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Awe-inspiring, but we take risks with the great outdoors at our peril

Tales of climbers being airlifted from the Mournes and sailors rescued from Lough Neagh are reminders of the dangers that lurk in the natural world. Hillwalker Malachi O'Doherty wouldn't have it any other way

I had just turned 40 and fancied doing something mildly heroic to prove to myself that I was a real man. This was a long time ago. So I set out with a tent atop my rucksack to walk from Donegal town to Falcarragh, roughly in a straight line. I had not walked much over mountains before, but how hard could it be?

The best advice I got from a more experienced hill walker was to beware a slight delirium that may overtake you when cold and hungry. Succumb to it and you would make reckless efforts and bad mistakes.

Discovering the truth of that taught me that most horrific accidents out there in the natural world could be avoided if more people ate well and kept warm, even on the mountains in the wind and the rain.

I walked the first evening from the bus stop to the northern tip of Lough Eske and pitched my tent there. On the second day, I walked up to Lough Belshade, then struggled up a steep hill onto a spur from which I could see the whole of the lough and all of Lough Eske below me, too. Then I trudged through fine rain on the marshy valley floor on the other side.

I had come out to see the grandeur of the hills and found myself walking head down staring at the heather and the mosses and learning which vegetation signalled the dampest ground. Soon my feet were as wet as if I had not had boots on at all.

But I was content, dangerously, blithely content and miles from shelter and heat. I understood then why so many of the Celtic myths are about travellers having visions of fairyland and banquet halls opening up in the side of mountains. That's precisely what you fantasise about in the hills.

Freud didn't need to carry out so much research to discover that dreaming is wish-fulfilment. All he had to do was take an exhausting trudge in the Donegal rain.

I've been thinking about that trip recently for a couple of reasons.

One was the news that a father and son were rescued from the Mournes. They had lost their bearings and been taken by surprise by a change in the weather, apparently.

There is no decent excuse for either, other than the giddy carelessness that may overtake any of us out in the wild.

And my twin brother, Roger, has just completed a walk along the Colorado Rockies. A more experienced walker than myself, he has exhausted much of the potential of these little islands and has recently been walking in the Pyrenees and the Alps, too.

So I asked him what the greatest dangers he faced were and he had two stories. One was about lightning.

"I was walking with a fellow hiker near Mount Kreutzer when a storm brewed up rapidly. The area is a massive amphitheatre with no way through without climbing higher," he said.

"We watched lightning strike the ridges and peaks and from shelter counted the seconds between flash and thunder until the gap was not measurable and we knew we had to get to lower ground quickly."

But his other story confirmed for me that plain absent-mindedness can also cost you your life.

"I had stopped to take some photographs a few yards off the trail. Having walked on about a quarter of a mile, I realised I'd left my glasses on the ground. I went back, but couldn't even be sure where I had taken the pictures from," he explained.

"I got my camera, opened a picture, lined up a couple of rocks and walked along the line, glasses quickly found. Without glasses and the ability to read maps and GPS, I could have been in serious bother."

Imagine coming back from the Rockies in a rescue helicopter because you had lost your glasses. You'd not be allowed out of the house again without a sensible woman at your side.

On my third day walking up to Falcarragh by the short route, I had glorious moments looking from a height over the whole of south and west Donegal, where the peaks seemed layered against each other like rose petals. I camped by the disused railway line at Fintown and walked down to the pub for a pint. But the next day I nearly killed myself.

I was following the fence over hills north of Lough Muck towards the Poisoned Glen and I found the footing between the slope of the hill and the wire to be irksome. So I climbed over to negotiate the ground on the other side, stepped onto a large slab of rock, slipped and fell on my back.

I hardly registered that I was on the brink of a tumble that would have been my last, my mind was working so sluggishly.

I didn't panic, or scramble, or gasp with relief. I barely noticed. I think I was losing completely any sense of an overview of what I was doing, being so far from anyone else, wrapped up in daydreams and motivated only by an urgent need to keep going. I have been in the same state of mind while cycling. I would commend it for its near bestial simplicity.

Still, you need to take care. We live in a part of the world that's beautiful and accessible. My cousin Attracta was here last week and was excited by the Lagan towpath. She was getting up early in the mornings to dash out to Lisburn and back as if it was an adventure. And it is. It's lovely and it carries a little dash of danger, too, especially when the autumn leaves are wet and you could skid all the way into the river itself if you had to break suddenly for another cyclist, or a dog.

The walks and the cycle paths of Northern Ireland are often well mapped-out and well maintained, but we wouldn't bother about them at all without a little sense of stretching ourselves beyond the normal routines of life.

When I hear about people getting lost on hills, my routine urban professional head often scoffs at them for their carelessness and questions whether they shouldn't have to pay for their rescue. But my outdoor head says differently.

It understands that people who want a safe walk in manicured fields would join a golf club and that real people like the hills and byways as they are, with all their dangers and delights.

We are reminded almost every week of the dangers of the natural world around us; climbers injured on Fair Head, walkers lost in the Mournes, sailors in distress on Lough Neagh, or Strangford Lough, divers rushed for decompression from the far side of Rathlin Island. Rescue helicopters and lifeboats work constantly to save and protect us from the environment which nurtures us and enthrals us.

In the mountains, on the sea and rivers and in the by-ways of Ulster, we are most at peace with nature and also most in danger.

Some, like Sustrans and the National Trust, try to make this safer, but how can you make a path through a forest safe to the standards that regulate life in the towns? Health and safety officials would take fright at every gnarled root breaking the surface, every wet stone that someone might slip on, every steep slope, low branch, waterfall, or overhanging rock.

On the last day of my walk to Falcarragh, I followed a river through the Poisoned Glen, drenched by the thin mizzle of persistent rain, afraid to stop for long lest I get cold, and I made a ludicrous decision to jump the river in two stages, once onto a rock in the middle and then from the rock to the far side.

I made it to the rock then took off my rucksack to throw it ahead of me. I put as much heft behind it as I could while standing on a boulder, watched it land on the wet bank then slip back into the water and get carried away by the current. Sometimes decisions are made for you.

I jumped across and walked up to the road and hitched a lift to Letterkenny and got the bus to Derry, had a bath and slept the sleep of the just and came back next day with a friend to fish the rucksack out of the river.

This kind of adventurism in a grown man with little training and support is, of course, stupid and irresponsible. But that's part of it. It is a withdrawal from an ordered life of domesticity and working routine.

It is a continuation into adult life of the playfulness of childhood. When I was 10 years old, I bounced on planks on building sites and went away for whole days into Colin Glen, or up Black Mountain, to peer down into the quarry.

In cities now there are urban adventurers who go out at night and explore derelict factories for want of what we have around us all the time, hills and rivers and the sea which will always tempt us out to play and risk taking.

Of course, most people see this only from their cars. Their idea of a trip into the mountains is lunch in The Ponderosa restaurant high in the Sperrins to break a journey.

When I hear about someone airlifted off the mountains to safety, I think that could have been me. I was that daft adventurer.

And I'll do it again, though perhaps just a tad more carefully.

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