Panic on the slopes of Bearnagh

In his riveting personal account, Jason Halpin describes a failed attempt to bag Slieve Bearnagh in the Mournes in treacherous alpine conditions [A light dusting of snow more like! – Ed.] The lessons being not to stray beyond your comfort zone and to remember that the mountain will still be there tomorrow!


“Panic on the slopes of Bearnagh,
Mourne Wall, South Down, Mountainside,
I wonder to myself…”

It all started with The Steps. The trek up to Hare’s gap along the Trassey was straightfoward – although, my trusty Sherpa and I hadn’t figured on there being such a preponderance of snow around. We jumped the wall, and set across to the foot of Bearnagh. Then The Steps. It appears that some primeval joker decided that it would be especially funny to make each step successively shallower than the previous one. Coupled with the unexpected snow, I wish I’d not been so quick to fall for their allure and instead ventured up the preformed snow footholes to the left as Sherpa Paul had instinctively done. Before long, I became step-fast, and a quick look behind me down the snow-ridden incline was enough to instill The Fear.

This was the initial unnerving which was a forewarning of things to come…

“Stop. Steady. Clear the mind. Think. Ok, so going down the steps is out of the question – one slip and I’m done for. So, the only way is up. Righteo.”. And with this, I proceeded to scramble up and across the pathway, hands and feet, digging in to the snow, over to where Sherpa Paul was and on to the plateau. Rattled, but alive. Good. But an unease set in and a misty top loomed above.

We proceeded upwards, and moved at good speed, sometimes kicking into the virgin snow to gain footholds, or reusing the semi-solid holes of those brave souls gone before. This effort required concentration and was a welcome distraction to the initial leg, but while we were a-climbing, the height was a-gaining and when we stopped again to get our bearings, the mist was encroaching and a cold breeze was embracing us. Sherpa Paul decided to divert over to the trusty wall, perchance to avail of its solemn presence to assist, but came back over to where I was ‘resting’ to report that the track beside it was frozen over and far to dangerous to climb. We mulled it over, and decided to climb a little higher, with crab-like zigzags across the ever-steepening slope. But it was getting harder to dig in, the snow was packed and thinner now, and the wind higher. The mist was above and below now, and The Fear returned. I dug in.

Sherpa Paul crabbed up over to the south side, to see if there was any respite in slope or snow conditions, but none were apparent. Meanwhile, I had cleared a foot-squared platform in the snow and squatted down to rest and wallow while the white snow and mist became a canvas for the floaties in my inner eye, dancing around as the panic grew. Should we continue up with unknown footing? Should we go down? Should we find the wall? What should I do? What should I do? We stood and crouched respectively like that for a little while, debating our situation aloud at a distance in the bleak isolation. We wanted to summit, Sherpa Paul better equipped than me due to a lower centre of gravity and a more gung-hoh attitude, but we didn’t want to risk things unnecessarily. Time passed.

So Sherpa Paul finally decides – “I’ll come over to you”. An inner voice thanked the mountain gods. I had gone from step-fast, shot past crag-fast and at this stage had become indisputably mountain-fast. We agreed that it was too dangerous to proceed upwards, and once we’d made a definite decision to descend, my mood lifted.

I dug my heels into the snow, one tentative footstep after the other, zig-zagging down the side of Bearnagh. Sherpa Paul led the way whilst I followed, cautiously. We eventually made it down, avoiding the steps on the final leg by veering towards the gentler incline to the south-east.

In retrospect, we probably should have checked the GPS to see just how close we had actually come to the summit – it might have egged us on. Or not. It’s amazing how the complexion of a mountain can change so radically and abruptly once the mists descend and the wind rises. Of course, not having previously made the top’s aquaintance in gentler times made it harder to dispel the fear of the unknown. I’d already broken the cardinal rule of climbing earlier on The Steps: “Don’t go where you can’t get back from”, so my apprehension was always in the ascent, even if I wasn’t.

Glad to be finally down at the gap, we spotted a group of lads preparing to embark, one of them happy out in his shorts in the sub-zero air. We stood there watching as they proceeded to swiftly ascend The Steps and mill up over the edge of the plateau and upwards out of sight. The Sherpa and I looked at each other for a moment, wished them better luck than we’d had, then silently headed back down from whence we came.

Trudging down along the Trassey, the snow slowly beginning to recede in the afternoon sun, the banter ranged from a considered analysis of the conditions we’d encountered up top, the shoulda-woulda-couldas of our decision to descend, to some light-hearted jeering from the Sherpa regarding my mist-fear. I was now in the lead and enjoying my reclaimed joie de vivre, when we suddenly came upon a group of young people being lead by an adult. Being the gentleman I am, I of course sidled over out of the way of this youthful group (my joyous impetus was too great to simply come to a halt) onto what I thought was a snow-free piece of heather. Now, there was a good reason that piece of ground wasn’t covered in snow. I stumbled shin deep into the muddy water, the shock of which propelled me onwards and inwards. It’s hard to maintain decorum when scrambling about in a muddy stream with a line of shocked teenagers frozen in surprise and gawking at you, but I did manage to stumble back to the track just at the end of the line, after spewing forth a few irreverent utterances, to which the guide could only counter an “Oh dear….”. Quick as I could, I settled back into some sort of dignified stride as if it had never happened, only to have the Sherpa arrive beside me and proceed to crease himself up with laughter. “We’ll stop here to take a break” the guide was heard to say, although whether that was to instruct his charges on a prime example of what *not* to do when mountain climbing, or to give himself a chance to recover from a fit of hysterics is hard to know.

All in all, ’twas a very educational and entertaining trip. Bearnagh, I’ll be back….