November 18th/19th 2013 got my full attention. Prior to this I had been hunting down, observing, and obsessing over the future performance of comet C/2012 S1 ISON before dawn and for the previous two weeks I had been up at 05.00 in the morning hunting this exciting comet until sunrise, and to be honest my thoughts were - for once - far from weather related so I was shocked when I came in from my morning hunt feeling satisfied after seeing ISON on my camera's LCD screen when an instinct told me to check the models and see what was going on. It looked like Northern Ireland was going to get its first taste of Winter much earlier than expected with a brief but notable cold plunge expected to overspread the northern half of the country during the evening and over night hours with freezing air from the Arctic, first as a NWly then veering to a Nly. Add to this a post frontal trough and enough instability over the Ocean and there was good potential for hail and snow showers so I began to ponder if a photo shoot was possible from this set-up, I decided very quickly that it would be because the following day the showers would stop and temps would rise again leaving a very narrow window to experience some proper Winter weather.
I contacted Omagh photographer Paul Martin and a plan brewed during the daylight hours of the 18th. The models were showing snow above 200-400m along inland coastal areas with the greatest potential during the night hours. I also noticed with great excitement that the moon would be just past full phase (1 day after full) and would be bright all night long so this would offer us a rare chance to shoot moonlit snow scenes and with the chance of clear periods between snow showers we would get stars too so there was amazing potential for wonderful night snowscapes. My only concern was if we could get snow at all, naturally we decided to hunt on high ground across the Sperrins with the legendary Glenshane Pass and Benbradagh mountain near Dungiven as our two primary target areas as these offered colder air and the best chance of Winter action, however working against this was the precip-type model which didn't want to produce precip at all over the mountains however instead it wanted to produce snow over NW and NE inland coastal areas. We were almost tempted to hit the coast to catch snow showers brewing over the ocean then hitting land however the milder temps and salt in the air would stop any snow from laying so instead we settled once again on inland mountain areas where the temps would be lowest. The TV forecast didn't snow much happening over the Sperrins either with the graphics showing one snow shower over our area at 03.00 however we decided to be optimistic and go for it. In reality we expected one good snow shower if were lucky and perhaps it would lay for a short while on the frosty ground long enough to get our moonlit shots then we would stay around until sunrise and observe comet ISON so it was going to be an all-night photo shoot.
Water and two flasks were packed, I read that the wind chill on the mountain would be -8 degrees C so I wore three layers of clothes, thermal trousers, two pairs of socks and even had plastic bags wrapped around the socks for insulation then I was ready to go. Reports arrived in on Facebook of random hail and snow showers across the country after dark and at 18.00 Maghera got hit by its first snow of the season, it was proper snow too with big flakes blowing hard for 15 min's, I was delighted, I felt like a child on Christmas morning with a big smile on my face, this was definitely a great sign and a last check on the radar showed many cells moving from ocean to land so the situation was looking very exciting. Paul arrived at 21.00 with more supplies then we had a quick stop at a local takeaway in Maghera to get some warm food and top up on our energy then we hit the road to begin our adventure.
The car climbed up the dark road towards Glenshane Pass and half way up Paul alerted me to the sight of snow on the hills glowing in the moonlight, we were delighted, once at the top of the Pass we pulled into a layby for some images. We were thrilled beyond words, we were only min's into our shoot and already it was successful and beyond our expectations. There was a brilliant white dusting of snow over the entire landscape at this altitude with mountains, trees, and road covered and all gleaming in wonderful purity in the brilliant moonlight, it was an instant Winter wonderland and we immediately got out and began shooting to take full advantage of the moonlight.
There was a good dusting on the roads and perhaps an inch or more of snow off the road which looked stunning in the moonlight, this was facing E at the top of the mountain looking downhill along the road we had climbed min's earlier. Jupiter with Castor and Pollux can be seen in the clearance. The wind chill was bitter, we were cold as soon as we got out from the car and min's later we were shouting across to each other about how sore and cold our fingers were even with gloves on, it felt nasty but in truth we loved it.
More snow showers hit and after a considerable wait it became apparent that this night was more significant than forecast because instead of a random snow shower we were getting a freight train rack of snow showers hitting us one after the other with non stop heavy snow which was unbelievable, Paul and I just looked at each other and laughed, this was pure bliss. We had to take shelter in the car for a while as it was snowing very heavy and we began to worry that we would get no more clear spells for photography so we passed the time by taking video footage of the snow blowing across the car headlight beams then the sky began to brighten so we got back out and had the camera's set up for another shoot however this time there was more cloud than stars. We where standing on the rough ground near a drop into a narrow valley and stream shooting when suddenly I spotted mammatus forming at the back end of a snow shower and I managed to catch it on two images before the display moved on. OK not a spectacular display however it was still mammatus and one of the very few times I have captured it at night and the only time I have captured it with snow so I included this one for the memory.
Later in the night at a new location along Glenshane Pass half way to Dungiven where we had a fun time photographing moonlit snow between falling snow showers while admiring the crisp starry night. These trees made the night quite festive and almost like a Christmas card setting with the surreal snow-covered landscape combined with exquisite snow flurry encounters, blankets of freezing fog and the sight of the moon periodically surrounded by an orange and yellow corona.
Paul disappeared over a fence into unknown territory to work on a new angle while I stayed on the road where I became occupied with this building cold air convection which was showing nice looking towers with compact anvils forming and small mammatus developing. The view looked so cool (excuse the pun) all lit by the moon with stars while standing on this main road all on my own in the middle of the night.
I heard traffic approach from behind me so I got the camera set up behind this tree and shot the light trails as it passed along the road from E to W, this was the 212 Belfast to Derry bus during a late night voyage. I glanced to my right and suddenly a brilliant flash of lightning lit up the sky seemingly close by to the N as a vibrant blue flash - lightning!! - this was rare thundersnow, talk about awesome and completely unexpected, this night had definitely surpassed any of our expectations.
The big cell that produced the thundersnow was casually sailing through the N and we could see it's top above the mountain so Paul and I decided to navigate over the mountain with the intention of getting to the top to see the other side where we could watch the cell's base. We crossed the road, climbed over the fence, then began walking up the mountain into unknown and dangerous territory, this place is famous for bogs and deep holes which could be anywhere under the snow however we advanced regardless. We soon realised the mountain top was much further away than we had anticipated and would probably take an hour or more to get there so we stopped where we stood and set up our gear on a very steep incline facing up the mountain with tripod legs arranged at a crazy angle. Here's the thundersnow cell with anvil crown with mammatus among the northern circumpolar stars with the constellations of Ursa Major and Draco on view.
If only I could explain how magical it was to be standing here on this mountain in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a surreal white sea of snow with the beautiful deep blue clean polar air complimented by countless stars with a distant storm cell lit into utter brilliance by the moon in a way I have never observed before, the outstanding yet unreal light of the moon changed the landscape into a dream world of pure beauty which was simply beyond words. If you have never experienced moonlit snow at high altitude before I urge you to do so because it stirs the soul to such a degree that you might never want to watch television again. I realised then that nature was showing off in fine form and that Paul and I were extremely lucky to have been here to experience this moment.
The fuzzy patch annotated is comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy currently moving towards the paw of the Great Bear. This was a nice surprise comet discovered earlier in the year by Terry Lovejoy which caught everyone off guard by brightening beyond predictions. The previous morning before dawn I could see it with the naked eye with a full moon and I suspected it was in the mag +4.5 range at the time. A nice comet which will no doubt provide us with more photo opps in the near future. The moonlight reflecting off the snow on the hills increased the sky brightness so it was more subtle tonight in this short exposure, however there it is beside a thundersnow cell, two examples of icy wonders in nature.
This was the amazing view from our location facing down the mountain towards the W looking along a famous stretch of Glenshane Pass with more snow showers moving in with the stars of Cygnus on view.
We had to take time out to get a few exposures of us for the memories, here's Paul in action taking an exposure to the N of the cell. It felt like we where standing on the Alps or perhaps it was Narnia, either way it was hard to believe we were standing in so much beautiful snow and experiencing these stunning scenes so early in the season.
Snow started to fall again so we made our way back down the mountain among the flurry and got back into the shelter of the car just in time to escape the full storm. We drove along Glenshane Pass at a very slow pace taking it easy as the road was getting slippery in places, the steering wheel felt light at times which was an obvious warning sign so we took our time enjoying the falling snow in the headlights and admiring the view while keeping an eye out for new photo opportunities, in places the road and ditches seemed to blend together. We entered Dungiven then turned off the main road onto narrow country roads and made our way to the impressive Benbradagh mountain on the W side of the Sperrins which is one of my favourite locations to visit in the snow. I had been here in daytime earlier in the year and had an unforgettable solo hike up the mountain in virgin snow which was absolutely amazing, if you check out the REPORT for that day you will get an idea of how beautiful this location is in Winter. We got the car over half way up the narrow mountain road but soon realized we were not going to get to the top, I didn't have enough momentum and the road was slippery and after a bit of careless revving I decided to not push our luck so I reversed the car into a space near a gate half way up then we got out to take in the view.
This was 04.40 in the morning and at this moment in time it really did feel like we were living a dream, this seemed to be a magical night which went on forever. Paul brought to my attention the amazing play of moonlight on the mountain tops, when the moon appeared from behind a cloud a section of the snow crowned mountain suddenly lit up into intense white as if a beam of light from heaven had shone down, it was amazing, and as the clouds moved so did this beam of light appearing on and off, this is something one can never convey on camera however the most intense whites on the images were these bright bursts we could see visually. We arrived at a lucky moment to get the stars over the snow, that's facing N with Ursa Minor, Draco and Ursa Major on show.
That's the road we where on over the other side of this fence, doesn't look like there's much on it but it didn't have much traction and as you advance up the mountain towards that distant peak the climb is very steep and most certainly not suitable for a car on a Winter's night. Next time I might hike it to the top under the stars which would be a pretty amazing experience.
It looks as cold as it felt however after a few min's of clear sky the clouds moved back in to ruin the scene and the moon was hidden once again. So we got the flasks out on the steep road and enjoyed a good warm mug of tea and a galaxy ripple while having a great chat about photography and cameras while watching distant cells with anvils moving in from the N then we stood with joy under the falling snow flakes while waiting for the sky to clear again.
05.25 in the morning up a mountain and loving every second of it. From the road we spotted a collection of cool trees which could look very dramatic for foreground interest so once again we climbed over a gate and hiked across the mountain across a slanted surreal landscape of snow and wild fairy world scenes. Clear gaps with stars were opening up again from the N so our next chance of getting that amazing light was about to happen again so we rapidly got the gear set-up and cameras focused at the ready. We each had our own ideas about what we wanted, Paul headed down into a steep valley among a grouping of trees while I made my way up hill along the flank of the mountain searching for the rite kind of tree, then I found it, this tree looked magical and was exactly what I had been looking for. Such a cool scene at 10mm wide angle with passing snow shower falling over Benbradagh in a majestic moonlit landscape with stars aloft.
If you look carefully in these two images you can see the moonlit red berries on the branches which I thought was pretty cool.
Wish I had a set of Christmas lights and decorations to hang on the tree as this would have made for a lovely festive scene.
You can see the snow line easily here and how this snow event was mainly a high altitude event, we were delighted we had made the rite decision to hunt on the mountains rather than near coastal areas. More snow showers can be seen making their way toward us so our time of amazing light was running out fast.
Paul joined me then the cloud blanketed most of the stars. I wanted to get an epic shot with the 50mm lens of the peak of Benbradagh with stars however the clouds never shifted and I only got a few stars on view, still I had to try it anyway. In all likelihood ours were probably the first moonlit snow images of Benbradagh at 05.50 in the morning! We made our way back across the mountain through the snow flurry and got back to the car, we were getting hungry and our energy was starting to go, we had been doing non stop photography in the snow all night long and it had caught up with us so we decided to get some warm food while the going was good. First we drove back down the mountain and made our way along the Glenshane Pass once again.
The early morning drive was beautiful in the snow if not rather cloudy with more falling snow so we pulled over near the Ponderosa to get something to eat. For anyone who doesn't know, the Ponderosa is a famous small bar on the top of Glenshane Pass which once held the title of the highest pub in Ireland. The building was covered in snow and dark so we walked around to the side where we could find shelter from the icy wind and set up 'camp'. Paul got his gas stove fired up and my goodness the feeling of the warm flame heating our hands was like heaven. Thankfully Paul had made us homemade turkey and vegetable soup which went into the pan and soon the soup was stirring with life then we filled our bowls with the warm brew and sipped away like two men who had been starving on the mountain for days.
The soup was delicious and warmed us up again, it was an awesome feeling drinking the hot soup before dawn as snow flakes gently fell from the sky, what an adventure this had turned out to be. We packed up the gear then saw a clearance moving in so we got the cameras ready. This was the magical scene at 06.00 beside the Ponderosa with the smooth untouched snow with distant moonlit snow showers and the pre-dawn stars on view, once again it looked like a Christmas card setting, we still couldn't believe we were getting treated to snow scenes like this so early in the season.
Early morning traffic began to appear which provided a good opportunity to capture light trails and snow. This was 06.56 am and morning twilight would soon be dominating the sky. We wanted to catch comet C/2012 S1 ISON so we hung around hoping for a clear gap in the rite place. ISON was behind the tree and below those clouds in Virgo to the SE of Spica, I had observed it the previous morning and was eager to see what it looked like now since it had dived 5 degrees closer to the sun. However clouds, snow showers and hail stones returned and it didn't look like our chances were good but we stuck it out anyway and waited in the car for the snow to clear.
07.10 and a brief break appeared very low in the E/SE so we rapidly got out from the car, more cloud was about to engulf us so there was no time to set up the gear. We grabbed our binoculars and ran to the fence near the river and began sweeping the sky with a combination of nerves and excitement with fingers sore and freezing holding the cold metal, soon the field of view began to dance because of my cold shaking hands so I put them away and searched with the naked eye. It was too late, the comet was behind cloud and the twilight was too advanced to observe it with ease so we had to let it go. I glanced behind me and saw a stunning and very rare moondog perched in the sky above the Ponderosa sign which looked awesome with obvious red, yellow and blue colours, it was probably the best moondog I had ever seen however it soon vanished.
We went back to the car and grabbed the cameras for one last shot of the night for the memory so here's my last image showing the fence, distant snow shower, and twilight stars with Arcturus, ISON was behind that distant cell. We couldn't complain, it was an epic night with simply outstanding visual scenes and a bounty of unique imagery. We both agreed that this night would go down in the memories and would definitely be in our top five ultimate photo shoots. I made it home for 07.30 with over 300 images on the camera, we had been out in the cold for over 9 hours. I actually dreamed about these experiences for several nights afterwards, nature can be truly amazing. Thanks very much for reading.