Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Winter Comes to the 'Granite Kingdom': The Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland

The Mourne Mountains, gripped by the first iron fist of winter, lie partially concealed beneath yellow-grey cloud rumbling atop their crests, russet skirts dusted with ice and snow. With a bitterly cold wind at our backs we begin the walk up the Glen River track. Verglas-covered rocks lightly peppered with snow cover the paved trail making walking conditions difficult. Higher up this gives way to thick grey ice that oozes down over the trail's steps dripping icicles like melted wax. Stopping to don our crampons, a large group of youths wielding walking poles appear, inching their way slowly downwards, determination etched onto wan faces bearing smiles bordering on grimaces. They stare at our feet in amazement as we ease by them exchanging greetings, leaving them slipping and sliding open mouthed behind us.

The mountains of this granite kingdom never fail to amaze and astound, their rugged beauty matched by the ever-changing weather of the four seasons that plays about their summits. Like an addict, one is compelled to return again and again to indulge in their majesty and to savour their mystery. Today is one such day. 
From the Saddle between Donard and Commedagh I watch, mesmerised, as frigid Slieve Bearnagh, its spiky tors silhouetted against an apricot sky, is slowly engulfed by cloud boiling up in the valley below, partially obscuring the watery sun now hanging like a paper lantern in the darkening sky. Bright pools of light flooding the surface of the Irish Sea gradually vanish from sight as snow begins to fall heavily.

Struggling against a vicious east wind we make our way up to the tower on Commedagh, seemingly etched in monochrome, a welcome sanctuary from the elements. We fire up our stove inside for a hot drink and watch the conditions worsen outside. With the mercury plummeting and a wind chill making it feel about -10, we reach the cairn on Commedagh in near white out conditions then begin our descent through ankle deep snow to Slieve Corragh. Through the spindrift and snowflakes whirling dervish-like I think I spot a person, then more loom into view. These are not people, but the granite pillars below Commedagh which emerge through the gloom like giant totem poles carved by the hand of time into fantastical shapes – or stone sentinels frozen for eternity to guard the realm of a Mountain King. Clambering over the ice encrusted Mourne Wall we reach the summit of Corragh then return to the Saddle via the Castles, passing a huddle of grim faced walkers taking shelter close to the stile over the Wall.

The path down to Newcastle is now covered with the diamond dazzling treachery of a thin coating of fresh snow on ice. As we descend below the cloud it stops snowing, unveiling the iced tree tops of Donard Wood and the white crescent of Newcastle Bay abutting a moody grey-green sea. As we enter the woods, now fantastical and mysterious in the fading light, snow begins to fall softly. There isn't a sound except our boots squeaking in the fresh snow. And through the tangled boughs of the trees, the fairy lights of Newcastle are twinkling, enticing us safely downwards.