On Friday after school the teachers poured slowly out of school looking forward to relaxing dinners and warm houses.  In the crisp icy air a colleague shouted over, “you’ll not be going into the mountains this weekend.”  I replied that I was and that I am heading straight for them now, it’s a playground out there.  My goal that night was to begin to get some heat into the old stone walls of a cottage in preparation for a friend’s 60th Birthday.  His son had organised a range of activities for a packed weekend in the hills with friends.

As the winter night began to grip I was glad to notice the temperature increase as I headed towards the Mournes.  This gave me hope that I might be able to get the car close(ish) to the cottage.  When I eventually got there I nearly got all the way up the lane to the point where the lane ends only to have the way blocked by an abandoned 4×4.  A half hour, a bucket of grit, and a friendly chat with the locals, later and I was up at the gate ready to put on my rucksack of supplies and head on up the mountain in the winter night.

Some time later I had lit the fire and was back down at the car ready to make another portage up the track with another rucksack of supplies.  The walk should have been about twenty minutes but instead took twice the time as I could not stop switching off my head torch and pausing under the magnificent starry night. With not a cloud in the sky and such clear air, the milky way splashed across the sky and Orion made his slow leisurely plod across the heavens.

milky way by jpstanley

The birthday boy (the outdoor fox) would not arrive until tomorrow morning but his son and a couple of friends would be joining me later that night.  Later on they arrived and we huddled around a big old crackling fire and talked nonsense into the wee hours.  That night as I slept I could sense the fire dim and die.  We slept on wrapped in our goose down bags and resisted the temptation to move and let the night into our individual cocoons.

The morning saw a little light snow as dawn made the eastern sky look like it was on fire.  Before the rabble arrived to be fed we each had some work to be done.  Chopping wood for the next night and making a snowman, a sentinel to great the birthday boy.

the sentinel

A late breakfast of the full Ulster fry was washed down with copious coffee and laughter and then we all wrapped up and headed for the hills to see what we could find.

the outdoor fox enjoys breakfast (NB: just to clarify, that is a bottle of olive oil beside the fire in case you were wondering.  We had to melt it for the breakfast)

Slieve Binnian with its winter coat

We found snow, and lots of it.

Commedagh and Donard

Best of all, we found a small frozen river and a couple of frozen water falls that we could play on.  We put crampons on and ice axes to ‘walk’ up the frozen river from bottom to top in a strange form of winter bouldering.  At one point we stood at the bottom of a run of small falls on a section and thought to ourselves that it was doable and was on the border line in terms of using a rope.  Just before we contemplated our bravery and went for it the dog Meg appeared and ran up it from our feet to the top.  I think she even stopped at the top with that look in her eyes that said ‘amateurs’.

fearless Meg

After much dandering about the mountains and playing in the snow we eventually had to plod back through the winter wonderland towards the cottage.

Slieve Binnian and Lamagan

the cottage track

Later that evening I found myself along on the track down from the cottage, again with full rucksacks.  However, this time the sun was going down somewhere over the mountains and the twilight light was deep and intense with winter character.  Instead of staring at the stars I found myself staring at a murder of crows as their caaws and krunks filled the air around me, again, this walk took twice as long as it should have.