Putting the boot in

(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2003)
An eventful day on the Wicklow hills.

I hear a sudden cry of pain!
There is a rabbit in a snare:
Now I hear the cry again,
But I cannot tell from where.

But I cannot tell from where
He is calling out for aid!
Crying on the frightened air,
Making everything afraid!

James Stephens

Love – love changes everything, or so the song tells us. Well, here’s something else to sing about. Snow changes everything, too. Think about it. Even a modest fall of three or four inches (that’s 8 to 10cm for the whippersnappers) can transform the landscape and bring a whole new dimension to a day in the hills. Here’s another interesting thing about snow: while it is, generally speaking, only available in the one colour, it comes in a wide variety of textures, from execrable to excellent. The interest is further heightened by the fact that what is good today may be rotten tomorrow – and vice versa.

According to Brendan McWilliams, the man who brings us the admirable ‘Weather Eye’ in the Irish Times, statistics show that the optimum days for snow lying in this green isle of ours are those at the end of January and beginning of February. But, as you and I well know, the weather never takes a blind bit of notice of statistics. Snow is as capricious as any flighty young thing: it comes flouncing in when it pleases, dallies for as long as it likes (usually too briefly, alas) and, just as we have become enamoured with it, takes off without as much as by your leave. There is advice aplenty for those bitten by the lovebug: we are warned that ‘faint heart never won fair lady’; urged to ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ and encouraged to ‘be brave and follow your star’. All of the above could equally apply to getting to grips with snow; there’s no time for pussyfooting around, you have to be bold, strike while the iron’s cold, so to speak. Or, in modern parlance, you have to go for it.

All of which is by way of explaining why, at 9am on a January morning a couple of years ago, I could have been spotted stepping out from the carpark in Glenmalure. There was snow on the hills. Not the best of snow, it’s true – the cold snap had been too short for that, but still, snow is snow, and half a loaf is better than no bread, and always better than a slap on the belly with a wet fish.

There was hardly a breath of wind as I headed up the Fraughan Rock glen: the sky above was blue and clear; the puddles at the side of the forest road were coated with a thin film of ice; the soggy ground on the far side of the river was frozen hard and the intermittent patches of snow crunched noisily beneath my boots as I made my way up through the boulders. Things were looking good. But I wasn’t fooled for one minute. I had seen it all before. It would be less frosty on top, that was for sure.

It would take someone of the calibre of the above-mentioned McWilliams to fully explain why this should be so but, as he doesn’t come cheap, you will have to do with yours truly. Here’s the potted version. When the sun sets in the evenings and the air cools, the heavier, cooler air rolls down the slopes, to gather at the bottom. While the skies were clear down in the glen – nothing to prevent any warm air from drifting up, up and away – Lug was wearing a bonnet of cloud, with the flaps pulled well down over it’s ears, and this tends to keep what little warm air there might be around in situ. The biggest curse of all, though, was the wind. Because it was sheltered low down the cold air had a chance to settle – higher up, however, the fresh south-westerly wind would undoubtedly be scattering the air hither and thither, preventing the frost from getting any kind of grip.

And that, more or less, is how it panned out. The only ice I encountered on the way up was on the rocks of the second step – but it was too thin and too brittle to be of any interest. Above that I entered the mist and it was to stay with me for most of the day. There was, however, a good deal of snow – it had been driven off the summit ridge by the strong winds and had settled on the lower, more sheltered slopes. But the higher I went, the more windy it became and the less frost there was.

My original plan was to cross the ridge, drop down into the South Prison, climb the main gully and continue to the summit. Then descend into the North Prison and climb the main gully there. But a quick recce of the South Prison showed that it would be a waste of time going down; it was taking the full brunt of the wind and, as a result, the ground was unfrozen and there was only a little snow.

Things were a bit better in the North Prison: a lot more snow, a lot less wind. Using my ski-sticks I headed down towards the start of the gully, making long, sliding strides, sending a hare scampering off ahead of me into the mist.

I was skipping across a small, snow-covered boulder field just above the base of the gully when it happened. There was an almighty BANG followed by an explosion just below me: the army was on the warpath. The loud noise startled me and threw me off balance. My foot slipped down through the boulders and kept on going down. I ended up on my backside, doing a rather painful and damp splits in the snow, one leg straight down through the boulders, the other one straight out in front of me. As though to celebrate this sudden capitulation, the guns roared again in triumph. I couldn’t help but smile.

But half-an-hour later the smile had been well and truly wiped from my face; I was still in the same awkward position, my foot still held firmly in the vice-like grip of the boulders. I had tried every trick in the book, from gentle persuasion to sudden, violent tugs that became more urgent as time passed, but without success. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the gap between the boulders was too constricted to allow any flexing of the leg; too narrow and deep to allow me reach down to get a grip on the boot. I was well and truly trapped. As time passed I became more and more impatient, returning again and again to the attack; heaving, twisting, turning, thrashing about in desperation, like a wild animal caught in a snare. No go. And all the while the guns roared and the shells exploded, mocking my futile efforts to break free.

An hour passed without any progress. Frustrated and breathless, my upper body covered in perspiration, my lower limbs damp and cold, my spirits beginning to flag, I reviewed the situation. It didn’t look too promising. The dense, white mist blended seamlessly with the snow-covered landscape, reducing visibility to the span of my ski-sticks. In between the salvoes there was absolute silence; not a sound, not a whisper; nothing moved, nothing stirred and, with the army patrolling access to the mountain, it was likely to remain that way. Ironically, I was a prisoner in the North Prison – banged up in a small, white cell – and it was solitary confinement. No visitors allowed.

I needed to come up with a plan of action, a change of tactics. I had set out that morning expecting to encounter nothing more difficult than some deep and, hopefully, firm snow; the sort of conditions that a pair of ski-sticks and some step kicking could easily cope with. But, at the last moment, I had tossed a small ice-axe into the bag – just in case. Remembering this, I fished it out and, holding the very end of the shaft, manipulated it down through the narrow gap in the rocks. After numerous attempts I managed to snag the tip of the pick under my bootlace. Ten minutes of painful sawing back and forth and the lace snapped. Another couple of minutes picking at the lace and I could feel the boot loosening on my foot. Pushing down on my hands I did a vertical press-up, and gently withdrew my foot from the boot – I was free.

But I wasn’t going home without my boot. I took off my two snow-gaiters, tied them around my stockinged foot and set to work Having cleared the snow off the boulders, I lay face-down and inserted my arm into the gap, but the boot was out of reach. So I lowered the axe into the gap and, with the help of my head-torch, hooked the pick through the loop at the back of the boot. It refused to budge. Back to the drawing board. Hopping around in ever-increasing circles, I gathered a collection of stones and small rocks. Using the axe as a lever, I managed to prise the smallest of the boulders out a little and wedged a little stone into the gap. Over the next half-hour I repeated this manoeuvre several times, using a larger stone or rock each time, until I had widened the gap enough to accommodate my head and shoulders. At full stretch I just managed to get a grip on the boot and, by virtue of some patient squeezing and twisting, finally extricated it. Only then I realised that the guns were silent. Perhaps, realising the game was up, the army had made a tactical retreat; more likely they had simply downed tools and sloped off for a spot of lunch. I did likewise.

Refreshed, I tackled the gully. It was banked up with deep, unblemished snow. It made for heavy going at first, but conditions improved with height and it was good to be on the move again. There was satisfaction, a simple pleasure, to be derived from the rhythmic kicking of steps and the steady, upward progress; body warm as toast, the blood tingling in hands and feet. The final section was good, firm snow. Not hard enough to warrant crampons (which I didn’t have, being quite happy, if necessary, to indulge in a bout of step-cutting), but firm enough to provide a neat little toe-hold at each sharp kick. I was almost disappointed when the cornice suddenly loomed above me in the mist, bulging ominously at the centre. I moved to one side, cut a little stance and patiently chiselled out a narrow groove. Then gently tip-toed up and out. There was no-one at the cairn.

I met no-one on the ridge either, as I headed for home, buffeted by the winds, which were now nearing gale force. I was thankful to drop off the ridge into the head of the glen. Swooping down through the snow where it was deep, trotting where it was shallow, I made good time, to finally emerge from the mist at the top of the lowest step. I was surprised, at this late stage of the day, to see a party approaching through the boulders (it was almost three o’clock).

The group was large, about twenty in number. Although they had only come a short distance from the end of the forest road they were spread out all over the place, with everyone picking his or her own line and the stragglers several hundred yards behind the frontrunner. Even from a distance I recognised the swagger of the chap in front; a brash young student, I had seen him several times at the climbing wall. This was obviously a college group and, judging by the manner of their progress, suffering from the same problem that bedevils all the college clubs – a yearly influx of new recruits, coupled with a yearly loss of it’s more experienced members. It was obvious from their apparel that most of these were new to the game. There was an assortment of heavy overcoats, bulky sweaters and skimpy jumpers; hold-alls and shoulder bags; trainers and even leather-soled shoes. Small wonder they were making heavy weather of the boulders.

Watching these young people struggling up through the greasy rocks, their cheerful faces red from exertion and streaked with perspiration, I was filled with misgivings. Were they aware of what lay ahead of them; how much there was still to do; the approaching storm? There was no way this group would be anywhere near the summit by the time daylight faded and they were too poorly equipped and too badly organised to cope safely with strong winds, mist and snow while retreating in darkness. The more I studied them, the more uneasy I became. This guy was leading them like lambs to the slaughter. I disliked interfering, sticking my oar in, but should I let them continue without at least pointing out the problems ahead? I decided, reluctantly, to drop a hint to the leader about the inadvisability of pressing on.

That the chap in front was the leader there was no doubt, least of all in his mind. He exuded self-importance; hands in his pockets, a swashbuckling stride, a smirk on his face: he was head honcho for the day and relishing every minute of it. He was making sure to keep a respectable gap between himself and the hoi polloi at all times- keeping them under pressure- letting them know who was boss.

As he drew alongside me I could tell, from the contemptuous way he looked me up and down, that he was even less impressed with me than I was with him. If I saw in him all the impetuous and headstrong arrogance of youth, he obviously viewed me the way most young people view anyone over the age of sixty – a seriously ancient and decrepit old fogey – someone who, by rights, should be down playing bingo, rather than pottering about up here, cluttering up the hills. He spoke first.

‘You’re bailing out early’ he said, with a hint of a sneer. ‘What’s up? Couldn’t keep up with your mates? Chicken out of going to the top?’

‘Well, no’ I said, a bit taken aback. ‘Actually, I’m on my own. As for bailing out early, I think it might be more a case of you heading up late, rather than me coming -‘

‘Not at all’ he interrupted, with an impatient toss of his head. Then he continued in reproving tones. ‘And you were up there on your own? In this weather? You’re asking for it, mate.’

So much for that.