Solo Summit Bivvy – Part Two

Continued from here

I rarely take a tent camping these days preferring to rely on a bivvy bag and tarp which I find generally much more enjoyable. The experience of spending time outdoors is only improved by bivvying. Lying staring at the open sky you feel much more involved with your surroundings than you would zipped into a tent. However the obvious, ironic downside is you can’t cosily zip yourself into a tent. The sleeping mat is your only option to sit on and when the ground is wet or muddy things can get uncomfortable very quickly, not to mention that when it’s windy and you have your tarp slung low there’s never much headroom. In the mild summer months none of this really matters but in February with a gale howling, crouched beneath the tarp things were pretty uncomfortable. Now that the hike was over and my shelter for the night was up I started unpacking cooking gear knowing that a nice warm meal of pasta’n’sauce and Mathesons sausage would soon jolly me up only to find the one thing I had forgotten was the pot grabber.

Mourne Wall Leading up Slieve Bearnagh

Like all gear, I have toyed with many variations on the cooking theme and had actually originally packed a Primus Gravity 2 gas stove which at the last minute I pulled in favour of a Trangia Mini. Gas is infinitely faster, more controllable and easier all round but nothing can beat the smell of an alcohol stove for some camp nostalgia. However, having forgotten the pot grabber and not being bothered messing around trying to cook without it I plumped for a quick hot chocolate warmed in the cup instead. I hadn’t really eaten earlier in the day so missing a vital meal wasn’t the best idea but I was tired and lazy. Checking the time it was only 9ish, far too early for sleep but in the absolute dark what else was there to do. Usually some time on your back watching the sky and listening to prog rock is a brilliant way to kill an hour but in weather like this it wouldn’t be quite as fun. I zipped both fleece and waterproof jacket up to the nose and crept outside to “enjoy” the great outdoors. It was still absolutely dark with no moon and turning off the head torch and waiting for my eyes to adjust I still couldn’t see the wall that I knew was right in front of me.

View from Slieve Bearnagh to Hares Gap

Feeling for the wall I crouched down with my back to it and pulled out the single serving bottle of Merlot I’d brought with me. Usually a few glasses of Jack Daniels is the mountain fare, easy to carry and mixes nicely with Mournes river water but solo and alcohol don’t mix any better in the mountains than they do at home so a snifter of red was the most sensible happy medium. Luckily the random bottle I’d grabbed in Ballynahinch tasted like I should be using it to clean spoons so when it was gone I was relieved rather than sorry. Getting back up in the heavy winds I resigned myself to the fact that the weather wasn’t going to give me the relaxing, pleasant evening I would like so I snuck back into my bivvy, unpacked the sleeping bag, tidied my gear as much as possible and settled for the night.

Slieve Bearnagh North Tor

Sleeping alone outdoors is usually a nervy affair. There’s always the possibility that at any time some other outdoors enthusiast may appear and people regularly muppet around the hills all night but considering the dark and windy conditions I was satisfied that no sane person would be anywhere but tucked up in front of the TV. With the sane discounted all that left was the insane. Generally you assume that high places are devoid of idiots on account of the gear and effort required to safely get up there but unfortunately idiots sometimes have strange ideas and we know from experience that the fact you are standing on the top of Slieve Donard at 3am doesn’t mean that some weirdo in jeans isn’t going to come out of the mist saying he “just fancied a dander”. This mixed with a liberal weekly dose of TV scifi stirred with some urban legend makes for an active imagination and when you have settled down and stopped making noise suddenly every creak in the distance is that hook handed madman escaped from a home for the criminally insane looking forward to wearing your face as a mask! In fact, the serious wind saved me in a small way in that I couldn’t hear the groans of the gate at Hares Gap. When I got up the next morning and the wind had dropped I realised that as the gusts came the gate would creak and sigh on its wrought iron hinges – a noise that would have driven my imagination wild had I been able to hear during the night. As it was I felt secure enough and the thoughts of random strangers never really bothered me.

Occasionally nature dictates that the wall needs to stop and start again

Although it was cold outside, inside my Alpkit Pipedream 600 down sleeping bag I was super toasty. I’d changed into a thermal baselayer for comfort and was warm but having problems finding a way to lie that avoided the lumps and bumps of the ground. As a general rule I sleep badly when camping. I don’t really know why, at home I sleep quite well but there’s something about being outside that stops me settling. After a few hours of listening to the wind and probably dozing on and off I started to feel damp. I was using a Rab Storm Bivvy and while it’s billed as waterproof and breatheable, I’m not convinced. It also has a hood that zips completely closed which looks great on paper but is in reality a massive pain in the ass as the front flap is always in the way. The longer I lay the more damp I felt and while I was confident nothing was leaking, I was warm and sensing the breatheability wasn’t great meaning my own body heat was gradually wetting the sleeping bag. It felt slightly uncomfortable and come 6am, almost to the minute the forecast was proved correct and rain began.

View of the North Tor from the South Tor. There is an excellent camping spot at the low ground between

As usual I had made the classic mistake of pitching the tarp so I could sleep with my legs underneath it. This is truly pointless as the bivvy bag keeps you dry and all it means is that your face is closer to the opening. This meant I had to try and wriggle ever closer to the bottom of the tarp until I was squeezed into the fetal position and none too comfortable. Luckily the rain wasn’t heavy or prolonged and soon it was 830am and I reckoned I may as well get up. Staying snug in the bag I made a coffee and pondered my next move. I was sorely tempted to head straight down Hares Gap again, the shortest route to the car and ultimately the sofa but I knew if I didn’t summit Bearnagh I’d take all sorts of abuse from my outdoor chums so although I was tired I decided to go home over the peak.

Silent Valley Reservoir

Packing up never takes long if you’re an organised bivvyer as for ease of hiking gear is kept to a minimum so it wasn’t long before I was tidied and ready to set off into a morning that had turned out to be quite pleasant. The rain was gone and the clouds looked like some sun might break through at any minute and it was clear into the distance giving great views of the Brandy Pad and Silent Valley. Hoisting my pack onto my back I trudged towards the stone steps gouged into the mountainside designed to ease erosion and aid the ascent

View down the North slope of Bearnagh

Climbing the man made stairs I passed a memorial, a sad tribute to a female hill enthusiast whose name I’m ashamed to never remember. From the top of the steps was the part of the route that I hadn’t fancied the night before, a peat trail leading away from the wall circling around for about a 1/2 mile. As it turned out I was wise to have avoided it the previous evening as I slipped or fell several times on the marshy ground and eventually coming round a corner, met the wall again. Standing looking up, the wall seems to rise at an almost impossible rate and you have to have respect for the workers that had to carry the stone up this steep, rocky mountainside. I’d been up Bearnagh several times before but fatigued from the previous nights broken sleep I made what could only be a record breakingly slow ascent pausing over and over again to catch my breath. I even zigzagged in and out from the wall hoping to take make the going easier but all it did was make it take longer. I pushed on and eventually the lower North Tor came into view and experience told me that the mountain was broken.

Damaged wall on Bearnaghs slopes

Bearnagh has two summits, the North and Summit Tors – huge vertical granite rock formations weathered by millennia of fierce winds. There’s a slight drop from the North to the Summit, still following the wall through a great camping spot at the lowest point, sweeping up again to meet the larger Summit Tor and the true top of the peak. These are frequently the target of amateur climbers learning the ropes as they are steep but not too high and must give absolutely brilliant views of the reservoirs of Ben Crom and Silent Valley beneath with Doan, Donard, Binnian and Commedagh amongst the peaks easily discernible on a clear day.

Walls on Slieve Meelmore converging at the Meelmore/Bearnagh saddle

The drop down the other side to the col between Bearnagh and Meelmore is steep and rocky and always slow going. It is nigh on impossible to make it all the way down without dislodging occasional rocks which tumble gathering speed towards the saddle for which you have to holler warnings into the distance incase any unwary traveller is ascending. On the descent you pass a broken part of the wall, one of the few places where the solid workmanship of the builders has failed in the century since its construction. In the distance down the slopes of Meelmore are several walls converging at its saddle, a stunning sight but it’s hard to imagine what the point was of such a hard endeavour. Pressing on and ignoring my screaming knees I finally made it to the style and path home.

Bearnagh / Meelmore style

When hiking, once you feel you have all the hard parts done and all that is left is the walk to the car it can be the best time – on a sunny summer afternoon chewing the fat with your mates on a gentle walk home is great fun but when you’re tired and cold and all you want to do is get the telly on, mentally the last few miles can seem like an eternity. In the daylight I could have contoured Slieve Meelmore for a more direct route back but it seemed like hard work and in the back of my mind I wanted to walk the Trassey with the GPS logging so I could compare the route to the night before and see where I had gone wrong.

Path to the Trassey Trail

There’s an easy path home around the side of Bearnagh that gives stunning views of it’s slabs eventually dropping below an old quarry which on closer investigation has rusted, abandoned equipment showing it was still worked in the not too distant past. After this the Trassey Trail comes into view with Hares Gap rising behind and the route home is now the reverse of the route up. Trudging by odd, shallow pools of water filled with frog spawn and nearly developed frogs I finally saw the familiar sight of Meelmore Lodge in the distance and began to wonder whether my car would still be there, or if the farmer who owns the land, famous for his relentlessly grumpy nature would be waiting to ask why I hadn’t paid.

Beranagh Slabs

I picked up speed knowing the end was nigh covering the walk to the lane and car park quickly. No-one was about and luckily my windows were still intact so I paid for the parking, leapt gladly into the comfy drivers seat and headed for home, the bath and the sofa!

Baby frogs on the Trassey Trail

Below is the full two day route. Day one is red, day two is orange.

The route over both days

This entry was posted in Trip Reviews.

5 Responses to Solo Summit Bivvy – Part Two

  1. Pingback: Solo Summit Bivvy – Part One | NI-Wild Blog

  2. Gareth says:

    Fair play mate. I’ve never done a solo camp or bivvy. I like having somethere to talk to, i might go stir crazy by myself.

  3. Scribble says:

    Excellent write up and makes me even more determined to get a night out soon ,

    Andy

  4. Zeaphod says:

    Great post(s). Maybe a more powerful head torch would help next time!
    I suspect from your experience the Rab Storm bivi is not that breathable.

  5. Mike D says:

    Very amusing, you fairly strung out that story, but it was really funny to read 🙂

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