Ireland's mountains aren't renowned for reliable snow, but never say never. Outdoor writer and photographer Adrian Hendroff offers plenty of reasons to get out there and make the most of the fickle Irish winter.
The lake was frozen to the core. I tapped at its surface, the hard ice glittering like white diamonds under the sun. I dug under a clump of heather and stuck my hand through a gap in the snow. Down below, as deep as my arm could go, I felt the lake's water-edge, solid as a tinker's bell and cold as a freezer. I imagined all its living organisms - snails, insects, newt, water-weeds and plankton - in suspended motion, trapped in time until the great thaw. The summit of Aghla Mountain was visible from this frozen lake, its trig-point peeking out on top of a rocky mound of quartzite outcrops and snow-fields.
I saw footprints of different shapes and sizes in the crunchy snow, marked both by human and sheep. These prints wound up the snow-field that led to the summit area. Some sections were hard ice, probably due to the ice thawing in the day and refreezing overnight. Using the edge of my boot soles I sliced-stepped up a moderately angled snow-field. According to statistics, that year of 2010 was the coldest winter in Ireland for almost 50 years, with the air temperature falling below -10ºC during some periods in January. But it was not just the coldest winter on record; it was also the driest and sunniest for years.
'These fleeting Irish wintry conditions are best seized promptly when they arrive; they don't linger for months'
The views from Aghla's summit were far-reaching that day. The Derryveagh Mountains featured like white puddings to the far north. To the southeast, a distinct set of hills graced the skyline, its summits rising proudly above the plains and foothills below. These summits belong to the Croaghgorm, or Blue Stack Mountains, a formidable mass of rounded granite that rises above Donegal Town. From Aghla's modest heights, the Blue Stack range seemed to slither like a snake; on that day its granite surface was coated with snow, gleaming like a snake's shiny, lustrous scales.
As I write this, the snows have reached Ireland and departed again. Although the snowfall both in duration and quantity was much less than in Scotland, Wales or England there was enough of it to turn the Irish hills into a winter wonderland.
A feel of warmth in this place.
In winter air, a scent of harvest.
No form of prayer is needed,
When by sudden grace attended.
Naturally, we fall from grace.
Mere humans, we forget what light
Led us, lonely, to this place.
'These are a quiet citadel of peaks in the winter, alluring to any inspiring mountaineer seeking the challenge of a new range'
The MacGillycuddy's Reeks are home to Ireland's highest peaks, and thus the probability of winter snow here is promising. Situated on the eastern end of the Iveragh Peninsula in Ireland's southwest, this mountain range straddles an area of nearly 10 miles, west from the Gap of Dunloe to Lough Acoose. The range boasts nine out of Ireland's 12 mountains over 3000 feet; a crème de la crème of peaks including the mighty Carrauntoohil.
The Irish playwright and poet, J.M.Synge writes of the area as a 'wild paradise' and its mountains a 'stack of thigh-bones, jaws and shins'. It is of little surprise then, that the range, formed nearly 300 million years ago during the Hercynian orogeny, is also known in Irish as Na Cruacha Dubha, or 'the black stacks' - except when it snows of course. When these Old Red Sandstone giants are enveloped under a virgin blanket of white they are a striking vision of ephemeral beauty. These are a quiet citadel of peaks in the winter, alluring to any inspiring mountaineer seeking the challenge of a new range.
Ireland's high places are also mostly a trackless wilderness: few signposts, and few paths on a landscape both barren and rugged. I've often wandered in these parts without meeting a soul, a rarity in Snowdonia or the Lake District, for example. And in winter the Irish mountains are quieter still. So if it's solitude you seek, you'll find it in abundance.
One winter, it was late when I departed the deep snow-fields which seemed to swallow the granite tops of the Blue Stack ridge to make my descent toward Lough Belshade. Negotiating granite boulders laced with snow and ice under Binmore's towering dark buttresses, I eventually reached Belshade in fading light. It was then when the winter sun pierced through thick layers of cloud, setting the crags on the back of Belshade ablaze with a yellow fluorescence. These dazzling colours reflected off Belshade's ice-scratched basin, trapped in one of the wildest mountain settings in northwest Ireland.
These fleeting Irish wintry conditions are best seized promptly when they arrive. They don't linger for months, at most for up to a fortnight before the wait (and hope) for another icy blast from the east or for another snow-bringing cold northerly front.
However when the snow does settle these Irish peaks are transformed. The photo above shows the steep northern face of Galtymore, Ireland's highest inland peak, streaked with snow like zebra's stripes late in the winter season.
A great mountain day awaits you if you're lucky enough to hit the slopes when the white stuff arrives! There is plenty in these parts for the experienced winter hillwalker, or even the more adventurous mountaineer or rock climber.
As Ireland's mountain ranges are quiet and often less visited over the winter, the potential for wild camping in a remote 'all to myself' setting is high too. In the highlands of Kerry or the wilds of Donegal there are a plethora of such areas to pitch a tent and truly savour the freedom of the hills.
For the less hardcore, even the tiniest of Irish hillocks can offer the grandest of winter views. This panorama was taken from the hillock of Glenbeg West in Connemara. Here, Lough Nafooey divides Ben Beg to the south and the tentacled spurs of the Maumtrasna plateau to the north. These spurs are adorned with names such as Leynabricka, Skeltia, Binnaw and Buckaun and extend down the eastern side. Streams plunge from the top of the plateau, tumbling like waterfalls down crags and breaking into a symphony of cascades, its vein-like tributaries flowing into a main-stem until finally reaching its home in wild corrie lakes. It is an area of unsurpassed beauty.
'It is an area of unsurpassed beauty'
Photographic opportunities are another good reason to consider spending a day or two in the snowy hills. A lingering winter sunset in the westernmost parts of Ireland can often be memorable. What better way to chase the light than a well-planned winter camp, with tripod and camera close at hand?
In a quiet enclave of Connemara known as Joyce's Country, in an area named after a Welsh Norman, Thomas de Joise, who settled here toward the end of the twelfth century, a paintbrush sky in late autumn sings the praise of mountain light and dominates the low-lying hills toward Lugnabrick. This display of purple and apricot coloured skies, with a backdrop of the higher Maumturks, lingers on these hills like the fresh snow. And the words of Thoreau resonate...
"To perceive freshly, with fresh senses, is to be inspired"
About the author
Adrian Hendroff is a Mountain Leader and a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, Mountaineering Ireland and Mountain Training Association.
He is the author of a walking guide to The Dingle, Iveragh & Beara Peninsulas and the award-winning books From High Places: A Journey Through Ireland's Great Mountains and Donegal, Sligo & Leitrim.
For more details of Adrian's work, visit his website.