Moonlight Challenge

Moonlight Challenge

How it all began

It was the Thursday after Joe’s accident when all talk in the McDonough’s pub was about what had happened. It had been a beautiful evening’s climbing in Dalkey Quarry and more people than usual had gone for a drink afterwards. The previous Saturday’s rescue had made the RTE news so everybody wanted to know more. The mountain rescue teams were one of the heroes of the story. Ian, who went to Joe’s assistance and helped with the rescue, spoke of how they had gotten him down from the mountain so professionally and carefully, with almost military skill. He described the human chain that they made passing Joe’s stretcher between them, and once it had passed
each rescuer, he or she ran ahead to the front of the chain to receive the stretcher again and so he was passed from person to person safely down the mountain. Joe, although visibly gravely injured was thanking them and joking with them. Ian mentioned that one of the mountain rescue teams involved, The Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue Team, was organising a fund raiser to raise money, a night walk in November, The Moonlight Challenge. As well as our gratitude for what the team had done, the challenge sounded like something that we’d want to do any way, a good excuse to hit the hills. Of course we were in.

The shock of the next day’s news that Joe had died completely wiped away the warmth and relief of the previous night’s drinks. Where, the previous night, it seemed incredible that he had survived (only somebody as large as life as Joe could survive such a massive fall), now it felt unbelievable that he had died. Five days on from the fall he was surely out of danger, and wasn’t he chatting away to the hoards of visitors that had descended on St Vincent’s. All our jokes and banter seemed out of place. It felt like we had been robbed.


And so the training began (in kind of earnest). I hadn’t done any serious hiking in years so I definitely needed to get up to speed. Ian was directing training and coordinating the group via email. After being almost blown away and on our first outing to Sorrel Hill it turned out to be a beautiful autumn. On various weekends we criss-crossed Scarr, Brockagh, Camaderry and Lugduff. After the fine summer the colours were almost unbelievably vivid. It was brilliant to be out on the mountains, a great autumn to rediscover Wicklow; heart shaped Lough Ouler, the colour of the layers of the blanket bog, the herds of deer keeping an eye on us. We even saw Wales and could count many mountains over there on the horizon. The views were stunning.


I joined the IMC to learn to climb so I hadn’t properly appreciated that there are so many excellent hikers/mountaineers in the club, people with knowledge, efficiency and competence in the mountains. It was really eye-opening for me walk with them. Using phone apps and the specialised GPS trackers was also new to me. They track how long you’ve been walking, how far you’ve gone, tally the heights of the hills you’ve climbed and descended and even tell you how many calories they think you’ve burned. Quite entertainingly, these different systems never quite agreed with each other. This inspired much discussion as to which one was right and how come they differed. I chose to believe the one that indicated that we’d walked the longest, climbed the highest and burned the most calories.

Simpler methods were not without their problems either. When Ian asked me to lead a practice route I decided to draw it out on a laminated map to make things as simple as possible. It rained. It hadn’t occurred to me that rain and water soluble marker don’t really make a great combination, so we had the experience of more and more of the map washing away every time it was opened. Peter (who actually did know where he was going) suggested that it probably wasn’t the best idea to draw the route using make-up. It wasn’t make-up, but come to think of it, most good eyeliners are waterproof.


The runners’ training appeared to be going well too, and great tales of thundering across the mountains in the dark appeared the IMC online forum. They did emphasise that they were not treating the Moonlight Challenge as a competitive event; however their description of bounding from rock to rock and of running much further than they planned gave an impression of a completely different league of fitness. From their online discussions it appeared that head torches were a huge concern, particularly the strength of torch, measured in lumens, necessary to undertake a fell run (there was differences of opinion on the optimal number of lumens).
I’m not sure whether it’s possible to have Freudian slips while typing. As the event came nearer Ian’s typos when emailing about the event made one unsure whether they were mere typos or whether they reflected a deeper malaise. He renamed the event the “moan light challenge” and called our collective team the “moon liters” in the title bar of various emails. Surely it was only a slip of the keyboard! He also repeatedly emphasised that it wasn’t him that was picking the teams, but that some nice, neutral, autonomous person from Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue was going to randomly assign people to teams.


The Teams

When the original post had gone up on the club’s website looking for volunteers for the challenge, it very quickly became apparent that there was enough interest for more than one team. There were the usual, joking (I think!), requests not to be on such and such’s team. Also, there was a flurry of suggestions of names for the teams.

Being the harmonious lot that we are, these included “The Influential People”, “The Committee”, “The Real Irish Mountaineering Team” and “The Unofficial Irish Mountaineering Club”, and The Irish Mountaineering Popular Revolutionary Front (IMPRF) (a suggestion was made to add ‘Club’ to the last name so that they could be the IMPRFCs). There was huge competition on the money raising front with rival ‘my charity’ accounts vying for attention on the forum.

The teams were announced just before the big event. There were four walking teams from the IMC; the Irish Mountaineering Club, The Irish Mountaineering Popular Revolutionary Front (IMPERF), The Irish Mountaineering Liberation Alliance (IMLA), and the Irish Mountaineering and Non Mountaineers and Allied Activities Trade Union (The IMNMAATU). These names made me imagine us stomping across the route with placards and wearing dodgy 1980s anoraks, maybe even singing rebel songs. Times must be tough. The kit list included the usual, rain gear, head torch, whistle, first aid, water and food, but didn’t mention anoraks or placards or include any song sheets.
Another typo I thought was that I was listed as captain of a team. Particularly when that team included Gerda Pauler, a Norwegian based German mountaineer who had traversed Nepal and had not only climbed the highest peaks in the seven countries containing the Alps as her summer holiday last year, but had cycled from peak to peak (to top this off when weather conditions had stopped her summiting Mont Blanc she cycled all the way back when she had completed her final peak in Italy to properly finish the job and successfully summited. This was surely some mistake.

The Big Day

When we arrived at Glenmalure Lodge we were struck by the great atmosphere. There was an air of friendliness, and expectation. It was a much bigger event than I had imagined with more than 400 participants. Everybody appeared to be in good form and feeling good about participating. The organisers had gone all out and there was a climbing wall and face painting – perfect for our revolutionaries! The runners already had been dispatched to their starting point. Their 20 km trail running route went east to west from the Imaal bar in the Glen of Imaal via Table Track to Glenmalure.

At the check in, I was interrogated to ensure we were properly prepared. The officials seemed happy with my answers and we were issued with a map and a set of tickets to be submitted when the entire team presented to each checkpoint. We were bussed from Glenmalure to Glendassan, instructions originally given by email were reiterated en route by a steward. We were on the last bus and straining at the bridle to go.

The Route

The route brought us through the three glens from Glendassan to Glendalough and Glenmalure taking in sections of both St. Kevin’s Way and the Wicklow Way. It led from the old Lead Mines in the Glendassan Valley, via St. Kevin’s Way through the monastic settlement in Glendalough to glacial valleys and mountainous terrain along the miners’ path and the zigzags skimming Lugduff, then down through forest to the beautiful valley of Glenmalure. There were 3 check-in points on the route, Glendalough, Ballynafunshoge and at the Shay Elliot Memorial.


Glendassan to Glendalough

After a team check in at the start we were off, at a gallop along St Kevin’s way. The route was very well flagged. There was moon light; a full moon did make a brief appearance. The grave yard in Glendalough was transformed using dry ice and spooky lighting (there were fire jugglers on the route as well but they had gone home by the time we got there). It quickly became apparent that there were two different approaches to the challenge on our team. While the star gazers in the team took in the views, the speedier finish line gazers went stepping it out together finishing each leg first. The good atmosphere at the start carried through to the checkpoints. The craic was great. Copious amounts of enormous chocolate muffins were being dispensed so we’d probably gain weight on the walk.

Glendalough to Ballynafunshogue

From the first check point a trail of light created by other people’s head torches stretched out ahead of us along the lakes and up the zigzags and then disappeared into the mist that covered the tops of the mountains. As we gained height near Lugduff the mist made visibility very poor and made our head torches pretty useless. They were better held in our hands than on our heads. The mist also made encountering other people quite a strange experience, especially because we couldn’t
see them till the last minute. When we came upon somebody sitting alone in the middle of nowhere, I thought it was a walker who had enough and decided to give up – on further questioning it turned that they were one of mountain rescue team who was keeping an eye on us to make sure we didn’t take a wrong turn. We also had the strange experience of various disembodied voices greeting us, and all that could be seen was a head torch bobbing around. We eventually sussed who they were – most of the time. A very slippery stone step down through the forest brought us to checkpoint two where Martin and Gerda, our finish line gazers, awaited us. It was a mild night, almost warm. I needed no extra layers and needed no extra food (those chocolate muffins!) I didn’t need the backpack.

In the forest, between checkpoint 2 and 3, we had another strange encounter. A few kilometres along the forest track beyond the check point the organisers had set up some mountain rescue mannequins to look as if they were climbing one of the trees. On first glance (in the dark, lit by head torch) it looked as if they were hanging and we couldn’t see that they weren’t real people. Everybody stopped in their tracks as it caught their eye. The hairs on the back of my head stood up. On closer inspection it was obvious that they were climbing and that they were mannequins, but the initial impression took our breath away. Team conversation turned to the film, ‘the Blair Witch Project’.

When nature called, it seemed safe enough on an isolated path through the forest to barley step off into the trees whilst my team mates walked ahead. If any other teams were approaching, I’d see their head torches. As frequently seems to happen me, things didn’t go quite to plan. Just as I was nicely settled and offloading some of the many litres of water I had imbibed, the mountain rescue four by four with its high calibre headlights came around the corner.

Above the sound of the engine I heard my ‘teammates’ laughing hysterically as I jumped up and fumbled to get my clothes pulled up. My initial reaction to act as if that that just hadn’t happened was scuppered when the jeep pulled alongside me and the driver rolled down his window and apologised profusely. He was laughing so much he didn’t have the breath control to finish the sentence. He did manage to blame my ‘team mates’ for pointing me out. I re-joined the gang. When they recovered from their hysterics they came up with ‘original’ jokes about being caught with my pants down and queries as to whether I had gotten my knickers in a twist!


The Finish Line

We made a half hearted attempt to jog to the finish line. Despite it being around midnight we were clapped into the finish line by very enthusiastic members of the mountain rescue team, who by then must have had very sore hands. At the final check in our time was noted, we were given a cert, a very fancy neck gaiter and team photo and some lovely stew. The Après Challenge party in the Glenmalure Lodge was fantastic. There was music and dancing. There was a great buzz. Everybody seemed to be energised by their long walk rather than tired out by it. The driver of the jeep came over to apologise yet again about catching me in the headlights (and there I was reassuring myself that he probably wouldn’t recognise me again).


Sé O’Hanlon was wondering if anybody else had seen the sight impaired runners and further explained that he had seen one runner with a guide runner tied closely to him. Somebody said it was Vincent and Ambrose but no one knew why they were attached to each other. We speculated that they never found a strong enough head torch, or maybe one had managed to blind the other with too powerful a torch, or perhaps they were taking their mountaineering relationship to a new level. An explanation came via Facebook and on the online forum, where according to Ambrose it was all Vincent’s fault. They weren’t tied together but were linked by Alpine Coils and they had
done it just as a joke. (Ambrose did confess that he really enjoyed the spectacle of the ‘hardcore’ runners being passed by two idiots roped together!).


Walkers and runners included, twenty three people completed the challenge on behalf of the IMC. For the record, of the IMC teams the IMNAATU completed the challenge in the quickest time, The IMPERFs were second, the IMLA were third and last by a long shot were my team the IMC. Gary the victorious IMNAATU team captain later produced loaded all of the times onto a spread sheet so we could analyse our performance.
The runners all completed the distance in double quick time with the (self named) ‘two idiots roped together’ heading up the IMC posse of six.

It was a fantastic night, the atmosphere was electric and everybody seemed to have great fun.
The Moonlight Challenge was very well organised, both by Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue Team and by Ian Christie on behalf of the club. The enthusiasm, goodwill and spirit of all involved made it a great experience. It was a great cause and everybody was a winner. After costs they raised €35,000 from the event. They are going to buy and kit out a new van with the money that they raised (no need to improve the spec of those headlamps!).

I think Joe would have approved.