Leaning forward into the wind I found it difficult to order my fatigued legs to work properly. Everywhere I could see in front of me was stone and for the third consecutive hour I could do nothing but look down at the stones and strategically plan my next step.
My legs were tired, my feet wobbly and the relentless fog made the last part of the ascent anti-climatic for us all. Staring at the ground I planned my breathing to maximize oxygen into my body and pushed up the last incline into a cloud.
At this point I didn’t really know where we were, just that the incline had given way to a flat area. By flat I mean no grade, there was still enough rock to build a castle lying around which required careful navigation and attention while we continued to move forward.
Had we finally reached the top? I looked around and all I could see was white cloud and it wasn’t letting go of the mountain. Our mountain guide strongly cautioned us to move slowly and keep our eyes on the terrain. With the lack of visibility it wouldn’t be hard for one of us to wander straight off the steep ledge of the mountain face to a deadly fall.
Of course for me, this added some excitement and disappointment. I get some cheap thrill out of stepping right to the edge of a long drop and staring out into the World from that point. I don’t know what it is, maybe the risk, the adrenaline, a combination; but I love it. The disappointment came from the possibility that we may have hiked to the top of Ireland’s tallest mountain to see nothing but a white cloud.
Can’t you just read the headlines? ‘Wisconsin couple hikes to the top of Ireland’s tallest mountain and is rewarded with views of nothing.’ It was hard to think that our effort wouldn’t be rewarded, despite the fact that our mountain guide kept insisting it would clear off. We were not sure if we believed him or not.
David and I sloughed down onto some rocks, famished and hit into our lunch. I wasn’t even 2 bites in when the cloud lifted from the center part of the mountain revealing the summit. Nearly choking on my sandwich, I rose quickly and headed straight to the opening in the cloud. There it was, the summit of Carrauntoohill.
3.5 hours earlier we had left the iconic Cronin’s Yard. The base and start point for many mountain climbers looking to conquer Ireland’s tallest peak throughout the years. The teahouse is a great place to start with much camaraderie between fellow hikers and a warm cup of tea before starting the trek.
The first part of the hike requires walking from Cronin’s Yard through the valley to the base of the mountain. This area is covered in Ireland’s iconic bog system and the pathways are cut out with large stones. There is not one part of the path that is smooth. The walk is easy, with just some mild grade now and again and takes about 1.5 hours till you reach the base to begin the ascent.
Approaching the base of the mountain you can’t help but stare straight ahead at the first ascent. It stares back at you, beckoning you with the challenge of climbing up through the aptly named Devil’s Ladder. Many consider this route dangerous and I can’t disagree with them, the stones are loose and the water that runs off the mountain down this gulch makes the rocks slippery. However, our guide was sure to let us know that while it is challenging, those that say it is dangerous haven’t ascended Carrauntoohill’s other routes.
We took the ascent up the rocks slowly, with a zigzag approach to not try and climb too steep. We lucked out with a dry day and most of the rocks were dry, however many were loose and each step had to be evaluated for safety before putting weight on it to step upwards. Some of the ascent required scrambling, a term used to describe the action of using your hands and legs when mountain climbing.
The climb was steep and even though we took it slow, it zapped a lot of energy from us. The last part is the steepest, straight up and covered with more of a gravel type rock, making it slippery and a challenge but we managed and soon we were standing at the top of the Devils Ladder.
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It’s hard to put that climb into perspective until you are at the top, staring down the Devil’s Ladder into the valley where you started. It’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment to know you ascended that part of the mountain. But the climb doesn’t stop there. The next part of the climb is deceivingly flat before sending you up the long, final ascent to the summit.
With the blanket of cloud, we couldn’t see the summit from this point in the climb. Setting forward there was to track to follow, just more stone. This last part of the climb was exhaustive and the grade was consistently steep, each step had to be taken with caution. I zigzagged along the path finding secure stones to step on and every once in a while glancing up to see if I could catch a glimpse of the summit.
The total ascent took us roughly 3.5 hours and even though we doubted him, our guide ended up being spot on. Once we reached the top the clouds lifted and cleared the entire view from the top of Carrauntoohill to the world around us. We had views in every direction that lead all the way to the sea. We could see the Dingle Peninsula with great detail including Inch beach. In the other direction, you could see the whole of the Ring of Kerry clear out to the Skellig islands we had visited the day before.
It was simply a spectacular experience all around. Neither of us would consider this an advanced climb but anyone wanting to climb this mountain should prepare for some parts to be challenging. After summiting the mountain, we came down from the last part of the ascent and it was straight down. Our legs were tired and there was no smooth path, its all rocks up and down.
From there we passed by the Devils Ladder and ascended the neighboring hill to the mountain summit, which makes the legs burn. You have to go up to go down on this route, as descending Devil’s Ladder is really dangerous. The route down from the second peak is a casual zigzag with great views.
The total climb took us 7 hours, up and then down, returning to Cronin’s Yard. Ireland isn’t known as a mountain climbing destination, so we were surprised when our search for outdoor things to do returned this climb. It was just another way to experience and enjoy the raw beauty this destination has to offer.
Facts about Carrauntoohill
- Carrauntoohill is the tallest peak in Ireland
- It stands 1038m tall (3,406 feet)
- It is the central peak in the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks range
- A 5m steel cross stands at the summit since 1976
- Starting at Cronin’s Yard, it is a 12km return route
- Due to the changing nature of Ireland’s weather, there have been many fatalities, mostly experienced climbers, attempting to summit
Every year thousands of people make the attempt at climbing the mountain, which has caused amazing disrepair to the mountainsides and track. There are no maintained paths here, as local farmers own the land. It is important that those of us that attempt this climb respect the land and respect the people that own it. Follow the rules on the posted signs, don’t leave garbage or waste, this includes banana peels!
It is highly recommended that you hire an experienced mountain guide to take you up and down the mountain. They not only know the way, but they know the conditions and they know how to deal with the ever-changing elements that this climb presents. Plus they are trained in mountain rescue should something go wrong during your hike. If you insist on climbing un-guided, be sure you have a minimum group size of 4 and give yourself plenty of daylight hours to complete the climb.
Looking for a great guide? We can recommend Kerry Climbing for a professional experience and some great conversation. Ask for Piaras (Pierce), he’s good fun and knows the mountain inside out.
Would you make the climb?
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