It was a dark, wet January day when I took the head staggers and booked myself into the first available Night Navigation Course at Tollymore National Outdoor Centre. On that particular grey and misty day the weather was absolutely mingin’. I was at work and feeling pretty trapped indoors with a good dose of cabin fever kicking in. This, however, would be the perfect remedy. Something exciting to look forward to in Spring, that involved a head torch! The course wasn’t until April 26th so it was quite easy to feel pretty confident about the whole idea as I sat at my desk munching on my workday sandwich. Little did I know then what lay ahead.
Now, I’d already completely the First Step Navigation Course in November, which I loved (although I still couldn’t read a compass) so as I’m pretty risk averse, this course sounded right up my street. It’s designed to simulate poor visibility and get you safely off the mountain in case you’re caught out by fog and your visual landmarks disappear (which can happen quite easily).
In hindsight, my biggest tip for anyone heading out on a night hike… don’t expect it to be like a day hike, it’s not. Your experiences will be quite different and definitely don’t do anything exertive that day, save your energy, especially if you’re a morning person like me. I, however, was up with the larks, probably 6am-ish making the most of my day off and by the time I met everyone that evening at 7pm for the course I was shattered and ready for bed or at least a good laze on the sofa. In my naivety I thought we’d only be walking near the centre to get our bearings, right? Besides it’ll be pitch black and the Met Office said to expect sleet and hail on the Mournes tonight, we’ll hardly be getting up to much surely. WRONG!
The wind, sleet and hail never arrived, despite my lovely new thermals, flask of hot water, soft shell suit and being dressed for arctic conditions. It was an unexpected beautiful evening, a real luxury and as we were all keen to get going and had some walking experience under our belts, off we went, onwards and upwards.
Fitbit stats: 11km, 7 miles, summits Rocky Mountain and Tornamrock. The walk started (after briefing and transport) at roughly 8pm-ish and finished roughly 1am-ish and my heart rate accelerated to 146 bpm which for someone who has a daily resting heart rate in the 50’s and a hill walking heart rate that rarely breaches 90, it felt like a heart attack!!
I had finished a mammoth walk up Slieve Binnian just a few days before and combining that with my extra-curricular activities this day I had managed to turn my legs to jelly well before I reached the first summit. My fabulous attire didn’t account for the upturn in the weather so I ended up with far too many layers on, heavily overheating and sweating up a storm. Rooky mistake. I was sucking down air like my life depended on it and eating flies with every mouthful so it’s absolutely no surprise then, that on our final descent (thankfully) I found a lovely hole in the bog and twisted my ankle. What a pain in the arse! And a nice little reminder that the tried and tested formula remains true and strong, ‘tired people will always hurt themselves’.
So while the men where debating whose head torch had the biggest beam (I’ll leave that there) I was busy looking at my compass and not where I was going. Instantly I could hear Michael Gibbons, a walk leader from Connemara, shouting at me. He wasn’t on the course but his words carried on the wind all the way from the west coast of Ireland. Time and time again he repeated if you need to do ANYTHING on a hill, stop and do it, even if it’s just to blow your nose or take a drink…. or in this case look at a compass. Never ‘do’ and walk on a hill. Recipe for injury every time, day or night. Lesson well and truly learned this time Michael.
Naturally, I was mortified. I typically do walks like this without much bother albeit in daylight but with the aid of 2 poles, a slower pace and a bit of patience I hobbled down in one piece to enjoy the bonus ‘frozen-veg-on-foot’ experience …always an extra little treat for the unfortunate. Luckily, I was staying at the centre and came well prepared so the frozen veg was soon followed by a heavily loaded hot chocolate, pj’s and a decent flask of my finest Hennessy.
The final outcome, I can now read a compass! Yayyyy! and my hilltop experience just went up another big notch.
Huge thanks to Trevor and Alice at Tollymore who looked after us all on the night and shared their amazing sunset photos.
If you like this you may enjoy reading about Slieve Binnian