Mournes Meet August Bank Holiday

(by Penny Bartlett, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2003)
The Mournes, midges, and musings on IMC meets.

The last week in July, all was quiet on the western front as nearly every climber I knew had made a beeline for the Alps. It looked as if the August bank holiday was going to be spent doing DIY work on the house, until Chris Clarke put his organisational skills to task and planned a meet in the Mournes.

A posse of five met up near Tollymore on the Saturday morning. Owing to recent road ‘improvements’ (I hesitate to call a motorway an ‘improvement’ on anything except journey times), all travelled up on the Saturday morning and had no difficulty in getting to the meeting point by 11am. Noel led us on the one-hour walk-in to the Bearnagh Slabs in the heart of the Mournes, one of the more popular crags. It offers a range of multi-pitch routes, including many in the lower grades. The slabs look deceptively easy from below owing to the angle of rock, but to a granite novice, the lack of jug holds and the need to depend on friction is slightly unnerving. The slabs sweep up from the valley floor for 150m or so, giving way to heather and rocky outcrops. Plodding on up, you reach the summit of Slieve Bearnagh and the majestic Bearnagh tors, which offer shorter but more exposed routes, probably best enjoyed on a really fine day, unless you are looking for something a little more ‘atmospheric’.

Noel, Mark and I warmed up on Grand Central (VD, three pitches), a good introduction to Mourne granite. Three people on a multi-pitch meant that rope management and belay stances had to be rigorously organised. A good supply of cams was essential, as most of the gear placement was in cracks. Chris and Richard followed us up, and I think we all enjoyed the route – straightforward climbing in a superb mountain setting.

Our next choice of route was Directissima (S, three pitches). The first 8m or so lacked good holds, but the easy angle of the rock and the friction meant it could be scaled speedily and nimbly, using fingertips and toes. It was on the second pitch that we ran into unforeseen problems. The belay ledge was a damp, grassy corner with deep mossy crevices, and out of these crevices we were ambushed … by midges. Trousers were frantically tucked into socks, hoods pulled over faces. Chris was summoned to our rescue with the insect repellant but applying the spray just provoked them into a swarming frenzy. 53 minibeasts were drowning in deet on the back of my hand, while hundreds of them hurled themselves at my hood, making tiny pinpricks of sound as they hit the fabric.

Noel, leading the second pitch, exercised mind over matter and made it to the next anchor point. The route becomes more interesting at this point but continuing in these conditions was not an option. An abseil was set up in record time and before you could say ‘Culicoides obsoletus’ Noel had us all back down on midge-free ground. Meanwhile, Chris and Richard had embarked on another climb, and as we watched them, we saw the unmistakable signs of scratching, flapping and slapping. We decided we’d call it a day and get out of there, fast.

We camped at Tollymore Forest Park, with its neat rows of family tents and 500m hike to the toilet block. Strangely we were only required to pay the family rate, which saved us a bit in campsite fees. A cosmopolitan meal of noodles, lasagne, Toblerone and wine, eaten under the stars, finished off the day in relaxed style.

We were joined for a hillwalk the next day by Peter and Rob, impressively fit from their recent trip to the Alps. They strode off up the track to Slieve Bearnagh as if on a mission. Noel had returned to Dublin, which meant that Mark and I had the task of retrieving his gear left on Directissima when we’d bailed out the previous day. Thankfully, the midges were tolerable this time, and the route completed without problems. From the airy, awkward belay stance at the top of the second pitch, I reflected on how being a member of the IMC enables one to access some incredible and unlikely places. The satisfaction comes not only from the view, the exposure, and the grandeur of the setting, but the realisation that you are there through your own ability and self-belief.

By this time Peter, Rob and Chris were nowhere to be seen, so Mark and I finished the day by staggering up Bearnagh (no joke, with a rack of climbing equipment on your back) and on to Slievenaglogh, using the top of the Mournes Wall as a footpath.

This brought the meet to a rather premature close; it was only Sunday evening on a bank holiday weekend, with a brilliant forecast for the next day, yet everyone had either left already, or had reasons for getting back home.

Which leads me to consider how the nature of IMC meets is changing, owing to many factors including higher car ownership, technology (mobile phones, email), increased personal wealth, and busier lifestyles. Many of us are unwilling to commit ourselves to attending a meet from start to finish. Is this a bad thing (it’s tough on the organisers, and lessens opportunities for club members to get to know each other) or a good thing (we live in a free society, it’s family-friendly, we can take more advantage of the weather and we can keep our options open)? Is the future of fixed meets, such as the October meet in Wales, threatened? Or does this matter at all, when there have recently been so many excellent opportunities to attend other meets throughout the year?