was set for 3.30am and having checked and re-checked my list, I headed for bed. But sleep wasn’t to come. I tossed and turned and watched the hours tick by. I think I finally fell asleep around 1am, only to be rudely awakened by my alarm. This was it.
Some of the team arrived at 4.20am and we waited, chatting nervously about what we were about to attempt. I kissed Matt goodbye, holding back tears and mentally telling myself to just get on with it. Our drivers arrived shortly after and we were on our way. There was no going back now.
The drive up was a sombre one. The rain steadily increased as we came close to the Mournes. The clouds hung low in the sky, almost threatening us as we dared to take on the challenge. I began to pray. There was no way we would make it if the weather didn’t ease. As the rain hammered against the windows I pleaded with the Lord.
On nearing the car park, the sky began to clear and the rain began to soften. We unloaded the cars and pulled on our waterproofs. I was taking no chances of getting wet early in the day. We secured our backpacks, took a group photo and headed off from Carrick Little car park towards our first big climb of the day.
At this point I was mentally focusing on just taking on one mountain at a time. The thought of covering 15 peaks in 15 hours was too overwhelming. Slieve Binnian was up first. We made a steady plod up the wall to the summit, taking one or two breaks. The weather was kind - it drizzled on and off, but no heavy showers. Group morale was high and everyone was glad to get the first peak ticked off the list. We took a quick break at the summit to take on some fluid and snacks.
We moved on quickly and began our steep descent. The clouds had cleared a little and we could see beautiful views of Silent Valley below us and the route we would take. Wee Binnian was up next, just a little baby climb compared to what we'd just achieved. We walked a steady pace to the summit.
We then made our way through the drizzle and downhill towards Silent Valley where we would stop to grab a sandwich and use the toilet block! We'd walked almost 3 hours at this stage and everyone was advised to eat something for energy to do some steep climbing in the next section. Aside from the drizzle, spirits were high and there was plenty of chat. I was pleasantly surprised how good I was feeling - mentally and physically.
As we began our ascent towards Slievenaglogh the clouds ominously closed in, just in time for a damp trek through a rather unpleasant bog. Coming up and out of the bog, most of us had wet boots and poor Hilary ended up knee deep at one stage and with a wet bum! Both of my boots were saturated and I was praying that they'd dry up quickly so I wouldn't get blisters. Next up was a steep and misty climb to the summit of Slievenaglogh.
Following our descent from Slievenaglogh, we quickly began to ascend the first mountain that took us all by surprise – Slieve Muck. This wouldn’t be a popular hiking route so there wasn’t really a path to follow. This meant lots of scrambling over rocks, something my poor legs aren’t cut out for! It was a long and slow climb with lots of breaks. Our poor instructor kept being asked “are we nearly there yet?!” as we couldn’t see 2 feet in front of us on our ascent. It was probably a good thing that we couldn’t see just how far away the summit actually was! This particular mountain was the first one where I had to grit my teeth and dig deep, despite the burning legs. And this was when I first began to mentally grasp just how tough this challenge was going to get.
On route to the next peak we stopped for lunch and a welcome break for everyone. The team felt positive and ready to take on the next few climbs. There was however, a general feeling of angst about one particular peak – Slieve Bearnagh! But there was still plenty of ground to cover before we’d get there and we didn’t stop for long.
The next few peaks were pretty relentless. No sooner had we descended one mountain and we were straight back on the incline again. Mentally I had to block out any negative thoughts about how far we still had to go and how on earth my legs were going to carry me! It was a case of taking each ascent individually and focusing on the feeling of achievement at the top. We trekked over Carn Mountain (588m) and on to Slieve Loughshannagh. There was no improvement in weather at all. The wind had picked up and we were battling gale force winds to make it to the summit. Being so exposed to the elements only added to the challenge!
On the descent from Meelmore we sadly lost one of our team members due to injury. A kind couple escorted Hilary down to her husband who would meet her and take her home. I was gradually becoming increasingly apprehensive as we approached Bearnagh, with the grim realisation that I was definitely now the slowest team member on the uphill climbs. I kept pace easily on the flats and descents, but I was beginning to struggle to stick with the group on the inclines … and Bearnagh the beast was next. I knew that if I could make it up Bearnagh, I’d get the morale boost I needed to keep going, but what a slog. I felt like I was miles behind the group and had to adopt a '10 steps, 10 second break' routine to get me to the top. I also felt like I was really lacking in energy on this ascent. Once at the top I planned to refuel.
Feeling sweet relief to have made it to the top of Bearnagh, I scoffed ¾ of a roll and some peanut butter chocolate. This was the first time I really felt tired though. It was a bittersweet moment. We’d conquered a mountain that we’d been dreading, but we knew we still had an awful long way to go. We’d been walking now for almost 10 hours and my body was screaming at me to go no further. There had been a point where the group had discussed the option of shortening the walk because of time/injury, but the pace had increased and we aimed to re-assess the route again when we made it to the saddle between Commedagh and Donard.
As we began our steep descent off Bearnagh the clouds finally began to lift. There was mass whooping and cheering as we began to get our first views of the day (only took over 10 hours!) and we could see just how far we had come. It was an overwhelming moment for me. As my eyes turned right and spanned the wall from Binnian right across – up and down – the 9 peaks we’d trekked, I couldn’t quite take it in. Then I looked left and could see Commedagh looming and Donard in the distance and my heart sank. The two biggest climbs were now imminent and I was well past my best. Before we began the slow, steep ascent up Slieve Commedagh I quickly ate a banana as I still felt really drained and low on energy.
This was when everything changed for me. I stopped taking photos and insta-stories, instead channelling all my energy and effort into keeping moving. Every uphill step felt mammoth to me. By the time we climbed the more northerly Slievenaglogh I was pooped. I’d also ran out of water and was desperately hoping to get to the spring on Commedagh sooner rather than later. In this exhausted and desperate state I asked one of the team if I could take one of their energy gel sachets. Wrong move Steph. WRONG MOVE.
Not 15 minutes later my stomach began to tell me that it wasn’t feeling so hot. I felt queasy and lightheaded and I don’t know how I actually made it to the spring on Commedagh. I was lagging so far behind everyone that by the time I’d made it to the spring, there was just enough time for the team to fill my bottles and we started moving again. This was mind over matter now. My head was screaming at me, begging me to stop, sit and rest. I felt like I was going to vomit with every single step. When I finally did make it to the summit, there was no rest. We’d stopped at every other peak, but now everyone was on a mission to complete the challenge and get home. So as I reached the stile at the summit, everyone was moving onto the descent towards the saddle. This was a soul-destroying moment. I struggled over the stile and on wobbly legs began to descend. The group had stopped to take a picture and get psyched up for the final climb and all I wanted to do was cry.
A few concerned faces asked me if I was ok and it took everything in me not to burst into tears. I began to lag behind once again as now even the descent was a struggle for me. The nausea was increasing and I began to get seriously worried that I might not make it. It didn’t help that straight ahead in full view was Donard – the highest and last peak of the day.
Having climbed Donard numerous times before I knew what was required to get to the top and I also firmly believed I couldn’t do it. Not feeling the way I was feeling anyway. So I panicked. I scrambled for my phone and called Matt. I whimpered down the phone to him while he tried to reassure me that I could keep going and told me to be sick if it would make me feel better. Backwards and forwards I went in my mind about whether I could/should attempt Donard or call it quits. Apart from our group there wasn’t anyone to be seen. I really had no choice. I had to climb.
While the rest of the team refuelled at the saddle, I sat in silence. Disbelief, frustration and fear consumed me. I’ve never felt so isolated in my whole life. There was nothing anyone could do for me either. Sympathetic looks and encouraging words were little comfort. It was time.
As the team began their ascent I told myself to just ‘try’ – I’d try to climb a little way up. There are steps for the majority of the climb up Donard so I began to slowly take one step at a time. I have never, ever moved so slowly up a mountain. Our instructor Jonny came alongside me and through tears I told him how unwell I was feeling - how frustrated I was because my legs felt ok but my tummy was in bits. Tenderly he encouraged me to just do a little more and then a little more. He tried to take my mind off the pain and reassured me that we’d make it and we weren’t that far behind. I didn’t look up and I didn’t look down. Everything was swaying, my breathing was laboured and heavy.
Every 10 steps and I thought I’d vomit. It took everything in me not to collapse in tears. Somehow I just kept moving and as I approached the last ascent Jonny kindly took my rucksack. I could see two of the team up ahead just reaching the summit and I couldn’t believe I was close. One of the youngest guys from the team was heading down towards us to take my backpack. I tearfully thanked him as he continued to encourage me the whole way to the top.
As I approached the team I, (not very cohesively) mumbled about needing to go around the other side of the wall and be sick. As soon as I came round the edge of the wall I was bent double, retching and crying. But there was little time for rest. Darkness was only a few hours away and we had the long, steep descent from Donard and the bog of Donard to journey through. I did manage to grab a photo at the top of our last peak – a triumphant reminder of the hellish climb I’d endured.
However, my triumph was short-lived. The descent down Donard was tough, really tough. The queasiness wasn’t easing and now I was severely lacking in energy. I hadn’t eaten properly since the top of Bearnagh and had climbed the two biggest peaks since then. That, coupled with the sheer amount of walking we’d done up to that point and I was physically and mentally running on empty. By the time we’d reached the bottom I was certain I couldn’t take one more step.
Our next challenge was a 5k trek along the top of the wall to cross the bog of Donard. Yet again I faced a huge test of my endurance. Walking the wall requires great mental focus and if you aren’t careful, it has an almost hypnotic effect while you tread stone after stone. Just great when you are feeling nauseated! Not. This walk seemed utterly never-ending. I focused on keeping up with the person in front of me and prayed for God’s help. At one stage I was begging for healing for my tummy as I just couldn't take it any longer. When I genuinely thought I might topple over the edge of the wall with exhaustion, the end came into sight. I could see some of the group climbing off the wall. Surely, we were nearly home now?
Coming off the wall we were finally told our last route to the car park. It was going to take longer than what any of us was hoping for. Nevertheless, there was nothing else for it but to plod on. Jonny ran (yes … RAN) on to go and get his car so he could meet us at the main road. Jonny is my HERO. The plan was for him to collect the drivers and they could drive their cars round to collect everyone at the side of the road.
That final descent took around an hour. Every inch forward took everything out of me. The guys were still kindly carrying my rucksack and still I felt at any second I might pass out. I literally had NOTHING left. But as we finally approached the main road I phoned my parents and on loudspeaker they whooped and cheered as I crossed the finish line.
Yes, there was a huge sense of relief at that moment, but if I’m honest I knew that my journey wasn’t over. My tummy felt not only queasy, but so sore at times, like something wasn’t agreeing with it. I knew the car ride home was going to test me to the absolute limit.
Not 5 minutes into the drive home and I had to get Kate to pull over and let me out to retch at the side of the road. I spent the next 15/20 minutes with my head over a brown paper bag knowing the inevitable was coming … and it did. Around 5 hours after taking the energy gel, it finally came up and out of my system. 5 hours of torture was over in an instant. As soon as I was sick I felt a million times better and apologised profusely to the girls in the car for boking into the bag! I have never been so glad to get home. Duke of Ed Gold was the only other time I remember feeling so grateful to be home.
I’m still trying to process it all 2 days afterwards. I mean ... it was BRUTAL. The toughest thing I've EVER done. We covered the ENTIRE Mourne Wall. 15 peaks! In ONE day! You can see them listed below:
- Rocky Mountain 525 m (1,722 ft)
- Slieve Donard 850 m (2,790 ft)
- Slieve Commedagh 765 m (2,510 ft)
- Slieve Corragh 691 m (2,267 ft)
- Slievenaglogh 586 m (1,923 ft)
- Slieve Bearnagh 727 m (2,385 ft)
- Slieve Meelmore 684 m (2,244 ft)
- Slieve Meelbeg 708 m (2,323 ft)
- Slieve Loughshannagh 619 m (2,031 ft)
- Carn Mountain 587 m (1,926 ft)
- Slieve Muck 674 m (2,211 ft)
- Slievenaglogh 445 m (1,460 ft)
- Slieve Binnian 747 m (2,451 ft)
- Wee Binnian 460 m (1,510 ft)
- Moolieve 332 m (1,089 ft)
How did my wee legs carry me?! Those legs are telling me NEVER to put them through something like that EVER again. Plus, I’m still getting tested in endurance … my poor legs are in absolute agony! I think I’m now on my 5th muscle soak bath and can only walk backwards down the stairs! But, seriously though - WHAT A TEAM …
Honestly, these guys were incredible. Everyone hit a low at some point during the day and everyone pushed through. Why? Because we weren’t doing it for ourselves. There were moments where I pictured some of the Reach mentees in my mind. Moments where I was metaphorically walking alongside them. Moments where I felt their pain, their hurt and their fear. You can read why I signed up to the challenge here. Reach are doing vital work in our local schools and there is so much need for more. More mentors in more schools. More resources and training. More awareness and support. If you have already donated … THANK YOU. I am more grateful than you will ever know. Your support and encouragement (whether financially or encouragingly) was crucial in helping me get through that hellish day and it matters. It matters to those young people’s lives that are being continually transformed and renewed by the work of Reach.
Just don't ask me to walk the Mourne Wall next time, ok?!
PS. You can still donate here ... any amount is GREATLY appreciated. My legs would definitely appreciate a few more pounds!!