December 2008

The holidays started the way they should, with a walk.  This was four guys taking a walk, but we were guys so we had to do something different…..scrambles.


The walk began up the glen river track.  instead of the path we decided to go straight up the middle.  The mist was hanging over the mountains and the path ahead, at the base of the cliffs, looked dangerous.  We put our helmets on and prepared ourselves for…….a very gentle and non scary gully.  I made a mental note that this was a far nicer route to the col than the path.


Then we headed for a more popular gully; the Devil’s Coachroad.  This is the gouge in SlieveBeg with a scree ‘road’ that is unmissable on a clear day.  This was not a clear day and so took a little pondering to stumble upon.  In my opinion the most dangerous bit is not the gully itself but the scree approach.  This is not the place to walk behind someone as rocks trundle down.



Two strange things were encountered on this dander, on seen and one not seen.  When we descended the glen river track the gras ahead appeared a winter grey as if coated in frost.  When we looked behind it was as green as.. well…grass!  The change in colour was always where we stood, always grey in front and green behind.  The second strangeness was the lack of people on a normally busy part of the Mournes.


Christmas Eve began with a tradition that goes back nearly a decade; the breakfast.  We meet up with friends and have a long breakfast in a restaurant.  Sometimes we have not seen some of these friends for a while.  It is always good to relax and catch up.  A friend from a long time ago used to do something similar with his friends, they would always meet up at a point on new year’s eve in the middle of dartmoor.  Sometimes they had not seen each other all year and they would not arrange it by phoning each other close to the time or reminding each other.  They would simply turn up no matter the weather.

After breakfast the lovely Sharon did some last minute shopping around Carrickfergus as I sat in the harbour and read my book.  It was not very cold and the lough was as still as glass.  As I relaxed it was so calm that a gull floated by all curled up and asleep.  Or dead?  Asleep sounds better and it is more probable as a few minutes later it flew off and i did not notice as my head was in my book.  Or it sank?

I am feeling idle.  I am feeling overdosed on the E numbers that keep appearing in our staff room.  Parents of pupils show their gratitude by sending in food.  It’s not their fault, it’s mine for being weak willed.

I was supposed to go climbing tonight but I need to be in.  There are christmassy things that need to be done.  Santa needs my help.

I could have been a good little elf and started as soon as i got home but instead I needed to run.  darkness is not an excuse.  I ran.  Trees and naked twigs cast strange winter shadows from my head torch.  I ran on roads that saw few cars and some that saw none.  It is amazing how much a run can clear the head and focus the mind.


I can hear an elfette working away downstairs.  It is the sound of cello tape.  Rip pause, rip pause, rip rip pause pause.  I need to go and help.  I need to be a good little elf.

It did not feel like a normal Monday today, the Christmas holiday seems to be creeping in.  A sign of this is the lack of a full class.  There always seems to be a proportion of the students missing.  This trip, that trip, this music practice, that charity thing.  There is also the presence of oral mock exams for languages.  Given the choice between the significance of the Haber Boosch process on mankind or how to say “I went to the cinema” in German or French….  the students choose the later when they are nervously counting down the minutes until their own stressful appointment.

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The moon is close tonight.


Today I had a moment of strangeness, of randomness. Up until that point it had been a crazy day of frustrations, of interruptions and constantly running late. It all began with the madness of the motorway and the addition of half an hour to my commute. This meant that I was picking up pieces all day and having my breakfast at break time.

Then came lunch time. As I walked out onto the pitch and the students began to kick the ball about and gather in sandwich scoffing gangs I thought; this is my chance to breathe, this is my space. Then I was stopped in my tracks. A crow broke away from his fights with gulls and stood beside me. Very close. He looked at me and as I saw the puffs of his steamy breath beat out I glanced around with a “are you looking at me?” face. He was not looking at me, he was contemplating me. Then I realised, this is not my space. This is his home and I just walk through and visit. After what seemed like forever, the moment was gone. There were gulls to fight and sandwich crusts to hunt.

I was reminded of another moment at the weekend. We had just broken camp and cleared our selves neatly away. The instructor chatted to us for a while about the concept of ‘leave no trace’ and our impact on the environment as we lingered around the campsite. We need to be so conscious of minimising our effect on these lingering wild places. After walking away and at a distance I heard the klunks of ravens. A pair descended on our old campsite with their huge black bodies hopping around. All was calm and I heard them talk to each other. I might have even heard them as a whisper. It might have been imagination or it might have been some deep remnant of understanding from a time long forgotten. I think I might have heard them speak to each other, this pair of old friends; “Can you believe this! These ******** have left no trace!”


In the morning we stepped on some ice. Maybe it can be considered strange but I do not thing I am alone when I say that I delight in the sound of crunching ice and snow underfoot.   I felt like a child as I played on the mountainside.

We pitched tents at the side of a lough deep in the Mourne Mountains in conditions which should have felt cold be actually felt pleasant.  A lone Raven krunked nearby, welcoming us to her home.  No wind.


As we practised our rope work and discussed safe (and not so safe) anchors the sun went down and revealed a range or deep colours that sank into our souls.  These are the moments we are here for, in these mountains and in this life.  Way better than Saturday night TV.


The temperature plummeted dramatically as the shadowed cloaks of the mountains dropped on us.  It was already -2 as we shovelled our dinner into us.  Dessert; guilt free.


Night navigation was practiced by a waxing moon.  The moonlight cast long shadows and the stars rose and set like a clockwork blanket.  The terrain was interesting, twice I had the rapid thought “hello ground” as I fell into hidden holes that left my armpits at ground level and my feet caught deep underground.  The moon and stars kept turning.


Returning to camp took us past the frozen half of the lough.  We turned off the head-torches and threw chunks of ice  and rocks across the half inch thick surface.  We listened to the sliding ice and strained our ears for the splash.  No matter how hard we threw, we heard no splash.  Later on, the next day, we saw some of our rocks sitting on their own on the lake’s surface.  Waiting for the moment of inevitable plop and sink when no one would be near to hear it.  It was very cold.

Before crawling into our bags for the long cold night we gathered together and had a little tent party with laughter and a selection of fine cheeses.  This was a luxury wild camp.

After a cold night that we have been told sank to -5, I woke up to grab my gas canister and nurse it to life while I had a brief snooze and then muesli in bed.  Sleeping and hugging my cooker made me feel like a mountaineer.