Slieve Donard - July 2005
This isn't a race report - I'm just hoping to inspire any readers of this site to visit this lovely mountain. I was on holiday in the Republic not far from the border, and could have gone running in the nearby Cooley Mountains, but the prospect of bagging the highest peak in Northern Ireland (to complete the set, so to speak) and take a look at the much-vaunted Mourne Mountains got my vote instead.
I started at Donard Car Park - there is a map borrowed from the fabulous www.multimap.com on another page:
Slieve Donard Map.
The start of this route is called the Glen River Trail - Donard Car Park is easy to find from the southern approach into Newcastle and I believe this is the starting point for some of the Mourne races. Nestled right by the coast this small but perfectly formed mountain range should be getting tourists in numbers to rival Lakeland - of course, Northern Ireland is not getting its fair share of tourists at the moment, but when it does I'm sure this area will be number one. As fell walking or fell running country it's perfect. Anyway, back to the Glen River Trail - there are signposts here and there but you don't need them - follow the stream (a series of pretty cascades and pools) straight up through the forest - swapping from bank to bank as needed - until you emerge onto the open fellside. It's easily runnable, but the even gradient helps you gain height quickly.
Pics: Views of the Glen River Trail
Once out of the forest, I saw a decent path leading straight up the valley, which I had been intending to take. My eye was drawn to the Black Stairs (see map), a waterfall flanked by steep slopes, and I decided I fancied a scramble instead. The light was not good for a photo but the Black Stairs are in the saddle in the pic below and you can just make out the falls - I thought Slieve Donard was the peak on the left at first but this is just a spur called Millstone Mountain - the actual peak is over the top and up to the right.
The Black Stairs were more of a scramble than a run - I was using hands and knees and pulling up with handfuls of heather. There are paths here - lots of them - all only inches wide and they might have been pure imagination or just sheep tracks. Still, once at the head of the falls the slope eased off and was runnable again - boggy ground with bright purple heather and wild flowers. No sign of people, no path to speak of, a lovely pocket of wilderness.
Trogging up through the heather, Donard itself came into view, a grassy dome rising from the plateau - as I approached I saw a prominent cairn which turned out not to be the summit, but served to prove I was on the right track. Beyod this cairn the actual summit with its mega-cairn and the stone tower marking the corner of the Mourne Wall were only a minute's jog beyond. The views down to the sea and over the wall to the rest of the Mourne Mountains were epic. Check these out and imagine how it looks when not viewed through a dinky poorly focussed camera.
On one side, Donard's slopes seem to fall directly into the Irish Sea, while on the other the shapely peaks of the Mournes reveal themselves. Breathtaking (if you had any breath left after running for nearly an hour and scrambling the Black Stairs). The Mourne Wall is an interesting feature - navigating up here in the fog must be a darn sight easier since someone made this impressive structure with it's sporadic towers - the wall runs right to the peak of Donard where it makes a right-angle bend. The wall runs down the slope to a col between Donard and Slieve Commedagh, and despite the sharp wind and threat of a shower coming in from the west I decided nipping straight back down the valley would be cutting the run too short - I had told Fran I would be a couple of hours so I followed the wall down into the Col and contemplated Slieve Commedagh (pic below shoes Commedagh from top of Donard).
It was actually only a twenty minute job to run up to the top of Commedagh and back to the Col - rain was threatening to get heavy but never really turned nasty, so I stayed in shorts and t-shirt (partly thanks to the Mourne Wall sheltering me for most of the way up and down). Back in the Col I got a great view down to Newcastle as the weather cleared:
Not bad eh? As you can see this is the main way up Slieve Donard from the Glen River Trail, and a major route into the Mournes in general, so the path is a motorway (large sections of it are hand-made stone steps - could be slippery). It was an easy jog down - once in the forest I enjoyed more great views of the waterfalls on the Glen River before meeting up with the patient Fran again after 1 hour 55 of relatively easy going. I'd love to come and do one of those Mourne races you see in the FRA calendar - the Seven Sevens, Spelga Skyline etc. Thats for another day though.