Ars longa, vita brevis
A thick blanket of snow covered Glenmalur Valley smoothing out the creases: gone were the scars of the summer landslides, swathes of bog lay hidden, the forestry turned ashen beneath the blue sky of a clear, crisp winter’s day. Startled pheasants flew out from the hedgerows as our car, equipped with snow chains, rattled by. The nearby fields mapped the tracks of numerous animals that had crisscrossed the valley foraging for food and a thin blue line of smoke from a peat fire in a solitary cottage dripping icicles beneath snow burdened eaves, hung in the still air. All sound seemed to be muffled by the snow.
We set out along the zig-zag pathway to climb Lugnaquilla on snowshoes, the only noise the crunch of the snow under our feet. Below, a fox ran diagonally across a field pausing momentarily to sniff the air, maybe catching our scent. In the stillness and silence, to be so at one with nature was life affirming. Higher up we broke trail through pristine snow working hard for each labourious step through deep accumulations in the lee of Clohenagh. Feather-like crystals growing on blades of grass embedded like arrows in the snow quivered in the wind which rose as we ascended, sending clouds of spindrift racing across the wind sculpted surface. The Fraughan Rock Glen gaped below like an open jaw bearing jagged teeth of ice encrusted granite.
Past Clohenagh a vast, icy windswept plain appeared, Lugnaquilla in the distance glowering in the late afternoon sunshine. It felt like the Arctic, brutal and menacing, the raging wind making it hard to stand upright. But Wicklow’s giant was free of cloud, the smooth slopes of her South Prison clearly visible and the sharp silhouette of her trig pillar back lit by the setting sun. As we approached cloud boiled up from the north, the glassy orb of the sun blinking in and out of the swirling mass. The sun, now low in the sky, turned the cloud malevolent shades of yellow and orange; Mcrtchly's dark figure moving some distance ahead of me looked suddenly very small and vulnerable in the maelstrom. I came upon the trig point, crowned with an icy diadem, as a pilgrim approaching a reliquary: humbled, penitent and thankful. We stood in silent awe as the cloud completely lifted revealing the blazing red sphere of the sun slipping below the horizon. I felt strangely aware of my own mortality.
As we descended, the cloud closed in again and the view of the summit slammed shut like a trapdoor. Whiteness enveloped us. Below the cloud the new moon appeared in the southwest sky set ablaze by the sunset. Clouds of our own breath sparkling with icy particles of spindrift caught in the light of our head torches as darkness fell. Overhead the Milky Way shimmered, stars hung like crystal apples and a shooting star blazed across the purple firmament. And in an instant I understood what a tortured Van Gogh was trying to convey in his painting, ‘Starry Night’.