Solo Summit Bivvy – Part One

I was driving to the local garage for a bottle of milk when 30 seconds from the house I realised I’d forgotten my mobile phone. After pondering turning round I thought I’d just “chance it”, after all the garage is only 2 minutes from the house – what could possibly go wrong in such a short time. Discounting the fact I was firing up the wifes massive 4×4 to drive 300m for £1.20 worth of cow juice, why the hell did I even feel I needed a mobile phone. 20 years ago when I was running around in short trousers, setting things on fire and experimenting with beer and smoking (what’s changed!) mobile phones had been invented but were yet to be commercially available. In fact it would be well through the 80s before I saw my first mobile in the hands of the iconic Dell Boy and another full decade before I would get one myself (that I couldn’t actually afford to make a call on). In all that time I never once worried that I couldn’t immediately contact anyone, anywhere in the world and yet these days being 3 minutes from the house in a car without a phone somehow seems uncomfortable. To me this alone seems more than enough justification for a solo night in the mountains. To strap enough gear on your back for an overnight and stride off on your own into the wilderness is exciting and although ironically the mobile is the first thing packed, it still has an awesome feeling of reckless abandon compared to modern everyday life.

I have soloed before, this time last year I had my first night alone in a forest on the slopes of Slievenamaddy. I’d be the first to admit the darkness makes me nervous and I’ve been known to spook myself heading through the garden to the garage in the dark so a night in a wood with continuous odd sounds and strange shapes through the trees in every direction is uncomfortable to say the least. A Hobo stove and snifter of Jack Daniels calmed me through that event but afterwards I was disappointed that the car was only ever 30 minutes away and I felt I should have gone further from civilization.

The Trassey Track from Hares Gap

Since then I’d been mentally planning an unassisted summit bivvy and had decided the destination would be some peak that was straightforward to get to but not too busy, and out of nowhere a window of opportunity appeared. I had a Friday off work, the usual mountain suspects were all busy and the wife was in particularly fine form so it took little thought to decide Slieve Bearnagh the destination. The weather was to be suitable forecasting clear skies and 13mph winds with the only downsides being 3 hours of rain between 6 and 9am and some gusting which all in seemed as perfect as you can get on this island. Bearnagh is the 4th highest peak in the mournes at 739m and whilst it has a steep ascent, it benefits from either a clearly defined path or the Mourne Wall most of the way from the car to the summit making it a nice safe peak to do on your own and is a route that would take a really epic fail to get lost on.

Come the day of departure I had spent a night on the north coast with the family and was not relishing the drive home with a slight hangover. Having gathered most of my stuff the day before I only had to pop into the house for food and some last minute packing before kissing the wife and threatening the kids with what would happen if they didn’t behave before leaping back into the car for the drive down Newcastle direction.

Slieve Bearnagh Quarry

It was after 530pm before I reversed out of the driveway so by the time I got to my starting out point of Meelmore Lodge it was already pitch dark and the wind was blowing pretty steadily well above the forecasted speeds and it felt like the gusts were less gusty and more continuous. I stopped briefly in the darkness wondering if this was a actually a good idea, after all, what really was the point of an endeavor like this. However, standing by the car looking at the impossibly bright constellation of Orion I knew why I had come and with the sky so full of stars an hour of lying on my back watching them go by would make any discomfort or fear totally worth it.

Completely forgetting to pay for parking I donned gaiters and waterproof trousers, threw the rucksack on my back and trotted off into the darkness. Partway down the lane I realised where some of my discomfort was coming from. I’d forgotten to pay for the car park because I didn’t see the machine and I didn’t see the machine because it was dark. Meelmore bills its-self as a secure car park, that’s what you pay for and it should have been well-lit, not in complete darkness. At this point there was little I could do so I’d just have to hope it was too cold for the local car thieving chavs and keep my fingers crossed I’d have a car to come back to.

North Tor of Slieve Bearnagh (Hares Gap side)

Once I reached the style at the top of the lane and crossed the wall to meet the Mourne / Ulster Way every step made it easier to press on than turn back. The trudge from the top of Meelmore Lodge lane to the Trassey Trail is particularly uninteresting being barren and damp with a few rivers to cross. You can avoid the trassey altogether by meeting the base of Slieve Meelmore and skirting a vague path to meet the slopes of Bearnagh but in the dark it would be tough to find and is usually pretty boggy. By the time I hit the Trassey the weather had closed in and clouds replaced the clear view of constellations that had pleased me so much in the car park. Moving steadily along the path it became increasingly dark as the weather continued to close in on the moonless sky and within 15 minutes the clouds had lowered to envelop me and I could soon see nothing. I had my headtorch lit since the lane which was more than enough to see the path ahead and the trail to Hares Gap is so obvious that you couldn’t possibly stray off it; or so I thought.

As I walked the cloud continued to close in until I could see nothing in the distance in any direction. The lights of the Trassey Road had flickered out of view ages ago but now Hares Gap, usually visible in any conditions had disappeared. Stopping to look around I realised that for the first time ever I couldn’t even see Slieve Meelmore or Slievenaglogh which should have been obvious on either side. I could still see the trail I was on by LED light and I had the route programmed into my Garmin GPS so I pushed on into the gloom. The confusion of the complete darkness started to get the better of me and I found myself struggling to identify features which would let me know how far I still had to go. Suddenly, as often does, mild panic descended and I became convinced that the river on my left side should have been on my right. Not thinking clearly I forgot that there are several rivers and they cross the path several times, especially when the weather is wet. On an odd whim I crossed the water thinking I might be further up the path than expected and heading towards the quarry but in seconds it became obvious by the terrain that this was wrong so I retraced by steps and continued the path.

Trassey Track with Hares Gap and the slopes of Slieve Bearnagh in the distance

Like most mountains Slieve Bearnagh has many routes to the summit. In the guidebooks the most popular is from the Cecil Newman Car Park following the Trassey, bearing right at the base of Hares Gap and rising past the quarry, Pollaphuca and Bearnagh Slabs to meet the style on the Mourne Wall and ascend to the Summit Tor, then descending the opposite side of the mountain, still walking the wall to the style at the top of Hares Gap and drop down the boulder field to retrace your steps home. Personally I find that route particularly hard as the climb to the North Tor is difficult with plenty of slabs and scree on the way. I prefer the reverse route climbing the boulder field to Hares Gap and following the wall to the North Tor and whilst this direction still has some scrambles and slabs, it does not have the scree and loose rock that its opposing side suffers from.

Where I drifted to the left of Hares Gap

As I followed the path I knew I should be meeting the Hares Gap boulder field which is usually unmissable but by this point  I couldn’t see anything in the distance in the dark and barely 10 feet with the torch and now made my second, more complex mistake, one of a lack of attention. As the path disappeared beneath my feet and the terrain became suddenly steep I switched into “mountain” mode, dropped my head and pressed on ignoring my screaming lungs and cramping thighs. Normally this is my best way of dealing with sharp ascents but with no path, zero visibility and having stopped watching the GPS it was several minutes before I realised that what should have been a boulder field was actually a heathery mountainside. The Garmin told me I had drifted too far to the left and with the boulder field not being very wide I was actually climbing the slopes of Slievenaglogh! I was fairly confident on where I had drifted off to and cursing my inattention I tried to contour back to the boulder field to save dropping down and having to climb back up again. As it turned out I had meandered much further off course than I thought and eventually I found myself looking at the impassable vertical granite slabs of a mountain above and a reasonably steep drop beneath and I started wonder if I’d been foolhardy to continue in such darkness. To fall wouldn’t be fatal but might break a limb and I suddenly realised that it doesn’t matter how many times you have trekked a route, once you’re on your own in the dark there’s no room for complacency. Luckily I was able to track across, down, then back up and it wasn’t long before I saw more familiar boulders and eventually the extremely relieving sight of the Mourne Wall. Looking at the GPS readouts when I got home I was at one stage  nearly 200m away from where I wanted to be which is a staggering distance considering how seemingly short a time I had walked without paying attention.

The blue line was the route I should have taken, red line is actual route passing tight to the bottom of the Slievenaglogh slabs.

Having hauled myself over the style I sat for a break to consider the next move. When I had been looking up at the slabs in the dark with the wind howling around me I’d pretty much decided that tonight wasn’t the night for a solo ascent of anything. Although the reassuring Mourne Wall ran from where I sat to the summit, there was a half mile portion away from the wall following a moist peat trail. In the darkness staying on track seemed like a bit of an ask and I was hearing a voice in my head reminding me how I’d promised my wife that even on my own this was a doddle of a walk with no hint of danger. Although I felt I could have found my way up, confidence had drained and I decided to spend the night at Hares Gap with a view to finishing the peak in the morning. I worked my way from the wall to the remains of a stone structure that I had camped at before, just a meter high stone square of wall which must have been used by the shepherds of years gone by.

Hares Gap Shepherds Structure

I used to rely on a 3x3m lightweight tarp from DD Hammocks but having had a few earlier problems keeping it on the ground in the wind and seeing someone elses rip I had recently traded it for a heavier, more sturdily constructed DPM British Army Tarp. Some would say that any well made tarp is as good as any other but the army version has one important addition – thick fabric tape around the edges and across the middle. This is a functional design that allows the tarp to double as an emergency stretcher but for the purposes of a shelter it means there is absolutely no chance of it ripping in strong or gusty winds. I would usually pitch it pegged flat at 4 corners with a walking pole making an arch at the front for access but it was so windy I wasn’t convinced the pegs would stay in place so I tried a new format – tied to the wall in the middle with a walking pole inside at the center fabric tape giving me a teepee shape with just enough room to wriggle in but some decent headroom inside. Hopefully this would deflect some of the wind up and over rather than down and under and with the tarp well pegged, I gratefully clambered under to gather my thoughts.

This post continues here.

Apologies for the images in this post. My crappy compact was taking a particularly dodgy pics and because of the darkness I had to use some older photos.

This entry was posted in Trip Reviews.

4 Responses to Solo Summit Bivvy – Part One

  1. It’s amazing how the familiar under daylight can become so unfamiliar at night! Even more so when you are alone with no one to confer with.

    I’d be interested to see a tarp pitched like a tepee as I’ve always been interested in tents such as the Shangri-La 3. Seems like a nice shape for shedding wind and having some space to sit upright!

  2. Drybag says:

    I’m reliving the time I got benighted and had to make my way down that same route in the dark. I’d no GPS, so it was map and compass. Amazing how easy it is to wander off even the simplest route. The Mourne’s walls are lifesavers.

  3. whoRya says:

    Fair play to you.

    Interesting about your solo camp in the woods. I have a wee forest close to home that I have my eye on for a first solo camp but I have wondered if I will find it a bit spooky!

    I similarly have gone off the planned path to Hare’s Gap in poor visibility, ending up at the Quarry instead, before having to do the ‘walk of shame’ back to the correct path. Thankfully I wasn’t in the dark or on my own.

    Looking forward to part 2.

  4. Pingback: Solo Summit Bivvy – Part Two | NI-Wild Blog

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