They are indeed the Magnificent Seven of Donegal - the septet of peaks stretching from Muckish to the Errigal and beloved of hill-walkers and landscape painters alike.
They are also to the Irish speakers of west Donegal what the Black Hills of Dakota are to the American Indian - places of deep spiritual and cultural significance.
Which is why I stumbled into a cultural minefield when I remarked on social media that I had signed up for the gruelling Seven Sisters race across all seven mountains on Saturday past. Turns out the hills - known in the vernacular as Na Seacht gCnoc (The Seven Hills) — have never been known as the Seven Sisters.
In fact, one, closest to Errigal and known in English as Wee Errigal is named Mac Uchta (the adopted son, in translation). "No sisters there," famed sean-nós singer and Gaeltacht shaman Lillis Ó Laoire dryly noted.
Step out of the cultural crosshairs for a moment, however, and the reality is that no matter what appellation you apply to them, the 27km mountainscape with 2100m of ascent is not just a stunning sight to behold but also a most cruel climb. For the uninitiated at least. And while I've done my share of marathon running on the flat, when it comes to going uphill, I'm more of a cable car type of guy than a mountain goat.
All of which is why no-one was more surprised than me when I lined out at the Miners Path starting line below the towering, pig-shaped Muckish at 8:45am on Saturday for the epic trek. Just before the off, the organisers had announced that due to muddy conditions, they had moved the starting line back, adding another two kilometres to the overall distance. Not one voice of complaint was raised from my finely-tuned fellow-runners — a fact which quite rightly rang alarm bells with this novice.
Fortunately, riding shotgun with me was veteran orienteer and mountainy man Denis Murphy who was undertaking this arduous challenge to benefit the Children's Cancer Unit Charity at the Children's Hospital on the Falls. Denis' son Zach is recovering from liver cancer, having received expert care there over the past year. As Denis wisely observed: "The Seven Sisters will no doubt be a tough challenge, but it is a walk in the park compared to what children living with cancer have to face every day."
I had foolishly fallen for his salesman's blather when, on the sole training hike of my lackadaisical training regime, we had briskly walked up Donegal's highest mountain Errigal and then jogged down. "There is no way I can do seven of these," I pleaded. "I think you can," he responded and, ego puffed up, I was sold. What a mistake.
And then we were off. For some, though, 27km wasn't enough and by the time I had summited Muckish — feeling pretty good about having managed it without a total physical breakdown — coming towards us out of the drizzly mists were the first of a host of fleet-footed runners. These were the 55km warriors who had started at Errigal and were making their way towards Muckish - before doubling back.
Peak two - Meascán Méabha (Méabha's butter pat) - was the flattest ascent on the course. Not to my leg muscles, it wasn't. Indeed, I was ill-prepared for the Eiger-style face of what was billed as the easiest climb of the day.
Seven Sisters Skyline Race, Donegal, Ireland. https://t.co/W0XItCyH3n— The Trail Run Life (@trailrunlife) August 15, 2021
By the top I was panting even while jogging on the flat — always a bad sign but, five summits out from the tape, pretty sobering. Still, good company — Denis telling troubles' stories (he served with the Irish Army in Lebanon) and me telling war stories (I grew up in Andersonstown) — and pint after pint of water kept the show on the road.
The views from the heights (see video above) were, of course, spectacular and life-affirming, sweeping away the pain of the climb even if just for a moment. And there was of course no reason to worry about getting lost. Denis is a champion map-reader but only, as I discovered when I tried to ascertain the name of a lake lying below us, when he has his reading glasses with him!
The next three peaks were in a row — Aghla Beag, Aghla Beag South and Aghla Mór – but three and five had a vertiginous, eye-watering, ball-scalding (what do you mean you forgot the Vaseline?) climb to their peak. By now the extra time tactics were already in play — hands on hips or on thighs as each step upwards was counted. I played for time, snatching breaks where I could. I insisted that each peak necessitated a Tweet to the masses (which doubled as a breather) and I dallied at every spot where a volunteer was deployed to inquire about the front-runners.
At several points, I suggested to Denis that he plough on and that I would catch up even as I eyed an escape route. I had already given him absolution if he had to cut the metaphorical rope and let me go — for the greater good — but he was unmoved.
As you would know from the fact that he forbids hiker's walking poles, Denis is a student of the old school. His considered position was that "we started this together and we'll end it together." Now why did that remind me of St Teresa's primary school principal Bunter McGonigle's admonition as he scythed the hands off me with a bamboo cane: "the sooner you put your hand out, the sooner this will be over"?
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. Peak four was like an early pimple, rising up gently and easily covered. But then there was Aghla Mór — appropriately named as the Bataan Death March to the top was a killer. By now, I had decided never to look up to the peaks. Not just because the sight of hundreds of runners ahead of me was demoralising but because the top was just so distant. So it was head down, catch up with Denis, who was still strolling nonchalantly heavenwards, and go again.
By the time I reached the roof of the world at Aghla Mór, I was searching in my backpack for a white towel. And there may have very well been one there because I was carrying more supplies than an Indian Company convoy over the Khyber Pass. Whistle. Check. Elasticated bandage. Check. Raincoat. Check. Leggings. Check. Bottle of hand sanitiser. Check. Buff. Check. Survival poncho. Check. Rations. Three Yorkie Bars. Check. One banana. Check. One Galaxy bar. Check. Tayto cheese and onion (one bag). Check. Water (two litres). Check. Hat. Check. Gloves. Check.
I didn't see any other participants as compliant as mugsy here in shouldering ever item listed as mandatory in the course regulations. The more grizzled runners perhaps realised that with teams of paramedics along the route (thank you), dozens of volunteers with cameras, phones and GPS trackers (go raibh maith agaibh) and perfect weather — no fog, zero rain, moderate temperature — the need to load up like Kurt Russell in Escape from New York was probably overkill.
Before scaling the ominous sheer rock face of hill six, Mac Uchta or Wee Errigal, I tried to rationalise to Denis how not summiting Errigal was not really a total washout. He was having none of it and after digging deeper than I knew I could, we had bested the Adopted Son and were standing at the foot of An Earagail.
By now, turning back wasn't really an option. One foot at a time, and with no more than a handful of stragglers behind us, I charged Errigal. I am sure the views on the way up were wonderful but, and I perhaps should have mentioned this earlier, I have a terrible fear of heights so it was head down and press on. The twin peaks of Errigal were a long way off and the sight of day-ramblers including a nine-year-old girl in blue wellies who zipped by me up the mountain was like throwing scree in my face. Still, I persevered and at a certain stage there was no more mountain to climb.
Denis and I posed for pics at the top with our new BFF — Rachel from Mayo who had cajoled me the top when I thought all was lost. There was still two hours left to the finish line at Dún Lúiche but that was all downhill and easily jogged now that we knew the worst was over. So I sang us home - Téir Abhaile, Quiet Desperation by my old buddy Floyd Red Crow Westerman ("My soul is in the mountain"), and Óró, 'Sé do Bheatha Abhaile. Denis got a hero's welcome home from twins Zach and Dan and family — he had kept them waiting by over two hours by hanging back for me. In fact, in a normal year my finish time of eight hours 20 minutes would have been beyond the eight hour cut-off.
Denis's Seven Sisters 27K Mountain Marathon Charity Run— Anaeko (@AnaekoLtd) August 16, 2021
Denis completed his marathon this weekend, and we just wanted to congratulate him on completing this mammoth mountain trail in Donegal!
DONATE NOW | https://t.co/WQrdPGrO3i pic.twitter.com/HvkU6YkoMW
Nevertheless, this bus-pass holder is claiming it. It's mine, I earned it and I'll take it. Often at the finish line of a marathon — wee buns compared to the Seven Sisters – I tell myself, "never again" only to recant after a night's rest. But from here on in when I go searching for El Dorado or Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal it'll be at a more leisurely pace. For whether you call them Na Seacht gCnoc or the Seven Sisters, when you insist on summiting them all on the same day, they are a real son-of-a-bitch.