Monday, 5 March 2018

Winter Climbing in Northern Ireland

'Real' winter, for the first time since 2013, has made an appearance in Ireland. The first week of March 2018 saw temperatures consistently below 0 for days on end, and a fair bit of snowfall.
This means one thing to climbers in the North – ice in the Mournes and Glenariff. Carpe diem (or perhaps carpe ligo).

I was due to fly to Glasgow on 2 March, to meet up with Conor Gilmour, see an Elbow concert and maybe go winter climbing in the highlands. With a red weather warning in place for Glasgow this was looking unlikely, so arrangements were made to go take a look at Glenariff as a backup plan and investigate the possibility of frozen waterfalls. In the meantime, the snow allowed some unusual Pursuits such as cross-country skiing around Edenderry and along the Lagan.

Winter comes to Edenderry.
That Porsche isn't going anywhere in a hurry
Cross-country skiing at the Giant's Ring

Skiing in Edenderry
 Glenariff is one of the nine glens of Antrim and boasts numerous waterfalls streaming off the plateau. These occasionally freeze to give good ice but the low altitude and proximity of the sea makes this uncommon. On 2 March they were well frozen. Peter Hughes, Sarah McAleavey, Stuart Abraham and I met up at the Spar in Martinstown (where no coffee was available due to a frozen water supply) at 9.30 and headed into the glen, rewarded with the view of numerous frozen watercourses. We parked up in a layby under something that looked good and wandered up the hillside, in a state of disbelief and with the air of cautious pessimism that accompanies any winter climbing attempt on this island.
Approaching 'The Mane'

A ten minute walk up the hillside brought us to what turned out to be ‘The Mane’, first climbed in 1981 (and not many times since) but Martin Manson and Eddie Cooper. This provided two pitches of perfect plastic ice which even took full length ice screws. Heavy winds at the top resulted in numerous weird and wonderful frond-like features in the ice. Fantastic. Buoyed by this, we returned to the road and moved on to have a go at the classic ‘The Grey Mare’s Tails’ 500 m further up the valley.
Peter on P1 of 'The Mane'

Sarah on 'The Mane'

Stuart on 'The Mane'

Roadside ice climbing in Antrim. Surreal. Caught up in the moment, I went awry. On the scramble up the hillside to the waterfall I followed Stuart up an ill-advised mossy, grassy, dodgy unfrozen turf scramble. Halfway up Peter appeared behind me, took one look at it, and decided to go round. I stupidly thought “sure I’ve come this far…” and carried on. Shortly thereafter I found myself standing on a tuft of turf which gave way, leaving my scrabbling at blades of grass before tumbling backwards, head over heels, bouncing on my head and tailbone and coming to a rest 7m below in a tree. It took a moment or two to figure out if I was injured but (extremely) fortunately it turned out that this was confined to a very unhappy right ankle. Thankfully I’d left my helmet on from the previous climb.
Not a great photo but I fell from where Stuart is to where the photo was taken from.
Stuart is here retrieving my ice axes

I rang Stuart who came back done, recovered my axes from 7m above and escorted me back down to the road where I hobbled back to the car and watch the other three climb ‘The Grey Mare’s Tails’ through binoculars. It looked like a fantastic climb with two well frozen pitches of quality ice (the bottom wasn’t fully formed) and if it ever freezes again I’ll be right back on it.
Peter on 'The Grey Mare's Tails'

'The Grey Mare's Tails' from the road. Spot the climber

Lisa, despite recovering from a rather bad dose of the flu, came with me to A&E in the Royal Hospital that evening. This took 5 hours and she was rewarded by having her recovery derailed somewhat. My amazing fiancée, willing to put my own self-inflicted injury before her own recovery. I have a massive amount of making up to do.
Outside the Royal A&E

The next day was, naturally, needed for recovery! Lots more snow fell so Lisa and I managed to do a bit of tobogganing on the hill above Edenderry before rewarming in front of the fire.

Winter in Edenderry

Peter Reid contacted me asking to borrow some winter gear for an attempt on ‘The Black Stairs’ on Thomas’s Mountain, below Slieve Donard in the Mournes. Since I was due in Newcastle anyway for MRT training I figured I’d meet him and Sarah in Donard Park and give them the gear there. As it turned out mountain rescue training was cancelled as the (more mobile) rest of the team had had a busy time helping people get about in the snowy conditions.
I met up with Peter and Sarah in any case. The ankle was feeling better and I found with boots on and walking poles I could walk OK. The Black Stairs almost never freeze since it’s so low and coastal (300 m up, overlooking Newcastle and the beach). Carpe Diem and all that.
I tentatively threw some gear in a bag and decided on walking up with Pete and Sarah, with the option of turning back at any point if it started to hurt. There’s a good path pretty much the whole way to the waterfall so turning back and hobbling down should be OK. Before long we were at the edge of the forest, and could see the waterfall was frozen. At this sight any residual pain disappeared (for now). Pete was psyched as this was his one chance to get winter climbing this season, and Sarah was over the moon to be able to climb ice so close to her hometown of Newcastle. You can even see the Black Stairs from the window of her parents’ home.
Sarah and I with The Black Stairs in the background
The Black Stairs in Winter

We tried to get to the base of the waterfall but this involved crossing a frozen pool which wasn’t as frozen as we’d like, resulting in wet knees when the ice gave way. The first pitch didn’t look as well frozen in any case so we were happy to retreat and move up and round on good frozen turf in order to climb the top half of the route. Between my injury and this being Pete’s one chance to climb this season, Pete was given the honour of leading. Despite not having climbed ice in 3 years he made short work of it, making lots of very happy noises on both pitches and declaring it his favourite Mournes winter climb (he has actually managed to do a few of these). I nursed the ankle up the route but the adrenaline (and cold water from the pool at the bottom) helped dispel any pain.
Seconding the first bit

Pete starting up P2


The excellent second pitch

Pete on P2

A very happy Pete

Sarah topping out

We topped out as the snow turned to rain and the melt was starting in earnest. Back down to Newcastle and everyone was buzzing from the experience. Winter climbing in Northern Ireland – good while it’s there and worth the effort! Who knows how long it will be before we get to do it again?

The aftermath

Postscript: it’s now Monday 5 March, 4 degrees C and raining. Normal service has resumed.


  1. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it. You took climbing while it's there to the extreme with a dodgy Ankle. Bravo.