Sunday, January 10, 2010

Glacial Galtees

Week after week, the frost has held fast; on some days, the sun can chase it from the grass, but rarely from the shade. Below the sun's reach, the ice is creeping deeper into the earth; mud has set like cement, and the ice reaches a full foot below the ground. Freezing fogs turn bare branches into a freezing filigree, every twig heavy with ice crystals. Apart from the fog, the sky stays clear, and the stars shine bright and hard, the colours more brilliant than I can remember, with Mars a brooding red, Sirius a really cool and brilliant blue. All over Europe, the snow is thick - but not here.

Serious frost foils local arachnid

Now, a weather front rolling in from the east has delivered the coup de glace; at dawn, a weak sun cast a rosy light on the Galtees, covered at last in a deep blanket of fresh snow, smooth and dangerous. I can resist anything - except tempation; packing for the mountains takes fifteen minutes. My walk starts in an oak wood, as fresh snow begins to fall, whitening a path that had been bare. Beyond the last trees, sheet ice makes the lower mountain treacherous and adds an extra frisson to fording streams. Higher, knee deep snow lies beneath an icy crust that nearly supports my weight. Unfortunately, I have no snow shoes; and so the going, on a trackless mountainside, is brutally hard.

Icy stream, the Galtees

Then, a devastating disappointment; reaching the slope that I wanted to sled down, blades of grass rising above the snow have collected thick sheaths of ice. They form an endless forest of finger-thick spikes, glittering like glass as the sun breaks through. Gorgeous, but totally un-sledgable. I am getting tired; the going is too hard, the snow too deep, the ground too rough; I need a way out. There is my own trail up, but even that will not be easy going. Suddenly, sunset seems all too close.

At exactly the right moment, walkers appear higher on the slope, moving very quickly and easily; the ground allows me only a waist up view, but I can see they have found a better way. More slogging gets me higher, to a mountain trail; here, the snow is well trodden, and at last I can walk easily, and look beyond my next step. After the slog of the deep snow off-trail, the relief is incredible. The air is very clear, and I can see a great distance over a completely frozen landscape. At this height, no stream can flow, and the only sound is the crunch of the snow beneath my boots and the whistle of an east wind carrying arctic overtones. It lifts and flips my improvised sled (a bodyboard) and numbs my face, so that when I call my wife, I stumble over my sibilants.

This high place is wild, beautiful, and killing cold; reluctantly, I turn to descend the path as the valley below sinks into shadow, muscles already two-thirds spent, fresh bruises darkening. I am exquisitely happy, intoxicated with the magic of deep winter in high places.