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The Wicklow Way in Winter

  • Submitted by: Suzy, Ireland
  • Submission Date: 09th Apr 2009

The Wicklow Way in Winter
The Wicklow Way is Ireland’s most popular way marked trail- winding over 100 kilometres through the high heather hills south of Dublin. It’s proximity to the city means that at its northern end at least, it gets a fair amount of traffic. That said, as its Ireland, it’s still very quiet and you can walk for miles without meeting more than a handful of fellow travellers. In the past year we’ve walked both ends but for some reason we never managed to cook up a plan to do the remoter ‘middle bit’ south of Glendalough between Aughavannagh and Moyne. Just after Christmas we resolved to do something about this mental Bermuda Triangle and got ourselves sorted with some accommodation in Aughavannagh valley right in the middle of the mountains. Little did we know however that last week it would start snowing relentlessly!
It doesn’t snow much in Ireland and when it does, it tends not to linger. The Wicklow Mountains are not especially high- barely scraping 1000 metres (3000 ft) but they do hold the snow longer and it certainly made an interesting trip. The idea was to take two cars as there were 6 of us, leave one in at the cottage in Aughavannagh and then head back to Laragh near the beautiful valley of Glendalough and set off for the cottage from there. However as soon as we left Dublin, it became clear that the normal route was impassable. W were advised to head for Aughrim via Arklow on a lower but still pretty road and access Aughavannagh valley from the east. Eventually we made it, slipping and sliding through a winter wonderland that hadn’t seen much in the way of snow ploughs or gritters. However the sky was blue and despite the cold, we hadn’t seen Ireland under a blanket of snow like this for many years and it looked so pretty.
We dumped the bags at the cottage which looks out on to Lugnaquilla – Wicklow highest mountain. It looked foreboding- looming out of the winter mist, all ice covered scree and vast clouds trailing off the barely discernible summit. After tea and biscuits we jumped back into the remaining car and headed back for Laragh. It took over an hour and a half to reach the village – at which point it was getting decidedly late. At 3.30 pm - discretion being the better part of valour, we decided that heading up onto the Spink and Mullacor was a risky strategy. Eventually the snow committee deemed that since the mountain road was virtually impassable, we would instead return to Aughavannagh on foot- but on the road. This would normally be the slightly boring option, but since the road was car free and had in effect disappeared under several feet of snow it was just as enjoyable and didn’t need any map reading or navigational skills.
We set off for Glenmalure, recalling the exploits of Hugh Roe O’Donnell’s escape from Dublin Castle over forty miles away in January 1592. In the height of winter, they successfully reached the stronghold of Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne at Glenmalure, where they found refuge, but his companion and fellow escapee Art O'Neill died of exposure in the snow bound mountains. O'Donnell lost both his big toes due to frostbite. Hugh Roe O'Donnell and his two companions, the brothers Art and Henry O'Neill, are the only prisoners to ever successfully escape from Dublin Castle. Looking over the frozen landscape, we shivered at the thought of being pursued by the English Redcoats in such arctic conditions.
The walk was beautiful. The snow was like frozen sugar and it flew off our boots when we kicked it. There were deer tracks in the ditch and the silence of the mountains was enhanced by the muffling white sound blanket draped over the land. When we got to the top of the pass, the Shay Elliot memorial was buried in the snow. Elliot was a famous cyclist and the first Irishman to make the big time in this most arduous of sports. Apparently he loved these mountains and his friends put up the monument overlooking one of the steepest road climbs in Wicklow in his memory. For now – it was covered in snow.
The views from the top of the pass to Lugnaquilla were amazing. As the sun was dipping lower in the sky, we decided to press on without paying a visit to the Glenmalure Lodge pub. We stomped through the little crossroads at Drumgoff avoiding a little detour for a pint of Guinness, but such was the cold that we were more tempted by the kettle and fire in Aughavannagh, now 8 kilometres away over Flags Pass. We’d be back to the pub as soon as possible!
Passing the old English military barracks we started climbing up the road through the trees. It was remarkably still. Normally the sound of gushing water fills the woods, but we figured that the ground was so frozen that the flow of water to the streams was reduced to a trickle. A deer stared at us from a forest trail, observing our progress with a nonchalant look before she suddenly turned and skipped over the ditch- not even a crackling of branches to indicate her exit.
As we climbed out of the valley the wind blew up – pushing great plumes of icy snow off the top of Faneneirin ridge. The snow squeaked underfoot and our breath steamed up into the cold air. The road hugs the right hand side of this hanging valley and as we got higher the Sitka spruce became all the more ice blasted. When we got to the top, the cone of Croaghanmoira (664 metres) and otherwise known as the Motty Mountain came into view. Below us stretched Aughavannagh - ‘The Last Place God Made’ according to local yore. It was more like a scene from the Great North Woods – miles of snow bound hills and mountains and not a house to be seen. The road had disappeared and the snow had drifted into boulder size shapes where the wind had sculpted its own crazy arctic designs. Thankfully the trees gave some indication of the route and we headed sliding down hill to our destination. The great wall of the South Prison of Lugnaquilla came into view after a few minutes – an ice shattered rock face shrouded in cloud. It’s not a high mountain (925 metres) and not an especially difficult climb but yet it has claimed lives and every winter is mentioned in the dispatches of the Wicklow Mountain Rescue team (in fact some days later two snowboarders were involved in a lengthy mountain rescue involving helicopters and rescue teams from all over Ireland).
As we descended with the pass behind we walked parallel again with the Wicklow Way proper as it crossed the road and headed down through the snowy woods. Our pace quickened as we neared our destination, finally reaching Aughavannagh Cottage as darkness descended. We stayed for four days and made several forays out into the snow to various beautiful walks. It froze hard every night, but with the turf blazing and the playing cards to hand we were well entertained. A snowplough eventually made it over the pass and we managed to get the car back up the hill. And yes – we did stop in Glenmalure for a pint on our way home!