Mournes tragedies: ‘They were members of our community, we are devastated’

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The hill walking community is grieving after the deaths of two walkers in the Mournes, a former leading figure in the mountain rescue community has said.

Sean Byrne, from Camlough in Co Armagh, and Robbie Robinson, from Banbridge in Co Down, died in falls on Wee Binnian and Slieve Commedagh on Sunday.

Former shepherd Art Martin, who knows the Mournes well, said the community was 'annoyed' by the death of the two hikers

Former shepherd Art Martin, who knows the Mournes well, said the community was 'annoyed' by the death of the two hikers

Both men were pronounced dead at the scene, while a third man suffered a broken ankle in a separate incident but was rescued.

Neil Powell, a leader of the Mourne Rescue Team for around 15 years, said he could not recall a fatality on the mountains before caused by high winds.

“The hill walking community will definitely all be grieving the loss of people who were members of our community,” he said.

“In all my 40 years in these mountains I have never known another fatality from high winds. It can catch you completely unawares just before you know it.

I was just devastated by the news, I was devastated for the families

Sarah Hodge

“We all feel for the poor fellas killed and the poor lad who was injured. Risk is a part of the mountains. Everyone in south Down will either know one of these guys or know someone who knows one of them.”

Most of the time people go into the mountains for a sense of peace and exercise but from time to time the weather can be treacherous, he said.

“Certainly as an ex-mountaineer, people who enjoy the mountains have a great sense of camaraderie and brotherhood and when one is injured it has a knock-on effect for everyone, it makes us all aware of our mortality.

“But in 40 years in the mountains I have never known someone to die from gusts of wind, therefore it must have been particularly bad. The hill walking community is just shocked and saddened by it.”

Fell runner Phil Hodge ran close to the location where one of the hikers died, less than 24 hours later. His wife Sarah expressed sympathy for the families of the two men who died.

Fell runner Phil Hodge ran close to the location where one of the hikers died, less than 24 hours later. His wife Sarah expressed sympathy for the families of the two men who died.

Fell runner Phil Hodge from Loughinisland took an 11-mile run on Monday morning and went past the location at Slieve Commedagh where one of the men was killed. His wife Sarah met him at the end of his run.

“I was just devastated by the news, I was devastated for the families,” she told the News Letter. “It is such a tragedy, and two fatalities on the one day. And then another injury and the impact that has on the Mourne Rescue Team – and what a brilliant service we have there. I was just thinking about those people who volunteer to go out and what a day they had and how that is going to impact on them. It is so sad.”

Phil, a very experienced runner, said the news has made him more wary.

“I didn’t know either of them but because I know so many of the runners in the area you are always on the lookout to see if it is somebody you know,” he said. “It is a bit of a shock.”

Ed Kilgore, retired member of Mourne Mountain Rescue Team, with around 40 years service, said deaths in the Mournes were very rare.

Ed Kilgore, retired member of Mourne Mountain Rescue Team, with around 40 years service, said deaths in the Mournes were very rare.

He scanned Slieve Commedagh for danger during his run and said poor visibility could have compounded the risks.

“I know it made me a wee bit cautious today.”

He added: “I have had friends who have had serious falls and you are just aware, particularly when you get tired, of being a bit more cautious of your footstep and you tend to lower your pace a wee bit to reduce the chance of tripping or falling.”

Former shepherd Art Martin from Annalong knows Wee Binnian well and said the local community was “very annoyed” by the tragedies.

“People are very annoyed about what happened, there are a lot of people walking the mountains and are very annoyed about it,” he said.

The community was stunned by the news on Sunday night, he said.

“People are very annoyed about it in the area. It brings in a lot of people, the hill walking, so people are going to feel bad about it.”

The families of the two men who died will also be grieving their losses, he noted.

The tragedies were more shocking to him, with one of them happening on a mountain Art has worked on for up to four decades, Wee Binnian.

He added: “I have been gathering sheep off Wee Binnian for up to 40 years. I didn’t think it to be that big of a threat, but there were high winds. You just noticed things blowing about on the lowlands.”A former leading figure in mountain rescue says the hill walking community will be shocked by two deaths in separate incidents in one day.

Ed Kilgore managed communications for the Mourne Rescue Team for some 40 years.

“Anyone in the climbing running and walking community will be first of all shocked that this has happened, particularly two deaths in one day,” he told the News Letter.

“Conditions probably led to the incidents occurring, gusty winds and slippery underfoot. It is still a bit of a shock.”

He added: “The majority of people will be sorry for the families concerned and my sympathies go to those people, but probably [they will feel] first of all shock and then realisation still that the mountains are a dangerous place.”

In 40 years he has not really seen similar cases to this pair.

“We have had a number of deaths over the years ranging from climbing incidents and falls, helicopter crashes and heart attacks. Weather conditions can cause incidents like this, but it is so strange to have two of the same type of incident within a short 24 hour period.”

His safety advice for walkers is to be properly equipped, check the weather conditions, wear proper footwear, tell people where you are going and when you are coming back and have a map and compass that you know how to use.

He recalls only around six deaths in 40 years service on the mountains, mainly rock climbing related deaths or due to medical conditions or cardiac arrest.

One on occasion a young man who took shelter in a stone shelter on Slieve Donard was killed by a lightening strike, he said.

Damien Coyle from Newcastle walks frequently in the Mournes but was also surprised to hear about the deaths.

He would normally have been out walking himself on Sunday but had family commitments.

“Although it was a bit breezy the temperature was reasonably good,” he said.

So I can understand why people were out hill walking yesterday. I have to say I was surprised because it was quite mild weather, but then again, the mountains can be treacherous at any point.

“And the weather can change particularly when you are higher up the mountains.”