It's Spring, the clocks have gone forward, and we have just experienced our worst snow storm since the sixties!. An unseasonal deep low pressure system with associated frontal systems crossed UK and Ireland from the SW and clashed with frigid polar air descending from the N which created an epic Winter weather event which ended up dominating the news headlines, not only here, but in the US and Australia. Scotland and N. Ireland were hit very badly, the former resulting in the death of a young girl when the bus she was traveling on slid off a Winter road crashing into a river. N. Ireland experienced the worst disruption to traffic and travel in years, however before I get ahead of myself let's back-track to the start of the event. My friend Conor McDonald from Maghera, was just back after a long period living in Australia, and since he came back we have been on the look out for interesting weather events here. The snow potential had been noticed long in advance with GFS predicting a wide spread snow event for us so we naturally focused our attention on it for the sake of getting photo opportunities. To be honest I was highly skeptical about anything significant happening due to the recent let-downs from previous Met Office snow forecasts during late January (they were great before this) so I was taking in the predictions while battling non-event wounds which hadn't healed from the past. Conor on the other hand had a very good feeling that something note worthy was on the cards so we stayed on the alert and studied the charts along with the build-up on the weather forums. The main event was expected on March 30th/31st 2010, however snow was expected earlier than this.
During the evening of March 29th/30th snow began to fall over N. Ireland and by the time darkness had set in it was quite noticeable, it wasn't laying on the ground at low levels due to mild temps however we suspected things could be quite different on higher ground so we decided to go for a drive up Glenshane Pass and assess the situation. It wasn't long before we where driving through fairly heavy snow with reduced visibility, the snow was laying too and getting heavier with time, small snow drifts where already gathering on the wire fences with snow blowing across the main road at only 10-20mph, however even at this speed it looked spectacular. Gritters where out getting to work while cars negotiated the road with extra care and respect knowing full well how quickly this area can turn nasty. On the way back home Conor saw a blue flash of lightning among the falling snow which got an excited response from us, perhaps this was a good omen of something exciting on the way. It continued snowing all through the night and we agreed we would head back up again first thing in the morning for images.
March 30th 09.00 BST. Woke up to a garden filled with wet snow, outside it was still coming down with no intention of stopping, I rang Conor and together we decided that our early trip up the Pass wasn't required because the snow was forecast to keep falling all evening and through the night into the next day, so the longer we left it the better it would get. We spent the day watching the online charts and forecasts and it wasn't long before phone calls were swapped again when we read the latest updates. The Met Office had issued an 'emergency warning' for N. Ireland for Wed March 30th, and again for Thurs March 31st. This kind of warning has never been issued before so it was a sobering read as it listed heavy snow up to +40cm with drifting, strong gales, blizzards, and even a risk of power disruption, the icing on the cake was that they mentioned the Glenshane Pass as the place to get affected in a major way. It was strange to see N. Ireland covered in a red risk like that so it may as well have been a red flag to a Bull as far as we were concerned. On television much coverage was given to the impending severe weather event with seasoned forecasters/presenters using words like 'extreme', 'very severe', and warning drivers to avoid the Glenshane Pass because condition where already bad in that area.
This was the start of a most memorable adventure and extreme weather experience which we both have never experienced before. During the 48 hours surrounding the main event we must have drove up Glenshane (against warnings not to do so) eight or more times to get the full experience and even made three to four trips on the very worst night which provided us with so many thrills. We each took turns driving up so that way we could spread out the cost of fuel, this also allowed the non-driver to take images and video while on the road while the other concentrated on navigating the treacherous Pass, however on more than one occasion this pattern was broken and became a free for all when something exciting was observed.
Afternoon of March 30th, I drove for this round as we began our multiple drive up Glenshane just as the weather was going rapidly down hill as the low pressure system brewed ready for it's onslaught in a few hours time. We made several 'recce' drives along the main road and could see first hand that conditions were already very poor and degrading by the minute, snow was falling heavily and we began encountering tall snowdrifts along the side of the road with minor 'blizzard' conditions, it was amazing to watch snow blowing across the main road then smacking into the body work and windows with a crack as it swamped the car then past across the other side of the road before blending into the white hills and mountains, this process was repeated over and over while I tried to keep the car under some sort of control on the wet snow and sludge. The roads were turing from slushy brown to white-brown, then white as the snow became more intense and began to cover picnic areas and lay by's, this made turning on the road very difficult because there were few options available to us which were safe. We spotted a very narrow ascending road which branched off from the main so we decided to drive up there, grateful for a place to stop and get images.
It was around this time that nature flicked a switch and the weather turned extremely bad. The narrow country road we where on kept climbing and soon we were surrounded by white. Thick snow in the fields, large snowdrifts and snow boulders, and white-out conditions. I stopped the car so we could take images through the windscreen, we were amazed to see a great blizzard building which unleashed filmy walls of snow through the wire fences and across the narrow road with great speed. Conor went out into the lashing wind and snow to get images of the large drifts visible on either side of the car which covered the hedgerows, it wasn't a pleasant experience being out in that. Conor was using the FujiFilm S5600 for still images/video, I was using the same for video footage and using the Canon 450D for stills. It soon became second nature to have both cameras resting on my lap and ready to grab at a moments notice. The temp was really dropping and the wipers struggled to keep snow off the window and soon the minor road was getting covered in heavy snow, we became concerned that we might get trapped there so decided to drive on because it was going to get much worse over the next 24 hours.
There was a small hill on the road ahead of us which prevented any view of the other side so I decided to drive over it assuming it would drop down again and bend to the left where it would meet the main road again, as soon as we cleared the hill I slammed on the brakes and slid to a stop, this was the scene ahead of us!. The road was just impassable, and our destination ahead was ridiculous, the road disappeared into a white-out blizzard at a steep inclination to the upper R, most of it was covered by snow, however it goes 3/4 of the way up this frame. It would have been absolutely impossible to go any further and would have been fool hardy to have even tried. A mild panic set in at the thought of being stuck and with nowhere to turn the car I had to reverse the entire way back up the hill and down the road I used previously before finding a turn into someone's house, I felt utter relief to have got out of there I can tell you, Conor was a great help by having another set of eyes on the road and keeping me out from the drifts.
This is the bottom of the minor road where it meets the main on the Glenshane Pass. We stopped at the junction for a while taking images of the cars, trucks, and buses struggling along the road. This Goldliner coach, and the trucks which followed, threw up a tremendous amount of slush and snow as they passed, I had to put the window back up because some it was even slapping hard against the driver's side of the car.
Taking a L away from the minor we where back on the main road which was really getting in a serious state. We decided to follow this gritter and slowed to a comfortable speed using the time to get images and video. Conor's image of this scene was shown on the BBC Newsline TV weather forecast the following day. Other drivers were getting very cautious and slowed down to create very large stopping distances between traffic, most had their dipped and full beam headlights on in the low light level, however amazingly there where others passing us with no lights on at all which was crazy as some of these vehicles looked invisible until they appeared from a wall of white blowing snow. By this time the radio was buzzing with chat about the terrible conditions on Glenshane with one person describing it as ''hideous''. Notice the blue parking sign, the area to the L is just covered in thick snow making it impossible to park anywhere near the road.
That gritter was throwing up alot of snow on the LHS. We noted around this time that things were getting really bad indeed with blowing thick snow, white-out conditions, and the gritter tracks were turning to ice as the temp dropped away rapidly, I began to feel the car loose traction at periodic intervals. Strong winds blew white blankets of snow down from the mountains and across the road from L to R which looked very impressive, this is something which is difficult to show on an image but which was visually stunning, it felt shocking and surreal as if this was a different country. I was occupied taking in the beauty of the scene that I didn't notice the break lights glowing from the gritter straight ahead, Conor switched me back on and I came to my senses just in time to see the truck slow further and us making a bee-line for it at disturbing speed.
Believing a crash was imminent I slammed on the breaks, the car didn't respond and kept on going as if I had no breaks at all, so I let up the break and the car nose turned widely to the L catching the snowdrift at the road side, we where sec's away from plunging into it and getting stuck however I managed to recover the car and get the nose pointing straight ahead again. The snow encounter slowed the car a little but not enough, I put the brake pedal to the floor and the car still crept closer and closer to the back of the truck, our hearts were thumping when we considered a crash a high possibility, I just hoped the air bags would work when I needed them. We where so close that the back of the truck was spraying snow against the bonnet, a quick glance in the rear view showed the car behind us slowing down and switching on it's hazards, the driver believed we where going to collide too. Amazingly the truck sped up again and created just the correct gap to avoid an accident. That was close!!, it just showed how dangerous this road was. The gritter eventually pulled over and let us past so we drove back to Maghera and pulled into a car park to calm down, I was feeling quite shook up.
Once refreshed we went back up Glenshane again for the 2nd time during late afternoon when the rush hour traffic was building. Once we got to high ground we where stuck in a massive row of traffic, which I later found out contained 300 people, it was around this time that the media helicopter was taking footage for the news showing this line of cars and trucks stuck on the pass. The traffic barely moved and occupied both the L and overtaking lanes at the same time. The wheels of a truck spun beside us as they fought a useless battle on the up-hill snow with no momentum to get them moving. The radio informed us there was an accident on up this road and soon after we seen a recovery truck going past with a smaller truck on the back which I presume was part of the incident. Some cars passed us going back down because they knew it was hopeless, their passengers taking video with mobile phones. It felt weird that we where all on television thanks to the chopper covering, what was fast becoming, a major event. The radio DJ was reading out text messages sent in from people in this very que describing the terrible conditions with no progress and how they where waiting here for over an hour. It didn't take long to figure out that staying here was ludicrous, this line went on for miles and the storm was getting worse every minute so I pulled out when I got a clearance, did a quick turn, and went back down the Pass feeling great relief. Conor took this image for me with my camera showing the traffic, none of the people who where there had any idea of the ordeal they would have over the next few hours, some of them would not make it home that night.
We went back home, got dinner, and watched the news which was now completely focused on this nasty storm, it seemed Glenshane was being talked about on all the channels, the footage showed massive disruption with more than 100 vehicles involved. We decided to go back up again just as dusk was falling, the road along low ground was fine and we even noticed that the conditions didn't seem all that bad compared to our previous trip, however that all changed as Conor drove along a country road onto higher ground and spotted trucks on Glenshane which where obviously stuck. The road transformed into a chaotic scene as we reached the Pass, a single Police car was blocking a section of the road and the Officer in charge was re-directing traffic away from the area, we pulled up alongside and said we lived up the road a little so she let us on through thinking we would be home after a couple min's, this proved very fortunate because if we had been stopped we would have missed out on what was to come.
As we climbed the Pass it was obvious that the snow storm was already at exceptional levels, gales blew snow horizontally across the road smacking the car with snow, ice, and dirt. To our L we could see snapped trees in the fields and as the min's ticked by the light level dropped dramatically. Ascending further we could see abandoned cars on the unrecognizable lay by covered in snow.
This was near the top where traffic was stranded. In the eerie semi-darkness we could make out flashing amber hazard lights and stationary red brake lights penetrating through the gloom, the lights would fade and vanish when a wall of snow raced across the road at over 50 mph. In this image are two cars trying to crawl forward in the blizzard while sliding in awkward directions. The truck drivers had given up and took shelter in their cabs. The cars in front chanced their arm and proceeded cautiously forward hoping to get through the wall of blowing snow with the intention of heading W towards Dungiven, that wasn't going to happen. There where no rules of the road now, everyone was using both sides of the main in the hope of making progress, the lay bys where filled with snow so there was nowhere for a car to go other than forward or back. Despite the efforts of the gritters earlier the road was in an awful state filling rapidly with snow and turning to ice. Look at the white-out in front of the traffic, to the R snow is blowing down the road with gale force, it looked exactly like the Winter storms scenes on 'Ice Road Truckers'.
The drivers of the cars in front tried their best to move forward but progress was slow and the outcome hopeless. The truck on the L had spun out and with no momentum to get up the incline it would be there all night. I think the driver of the car to the far R froze with terror, and not knowing what to do he just stayed there making heartless attempts to advance, I don't think he wanted to go any further. The road here was tricky going, Conor was fully occupied trying to keep the car moving, the shape of the snow on the ground kept pulling the car into the L as if we where being sucked in towards the truck, the wheels of which took up a large portion of the window frame at close range before Conor successfully got us moving to the R again using the hand brake in a clever fashion.
We where now just in front of the truck on the previous image, the car and van in front have stopped. At this stage the snow storm was a frightening sight as winds rocked the car from side to side, rolling walls of snow through the air, and bending trees. The car on the R began to spin with the wheels failing to gain traction, the elderly occupants looked out of their depth so we decided to get out and push, about five other people from the cars behind decided to do the same thing so there ended up seven of us pushing until we got the car moved, they drove away slowly into that zero-visibility wall of snow and we never seen them again, I very much doubt they made it all the way to Dungiven. The experience of being out in that blizzard was something we shall never forget, it felt like sand blasting against our face and eyes at severe wind speeds, when Conor and I got back in the car we exchanged vibrant descriptions of what it was like, we both looked astonished and thrilled in equal measure. This would be something we will be talking about in future years.
Using the hand brake Conor slid the car around at a sharp angle to stay on the main road and avoid getting caught in the deeper snow at the flank. This is looking roughly E back down the main Glenshane Pass road towards the on-coming traffic. Now it was fully dark and we could see the lights from the distant towns going on and off as the electric began to fail. It was around this time that we felt the full fury of the storm, the visual scene and physical experience was simply incredible, it's impossible to do justice to this event so I will just say that it was complete insanity!. We starred out the windscreen in utter disbelief, it looked just like a scene from Arctic. Conor and I kept saying random sentences like...''oh my God'', ''oh my goodness'', ''never in my life'', ''unbelievable'', ''that's insane'', and many other more excited lines coupled with harsh vernacular which I shall not repeat here, the words were complimented by a nervous laugh which was a combination of sheer excitement and vulnerability. Conor wondered at times where the official road was and I couldn't give him an answer, it was amazing how visually altered the mountains and road had become within a few hours, it was completely transformed into a different landscape which looked alien, we just couldn't believe this was N. Ireland.
The Glenshane Pass is famous for it's nasty weather, especially during Winter, however this snow storm was in a league of its own and something we had NEVER seen before in our lives, or for that matter ever thought we would experience here. I have seen plenty of deep snow, ice, freezing fog, white-outs etc up here all Winter, and despite those all being memorable events they simply fail in comparison to this brutal event. These images don't even remotely do the scenes justice due to the darkness, however they just about give you a taster of the atmosphere. You can see the trees bending to the R as gales blew from L to R with incredible amounts of snow screaming across the road and sky, the car headlights illuminated this rapid-moving snow column which sports obvious motion blur in the frame. Behind the cars, and on either side of us, where complete white-out conditions, however during gaps in the blizzard we could make out the dark shapes of huge snowdrifts which looked like new snow-covered hills where there shouldn't be any.
The Glenshane Pass is the main traffic route which connects the towns and villages from E to W, from Belfast to Co. Derry, the route takes traffic through the Sperrin Mountains with the main peaking at approx 1000ft above sea level so it's very prone to bad weather. To make matters worse there's nothing on either side of the road to break the wind and provide shelter, it's completely open and exposed to the elements, so when you have snow and ice blowing sideways you know you are getting the full brunt making it very dangerous indeed. Getting images was just as challenging as the weather itself, if I went outside I would get the camera destroyed in an instant so for this reason all these images where taken from inside the car looking through the windscreen as snow spat on the glass and wipers raced to clean the surface. Add in the fact it was night time and I was using the camera hand held and you can imagine how much of a nightmare it was to get stills. ISO1600, aperture wide open using the 18mm kit lens, using the live view to get focused, however that was a problem because everything was in motion and changing direction so I focused on the mid-way point between us and the cars and made small regular adjustments. I was also using very slow shutter speeds which were completely unorthodox for hand held shooting. Add in our moving car, the shaking from the wind, sliding wheels, movement of the other cars, blowing snow, and you can appreciate that this was no easy task.
We estimated the wind speed at 50mph, however this was just a guess and could have been much stronger, and with nothing to break the wind that speed really makes an impression on you up here. Here's a good example of a great mass of snow buffeting the road and racing past the car headlights. These 'walls' of snow where several times the height of a car and seemed like entities with a life of their own.
Those are the same cars and trucks we met earlier, enveloped in the blizzard, with trees bending in the gales, airborne snow, all while the car shook and slid, the tracks show the motion of the cars which tried the Pass before us, or maybe they are our own.
That's the truck driver who came down from his cab to warn the other drivers not to go any further. Just a pity the worst of this storm happened during the night, if this had been in daylight the photo opportunities would have been awesome!.
We slowly drove on down this road shooting stills and video, this was a major event and it felt great to be at the scene documenting everything while the radio continued it's warnings for the Glenshane Pass. More on page two.