Winter in the Irish mountains can be a magical, surreal and an almost spiritual experience. Snow capped mountains, dawn & dusk providing colours that no filter can replicate and experiences that will live in the memory for years to come. But with the onset of Winter the mountains in Ireland hold a new set of challenges and risks that one should be aware of before venturing out.
The mountains in Ireland are small in comparison to those in the Alps or in the greater ranges, but they pack no less a punch during Winter if good judgement is not exercised. They also have their own unique set of risks to manage due to Ireland experiencing different air masses that can change rapidly. But how does this manifest over the course of a day in the Irish Mountains and how can we understand and prepare for the conditions we may face?
Before we look at the potential conditions in the Irish mountains and how best to prepare, let us look at the above picture. Taken on Djouce Mountain during Winter in Wicklow, there is much to be learned from it. The three aspects that stand out apart from the beauty of our mountains are:
- The hikers here are what I would call ‘curious hikers.’ They are there to enjoy the beauty of the mountains and nature. They are not prepared for hiking above the snow line, into challenging weather conditions nor equipped to navigate in poor visibility or at night. But on rare occasions they may find themselves in one of these situations which can be quite frightening. More on this in a moment!
- The second aspect is how fast daylight can fade into blackness during the Winter months, how this affects the temperature and equally importantly how it can affect our decision making when we are caught out.
- The foreground is without snow but if you look at the background you will notice that Camaderry and behind that Lugnaquilla has a nice coating of snow. This highlights the most likely Winter mountain condition in Ireland where starting off from the cars there is seldom snow on the ground (of course there are exceptions) but as you gain height the temperature drops and there comes a point when you enter into the snow line (or if there is no snow, where the wind-chill could cause hypothermia if you are ill equipped or have an incident).
The Irish hiking community is made up from a broad spectrum of participants, all with different experiences, skillsets and preparedness. All skills are built through experiential learning and for most of us that have spent decades in the mountains hiking, climbing or mountaineering, we have all made mistakes and subsequently learned from them. With this in mind there is no judgement towards those that get into difficulty and I hope this blog may provide information that may assist beginners and experienced hikers alike.
The way I tend to categorise the hiking community in Ireland:
- Low Land Hikers – looking for a nice walk during a reasonable day requiring minimal/no navigation experience or a broad skillset – a good example of this is Glendalough.
- Beginner Hikers – starting to venture into the mountains and onto the summits either in a group or with more experienced mates. Either the individual or a member of the group will have considered upskilling their navigational (map/compass) experience. There are lots of fantastic hiking groups in Ireland – https://www.mountaineering.ie/localclub/
- Experienced Hikers – having built up a bank of experience in the mountains the objective become more challenging – this group usually has navigational experience and a high level of preparedness for the challenges in the mountains.
The potential flashpoint for incidences in Ireland where assistance is required in the mountains is in the transitions between the groups. With experience comes the knowledge of where the line is between manageable and unmanageable risk. But when we are starting out the likelihood that we know where this line is, which is incredible fluid because of the environment, is highly unlikely.
The most important aspect of where you lie within this matrix is that you are honest with yourself and if you need or want to upskill then do so. One of the key skills acquired in the mountains over the years is the ability to fail well and reflect on it!
There is no greater feeling than increasing self confidence and self reliance, but there is also no greater destroyer of confidence than to walk yourself into a dangerous situation and not be able to deal with it!
The first and most important decision you will make as a hiker is before you leave your home!
Three questions need to be answered:
- What weather conditions are forecast today/tonight and how may it impact my route choice?
- Does my skill level match my objective?
- Do I have the essential equipment for the day/night to come?
Regarding the weather conditions, you do not have to be a meteorologist to understand how to read the weather forecast and how this will affect your goals. But be aware that most mountainous areas will have their own localized weather conditions.
My recommendations are as follows:
- Check out the Met.ie rain radar. If there is a band of rain (or several bands) what direction are they going in and most importantly at what speed – you may get your proposed hike in before the poor weather hits. This of course depends on the severity of the weather forecast. https://www.met.ie/
- Check out the Mountain Forecast site to see what the weather will be like on the top of the mountain you are hiking to. The important information here is the wind direction, speed and wind chill. Keep in mind that it could be nice an sheltered in the car park but blowing a gale up top. Also be mindful that the temperature will drop the higher you hike and if the temperature is 3 degrees at the car it could feel like minus 15 on the mountain top. https://www.mountain-forecast.com/
- It is also worth checking out the Windy Weather Forecast site. This site has lots of useful information including the cloud base. https://www.windy.com/
- Finally if you have an understanding of surface pressure charts then check out the Met Office Uk site. https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/maps-and-charts/surface-pressure
What are the associated risks regarding weather and historical conditions during Winter?
- Wind Chill – this is perhaps the biggest hidden danger when hiking during Winter in Ireland. Wind Chill is how cold you feel when your skin is exposed to the wind. The greater the wind speed the greater the potential for a lower wind chill.
A good example is a forecast for Lugnaquilla on 7th January 2021 of 1 degrees celsius with a 10km/h northerly wind at the Baravore car park, but with a minus 13 degrees celsius on the top of Lugnaquilla with a 25km/h wind! It can be nice and cosy in the car park and shockingly cold in exposed situations on the mountain. Bring lots of appropriate warm layers for hiking in the Irish mountains during Winter.
- Compact snow (neve) and ice – this can cause serious slip hazards causing nasty slides down slopes resulting in injury or death. A good example of this is the Devil’s Ladder on Carrantoohil. During Winter this gully can contain bullet hard ice necessitating the need for good footwear and an understanding of how to remain safe in this environment. The most significant challenge here is that the great majority of hikers in Ireland will not have encountered this risk over the course of a year and consequently may find themselves in a serious situation unprepared. Good stiff soled boot, crampons and an ice axe are essential if you are venturing into terrain that has neve and ice underfoot. There is a skill to using both crampons and an ice axe therefore take a course on how to use both. If you do encounter neve or ice underfoot be cautions and assess if it is safe to continue.
- Avalanche – this is quite rare in Ireland but does happen. It is usually when snow is blown into gullies or slopes over days and eventually slides due to it’s own weight, composition, temperature increase or it has been disturbed!
- Night fall or limited visibility – darkness can fall quickly during Winter and visibility can decrease to a few meters during day light on a cloud covered summit – Lugnaquilla is a classic example of where this happens. Know how to read a map and use a compass.
- Wind strength – this can sap energy more rapidly than you think therefore prepare and bring extra calories or change plans if it is unsafe.
- Stream and rivers – due to run off snow, ice and rain most streams and rivers are busting during Winter, be aware of this if your routes involves crossing a stream!
A useful tool for assessing risk is to think of the likelihood and consequences of an incident. An example; if there is a likelihood of falling into a stream close to the car the consequences are possibly nothing more than a bruised ego. However if you fall into a stream half way through a taxing day in the mountains during Winter the consequences could be severe!
The majority of incidents in the Irish mountains could be potentially avoided if 20 minutes were dedicated to assessing and addressing the risk inherent in every hike, the night before in the comfort of your home with a hot cup of tea.
Does my skill set (experience) match with my goal?
Honesty is required to really ponder this question and prepare accordingly.
You need to consider the following:
- Do I have the required equipment / clothing for the proposed goal/journey during Winter?
- Can I navigate using a map and compass in limited / zero visibility if required?
- Do I have the physical fitness to undertake my goal considering Winter conditions?
- Do I have the necessary food and hydration to last the journey and some extra in case of emergencies?
- Do I know how to deal with various emergencies in the mountains during Winter?
- Do I know how to contact Mountain Rescue?
All of these questions need to be considered and answered. If you take a chance during Winter and head into the hills without considering the above you are rolling the dice. You may get lucky and have an amazing day, or you may have a day/night you never forget!
Regarding the equipment required for hiking in the Irish mountains during Winter it totally depends on your goals, experience level and the prevailing conditions.
I would recommend the following as necessary for those in the ‘Beginner – Experienced’ category:
- Base layers that move the moisture away from your skin (wicking) – my favourite is Marino Wool, but there are lots on the market. This covers a top, leggings and socks. During particularly cold days I double up on socks.
- Boots – waterproof, warm with good deep / multi directional threads on the sole (for grip). My choice would be full grain leather backed with Gortex. If crampons are needed then the boot needs to be crampon compatible. Go to a store where the boot fitter is an active hiker and try on lots of different brands. Your foot is unique therefore take all recommendations from peers / websites with a pinch of salt, you need to try them on. Do not buy online as all brands have a different fit and there is no uniformity of sizing across the brands!
- Secondary layer – fleece / softshell. Sometimes I will wear a softshell fleece lined trouser in really harsh Winter conditions.
- Water proof layers – a good water proof jacket and over trouser. My preference is a chunky Gortex lined product but there are many brands on the market and new technology is enhancing performance year-on-year. It must be properly waterproof (ideally a ‘hydrostatic head’ of 15,000 upwards).
- Booster layer – this is one or two layer you can throw on when stopping for food, emergencies or if it’s a wee bit colder than anticipated. I love my synthetic jackets and usually buy them one size bigger then my regular size as it should fit over everything.
- Gloves – absolutely essential to have good water proof gloves. I like to carry 2/3 pairs of good gloves that didn’t break the bank. All gloves will leak eventually therefore rather then buying one super expensive glove it’s best to have a few pairs to throw on.
- Beanie hat – love my Mammut beanies – yes… that was an unashamed plug!
- Balaclava – provides warmth during long cold days and nights.
- Ski goggles – always in the bag during Winter. It is almost impossible to walk into a wind containing snow or hail for any length of time.
- Gaiters provide another layer of waterproofing for your feet and boots – remember they go over your trousers but underneath the waterproof trousers!
- Back pack for the journey in question – I like a 30 litre to a 45 for Winter hikes, remember to keep the contents dry. I am not a fan of the outer backpack covers, especially in Winter, as they flap all over the place and can be a pain to put on. My recommendation is to buy a good kayaking dry bag and place it inside the bag, making sure to use another wee drybag for your phone. Etc.
- I love my Nalgene bottle with the wide mouth – less likely to freeze up during Winter and you can cover the outer with an insulator if required.
- Headtorch and possibly a back up torch – it’s all about the quality and lumens (brightness). Splash out and get a good torch with over 200 lumens. Always make sure it’s charged and bring extra batteries.
- Map and compass and the knowledge on how to use them – https://hikeandclimb.ie/mountain-courses/
- Mobile phone – make sure it is fully charged and if required in a waterproof bag. If you are using Viewranger make sure you have a waterproof power bank to recharge the phone.
- Crampons and ice axe – if you intend on using these it is best to take a course on how to do so safely. Using an ice axe and crampons without an understanding of how to use them can result in serious injury!
- Walking poles – I usually bring one walking pole with me during Winter. It can be of great use in snow and potentially a psychological aid if you are out with someone that is finding the terrain challenging.
- Bivvy bag and if required a group shelter. If someone twists or breaks an ankle during Winter in an exposed situation these items may save lives.
- Mountain first aid kit and ideally take a Remote Emergency Care Course.
The Irish mountains are beautiful beyond belief during Winter, revealing dramatic landscapes that you can barely imagine. To say I love this time of year in the mountains is an understatement.
But, they can be brutal, harrowing and hostile if we venture out unprepared and without assessing the risks.
Mistakes and accidents happen in the mountains and it does not matter where you lie on the experience matrix, it can happen to all of us. The Mountain Rescue Teams will never judge someone that requires rescue but we owe it to them to prepare ourselves as best we can to mitigate risks.
We also have a moral duty during these strange Covid times to consider the volunteers that make up the Mountain Rescue teams, their families and loved ones. This is a new factor that we must include in our risk assessment and decision making, we must consider protecting those that are there for us when we need them most.
I hope this blog has helped in a small way to give you the confidence to go out into the mountains during Winter with an understanding of basic risk assessment, being prepared and being willing to change plans as the mountains will always be there for another day.
Hiking during Winter can be a dangerous activity resulting in personal injury or death. Anyone reading this blog should be aware of this and are responsible for their own actions and involvement.
Crampon and ice axe use are not covered in this blog as they require a level of technical know-how and this is best learned from an instructor.