By Declan Scott Pollard
8 September, 2013
The silence in the valley was broken only by the sound of feet hitting uneven paths. Our group of six slowly trekked through Killarney National Park in County Kerry on the southwest coast of Ireland, towards the country’s highest peak, Carrantuohill. The mountain, covered by clouds, loomed into view as we walked through the basin below. The quiet was deafening, interrupted only occasionally by conversation between the other three people in our party, all members of the same family, and our guide, Richard Clancy. The chat was about the national sports, Gaelic football and hurling, neither of which I knew anything about. And, as much of the conversation was in the Gaelic language, I couldn’t have participated even if I had.
View from Hags Glen
Half an hour passed and we slowly edged closer to the base of the mountain over a narrow path of rock and gravel, passing several other peaks until we arrived at a large boulder that shielded us from the wind gusting down the valley, which is known as Hags Glen. Our guide announced we would eat lunch, sitting in the shelter of this large rock, before starting the ascent.
I gobbled down a Snickers bar before deciding to get a better view of both the mountain and the terrain behind us by climbing the boulder. As I scrambled up I could see the landscape that we had just trekked through. The verdant green valley was wide and deep, and enclosed two lakes – called Hags Lake and Goats Lake -- glistening in the morning sun. The weather was so clear I could see all the way to Killarney. A handful of other climbers could be seen, but for the most part the landscape was empty of life, except for us and some mountain goats and sheep.
I turned towards Carrantuohill, which in Gaelic is spelled Corrán Tuathail and means broken or backward scythe. The description matches the mountain, which is saw-toothed and shaped like the cutting tool of old. The clouds covering its top like a veil parted occasionally to reveal the summit. It was massive, with sheer green and grey sides towering above us.
Quick Weather Change
The height of Carrantuohill doesn’t sound intimidating, only 1,032 meters compared with 4,095 meters for Malayasia’s Mount Kinabalu, one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks and a mountain I had scaled just six months previously. But Carrantuohill’s rocky outcrops and steep ascent are challenging. Ireland’s fickle weather doesn’t help. The peak is known to experience four seasons in one day, and while our climb started off in the sunshine we were to suffer harsh winds and freezing rain at the top.
Climbing the Hardest Part
There are several ways to tackle Carrantuohill. After lunch our guide pointed out our planned route to the top, via what’s known as the Devil’s Ladder. I could see how it had earned its name. Considered the quickest but most demanding path to the summit the so-called ladder is an almost vertical rock face leading up to a col between two mountains, one of which is Carrantuohill. The other is known as Knocknapeasta in English of Cnoc na Peiste in Gaelic. Both peaks are part of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks range of mountains on County Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula.
The hardest part of the climb would be the ladder. It was so sheer it looked almost untraversable from where I was standing. Climbing Mount Kinabalu half a year earlier had taught me the importance of endurance and altitude management, but Kinabalu didn’t have anything that looked as treacherous as this. My thoughts were interrupted as Richard our guide declared lunch over. I quickly grabbed my bag and our group rejoined the rocky road.
As we reached the ladder I started to get butterflies in my stomach. It appeared steeper looking up from the base than it had from afar. I glanced around one last time and then slowly placed my foot on the first rock and lifted myself up. The ladder got steeper and steeper as we ascended it. At some points we had to use our arms to lift ourselves up onto the next rock in our path. The scariest part was that many of the rocks were loose, making me very nervous that the person in front of me was going to dislodge the scree, sending stones straight down into my face.
We spent a tough forty-five minutes on the ladder but we finally clambered up to the top, coming out onto the col. The view was breathtaking. I looked over the edge of the col in front of me and gained an entirely new perspective on the valley below. It was deep and dotted with rocks and mountain sheep. The sun reflected off the two steely blue lakes. When I walked to the other side of the col I could see another large body of water and the countryside stretching for miles into the distance.
At the Highest Point in Ireland
After a brief break we turned our focus to the task at hand. We were two-thirds of the way up and the next leg was less steep but looked challenging, shrouded as it was with clouds. As we climbed over the grassy incline studded with rocks I could barely see a couple of meters in front of me. But there were brief moments when the clouds rolled away on the wind and we could see the summit. After about 45 minutes of hiking we were at the top and the five-meter tall iron cross that marks the highest point in Ireland. I rushed up to it and put my hand on the stone-cold surface.
The wind was blowing and rain started to fall as we huddled in a round shelter made of rocks piled waist high and shared another snack. The thought of sliding down the Devil’s Ladder was less than appealing, so it was with relief that I heard Richard say we would take another route to the base of the mountain, called the Heavenly Gates. He promised it was not as treacherous as the ladder, but did say there some risky parts to negotiate. He wasn’t joking.
Descent via the Heavenly Gates
We set off along a narrow path that twisted and turned and rose and fell over sharp outcrops of rocks that occasionally had us scrambling to hold on. At times we glanced down to see sheer rock face falling steeply to the floor of the glen below. I felt the path might have been better named the Hellish Gates. As we descended our rain-drenched clothes dried in the wind and the sun came out again. An hour of slipping and sliding and edging along the narrow trail brought us to the bottom of the mountain, about 5 hours after we had set off. I was happy to have completed another summit.
Richard Clancy can be reached via Killarneyguidedwalks.com. He is a 10th grade SAS student with a passion for climbing mountains and the goal to complete the Seven Summits.