It's not often that I find myself looking for my ice axes and crampons after returning home from Winter Climbing in Scotland. In the few weeks previous to the snow arriving in the Mournes I had been enjoying some days out on rock, and was starting to get the head into summer rockclimbing mode. After a few days of unseasonal heavy snowfall, that was all about to change.
There's something about being out in snow-covered hills that's hard to beat, its quite normal to find people rushing towards the Mournes with the first signs of snow. There's a certain novelty factor that comes with seeing our little hills being plunged into unusual winter conditions. Then there's also the fact that it never lasts for very long, and it's very much a case of "get there before it disappears". This year was to be a little different.
You know that it's going to be pretty full-on if you're having trouble just getting to the hills, and my first few ventures involved parking at Tollymore and just walking from there. The difference in the roads above and below Tollymore was unreal!
My first few trips into the winter conditions were mainly to go walking, for personal days out but also for work. It was great to have the opportunity to do some winter skills work in the Mournes. I do a lot of my work for Tollymore National Outdoor Centre, and its not too often that I'm rummaging around their store for winter boots and ice axes to go walking with groups in the Mournes... A more than welcome change to the routine!
As the days ticked on, the weather became more and more settled and the snow looked like it was going nowhere fast- in fact, it looked like winter in the Mournes was here for a while. With friends heading out Skiing, my thoughts turned towards climbing and the possiblity of getting onto some winter routes!
For winter climbing to be at its best, it generally requires not only low temperatures, but also little periods of higher temperatures to create what are known as freeze thaw cycles. This is what builds nice thick ice, but also turns the snow into snow ice, or neve, which is fantastic for climbing on. Although temperatures had remained fairly constant, there had been a big influence from the sun during the clear weather, meaning that things were melting a little during the day, then re-freezing at night, so there was a good chance a few things would be climbable... somewhere!
My first trip was an after work mission up into the Pot of Legawherry, which is a big bowl that sits in behind Slieve Commedagh, it has lots of craggy ground spit by numerous gullys which all hold snow, so it seemed like a good option. I packed up my axes and crampons and headed off.
I headed up to the longest section of gully and found it to be in reasonable condition, with a nice little icy bulge at the bottom and bullet hard snow above. It was all looking good!
As I got higher, the snow conditions were variable; ranging from very hard snow to lose unconsolidated powder which was hard going. The route was fairly straight forward with the exception of two or three steep little steps which made it all the more interesting, a great night out!
After a great night out climbing in the Pot I was off working in Wicklow for a few days, so it was nearly a week before I had another chance to get out in the Mournes again, and this time I even managed to find a climbing partner!
I heard rumours of various parties climbing a route called Rock and Roll gully, which is one of the classic winter routes in the Mournes (when in condition). Eventually I got speaking to some people who had actually been climbing on it and said that it was in "fantastic condition". They were veterans of Mourne climbing, so if they said it was good, you knew it was going to be amazing.
The next day I met my climbing partner Eamon after work and we headed for Rock and Roll Gully. As we walked in, the snow was very wet underfoot, thawing was happening at an alarming rate, so it wasnt looking good! We decided to push on anyway, it would be a shame to have come that far and not to go up for a look. As we got closer to the gully the snow started feeling a bit firmer though, finally we rounded the corner to look up into a gully choked with fat ice - it was going to be another good night out.
We wasted no time in getting geared up and got stuck straight into climbing. Eamon led off and climbed the first pitch, which was reasonably straight-forward ground with a little tricky step every once and a while.
It was then my turn to lead, one little short pitch got us both up over the last tricky step before the main ice pitch. It looked fantastic, I was struggling to believe I was in the Mournes! I headed of towards the mass of blue ice and began to climb. The ice was in great condition, slightly plasticy in the warm temperatures which made it pefect for climbing on. All too soon I arrived at the top and set about finding a belay to bring Eamon up. Another successful winter adventure in the Mournes.
The inevitable warm up came, and the snow cover has started to reduce, although there will be snow in the hills for weeks to come. The opportunity for Mournes winter climbing has past, and once again I've started to think about getting back onto the rock, and enjoying those first few gilimpses of spring sunshine, long may it last!
About Jonny Parr:
Jonny is a mountaineering and kayak instructor, based in Belfast. He spends his summers paddling around the Irish coastline, and his winters ice climbing and mountaineering in Scotland. He is currently trialling the Target Dry Pioneer Jacket, HikeMid & TrekComfort Socks, as well as the Origin Jacket.