Carrauntoohil: Climbing Ireland's highest peak

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April 28th 2011
Published: July 10th 2011
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Climbing Ireland's highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, is something I had planned to do for many years, probably ever since I first learned the name in school, but it wasn't until 2011 that I finally got around to attempting it.

At 1040 metres altitude Carrauntoohil is certainly no giant, but the trek to the top makes for a fantastic day hike, involving a fair bit of scrambling in places.

It belongs to a range of mountains called Macgillycuddy's Reeks, a rather strange but quite compelling name for a mountain range, named after a local character "Macgillycuddy of the Reeks" who owned much of this land hundred's of years ago. The origin of the name Carrauntoohil itself are uncertain.

Ruth and I have climbed mountains in many exotic places around the world so sooner or later I felt we'd get around to Carrauntoohil. We were in Kerry on a cycling holiday in April 2011 and climbing Carrauntoohil wasn't originally part of the itinerary. But when crossing Moll's Gap by bike the looming presence of Ireland's highest peak appeared before us and I knew before the week was out we'd have to give it a go. Even if the main reason was to have a break from the bikes...

Cronin's Yard

We started off from our base in Killarney and cycled 20km out along the ring of Kerry and then along tiny country roads, passing the Gap of Dunloe and many signs to Carrauntoohil before reaching the heart of the mountains and the starting point of the hike at Cronin's Yard.

This wasn't the easiest place to find so I would recommend you bring the OS map if you intend to start from here.

Cronin's Yard is well set up for visitors: there are toilets, changing rooms, even showers, and a small cafe with climbing books. There are also many memorial plaques at Cronin's Yard, most to people who have lost their life climbing on Carrauntoohil and the surrounding area. I think the one that stood out the most was the memorial to Ger McConnell who was the first Irishman to climb K2, but who sadly died while descending.

From Cronin's Yard a fairly obvious path leads into the Hag's Glen and then over the Gaddagh River and on past the twin Loughs of Gouragh and Callee before reaching the head of the valley. We were lucky enough to have the mountain in full view for all of this walk; often it is covered in most or cloud, making the trip much less enjoyable and navigation much more difficult.

I was quite surprised at the small numbers of walkers on the trail, especially given the fine weather and the Easter Holidays. On a day like this on Mt. Snowdon in Wales or Scafell Pike in England the paths would be much busier.

The Devil's Ladder

At the head of the valley the fun began as the nature of the walk changed from straightforward valley stroll to proper mountain scramble. We had reached the Devil's Ladder, a steep gully filled with loose stones and scree, and a point where some hikers turn back.

Getting to the top of the Devil's Ladder involves a scrambling for about 250 metres until you reach the col between Carrauntoohil and Cnoc an Peiste. The scrambling was very hard work on a hot day so we stopped for a much needed lunch at the half way point. If there's a better lunch stop in Ireland I haven't seen it: in front of us was a spectacular view over the Lough Callee and down the Hag's Glen over the beautiful Kerry countryside.

The Devil's ladder is badly eroded in places - for anyone who doesn't fancy the scramble a longer but less steep path also leads to the top of the ladder . This can be easy to miss - we only saw it from the top - but I think you take a left turn (roughly east) after the Lough Callee.

The second half of our scramble was tougher as the incline grew bigger but we struggled on and eventually made it to the col. We were now at 800m altitude and the cross on top of Carrauntoohil was visible in the distance and another 30 minutes of walking saw us reach the top.

On top of Ireland

It was quiet a feeling looking reaching the summit and looking down on the rest of Ireland! The summit is marked by a tall cross which we posed beside for a couple of pictures.

We spoke to a man from one of the other groups who told us he'd been up here dozens of times before and never had good weather until now. But luckily today the weather had remained good and it was blue skies all around us.

We took time to take in the panoramas in all directions and tried to identify places we knew or we had passed by in our cycle trip on the Ring of Kerry.

The walk down had its moments, especially at the Devil's Ladder which is not a nice descent path and which was tougher to go down than to come up. I wouldn't like to be on it in wet weather.

The rest of the hike saw us retrace our steps through the Hag's Glen, and before we knew it we were back in Cronin's Yard. It had taken us about 4.5 hours for the roundtrip and we'd enjoyed every minute of it.

As we cycled back to Killarney that evening my mind wandered back to the summit. All around us was that amazing Kerry scenery and seemingly endless stacks of mountain peaks. Carrauntoohil is the best known walk in this area but it's by no means the only one and I've a feeling we'll be back here again before too long...

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6th July 2012
Hike planning

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