I know I’ve never done it before but I reckon the Mournes Seven Sevens Challenge is similar to giving birth. You find yourself in a place of hell - your body is in agony, you’ve been this way for a long time and there’s no finish line in sight. People are urging you on as you puff and pant and cry and beg for answers. When will this be over? Why did no-one tell me it would take this long? It doesn’t look this hard in movies! But you know you’ve just gotta put your head down and push on. It’s the only way to get to the end. Darling husband is oblivious. Lies. He knows fine well the pain you are in as he flits between being supportive and being embarrassed by your antics. You flit between despising him for getting you into this mess and loving him for throwing an emergency Mars Bar at your bake. All of a sudden people are saying look! Can you see it? You are almost there! There’s the summit. You knuckle down and push harder because you just want to be there now and have this all behind you. And that’s where the similarity ends because in 10 minutes you will hold a lovely baby in your arms. Me? I still have 8 hours of summits and bawling ahead and the emergency Mars Bar supply ran out hours ago.
Yesterday Andy and I did the Mourne Seven Sevens challenge. The Seven highest peaks in Northern Ireland in one day. Sounds fun? Ha. Let me tell you my first mistake. I believed the website when it said 18 miles of walking. Lies. We walked 30 miles and that was gauged by my FitBit Blaze and MapMyHike. Mistake two was thinking that doing an endurance challenge with my husband of 14 years would be fun. Nope. My third mistake was my take on it all. Typical of me. Ah, seven peaks in 14 hours, that sounds totally doable! If you give yourself two hours for each peak - which we soooo won’t need - you can have rests after each one. There will be nice stretches of flat walking on easy paths and I can walk all day long without any bother. This will be a walk in the park! For real!
Wrong. Wrong Janine, so wrong. There were no flat easy paths. You ascended a mountain, descended a mountain and moved straight on to the next ascent. The only break from ascending or descending was the merry jaunt through The Midge Swamp From The Depths Of Hell. And for me that was possibly the worst part of the day. So let me just take you through the day, broken up in the sections we were informed of by the AdventureGang who organised the event, with added sections that they forgot to tell us about.
*Sidenote* we were doing this in honour of Andy’s Uncle Stanley who died last year. He was an avid hiker, he knew the Mournes inside out and he was the sweetest man in the world. We had the boys pick seven rocks from the beach and we painted his initials on each one and left a rock at each summit. He got me through every single climb and descent, leaving those rocks for Stan became the most important thing in the world to me yesterday. He was with us for every step.
• Slieve Donard: Listen, we all know The Donard inside-out. The forest up to the Devil’s Staircase, arrive at The Saddle and proceed to climb the peak. It’s a tough one to start with but I’d sure as hell rather get her over and done with first. Conditions were a bit brutal - wind, rain, zero visibility - but it was grand. Fresh legs at the start of the day, we bounded up and back down in a good time. Left Stan’s first rock and took our first summit photo.
Marital Status: Pretty good. We were fresh and excited and there were loads of people around us. It was a good time in our marriage.
• Slieve Commedagh: A dream to climb after Donard and I just wanted to be at the top so I beat up there without looking back. The descent wasn’t pleasant, marshland and swampland underfoot until we got to the actual path. However, a nice steward gave me a sweet at the end and that was cool.
Marital Status: Ascent - fine. Descent - the beginning of the hatred. My eyes bored into the back of Andy’s head as he walked on a mile in front of me. I don’t do swamp, he doesn’t do me not doing things. It’s a vicious cycle.
• Slieve Bearnagh: Bearnagh is a bitch. We all know that. She’s a tough climb and an even tougher descent. As per usual I bombed up at a decent pace but I am absolutely atrocious at descending, especially stony gravely treacherous hell such as Bearnagh. No matter where you place your foot it is the wrong choice as your entire bodyweight will go out from under you and you will be left dangling from the Mourne Wall watching your husband walk on and not look back. But you must battle on, for this is only the third summit.
Marital Status: Ascent - actually OK. I like climbing this one more than Andy does. Descent - descent into marriage disrepair. I have descended Bearnagh a few times before and it is the same old story. Janine turns into a 70 year old pensioner who has forgotten how to walk, Andy wonders why he has ever enjoyed her company even on a good day. Janine resents Andy for his lack of support, compassion and reason. I did try to bring up the fact that I am blind in one eye and it is disorientating when you are descending a cliff face at 90 degrees over stones and boulders but this was dismissed as ‘dramatics’.
• Slieve Meelmore: Up and down was a solid ‘on all fours over rocks and boulders (where is the earth?)’ effort. A man gave me a sweet at the end because I looked a bit beaten. He was right.
Marital Status: Bonded over a black coffee and a tuna bap after the descent. I had half a Mars Bar and Andy accused me of ‘eating all the Mars Bars and leaving none for me’. Half a bloody Mars Bar, chill out there’s plenty left you Freakshow.
• Slieve Meelbeg: Meelbeg was an easy climb. The 90 degree descent through swampland was a complete horror show. No matter where you put your foot you slipped and fell on your back. I ended up irate and black and blue. It didn’t help that 400 people had descended it in front of us so it was just a giant mud pool by the time we got there. No solid ground.
Marital Status: Pretty poor. Andy took off and left me at the beginning of the swamp descent into hell. I shouted after him that he was a wanker. He did not look back. I cried a little bit and despised him from behind. He did not care.
• Midge Swamp From The Depths Of Hell: This for me was the worst part of the day. And believe me, that is saying a lot. Imagine walking through a swamp full of Midges for an hour and a half. Imagine that no matter where you walk, you could, at any moment, be knee deep in swamp mud. There is no-one else around for miles (wait, where did the rest of the participants go??). Your only support can’t be bothered with you because you keep falling over into the swamp and staying around to watch means getting eaten alive by the swarms of midges so you must trudge on, even if your partner is half dead in a ditch. There is no end to this section. No end. Horror show.
Marital Status: Death. He watched me fall head first into a muddy swamp and turned silently in the opposite direction. I spent the entire 90 minutes in despair, hatred and planning divorce. I was definitely going to tell his mum about her terrible son, I was also going to tell my own mum because she would be appalled, I was mentally listing my friends who would support a petition against this terrible behaviour. I bore so much hatred into the back of his head from miles behind him that I’m surprised there aren’t two eyeball shaped holes there.
• Ben Crom Dam: Ah Ben Crom. We were so excited to see you. If you can get to Ben Crom by 2:30pm you are allowed to continue and complete the challenge. By some miracle we checked in at 2:28pm after spending a million hours trekking through Midge Hell Swampland believing we were destined to live there. I could have hugged all the marshals for we had made it! Right? Alas, our joy was short lived when the Marshall told us that what we had just completed was what we still had ahead of us. Huh? If you think you can carry on and walk the same number of miles as you’ve just done - the worst is yet to come kids - then go for it. If you are weary just wait on the wee rescue bus like all of these people here. Hmmm.
Marital Status: Considering the hatred during The Swamp, we rallied rather well here. We joined forces and assured everyone and ourselves that we Still Had It In Us. It’s only two more peaks, I said. And anyway, we’ve walked 16 miles already so there’s no way we have 16 more to go! It says 18 miles total on the website. And I’m not leaving till all of Stan’s rocks have been placed. A shared emergency Full Fat Coke and a change of socks and we were headed into Binnian like rockstars.
• Slieve Binnian: We approached you in good humour Binnian. The coke and the 8 ibuprofen had us believing we could conquer you and your awesome views like two champions. Once you were done we only had Lamagan to go! This was all wonderful until we realised it was a 1hour 20 minute walk to the bottom of your summit. And once we ascended and then descended you we still had the 1hour 20 minute walk back. Soul. Destroying.
Marital Status: About 40 minutes into the walk to Binnian Andy showed me Lamagan across the way and then pointed across to a dip in the distance (I took a photo and drew it on for you). He said ‘there’s The Saddle, once we do Lamagan we walk to the Saddle and then we get to the carpark’. My heart fell into my butt because a) I knew we would be walking until after dark to get that far and b) there was only one tuna bap left and no water. It was a fight for survival and I knew I would lose.
• Slieve Lamagan: A bitch of a climb as it is so steep you cannot see the top. So you have no idea how far you have left to go. It’s an ‘on all fours’ climb and I tell you, I hurt today for it. But we celebrated heartily at the summit, hugged, took our selfies and great joy in leaving Stan’s last rock. We were so pleased to be done.
Marital Status: Great on the way up. I led the way and I was determined to get this challenge done so I didn’t hang about. After the celebration at the Summit Andy pointed out the route ahead and it had at least three more ascents and three more descents in it. My right knee was done at this point and I sank into a total despair. It’ll take me hours hobbling on one leg Andy. Andy? Andy? Oh wait, that’s right, he was already gone. A speck in the distance. It was me on my own for the next couple of hours.
• The Lie That Was My Ultimate Undoing: The 2+hour trek back to The Saddle. It wasn’t a pleasant easy walk either, it was full of ascents and descents. My knee at this point could not cope with one more descent. We had run out of pain killers and I was in real pain. So I was slow. And the sun was setting. And all I could see were rocky descents, cliff edge paths and more and more ascents in front of me. I spent the entire time talking myself into getting to The Saddle. If I could get there I knew where I was and I know I could make it home. Lots of people overtook us here because I was hobbling. But I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and telling myself I could do it.
Marital Status: Andy kept a steady distance of half a mile between us. There was no energy left for name calling or hatred. We were silent partners.
• The Saddle: OMG finally we reached the Saddle! This is the dip between Commedagh and Donard where you descend the Devil’s Staircase to make your way home through the forest. For two hours I had told myself if I got to The Saddle I was home. I was fine. I would survive. This was a lie. I forgot it would be a good hour+ to hobble down that Devil’s Staircase with my busted knee.
Marital Status: A lovely woman greeted us at the Saddle having been sent up by rescue crew to make sure we we were alive. Bless that cheery soul! We put on a good show to dispel the rumours that the rescue crew had heard about a woman and man team who were struggling because the woman was upset and hurt and the man had walked on ahead not caring. Andy found a whole bunch of fake enthusiasm inside him, that was such a great day, we can’t wait for next year, and I refused pain killers or the use of Lovely Lady’s hiking poles just to prove that we were not the couple they had heard about. Our teamwork paid off and she left us to it saying we looked ‘fresh as daisies and it must be someone else they’d heard about’. High fives Walkers.
• The Blair Witch Project Hell Walk: The second worse part of the day. Dusk, coming down Devil’s Staircase. Time was not on our side and light was quickly disappearing. By the time we got to the Forest section it was pitch black and we were both beside ourselves with exhaustion, hunger and wanting to be showered and in bed so very badly. We started the trek down the forest with only my iPhone torch to guide us. It was deathly quiet, cold and very very creepy. All of my worst fears come true on the Actual Worst Day Of My Life. It felt like it took us about three hours to get to the carpark. Maybe it did.
Marital Status: Really feeling like we might die and wanting so bad to reconcile before we did. It was pitch black as we huddled around my iPhone and stayed close. If Andy got out of my sight by even half a foot I whimpered Andy I’m scared I can feel the breath of a demon on my neck. He would reply I’m right in front of you and there are no demons and watch that tree trunk you are about to fall over. That’s as supportive and caring as you’ll get from my hubber so in my books, we came down like love’s young dream.
We emerged from The Blair With Project Hell Walk like two characters in a horror movie who have just survived the unthinkable. I was walking like John Wayne having dirtied his pants after breaking both his knees. Andy didn’t even have it in him to be standoffish anymore. At the wee tent we were greeted with cheers (bless them, they all wanted to get home in the knowledge that everyone had survived the challenge and we were the only two on the ‘missing’ list!). Hot tea, sandwiches, medals, applause and smiles were our reward. The fact that all these lovely people had waited around on us was just something else. There are so many good people in this world. And might I add that all the money from this challenge is donated to charity and all of these people are volunteers.
If you are still reading, wow! It's a long one. And that was our grand Mournes Seven Sevens adventure. Thank you for reading. Would I do the challenge again? You know, I’m going to get some hiking poles and practice my descents and strengthen this knee and see. I wouldn’t rule it out. It was the length of the day that did me in and if I thought I could help myself and make it shorter I would for sure do it again. I’d take more food, more painkillers and a LOT of midge spray. I would use hiking poles and bring along an upbeat friend for company.
Should you do the Seven Sevens? Well, you need to be very fit and like going up and down mountains. Like a lot. There were a lot of avid hikers there yesterday who commented that they loved hiking but this was something else. They were right. This isn’t a hike. This is two month’s worth of hiking in one day. Be prepared. Be stubborn. Walk a lot beforehand. Don’t do it with your significant other.
Thanks to everyone involved in organising this event. It is well done, and the support and care offered to participants is second to none. Proud that the Walkers pockled down in last place but still married. Looks like we are in it for life!