Making The Most Of The ‘Beast From The East’ | We Went Snowboarding In Northern Ireland

After heavy snowfall hits the UK, two friends answer the call of the Mourne Mountains.

Against everyone’s advice, artist and snowboarder Kieron Black headed up to the Mourne Mountains with his friend Paddy Doogan to see what the infamous ‘Beast From The East’ was all about. Neither of them expected much, but thanks to Lidl and some century old civil-engineering they definitely got more than they bargained for…

We thought it would be just another false alarm, this Beast From The East. No teeth. Mis-sold. Amber warnings my arse.

And then it hits… and everything goes a little weird. It’s definitely a storm, but it’s like it has somehow slipped off it’s hinges. The snow assaults us, thin white arrows of cold anger flying in thick and fast, parallel to the ground. But three days in and the hills remain resolutely and stubbornly brown – nothing is sticking to anything. A friend of mine sums it up well; “it’s like there’s a dude on the roof with a box of Styrofoam…”

“A friend of mine sums it up well; “it’s like there’s a dude on the roof with a box of Styrofoam”

We watch the news reports from the mainland with envious eyes. It’s properly white over there and the people there are dealing with it with their usual aplomb; a couple trapped in their Vauxhall overnight wearing only their PJs and slippers because “the Mrs wanted to see the snow”, and fathers happy to risk their future bloodlines for the sake of four Happy Meals and a Big Mac. It’s inspiring stuff all right – no wonder the Europeans are fighting so hard to keep us.

Across the Irish Sea it’s all messenger groups and blurry iPhone snaps of splashes of spilled milk on green tablecloths, or maybe that’s a patch of snow on a mountain’s flank, it’s hard to tell. Second hand hauntings from the feeds of friends of friends. It’s not enough.

‘Homunculus’ (aka ‘The Beast From The East’). Illustration by Kieron Black.

And then the weekend is nearly done and we realise that we’ve had none of it and our boards were waxed days ago and I just found my snowshoes and there’s only one thing for it – fuck the forecast. Screw the snow reports. We’re going.

And so it was that I met Paddy in Castlewellan on Sunday morning and after 30 minutes of van cab banter here we are, stood on the snow at the foot of Slieve Meelmore, Gore-Tex’d and booted and ready to go. (I say Gore-Tex – my jacket has now had so many tech-washes it has all the waterproofing of a square of kitchen roll).

The temperature flirts around zero, visibility is awful, and what the wind is driving on to us feels a lot like rain. Worse, I can see a lot of heather where I should see snow. Milk and tablecloths. ‘There’ll be something up there’ Paddy assures me, ‘and sure what else would you be at?’

“Trying-not-to-vomit breaks are always a good opportunity to stop and take in the majesty of your surroundings”

I’ve no good answer for that, so we set off. Paddy is an experienced backcountry skier, and once those skins are on he seems to ascend much at the same rate as I descend and when we’re hiking I usually find myself staring at the back of Paddy’s head (when I can see him at all) trying to find the midpoint between hubris and a heart attack. One of these days I shall have to buy a split-board, but for now my snowshoes and poles will have to do. And anyway, those trying-not-to-vomit breaks are always a good opportunity to stop and take in the majesty of your surroundings.

We follow the Mourne Wall. For over a hundred years the wall has stood proud upon the mountains, caressing their contours, keeping the many sheep and cattle safe from… other sheep and cattle. It’s an iconic piece of civil engineering and the granite stone it is made of is the muscle in the heart of our mountains and we love it.

It’s also a great windbreak, allowing both sheltered lunching and facilitating the build-up of snow, (should the snow be of the light, unsticky kind, and should there also be, as there is today, lots of wind).

Paddy and I notice this, catch each other’s eye, but say nothing. We continue the ascent. The snow is still wet, my jacket is barely coping, but the heat being generated by my straining muscle groups in an effort to keep up with Paddy is keeping any moisture ingress at bay.

The snow cover is sparse, there is no other word for it. But the drifts are deep and I’d be lost without the snowshoes and poles. Paddy’s skis make easy meat of it. We stop for some calories and discuss our options, both of us of the attitude that a day in the mountains is a day in the mountains, we’re happy to be up here, but it is looking more and more unlikely we will find a patch of snow deep or large enough to put in more than a couple of turns – a meagre return for our efforts. And we’ll be walking back to the van, for sure.

“Around the corner of the cairn there suddenly appears Darth Vader, only now it appears the guy has rabies on top of everything else”

The aspect increases. I engage the climb-assist bars on my snowshoes. Paddy has to work harder to make his skins stick. The wind punches us, the board on my back is a sail, pushing me in the wrong direction, and I can see nothing. “Let’s make for the cairn” shouts Paddy, “as least we’ll summit and it’ll feel like we’ve done something!”

Ten hard minutes later we make the Slieve Meelmore Cairn and break out our rations under it’s welcoming ‘trespassers prosecuted’ plaque, an odd concept here in this elemental void.

I’ve just taken the first sip of herbal when over the noise of the storm I hear what can only be described as the snuffling of a pug dog. I pity the poor animal; any creature with such minimal ground clearance is going to have a tough time up here. Or maybe there is no pug; perhaps it’s an aural hallucination, brought on by the relentless wind.

‘Darth’. Illustration by Kieron Black.

But it isn’t either of those things; it’s worse. Around the corner of the cairn there suddenly appears Darth Vader, only now it appears the guy has rabies on top of everything else. Only it’s not Darth Vader, it’s a fell-runner wearing an elevation training mask, out of the filters of which is hanging a five-inch semi-frozen gobbet of drool.

If I wasn’t prepared for that, I am even less prepared for his mate who materialises behind him decked out in a fleece, trakkie bottoms and a bobble hat from Lidl. I barely made it up here with shoes and poles, Gore-Tex and goggles – Northern Ireland I salute you. I pull out my camera but the two of them have already faded back into the gloom and I only have Paddy’s word for it that they were there at all.

‘Lidl Man’. Illustration by Kieron Black.

We finish our food and begin the descent. I begrudge walking down any sloped surface, it’s just not done – you either roll or slide. But once again the mountains laugh at my little human notions and force us to fall and stumble down from the summit in our boots. It is still a very enjoyable experience but I am all too aware that even though I have now unstrapped my board from my pack, it remains a passenger and not a vehicle, essentially 5 kilos-plus of useless wind-catching p-tex.

“Balls to this, I’m strapping in.” Paddy feels the same. There is but a two metre wide ribbon of snow to follow, the same strip we had all but dismissed on the way up, the build-up created by the wall. All else is heather and rock. And those two metres are not constant, sometimes it is only a board’s width between stones, sometimes not even that, but it’s there, and it’s there because of the wall.

“And it turns out to be the most exhilarating, soulful shred I have had in a long, long time”

And it turns out to be the most exhilarating, soulful shred I have had in a long, long time. Seems a two metre corridor and the right attitude are all you need, and soon Paddy and I are hollering and whooping like children, the wall blurring along beside us like some miniature stone train.

I am reminded of some Australians I once met while surfing Bundoran years ago and the home video they were so proudly showing everyone; hours of footage of humble Irish stone walls and very little else, shot from the window of their moving car, an endless grey blur punctuated by excited Aussie expletives, “we don’t facken have these at home mate!”

‘Bean’. Illustration by Kieron Black.

It’s like that now, the Mourne Wall, the barrier from our collective Northern Irish conscience (and oh how we Norn Irons like a good ol’ barrier) gliding along beside us, giving us the route home, adding that elusive, much sought-after cherry to what was already a pretty decent cake. When the snow-ribbon narrows we just straight line it, the rocks we ollie, and when we can’t do either we just stack it, laughing, in the ever-soggier snow. Paddy takes a core shot, he doesn’t care.

We pass a couple of bemused hikers who offer up hoots and friendly waves. The noise of the stream peaks and fades as we slide past it’s meanderings, and then, improbably longer than we anticipated but still too soon, it’s over, and we are back to the boot packs to make it the last half mile home.

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