The night I got 2500 feet closer to the Milky Way

This is a re-posting of this original blog to celebrate the second anniversary of my first trip into the Kingdom of Mourne.

Part 1 - The Night Before

Twilight on top of Slieve Binnian at around 11.30 pm

When I was nearly one, I learnt how to walk. Since I achieved that remarkable feat (!), I have managed to walk to various places. I have clambered up many’s a rocky cliff on the North Coast. My feet have taken me into the Highlands of Scotland. I have wandered through some valleys in the Atlas Mountains in Tunisia in the baking heat of the summer in the desert. I have even ventured the foothills of the Alps in Lichtenstein of all places.

But in all my years of walking, I had never once been climbing in the Mournes. This is scandalous, and indeed more than a little bit shameful to admit. But I was determined that 2014 would be the year when that was rectified, once and for all. So, early this year, the walking boots were purchased. I made sure they were well broken in. The peak was chosen (Binnian, with its tors on top of its 2500 feet peak).

I wanted to try to get sunset and sunrise in the mountains, so it seemed that late June, around the longest day, would be a good time. It doesn’t really get dark then, and twilight lasts throughout the night. Sadly, it didn’t work out for then and, with every passing week, the gap between sunset and sunrise turned increased. As the weeks passed, I began to wonder if 2014 would be my year after all…

And then, towards the end of July, we had a mini heat wave.

The weather, uncharacteristically for good old Northern Ireland, was both hot (temperatures peaking around 29C) and dry – and set to be that way for a few days. Here was a window and I needed to take it. I put the message out: anyone fancy a hike up the Mournes this evening to catch the sunset and then stay overnight to catch the sunrise. It was short notice. It was mid-week. Lots of fellow photographers were interested, but none were available. None, that is, apart from my trusty photography expedition buddy, Alistair White.

So it was set. After a few last minute arrangements and changes of plan, we would head off south towards the mountains after tea. Our first glimpses of the mountains were from Hilltown, coming in from the west. The light was perfect. As the sun dropped towards the horizon, it cast long deep shadows across the mountains and picked out the exquisite detail on the slopes. Out first taste of the mountains was as we climbed the road up past Spelga Dam.

We stopped for a couple of quick shots across the dam in air that was still around 22C at 8.30 pm. By that stage, it was clear to us we wouldn’t be on top of the mountain in time for sunset. But that didn’t matter, because it was also clear that this was going to be a magical evening of adventure.

The intrepid explorers - and our obligatory selfie!

The intrepid explorers - and our obligatory selfie!

At Carrick Little car park, we got all set and made sure everything was packed. The sun had already slipped behind the hills to the west at this point, bathing the whole scene before us in wonderful soft light and the skies in gentle sunset hues. And so, at 9.00 pm, the trek began.

Gateway to the Mournes - our first glimpse of the splendour of what was to come.

As you walk up the path initially, the climb is very gentle and the air was still and we walked into the valley. The range of the mountains opened up before us, the peaks taking on a purply hue as the sun setting behind them cast them into shadow.

Soon, you come to the point where the path forks – right continues the gentle ramble; left takes you up the side of the Mourne Wall towards the summit. The Wall it was.

The path is quite well defined and, as it had been dry for a few days, it wasn’t at all muddy. Just as well, as the slope quickly got noticeable steeper. The climb proper had begun. We stopped on a couple of occasions (for a drink, or for some photographs, you understand!) But we dared not delay for too long as it was getting darker by the minute. After climbing for about an hour, we came to a ridge. Ever the optimist, I speculated that this might be close to the summit. We pushed on over the ridge – only to discover the real summit a good bit further on – and higher up.

A stop on the way up. Purely for photographic purposes, of course.

On and on we pressed, and eventually the notch that our instructions told us to head towards came into view. By this time, it was getting quite dark, but the path was still clearly visible as we gave one last push. The gap didn’t seem to be getting much closer, but we keep heading onwards and upwards. Towards the end, the last bit of the wall is impossibly steep (kudos to those who built it) and the path veers to the right, circling around just below the summit plateau of Binnian. After climbing for nearly two hours, this little stretch of path is mercifully flat, and we followed it until another part of the Mourne Wall swept us up the last little bit of climb towards the top. On top, we left the shelter of the Wall and headed up onto the plateau on top of Binnian, and into a rather more biting wind. We were tired, it was dark, but we had made it – we were on top of one of the mountains of Mourne!

Although twilight was still tenaciously hanging on in the skies to the west, it was still quite dark on top. We were away of the shapes of the tors looming out of the blackness around us, but it was hard to get much of a sense of the place onto which we had climbed. There were hints of the sweeping valleys that surrounded us. In the distance we could just make out the other peaks that surrounded us on all sides. The light pollution from the surrounding settlements spilt up into the lower parts of the skies all around. It was a wonderful and surreal experience to be standing here. Had we really just climbed a 2500 foot mountain in the dark?!?

Twilight at Binnian's tors

Twilight at Binnian's tors

After getting a few more layers on and enjoying a few energy replenishing snacks, we got set up for our first photo shoot. We started with a few general shots and then tried light painting one of the nearby tors.

But it was only around midnight that the photographic magic began to happen. We had set out hoping to catch sunset and sunrise. Clearly we had missed sunset (although sunrise was, of course still to come). Little did we know that some of the best and most personally rewarding shots we both were to get would occur in the middle of the few hours of darkness after twilight. As the darkness increased, and despite the light pollution spilling up from down below, more and more stars began to appear. And in the cloudless skies, I caught a glimpse of something I’ve wanted to capture as a photographer for a couple of years. Rising majestically upwards from the direction of Carlingford Lough, climbing behind the South Tor, and sweeping directly overhead was the unmistakable arc of the Milky Way. Could this be the time when I finally captured it?

Now, for a short technical excursus. I’m a great believer in not letting the perceived limitations of your gear stop you from chasing the shot you’re after. There is always more and better gear to be had. Push yourself to the limits of what your gear will allow, and use those limits to fuel your creativity as a photographer. But one thing I have learnt is that, when it comes to the Milky Way, there is only so much you can do with more basic gear. The Milky Way is not bright against the background of the night sky. Add in light pollution and you make it very difficult for your camera to pick out the faint light signals it is emitting. To have a chance of capturing it, you need a camera with a good enough sensor to allow you to push your ISO up to 3500 to 4000. You also need a fast lens i.e. one that can shoot at f/2.8 at least. And that lens needs to have a wide enough angle to be able to capture some sort of foreground context. Previously, I did not have such a combination. But now, thankfully, I do. And in fact I had got that gear for such a time as this. Would tonight be my night?

I set the camera up, facing in the right direction, dialled the ISO way up, cranked open the aperture to f/2.8, set the shutter speed to 15 seconds to avoid star trails. And then I pressed the button.

Fifteen seconds took a very long time to pass.

But when the shutter clicked closed again and the image appeared on the screen, to my joy and delight I had eventually got the shot I was after! The two bands of stars were clearly visible, as was the “cosmic mist” in between. I shouted out to Alistair in my delight and he quickly got set up himself to chase the shot he’d been after for quite some time too.

We spend the next hour or so around various of the tors on top of Binnian shooting away at this amazing sight in the heavens above us, light painting the tors to pull out some more detail from them. At one point some whispy cloud drifted in, threatening to spoil our fun. But it was short lived and we gorged ourselves on the photographic banquet so fortuitously laid out before us.

The frog that conquered Slieve Binnian!

The frog that conquered Slieve Binnian!

Eventually, we had had our fill. We had got the shots we wanted and we packed up and settled down for some more snacks around 2.00 am (bizarrely, we passed a small frog on the path, on top of a 2500 foot mountain in the dark - there's nothing's going humble your mountain climbing pretensions quite like finding that a wee frog has beaten you to it). The wind had begun to pick up so we sought shelter in the crevice of one of the tors. The grassy plateau was surprisingly comfortable as I lay down, my head resting on my camera bag. Sunrise was at around 4.30, so dawn would start around 3.00 am. Time, perhaps, for a quick nap to recharge the batteries a bit?

My view as I fell asleep...

My view as I fell asleep...

So there I lay, stuffed full of the joys of the experience I had just had. I had achieved my goal – I had finally climbed the Mournes. And I had got some photos of the Milky Way. And there was still the sunrise to come the next morning! And here I was, lying out under the stars, on top of one of Northern Ireland’s tallest mountains.

I don’t remember quite when I dozed off. But I do remember the last sight I saw as I drifted off was the glorious swathe of the Milky Way, stretched directly above me in the darkness of the night sky, as I sheltered from the wind next to a massive and ancient tor.

As the internet meme would have it, I don't always climb the Mournes, but when I do I make sure I do it in style!

NEXT: look out for Part 2 - The morning I awoke in the land of imaginations to read of what it was like waking up as dawn breaks on top of Binnian.