Begging for More (Winter Climbing)

(by Dave Madden, September 2012)
A weekend climbing in the Mournes at Slieve Beg.

With a perfect weather forecast for the weekend on the East Coast we decide to head North. With the excellent summer we’ve had we are tiring of all these endless days on the rock in balmy conditions. Dave and I are clearly pining for the return of the winter and some proper hardship.

The Mournes seem like an ideal solution. Sure isn’t there a joke about the weather in Northern Ireland being akin to Iraq? Partly Sunni but mainly Shiite? Perfect. Where will we stay? Camping? Surely not – won’t be cold enough. We decide to bivvy instead. What about a long walk-in? Can we find somewhere with a Scottish style walk-in? Ah yes, Slieve Beg fits the bill.

So we leave on the Friday evening up to Newcastle, drop the car and hail a taxi to drive us out to the Annalong Valley. As the taxi driver takes us deeper into the dark hills he must wonder who the nutters in the car are. Maybe it is Dave’s Dublin accent or the way he keeps enquiring about the tracking device in the taxi but by the time we get to Carrick Lyttle the cabbie seems very relieved to drop us off. The taxi lights disappear quickly.

The Bivvy Beg

We stroll in and about an hour and a half later select a suitable bivvy spot on the path with the bulk of Slieve Beg looming in the gloom above us. After an early start we head up towards Satan’s Buttress to acquaint ourselves with the crag. First up is Satan’s Rib, a three-star V-Diff winding its way up the left hand side of the south face. I pad upwards rolling both pitches together and finish up at a memorable belay spot with a great view down the Annalong valley. But something isn’t right – it simply isn’t cold enough. Has the Mournes gone soft or what?

Dave M. on the Devil’s Rib, V.Diff ***

Scrambling down the Devil’s Coachroad it seems we aren’t to be disappointed for long. The wind has come up strongly and a thick clag descends around us. Classic pea-souper. The Main face becomes increasingly damp in the mist and the atmosphere suitably sombre. Dave leads up Shelob, a nice-looking VS but it soon becomes clear that he is having problems. The route is clearly not in condition – the ice hasn’t formed yet. The mist blowing up the gully is plastering the routes with moisture. This moisture seems to make the surface of the Mournes granite crumbly and smearing becomes difficult. Dave backs off and we opt for Poetic Justice (PJ) a three-star VS that winds it way up the left side of the main face. The route is damp but looks climbable.

Poetic Justice, *** VS 4b

Dave heads up PJ like a scalded cat, seemly terrified that his preciously guarded climbing weekend away is dissolving in front of his eyes. At one point his goes slightly off-route, places a nut and as he steps back comes off. It’s not really a fall, more like something you would see if you played Wayne Rooney backwards at speed on your TV. Then I take over. The second pitch of PJ is a gem with really engaging climbing and bomber gear. The next belay is really exposed to the cold wind and as I belay Dave up the third pitch it starts to feel more like Winter Climbing – but without the big Belay Jacket. Just what the doctor ordered. The third pitch also has a sting in the tail – just when you think it’s all over you have a nice vegetated top-out over some dodgy blocks.

Dave topping out on PJ

We head back down the Gully and marvel at the two classic HVS lines, Sweetie Mice and Parallel Lines. No chance of climbing them though as conditions start to deteriorate further.

Parallel Lines in the gloom

We have our dinner and contemplate life sheltering behind some rocks on the summit of Slieve Beg. Dave exchanges text messages with Declan and Jane telling us that it’s 27 degrees and sunny in Dublin. Sure they don’t know what they are missing out on here! It looks like it might be a bit too warm and sheltered behind the summit rocks to sleep so we select a more suitably exposed bivvy site on a nice peat hag on the hillside. In the middle of the night I awake to a clear sky and a panorama star show – bivvying at its best! A bonus side effect is the lack of insulating clouds which leaves me feeling nice and frigid in my two-season sleeping bag.

What, no snow?

In the morning I wake-up humming the Clash, “Should I stay or should I go now …”. The pea soup has returned to keep us company and doesn’t look as if it is leaving anytime soon. It seems we have drunk all our coffee last night and good things can’t last forever so we reluctantly pack up our gear and make our way down to Newcastle where the sun is shining and the tourists amble in short sleeves along the streets.

On our way home we drop in for one last “fix” at Pigeon Rock. We are barely on the crag when the pea soup descends once more to keep us happy. The classic severe Class Distinction, a nice amiable route, suddenly starts to feel a bit trickier as the friction disappears. Dave leads another severe Pi Squared as the rain starts to fall. So it’s back to the road where we meet a young one out for a walk with the dog. He promptly informs us that he has been climbing at Fair Head the previous day in glorious conditions.

Walking back to the car we shake our heads. Another guy who just doesn’t know what he’s been missing out on this weekend ….