Part 2 of my short blog series about the day I conquered Slieve Bearnagh
January 2015. The heart of winter. And what a winter is was proving to be. Meteorological data is already showing that most places in the UK had above average amounts of sunshine in January - and the low winter sun makes for beautiful light for the landscape photographer, its low angle casting wonderful contrasts of light and shadow across any scene. But this wasn't the only gift that winter '14/'15 was offering. Northerly winds were bringing a succession of snow showers over Northern Ireland and for a few weeks as we travelled around the Province we were treated to magical scenes of snow-capped mountains, lit beautifully but this gorgeous winter sunlight. Perfect photographic conditions.
And just the right time to climb the mountain that had become my obsession: Bearnagh.
So the plan was set. The forecast for the Sunday was perfect, with lots of blue skies predicted. There had been a good snow fall the week before. Everything was in place for the perfect day climbing and photographing.
I wanted to get down to the Mournes for a sunrise shot along the Trassey River before heading on up through the Hare's Gap and ascending Bearnagh itself. That meant being in situ in the river for around 0815 hours - and that meant an early start to drive down to Newcastle! I feared the roads might be a bit on the icy side given the clear skies the night before, but in fact they weren't too bad, and I made it to Newcastle by about 0730 before heading up to Trassey Car Park. That final approach road had a dusting of snow and there was only one other set of car tracks as I made my way to the car park. Even though I was there very early, I wasn't the first to start out that morning!
Within 10 minutes my buddies arrived, fellow photographers Ryan Simpson and Stephen Wallace. The excitement amongst us was palpable. There is something about being up really early for a photo shoot, of being out and about before most people are even out of their beds. The anticipation of seeing sights that most people aren't going to witness, and of trying to capture those moments on camera. It was going to be a long and glorious day climbing in the Mournes, so off we set.
The first part of the Trassey Track gently ambles up through a forest, so the mountains are hidden from view. But we could clearly see low cloud hanging above our heads. You need some clouds to make sunrises interesting, but this was a blanket draped over the Kingdom of Mourne, and we were not too hopeful it would lift in the next 45 minutes for sunrise.
As we came out of the forest, for the first time the mountains came into the view. The landscape before us was atmospheric - the low cloud cast the whole place in an eerie yet beautiful gloom, while the snow on the ground struggled to reflect back up what little light there was. There was no way the cloud was going to lift any time soon. But the dull half light, and the epic surroundings, made for a captivating view. And the mountains in the background were half shrouded in cloud and mist that gently rolled and undulated over their peaks. We knew the summits were there, but the cloud was teasing us, giving us half glimpses ever once in a while of the glories that awaited, but never fully revealing anything.
We got into place in the river. Given the low light, getting long exposures to smooth the water was not going to be a problem at all. At first, as the cloud remained in place, the whole scene had something of an Icelandic feel. The muted colours, the snow and ice, the rugged granite boulders. It looks cold, and it felt cold. And all the while, somewhere up there in the far distance, hidden from view, was the goal: Bearnagh. We could make out the lower flanks, tantalising glimpses of the majestic beast. But its true nature remained hidden from view, confined at this stage to the fertile soils of our imagination .
As we were in place, various other fellow climbers started to pass us along Trassey Track itself. But one intrepid explorer seemed to want to venture not up the well trod route but a bit off-piste. He headed for the exposed and imposing cliffs of Meelmore. This one man, dwarfed by the unassailable crevices and cliffs in front of him.
As the minutes passed and as sunrise came closer, Stephen noticed that the rising sun was painting a warm light over the peaks of Slieve Croob to the north. The valleys in bewteen were still in shadow, but the sun had risen enough over the Mournes and the cloud above them to light the peaks. It gave us a tantilising glimpse of the colours that could have been washing over our monochrome views - if only this cloud would lift a little!
But, as if on cue, the clouds ahead of us began to do just that. They began to break up just a little, and just enough to allow the merest hints of colour to shine through thinner parts of cloud. The whole thing remained subtle and subdued - but that seemed entirely appropriate for our scene. As the cloud began to slowly disperse, more of Bearnagh came into view. But that peak, with its striking twin granite tors, stayed hidden. This beast was not about to reveal itself fully just yet. There was some imagining still to be done.
By now, we were done with our photos in the River itself, and it was time to crack on and head up for Hare's Gap, the saddle between Bearnagh and Slievenaglogh that takes you up and over the Mourne Wall and into the heart of the Kingdom. Stephen had to leave us at this stage, so after our farewells, Ryan and I headed on up the Track.
Click on the above image to take your own panoramic tour of the views we were enjoying - and you may also spot my two photo buddies in this pano too!
We left the path part of the Track and headed up towards the saddle. For both of us, this was the first time we'd been up here - and it was a baptism of ice! The Trassey River itself starts on these slopes, feeding down off the flanks of Bearnagh and Slievenaglogh. This means a myriad of little tributaries trickle down over the boulders, as if they are being drawn inexorably together to form the river channel below. I say trickle. Normally, they would trickle. But today, they were mostly frozen. This made for an interesting and somewhat slippy climb on the way up. But it also treated us to amazing views like the one in this video, where the water flowed under a frozen cap like trapped tadpoles trying to escape an icy doom.
Click on 1080p to enjoy this video in HD.
Eventually, after scrabbling up the slippery boulders, we were at the wall. By now, the cloud was lifting nicely, and I turned for one last photo down the valley we had just climbed. Blue skies to the north, and a glorious landscape decorated with snow. It was wonderful to stand for a few moments in the slience to appreciate this winterscape.
But, amazing as it had been so far, little did we know what views we were about to be treated to over the wall. Little did we know that, in a few moments, we were about to climb into the heart of Narnia itself. But that's a story for next time, when I take you into the land of imagination - and up the mountain of dreams...