Our faces tingled, numb from the biting cold air. We silently padded back towards the car, exhausted from the effort that had been exerted in our endeavour to reach the summit. It is New Year’s Day 2018 and we have just completed our first hike of a brand-new year – a trek to the top of Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in the magical Mourne Mountain range in Northern Ireland. We decided as a family several years ago that we would start out each new year doing the thing we love most of all; getting out into the mountains for some quality family time immerse ourselves in the wonderful natural world which surrounds us.
As we wearily meander through the forest on the lower levels of Donard, the carpet of crisp leaves crunches rhythmically underfoot. The snow-capped summit we left behind had stretched us and challenged us like never before and our bodies were well and truly fatigued. I look at my 3 sons, aged 7, 9 and 12, their faces gleaming in the low light of descending twilight and I feel immensely proud of their stamina and determination of mind. It hadn’t been an easy hike by any stretch of the imagination, so coupled with my admiration for my boys is a tinge of guilt that I had led them into a dangerous situation. I quickly swipe the doubts from my mind, reminding myself that we were well-prepared and have lots of experience in these mountains and in any case risk-taking is an important aspect of childhood development.
When we began our hike early that morning, the winter sun was bright in the sky and our trek up through the forest alongside the river had been gentle and bathed in wonderful colour. Once we emerged from the enveloping and comforting protection of the trees we were however met with a strong head-wind. We quickly pulled up our hoods and wrapped our scarves around our faces, undeterred by the breeze. We marched on towards the Ice House which sits alongside the Glen River, our first place to stop for a snack and a hot drink. We couldn’t stand around for too long as the cold air made its way through any small gaps in our clothes and quickly cooled our body temperatures down. Fed and watered and with a few treats in our pockets off we trekked once more in the direction of the Mourne Wall, the resting place before the final steep upward climb to Donard’s summit. The winds picked up and we linked arms to keep from falling on the icy trail. My husband, Trevor and I asked the boys if they wanted to turn back, worried they were cold or possibly frightened by the strong winds blowing directly in our faces. They all wanted to keep going, enjoying the extra effort required to climb this mountain they have trekked up many times in the past 5 years or so. So, on we ploughed, burrowing down into our layered clothing and keeping close for warmth.
When we reached the Mourne Wall we could see that the final stretch to the summit was ankle deep in well-packed snow. We had a decision to make – to return to ground level or push onwards and upwards. The view was clear and the wall would offer some protection from the wind if we stayed close to it while we walked. A group chat concluded that we would give it a shot and if the conditions changed we would turn around. In a bid to stay warm we kept moving, albeit slowly in the snow. About halfway up the steep incline it started to snow again. A sprinkling of powder-white flakes covering us with a fine dusting. The stillness and silence that comes with snowfall impressed upon us and we paused to look around, all agreeing that it was a magical sight and the perfect way to commence a new year. To see ‘our mountain’ clothed in pure white was quite simply awe-inspiring. Its beauty captivated us as we trudged onwards, our eyes drinking in the majesty of the landscape and our hearts revelling in the shared experience. As the ascent became steeper and tougher, I listened as my boys encouraged one another with outstretched arms and words of support – they were alive in this mountain environment; attuned to one another and their surroundings.
Sadly, the snowfall turned steadily heavier and heavier and the winds rapidly increased so much that we were barely able to stand. We had no option but to call it a day and turn around and descend the mountainside. I could sense the disappointment so tangibly in the air but safety is always a priority in the mountains and when hiking with children there is definitely an added element of responsibility to keep them safe. While we were well wrapped up, had plenty of food and drinks and had left details of our hike and our expected return with relatives, the lack of visibility and deteriorating weather conditions meant it was vital to return to safe turf.
The descent was fairly quick with the wind now at our backs, but the surface was slippery and much caution was needed to avoid falling repeatedly. Once back in the welcoming embrace of the forest, we were finally able to chat more freely instead of having to shout over the sound of the breeze. Everyone agreed that it had been the hardest trek we had ever undertaken as a family but that it had equally been the most exhilarating and rewarding as we were pushed out of out comfort zones.
‘I feel like I belong here, Mum’ came the words from my middle-son. Our little philosopher and nature-lover. His brothers nodded in accord with this statement which aptly summed up what we were all feeling. Something in that wild terrain had touched their spirits, had reached out to them and welcomed them. In the mountains, free and alive, they had found their place, their space, their sense of belonging. That, to us as parents was a profoundly special moment. To know that the years of early rises when the rest of the world seems asleep, picnic-making, boot-scrubbing and trail-planning had all culminated in this moment of truth was wonderful. That the mountains, even in their harshest conditions, accept us, invite us to come and play, to explore and discover, to protect and uncover our core identity which is so linked to the natural world.
Huddled together, a team of intrepid explorers beaming from ear to ear we returned to the car, our cheeks cold and wind-battered but our hearts full of joy. Flasks of hot chocolate waiting for us were a welcome and well-earned treat, and as we thawed-out the chat quickly turned to our next outdoor adventure.
Kelly Hargie is a Belfast-based Mum to 3 boys. She blogs about their family hikes in the Mournes and their adventures around Northern Ireland atEvery Treasure and you can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.