Mourne Seven Sevens
If getting up early for an epic day on the hills is your idea of fun, then the annual Mourne Seven Sevens may well be worth adding to your list of outdoor challenges. But what is the Mourne Seven Sevens? Well the clue is in the name – the challenge is to start in Newcastle and visit all +700m peaks in the Mountains of Mourne before ending up back in Newcastle. The route is entirely up to you and the summits can be visited in any order you want. The only restriction is that the checkpoint at the Ben Crom dam must be visited before a strict cut-off time. More specific information is provided at the end of this article.
For some people the challenge is simply to finish back in Newcastle having reached all seven summits, while for others the challenge is in beating their previous best time. For the ultra competitive, including runners in the NIMRA Championship, the goal is beating everyone else’s time!
This year (2011) was my first attempt at the Mourne Seven Sevens (as a walker, not a runner) and with only a couple of recent quality hill days under my belt I was feeling dreadfully under-prepared. The weather forecast had suggested that it could be a very wet day on the hills and so I borrowed a Mountain Equipment Firefox jacket as a lightweight alternative to my aging Berghaus jacket (a waterproof jacket is one of kit requirements for the event). I then proceeded to negate the benefits of having an ultralight (sub 400g) hard-shell by stuffing my Osprey Talon 22 with too much food. It was a rookie mistake, but I figured that if I broke an ankle I could at least stave off hypothermia a bit longer while waiting for help.
As always I went to bed later than I should with such an early start the next morning, but once up I prepared a Mountain Fuel Morning Fuel for breakfast, washed down with a coffee and then set off in the car for Newcastle. As the mountains loomed in the distance the weather, which had been very wet the day before, looked to be better than expected – the summits were still in cloud, but the cloud base was higher than it could have been. I arrived at Donard car park around 6:30am and soon met Tim and couple of other guys – all Mourne Seven Sevens veterans – who I would spend various amounts of time throughout the day. After registering and picking up my “race” number I pulled on my La Sportiva Wildcats, made a few last minute adjustments and set off for the starting point.
Tim was a short way ahead of me in the queue for the starting checkpoint and so my first couple of hundred meters were at a steady run in order to catch up with him. Starting too fast was one of the things Tim had warned me against and it was probably a stupid thing to do considering I hadn’t even really warmed up. Settling down into the slower-but-still-too-fast pace I parted company with Tim and the rest of the nearby walkers at the first bridge by staying to the west of the river. At the Ice House the Black Stairs route to the summit of Slieve Donard briefly tempted me, but with plenty of miles ahead of time I opted for the more conventional route up the Glen River towards the Saddle and on up the Mourne Wall.
Reaching the summit of Slieve Donard in around 1hr 12mins I had the single biggest climb of the day behind me. At 850m, Slieve Donard isn’t a big peak, but in the immortal words of the song, the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea, so ascending Slieve Donard from Newcastle means ascending almost its full height. I must admit I lingered at the summit of Slieve Donard for longer than I should, but the marshalls were good for a laugh and I was conscious that I still had six other hills to bag before I was finished. My lingering had allowed Tim to catch up with me a bit and we passed each other as I was heading back down the Saddle, where I waited for him and we headed up Slieve Commedagh together. The cloud was persisting and there was a stiff wind at altitude, but it wasn’t raining and the Firefox stayed in my bag. Tim and I stayed more-or-less together and we came off Slieve Commedagh down to the Brandy Pad, which took us along to Hares’ Gap and up Slieve Bearnagh. We were now almost 7 miles and 2½ hours in, but there was no time for anything more than a drink before the steep and slippy descent of the western spur of Slieve Bearnagh before heading straight back up Slieve Meelmore where we punched our own race numbers (it’s the only unmanned checkpoint) and on to Slieve Meelbeg. At the summit of Slieve Meelbeg we left the Mourne Wall behind and dropped of the hill in a roughly southerly direction towards the Bencrom River. Following the river resulted in properly wet feet for the first time of the day as we splashed through boggy ground, which at times proved to be quite deep. Following the river between Ben Crom and Doan, we descended to around 300m before heading east towards the Ben Crom dam where we arrived to the encouragement of the marshalls just after 11am.
The dam across the Ben Crom Reservoir, which is an essential checkpoint, is a popular stopping point because there is certainly no shortage of water – there is a bucket on a rope that can be dipped into the reservoir – and the wall provides somewhere sheltered and reasonably comfortable to sit down for a few minutes. However, the midges were out in full force and so eating a banana and refilling my water bottles was done with a certain amount of cursing and much more haste than was desirable. Tim and Joe had been even quicker than me and had already started climbing up towards the saddle between Slievelamagan and Slieve Binnian, but a quick burst of pace had me back in contact with them. On reaching the saddle Tim suggested that I dump my bag and collect it again once were had done Binnian and were retracing our route to continue on up Lamagan. I should have listened to him, but I’m a bit pig headed at times and I felt that if I had packed more weight than was necessary than that was quite literally my burden to bear. I have to admit that it was around this point that I began to regret being so conservative about possible food requirements and the consequent weight of my pack. Tim kept saying I was “one tough guy” to be carrying that much weight, I’m sure he was being polite, “one dumb guy” would have been more accurate.
With the summit of Slieve Binnian bagged and a fresh bottle of PSP-22 within reach in the side pocket of my pack we set off at a slow run along Binnian and past the Castles. The weather, which had remained cold and cloudy up to that point, now broke into a much sunnier and warmer day with good views over most of the High Mournes. By this stage we were being passed in both directions by the runners, who had started later than the walkers and who were following a different route. Back once again at the saddle I was starting to really feel the effort. Facing me was the sharp, hard pull up Slievelamagan and I stopped for another 10 minutes to take on more food and fluids. Tim, who hadn’t stopped was now making good time up Lamagan and I wouldn’t speak to him again until I saw him in Newcastle. My own ascent of Lamagan was a much slower than normal 30 minutes despite the rumours of free Kit Kats at the summit. The final checkpoint of the day was a welcome psychological boost – all the hills were done, all that was left was to walk back to Newcastle. The free Twix – the rumours were wrong! – were also welcome and I sat down to munch through them.
The route along Slievelamagan, Cove and Slieve Beg towards the Brandy Pad is a well worn track, but not one that needs to be followed for the Seven Sevens. Unnecessary ascent and decent can be avoided by skirting around the summit of Cove, but without thinking I followed the normal route and lost time and expended unnecessary energy before I realised my mistake. Nonetheless, by the time I had reached the Devil’s Coachroad I had realised that I could potentially finish in under 8 hours. Before the event I had been very publicly – and honestly – stating that I would be happy to finish with my ankles intact and I’d be over the moon to finish in less than 9 hours, so the possibility of finishing in under 8 hours was a challenge I couldn’t resist. I began to push hard up the short stretch of the Brandy Pad to the Saddle which were the last few metres of ascent for the day … and it was here that I rolled my ankle and the thought of failing to finish, or limping home in 15 hours flashed through my mind. As my ankle rolled over and I felt the stretch I dropped to take the weight off it and performed a kind of two footed hop. Months of wearing trail shoes rather than boots had, however, strengthened my ankles considerably and a few cautious steps later showed no pain and the incident was soon forgotten … well almost forgotten, it was with a little more caution that I continued on my way.
Coming down the Glen River towards Donard Wood I had a good view of the Red Arrows, which were displaying over Newcastle for the Harry Ferguson Festival of Flight. However, I was working the percentages and running on any ground that looked safe enough for tired legs and tired mind and I wasn’t going to risk another turned ankle or missing the 8 hour target and so only stopped briefly to watch the display while I took on some fluids. Reaching the forest road by the “first” bridge I settled into an easy jog towards the car park. If there was a sign pointing to the finish across the grass at Donard Park I missed it and ran on through the car park to the cheers and congratulations of some of those who had finished before me. Reaching the tent where I had registered all those hours ago I had to ask where the finish was and I was pointed to the other side of the tent – which I would have run straight up to had I crossed the grass! With my bib handed over I sat down on the grass and exchanged a few pleasantries with Jim Brown and “posed” (insofar as such a thing is possible while lying on grass) for a photograph. I had already stopped my Sports Tracker app and knew that my official time should be under the 8 hour mark, but when I was handed my certificate it was confirmed – my official time for the day was 7h55min, a time I later found out was just inside the top 50 out of a field of just over 300 walkers.
After a short search I had hunted down Tim, who had finished 15 minutes before me and there was much mutual congratulations and hand-shaking. In a moment of candour Chris (Tim’s brother, who had finished 6th out of all the walkers) and I admitted that we both found the moments after finishing to be incredibly emotional. It was a real high and I wonder if it was akin to the high that long distance runners experience, after all I had (according to my GPS app) just walked a shade over 20 miles and with a cumulative ascent just shy of twice the height of Ben Nevis. Worryingly we were all talking about what we would do differently at next year’s event …
Some more information about the Mourne Seven Sevens:
The Mourne Seven Sevens is organised by the Spartan Red Socks and is an annual event – the proceeds after expenses are donated to charity – most notably the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team.
The Official Stats:
Distance 18mi (29km)
Ascent/decent: 8100ft (2495m)
Typical duration: 10-12 hours
Starting time: 7:00-9:00am
Entrance Fee (2011): £10
The checkpoints visited are as follows (in no particular order):
Slieve Donard: 850m
Slieve Commedagh: 765m
Slieve Lamagan: 704m
Slieve Binnian: 747m
Slieve Meelbeg: 708m
Slieve Meelmore: 704m
Slieve Bearnagh: 727m
Ben Crom dam: n/a
The heights are taken from the 1990 edition of the Mournes OSNI 1:25k map, which showed the height of Slieve Meelmore as 704m. The next edition of the map showed a more accurate height of 687m, but still marked the summit incorrectly. The current version of the map has now placed the summit correctly!
You need to be at least 18 years old to enter and there is a specific kit list that must be taken with you. This includes the obvious items such as a map, compass, waterproof jacket and so on. However, none of these will help you if you haven’t prepared in advance! Work on your hill fitness, make sure you know how to navigate … and remember to have fun while doing it!
The following is my own route for the day, but many walkers did it the other way around, while the runners took a different route again. It’s up to you!