In High Places
By: Burton A. Falk
It rains a lot in Ireland--take it from me. Thanks to inclement weather, my first attempt on 3,414' Carrauntoohil, the country's highest peak, was a complete wash out. The following year, 1988, back for a second try with several more climbers involved, heavy rainfall once again played a major role.
Carrauntoohil lies along a low mountain range, the Macgillycuddy's Reeks, at the eastern end of the Iveragh Peninsula one of the five adjoining peninsulas which splay into the Atlantic Ocean along the south west coast of Ireland. The Iveragh is separated from its neighboring peninsulas by Dingle Bay to the north and the Xenmare River estuary to the south, and its main claim to fame is the "Ring of Kerry" drive, which winds around its most picturesque perimeter. Killarney, the largest town near Carrauntoohil, is a popular tourist destination and, as such, has excellent rail and bus connections to most other large cities on the Emerald isle. A smaller town, Killoorgin, lies closer to the peak, and, except for a week in August during Puck's Fair (a celebration with pre-Christian roots involving, among other things, a wild mountain goat being caged on top of a pole in the central square). it is substantially less crowded and touristy than Killarney.
On July 26, my two sons, my daughter, my two daughters-in-law to be and I--my wife having sense enough to stay dry at the hotel--drove our rental van through a maze of narrow, winding roads, toward the Knocknafreaghaun youth Hostel, situated at the mouth of Hag's Glen, three air miles NNE of Carrauntoohil. We parked at the end of the road, just beyond the hostel, in a farmyard, where we were set upon at once by an effusive farm wife intent on selling us souvenirs. Not wanting to appear ungrateful for all the free parking, we lingered awhile to purchase a map and a handful of postcards. When we finally opened the gate into the adjoining sheep pasture, ready to begin our adventure, it was 10:15 a.m. To our relief, the rain which had plagued us since our arrival in Ireland two days earlier had stopped, and the sun seemed ready to shine through.
We set our course up Hag's Glen, toward the cloud-covered Macgillycuddy Reeks to the south. About a mile out, amid the wet grass and wet sheep, we spotted what we thought was a trail on the opposite bank of the Gaddagh River, up which we were hiking. We forded the stream--most of us slipping on wet rocks, filling our boots with water--to discover that there was, indeed, not just a trail, but a road on the western side. It was about that time that the weather began to turn for the worse--an ominous sprinkle started to fall. We followed along the road for another twenty minutes or so, until it dwindled away on a rocky shelf between two lakes, Lough Gouragh and Lough Callee (Hag's Lake), at which point it started to rain in earnest. Although we all donned wet-weather gear, the heavy downpour, combined with a blustery wind, soon soaked us to the skin.
We pressed on, however, toward Devil's Ladder, a steep, rocky chute, the standard climbing route, which leads one directly from the 1,500' elevation to the 3,000' summit ridge. Unfortunately, when we got close enough to see the chute clearly, we found that it had become a water course. There was no way we were going to climb it that afternoon. Instead, we turned left a quarter mile to the east and began climbing a grassy nose, which also led to the summit ridge.
It was about halfway up this hill that the mutiny occurred. The girls, it seems, had become cold, wet and discouraged. They wanted to turn back, leaving us three men to continue. I sighed. I really wanted to bag the peak, but I didn't feel right about letting the girls go back alone--none had had any real route-finding experience. I was about ready to return with them, when my youngest son, Steve, said, "Come on, Dad. This is your second try. 1'11 take them back." I didn't argue. With rain streaming down our faces, we agreed we'd meet back at the van.
After parting company, Bret and I continued up the soggy slope, coming out on the summit ridge, just below the clouds, about a mile to the east of Carrauntoohil's summit. We were so close to the clouds, in fact, that as we hiked along the rolling ridge toward the peak, we were often totally enveloped by the swirling fog. It took us about twenty minutes to reach the shallow saddle at the top of Devil's Ladder, where, looking up to the NW, we saw a line of rocky cairns leading toward the mist-shrouded summit. Having no reason to dawdle, we began to climb the rocky slope, finally reaching the large cross on the summit at 1:45 p.m. I took a couple of photos of Bret standing at the base of the cross, and, although I was only a few feet away, his features were barely discernable due to the heavy mist.
We then jogged back down to the summit ridge, where we found that the cloud layer had lifted slightly. To the north, patches of sunlight could be seen shining across the Irish countryside. As we descended the grassy slope the rain began to taper off, and it stopped altogether as we sped past the lakes and down the road. We reached the van about 4:15 p.m., where Steve and the three girls--who all had returned to the hotel for hot showers and dry clothes--were waiting for us with a thermos of steaming hot tea and a bag of Irish cookies. A nice finish to a wet day.
Total time: 6 hrs; total round trip distance: 11 miles; total elevation gain: 9,200'
ODDS AND ENDS:
In his Guide to Ireland's 3000-foot Mountains M. Mulholland suggests another, perhaps better, Way to begin the climb, i.e., rather than depart from the Youth Hostel and cross the Gaddagh River, begin on the opposite side to start with.
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