After the warmest April on record in Ireland it’s easy to forget the intense cold of the winters of 2009 and 2010. They came with little warning. November 2009 was characterised by day after day of heavy rain that caused severe flooding along the Shannon and in Cork. As December came in, the rain stopped and was replaced by a steady flow of frigid arctic air that persisted well into January 2010. Winter 2010 began even earlier with snow and arctic air returning in November and persisting right through Christmas and almost into January again.
The conditions played havoc with travel and damaged water pipes and roads, but for Irish landscape photographers these two episodes of record-breaking cold weather were probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will never be repeated. That is of course if you were able to reach good locations. Many minor roads were all but impassable and snow-socks for cars became a best-selling Christmas present.
The air came from arctic and Siberian sources and was crystal clear. Although the cold spells were relatively dry there were episodes of snowfall both on higher ground and at lower-levels too. Light winds allowed freezing fog to form, producing incredible build-ups of hoar frost.
Perhaps my most memorable experience of this episode was in January 2010. I’d already climbed Slieve Carr in the Nephin Beg Mountains the previous winter and discovered it had fantastic potential for a panoramic image looking southeast from the summit ridge. In fact I’d shot a giant stitch panorama that day, which is now displayed at more than five metres wide in the visitor centre of Ballycroy National Park. But I knew there was potential for an even more dramatic image. Trouble with Slieve Carr is that it’s one of the least accessible mountains in Ireland. You navigate a network of typically rough Mayo roads west of Crossmolina to reach the edge of a giant Coillte forestry plantation. From there it’s another six kilometres on foot or on mountain bike to reach the bottom of the mountain.
I set out before dawn with the car thermometer reading -8°C, and edged nervously along iced up roads to the parking area. I was also hoping to combine the photography trip with a snowboard descent from the summit, so I was not only carrying two cameras – a Canon 5DmkII and a Canon G10, but also a tripod, snowboard, ice-axe and extra down clothing. The weight was considerable, but luckily the track through the forest had only a thin, crunchy covering of snow and was easy enough to negotiate on the mountain bike.
Leaving the bike at the end of the track, I set off on foot across the boundary of Ballycroy National Park and up through the corries that are such a feature on the east side of Slieve Carr. At around 500m altitude the snow suddenly became much deeper with an exhausting crust that broke with every step. At 600m the snow became deep and powdery and I emerged onto the summit ridge into a scene more akin to the Alps than County Mayo. It was just after 1pm and I had a couple of hours to put in before magic hour. So I dumped my gear and set off for the top of Slieve Carr to attempt probably the first and only snowboard descent of the mountain. The snow was amazing considering this was Ireland, and features like peat hags became little jumps with a foot of powder snow on them. Just a shame the angle on the ridge was so gentle. However I was able to drop part way down into the corrie, getting in some decent turns on steeper terrain before the crust kicked in. The effort to board-time ratio wasn’t great however, and I’d recommend this only for the novelty factor if the conditions were ever repeated.
At around 3pm the light started to warm considerably and I turned my attention back to photography. I started by shooting south along the summit ridge, looking over the summits of Glenamong and Corranbinna, which were capped by an unusual lenticular cloud. As the sun dropped lower towards the horizon, more and more shadows began to form on the surface of the snow. One of the magical things about snow from a photographic point of view is how it accentuates the warm tones of direct light and the cold tones shadow during sunrise or sunset hour.
I found a location on the edge of the ridge looking across the deeply shadowed corrie and began shooting a series of vertical compositions that would be stitched together. By this stage the cold had become intense and I was desperate to get moving and warm myself up. I struggled to force myself to wait it out for the best light, but luckily in mid-winter sunset comes quickly and I shot my last frames as the light began to fade. Then I strapped on the board and got a head start on the trip back, descending all the way to the corrie lake in just a couple of minutes.
Even so it was pitch dark when I got back to the bike and began a surreal ride back through the frozen forest, with only a head-torch to show the way.