A Winter Attempt On Ireland’s Highest Mountain: Carrauntoohil

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Arriving in Kilarney in County Kerry was like a breath of fresh air after spending five days in Dublin. Not to be confused, Dublin is a fantastic city full of culture, but the hustle and bustle of the large capital city, combined with the increasing cosmopolitan vibes, provided for a welcome escape to the very Irish city of Kilarney. One of the larger towns of County Kerry, Kilarney sits on the doorstep of Kilarney National Park and the Macgillycuddy Reeks Mountain Range.

The town of about 14,000, is arguably Ireland’s outdoor capital, with residents having quick access to the highest mountain range on the island and serves as a starting point for those who wish to trek the Kerry way. The city is full of unique charming cafes and restaurants, and boasts one of the best hostels I have ever stayed at; The Black Sheep hostel.

One of the primary reasons for coming to Kilarney, was to do some hiking and trekking in the Macgillycuddy’s and to perhaps, take a crack at the highest mountain in Ireland; Carrauntoohil.

The first two days, I started small by exploring the National park by bicycle and visited Ross Castle, Muckross Abbey and Torc Waterfall. I was most impressed with Muckross Abbey, which was first built in the sixth century by early Christians but was eventually renovated by Franciscan monks in the 1400’s. It was abandoned during the Cronwellian era but has an accompanying graveyard thats been used up to the early 20th century.

The old gray monastery sits amidst a forest and it’s receding stone and Celtic crosses, echo an esoteric and spiritual past.

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The third day, after speaking with some locals and the hosts at the hostel, I decided to make an expedition to Carantoohil.

Carrauntoohil sits at an elevation of 3,406 ft but this is not any indication that it is an unchallenging or unremarkable mountain. There are a few guide services in the Macgillycuddy’s, a Mountain Rescue Team and also, the unfortunate annual one or more casualties that occur on the peak.

This expedition was not going to be a simple, nor easy ordeal by any stretch of the imagination. The most straightforward route up the mountain, was the Devils Ladder but it was reported to have seen a lot of erosion and not to be in tip-top shape.

I was told that I should only attempt, if I was an experienced hiker or mountaineer and had ample navigation abilities.

I was confident that I was qualified in both areas, so on Wednesday the 27th of November I set out from Kilarney. With a map, a backpack full of water and a sandwich, I cycled out of Kilarney on the Fossa way trail in the National Park heading west.

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After clearing the west side of Lough Leane, and the town of Fossa, I came into the Irish country side. I passed through picturesque Irish sheep farms, old stone bridges and forests full of cackling ravens. The terrain became steeper and there were more than few hills to get the thigh muscles working.

 

After forty-five minutes, I passed a sign indicating a left turn for the Gap of Dunloe and another with an arrow directing straight to Carrauntoohil. I was in the foothills of the Reeks now and the rolling mountains beckoned in view ahead. I continued pedaling through small villages on the footsteps of these mountains and kept an eye out for street signs directing to Cronin’s yard.

Cronin’s yard is a farm and the starting point for those wishing to scale Carrauntoohil and other mountains in The Reeks.

The path eventually turned from pavement to backroad and I was in awe while cycling through fields with views of the mountains and lush Irish countryside as far as the eye can see. The fields were filled with large rocks and boulders, and tall green grass, mixed with a reddish fern. Then there were the signature Ireland, old stone fences and walls, carving their way throughout the landscape and elevating, an already quite strong, North Atlantic feel.

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Continuing cycling through a valley, where I was briefly chased by sheep dogs and Jack Russel Terriers, I made it to Cronin’s yard and a small cottage, after about an hour and twenty minutes of cycling.

I parked and locked my bike to a tree nearby and then went into the cottage to use the restroom. The cottage also served as a small tea house and I made brief conversation with the owner.

“Is the mountain still climbable today?”

I asked, hoping to get some further reassurance.

“Maybe but its quite foggy up there. The clouds are coming in. Just be sensible about it.” The Irish woman of about fifty with short black hair replied.

Departing the Cottage, I made haste onto a gravel trail that waded through more fields of sheep and pointed straight into the cusp of the mountains. The landscape only continued to become more and more dramatic and the fact that The Reeks were quite small mountains in comparision to other ranges, was not relevant as I was soon surrounded by a valley of tall granite cliffs and waterfalls.

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No doubt about, these were mountains,potted with large boulders and steep drop offs. It was ardently clear how hikers and climbers could get into trouble up here.

Trekking into the valley, the scenery looked like a scene from Lord Of The Rings or a dreamscape appropriately inspired by Viking or Celtic lore.

I crossed over a small bridge that leaped above a rocky stream and continued trekking and gaining some elevation. It was astounding how quite everything was, there didn’t seem to be any animals or birds chirping or making calls. It was just a desolate silence but not a disconcerting one.

Soon I approached two lakes, Lough Calee and Lough Gouragh. They were very dark in color and I briefly pondered what kinds of fish could be swimming in them.

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The sense of truly being, ‘out there,’can not be highlighted enough and I did, admitably, begin to have nervous thoughts about being here all alone.

Sure enough, as the trail evened out, I saw two figures approaching in the distance, probably around two hundred yards away. After crossing a stream by hopping across six large boulders, I met the two Scandinavian walkers who started their day much earlier than mine.

“Did you make it?”I asked them eagerly.

“Very foggy. Cant see much.”The tall blonde replied.

Is that a yes?I thought.

“How far is the Devil’s ladder?”

“About one hour, you can see it from here.”She said and pointed behind her.

In the distance where the valley converges and the mountains close to form a horseshoe, there is a tall stone pebbled gulley, that shoots steeply up the mountain. It looked as though it could be a waterfall but it was clearly the Devil’s ladder, and the looks of it made me cringe.

It looked like quite a scramble of a climb and made me recall the disappointment cleaver on Mt. Rainier which in late July, was an aggravating experience to scale.

Parting ways with the two blonde walkers, the trail soon transformed into marshlands and hills of boulders. One had to be careful now in each stepping of the foot because it could be quite easy to slip or step wrong into a small rocky crevasse.

Looking up at the mountain, the fog and mist which had been present since the beginning was growing thicker.

The top of Carrauntoohil was shrouded in this fog, so there was no sight of the large cross that sits planted on the summit.

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At this time I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and thus decided to take a rest break and take a few bites of the sandwich I had brought along.

Finishing the sandwich, I started on the Devil’s Ladder. It had been about two hours since leaving Cronin’s yard. With the fog and mist concealing the top, it was like trekking a natural stone staircase up into the sky. It was arduous and the danger of rockfall was a clear reality but nevertheless I continued.

After another twenty minutes however, I realized the wind was picking up and the fog still growing thicker. I stopped and checked in with my body.

I remembered the advice that was given; “Be sensible about it.”

Going up the ladder was already a difficult upward scramble and I considered what going down it was going to be like in dense fog with possible rain and wind.

‘Yea. Not worth it.’I decided.

I turned around and began descending the natural ladder. Making each step down with care, knowing that twisting an ankle or knee would not be a good thing for me.

There was a small sense of disappointment of not being able to stand on the top of Ireland but through it, I realized it didn’t matter much. It was never about the summit or making it to the top, it was about the challenge, the adventure, getting out of my comfort zone and more than anything else, experiencing nature in it’s prime.

I trekked through the boulders and marshes and back onto the stunning trail that weaved through the valley of The Reeks.

Arriving at the cottage, I had another small chat with the owner and briefly skimmed through a guidebook detailing Pilgrim treks throughout Ireland.

Hopping on my bike, I cycled back down the foothills, passed the turn off for the Gap of Dunloe and into the country side. This time, I passed a large herd of deer. There were Two males with large antlers and a bountiful of females grazing a green hill near Lough Leane.

It was dinner time when I arrived back at The Black Sheep Hostel in Kilarney. Despite not summiting, I glowed with feelings of accomplishment.

My winter expedition of Carrauntoohil was a success.

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