Climbing Ireland’s Highest Mountain, Carrauntoohil

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Wintry summit of Carruantoohil

Carruantoohil, located on the majestic Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, is the highest mountain in Ireland. Within the MacGillycuddy Reeks, a sandstone mountain range that was carved out by glaciers, the mountain makes for one of the most challenging outdoor adventures in both Britain and Ireland.

The Reeks, are composed of 27 individual peaks and are Ireland’s highest mountain range. They cover an area of around 100 square kilometres from the Gap of Dunloe in the east to Glencar in the west.

Though only standing at an elevation of 3,406 ft, this is not any indication that Carrauntoohil is an unchallenging and unremarkable mountain. The prominence of Ireland’s mountains is generally pretty impressive.

Depending on the route and weather conditions, climbing Carrauntoohil can take anywhere from 5-8 hours.

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.

A winter climb can be a totally different animal than climbing this Irish mountain in the summer. When the mountain is covered in snow, one will need microspikes or crampons, thick hiking boots and generally, all the layering required of a winter mountaineering ascent. An ice axe is potentially needed as well.

The primary hazard in the Macgillycuddy Reeks is the wind and potential for low visibility. When a storm from the western Atlantic descends on these mountains, the conditions can be absolutely horrid and forecasts should be monitored consistently when planning an ascent.  

Carrauntoohil is Gaelic for “Tuathal’s Sickle,” and is not apart of Killarney National Park but is instead on private land. However, access for the public is fairly easy and straightforward, with most hikers beginning at a Lodge and staging point called, Cronin’s Yard.

Gear List

1.) Hiking boots (rise above the ankle)

2.) Poles

3.) hardshell layers (Wind resistant jacket and pants)

4.) 4 liters of water (2 Nalgene bottles)

5.) Enough food for eight hours of strenuous activity

5.) 25-30 Liter pack with a rain cover

6.) Microspikes

Getting Here

Located in beautiful County Kerry, getting to the Macgillycuddy Reeks from Dublin requires either a three and a half hour train ride or a four and a half hour Bus trip.

The beautiful town of Killarney is the first step to exploring the stunning mountains of Kerry and there certainly isnt a shortage of things to do here.

The town of about 14,000, is arguably Ireland’s outdoor capital, with residents having quick access to the spectacular hiking serves as a starting point for those who wish to trek the Kerry way of the Iveragh peninsula. The city is full of unique charming cafes and restaurants, and boasts one of the best hostels in Europe; The Black Sheep hostel.

To arrive at Cronin’s yard, a small cottage and farm that is the starting point of the climb, you can either drive, hire a shuttle or rent a bike. In my view the best option is to cycle to Cronin’s yard with all your gear as it not only adds an extra challenge but it is a spectacular way to see the stunning Irish country side. The distance to Cronin’s Yard is not that far in kilometers but goes through alot of winding terrain and narrow roads.

Cycling can take two hours from Killarney but much less if you make haste.

Climbing via Devils Ladder

During a three month trip in Ireland, I made three different attempts on the mountain and summited twice. Being here in Winter made for extra precarious conditions and the Mountains were often covered in fairly deep snow.

Making a trudge up a mountain in Ireland through snow and ice is an amazing experience as outside the highlands, the island rarely gets much snow at all.

The window for these conditions is small however and after only a week from a snowstorm, the mountains can be laid bare again in their natural rocky green sandstone.

In such winter mountaineering conditions, crampons or microspikes may be recommended on the Devils ladder though I was able to make do without them.

The Devils Ladder route is the most straightforward way up the mountain but probably not the safest as it has experienced much erosion over the years. It is essentially climbing up a worn out waterfall that is knarly and steep. The opportunities to twist an ankle or slip and fall on your face can be high, especially after a storm.

In February of 2020, I cycled out of Killarney on the Fossa Way trail with a full backpack.

Killarney National Park beckoned to my left and through the wooded forest, views of the mountains were spectacular.

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.

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 that was partly covered in snow. 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.

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.

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View of Killarney National Park

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.

“Its quite snowy up there. Be sensible about it” She said to me with a heavy Kerry brogue.

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 comparison to other ranges, was not relevant as I was soon surrounded by a valley of tall cliffs and waterfalls where the evidence of long gone glaciers was evident.

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 quiet 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.

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.

It began snowing more heavily though not enough to make myself consider turning around.

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.

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

After stumbling through a high rocky bog, I began on the devils ladder and it immediately became clear that scaling it was going to take some effort and careful foot placements. This is the most difficult part of the climb and if caught on it during a storm, it would be extremely dangerous. 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 potential for rockfall was a clear reality but nevertheless I continued.

After scaling the ladder, I made a hard right where i was greeted with incredible views of the snow covered Reeks. I continued my ascent through a foggy snowfall and after a little under an hour, I approached the Icy cross signalling the top of the mountain.

I stopped for about twenty minutes and briefly spoke with two other hikers who also completed an ascent of the mountain. They were both outfitted in mountaineering boots and gators compared to my rather feeble hiking shoes.

Atop Carrauntoohil are some of the best views in Ireland and I was fortuante to have the fog clear just enough for too see the outstanding mountain scenery.

I drank some water before beginning the descent which i figured like all descents, was going to be more difficult than the ascent, even if it took half the amount of time.

I again approached the devils ladder with caution and made each step down with careful foot placement.

After roughly two hours, I arrived the Cronin’s cottage.

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

Then i I unlocked my bike from a nearby tree outside the cottage and began the last leg of the adventure back to Killarney.

My winter expedition of Carrauntoohil was a success.

Brother O’Shea’s Gully

Brother O’Shea’s Gully is another spectacular route up the mountain that for its name alone is worth taking on.

Brother O’Shea’s Gully at 13km in length, has become a common and fairly safe alternative route to the summit of Carruantoohil. It starts along the same trail from Cronin’s Yard before branching off to the right just before the stepping stones across the river. It’s a very scenic route with more incredible scenery and the chance to get up close to the dramatic, steep north-east face of Carrauntoohil.

Once you branch off, the trail traverses across and up the slope above Lough Gouragh, while the other route continues straight between the two lakes. Care is advised in this area of the hike due its steepness, and there are rocky steps to navigate. Most are possible to skirt around using little detours. This section of the climb is fairly steep and exposed, which combined with winter conditions can offer a pretty daunting challenge to unexperienced hikers

Above the lake, you’ll reach an area of flat ground known as the ‘first level’ with great views of Carrauntoohil’s summit and the Hag’s Tooth Ridge. You’ll climb up a scree-covered incline to reach the ‘second level’. Look out for a lovely little waterfall on the way up. You’ll then climb to the ‘third level’ to find Ireland’s highest lake, Cummeenoughter Lake with its deep blue water.

The trail continues left up the fairly wide incline of Brother O’Shea’s Gully, with loose scree on the lower slopes. It gets a bit steeper from this point thus care is advised. There are also steep cliffs to watch out for on the right under Beenkeeragh Ridge, which you need to be aware of. And there are steep, scree-covered gullies also on the left, which are not to be tackled if you’re inexperienced. Some advanced climbers take a route up either the Curved or Central Gully.

At the top of this slope, you’ll come to a col or saddle and the path veers left up broken rock to the summit. On a clear day, you’ll be rewarded at the col by views down to Coomloughra Lough and even as far as Dingle Bay in the distance. You’ll then pass the top of the Curved and Central Gullies before reaching the top of Ireland’s highest mountain.

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