Surviving Ireland’s Mourne Wall Challenge

By Dave Cauldwell 12 August 2014
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The 35km Mourne Wall circuit traverses seven of Northern Ireland’s 10 tallest mountains and has nearly 2750m of descent

I’M STANDING IN THEIR shadow, in a deserted cobblestone car park, watching as early morning mist slowly snaffles the mountains. I’m about to embark on the Mourne Wall Challenge and for the next 35km I’ll have a 1.5m-high chaperone to guide me – not a leprechaun, but the Mourne Wall, a barrier built in the early 20th century to keep cattle out of the 3600-hectare Silent Valley water catchment area.

Silent Valley’s high rainfall makes it an ideal reservoir site, one that still supplies Belfast with its water today. Stonemasons toiled for 18 years to erect the wall, hauling pieces of granite around the valley and up its steep slopes. The closer the workers got to completing the wall, the more difficult it became because the stonemasons had to lug the stones further up the valley.

I can only admire their tenacity as I climb towards the summit of the first peak. It’s 8am and I have 12 hours before it gets dark. I’m shrouded in a thick blanket of mist that whirls around the pinnacle. Gusts of wind barrel me off balance as I stumble into a notch in the rock-face. The light is eerie, like that of a partial eclipse, and visibility is down to 20m. From my summit “vantage point” there’s no discernible path down the other side. The wall has vanished and in its stead is a sheer sheet of granite.

I slide down slippery rock on my backside, clasping sods of grass to prevent myself from tumbling over the edge. Once I’ve scrambled 100m or so, the cloud lifts to reveal a gorgeous vista of the Silent Valley Reservoir. I can see the wall as well, which has reappeared further down next to a hill of purple heather. All I have to do now is get to it without breaking anything.

12 peaks, 9 hours of light to go on the Mourne Wall

Shortcuts always seem like a good idea at the time, but with bog mud up to my knees I’m beginning to wish that I’d stuck to the path. The greater my efforts to free my legs, the further I sink; slow and steady extractions are the only way to go.

The first three peaks have sapped three-and-a-half hours of the morning, so to save time I’ve cut across a seemingly innocuous paddock. It’s booby trapped with deep, squelching holes, however, and every footstep is a lucky dip – or unlucky, depending on whether or not my foot disappears. After prising myself free, I tiptoe back to the wall and resolve not to migrate from it again.

I’m nearing hyperventilation by the time I reach the summit of the fourth peak. Sheep stare at me, almost disdainfully, as if doubting my ability to complete the Mourne Wall Challenge. Their looks are mere reflections of my own state of mind. Right now it feels as though I’m tackling something that’s beyond my capability.  
Surveying the terrain ahead, it appears that there’s no let up. The next peak, Slieve Muck, rises like a tsunami. Mist descends and its summit is soon shrouded.

Slieve Muck is, as the name suggests, a mud fest. My boots are sodden and soiled. It’s a muddy marathon that doesn’t seem to end. The wall crumbles away in places and sheer granite slopes shiny with the sheen of rain take its place. I plot a path around the granite, clasping tussocks to yank myself up.

11 peaks to go on the Mourne Wall

I’m sitting on the summit of Slieve Muck, chomping a chocolate bar and wondering where all my energy has gone. The view north serves as an undulating reminder of where the last five hours have gone. At my current pace the remaining 11 peaks are going to take 14 hours to traverse. Rather than focus on the size of the task, I decide to break the walk down into bite-sized chunks and take it one mountain at a time.

The next two peaks are lower than Slieve Muck and the ridges approaching them are gradual and kind. I run to try and make up time, pausing on the slopes of the eighth peak to eat an apple by a glistening tarn. Bands of rain to the south smother tracts of rural land in mist. A steely wind blows the rain towards me. Out to sea, sporadic splodges of sun spotlight distant ships. A rainbow arcs but is soon stifled by mist.

On peak nine’s summit I shelter in a domed building built in 1921. Etchings in the stone tell me it belongs to Belfast Water Works. It stands desolate against a curtain of white.

Drizzle turns to pouring rain as I clamber over rocks on the steep descent towards peak 10. I can only laugh at the seemingly impossible gradient the wall takes next, but any humour is short-lived as I nearly sprain my ankle on a slippery rock. The rain’s getting heavier and in my hastiness to don my poncho I rip it twice. It flaps around my face and barely covers my body.

Four hours of light left; five peaks to go

I check my watch on descending into Hares Gap and realise that I’m three hours behind schedule. Through a gap in the mist I spy Ben Crom Reservoir. It’s the only thing I can see and filtered sunlight casts it aglow, rendering it spectral. The reservoir soon disappears and once again I’m alone in the nothingness. Before me stands Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard (850m).

Apparently. For all I know what lies ahead could be a troupe of tap-dancing sheep in heather skirts.

Stonehenge-style rocks appear like castle turrets as I trudge onto a plateau. It’s a little uncanny, but for the second time today every sheep I pass starts pissing. The terrain is a combination of grass and mud, and I deduce from the map that I must be descending into the Bog of Donard. Ahead, the wall rises to infinity and up the next peak. Mt Rocky isn’t supposed to be as steep as this according to the map, but maybe I’m misreading the contours.

The Rocky theme tune plays in my head as I ascend and the sun breaks on the summit. To my left, I have a beautiful vista of Newcastle. It’s all very nice, but I shouldn’t be able to see this coastal town from the top of Mt Rocky. And the mound of stones scattered on the summit seem to resemble ruins.

Before setting out, I read about the remains of a small oratory believed to have been built during the fifth century by St Domangard the Hermit. These remains mark the summit of the 850m-high Slieve Donard.

In my disorientation, I’ve tricked myself into thinking I’m a mountain ahead. This means I still have the knee-crippling descent of Northern Ireland’s highest mountain to negotiate, as well as the stodgy Bog of Donard through which to squelch. Waning sun rays reflect the bog’s shimmering arteries. They peter out over Brandy Pad, an old smuggling route where traders ferried brandy and other contraband across the hills on ponies. Speed is definitely of the essence right now.

Three peaks remain on the Mourne Wall Challenge

This bog is a bugger. I traipse across it, occasionally looking back over my shoulder at Slieve Donard, the summit of which is tinged with golden light. Each footstep sounds as if I’m stepping on a whoopee cushion. Sadistic sucks jar my ailing legs. Flies dart into my eyes and mouth. At least the descent from here is steady and for once I have time to walk and contemplate the view. Despite the punishing terrain, there is serenity to this land.

I descend over peaks 13, 14 and 15. Just as I complete the last one, pulses of excruciating pain surge into the side of my right knee; my IT band feels like the size of a tennis ball. There’s only a kilometre remaining, but I can no longer bend my knee and am forced to walk as though I have a wooden leg.

I hobble through a dark pine forest. Farmhouse lights twinkle through a gap in the trees. I’m delirious with exhaustion, glad that my mission is at an end and grateful to my pint-sized chaperone of stone for its guidance through the magical Mourne Mountains.

Getting to the Mourne Wall

Qantas flies from Australia to Belfast ( From Belfast, catch a bus to Newcastle, where a 30-minute taxi ride will take you to the start of the walk at Carrick Little car park.

When to go

March-October are the best months.

More info

Allow 10-12 hours to complete the walk. Check out for detailed track notes.