there was the day we set out to climb Irelands highest mountain, and didnt
(or Carrantuohillpronounced "CARE-un-tool") is Irelands Matterhorn.
It is the boss mountain in the Irish Alps, otherwise known as Macgillicuddys (or
Macgillycuddys) Reeks. The Reeks are the east-west backbone of the rugged Iveragh
Peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean in County Kerry in far southwestern Ireland.
At 3,414 feet (1,041 meters) above sea level Carrauntoohil is higher than all but 4
mountains in Wales and higher than any hill in England and would qualify as a serious
Munro (mountains above 3,000 feet high) on the list of 214 such peaks in Scotland. Ireland
has 13 peaks that would qualify on the Scottish Munro scale, and of these ten are located
in the Macgillicuddys Reeks, including the eight highest mountains of Ireland.
That said, Carrauntoohil has been conquered by
so many so often that it is topped with an iron cross that had been outlined with lights
run by a wind-powered generatoruntil someone swiped the generator. We have read that
until recently a bicycle has been chained to the cross. Since 1987 there has been an
annual race up and down the mountain (with three-quarters of a mile of altitude to be
gained and then given back) by very fit runners. The race has been owned by Kerrys
John Lenihan, who has won the event 14 years in a row with times as fast as 1 hour 11
minutes 43 seconds.
Despiteor perhaps becauseof the
popularity of the climb, hikers guides suggest allowing 6-7 hours for the
approximately 11-mile hike from the car park to the top of Carrauntoohil and back. And
those same guides are careful to warn you that Carrauntoohil is no beginners
hillevery year the Mountain Rescue service is called to the mountain several times
to save lost or injured hikers or recover their bodies.
My longtime friend and hiking companion Freddy Baker and I were in Ireland with
our families last May. We had taken a week at one of our favorite
At First cottages in Glengarriff in
southwest Ireland, a region
Freddy and I wanted to hike together. The hiking variety is endless in these parts: easy
hills, high mountains, sea cliffs, streams and woodlands, andwith the possible
exceptions of portions of Connemara and Donegalthe southwest is Irelands most
remote and rugged country.
The families had fun together in the Caha
Mountains of the Beara Peninsulathe wildest part of County Cork and a spectacular
and under-visited part of Ireland. We climbed some easy hills around Glengarriff, and some
more challenging mountains out on the peninsula, and walked two sections of the
long-distance Beara Way trail on headlands near the peninsulas dramatic end jutting
into the Atlantic. Freddys kids found the walking challenging fun. Theyre both
city kids with no real experience in the mountains or away from the organized activities
of suburban life. Both of them scrambled joyously up and down the hills. They were
surprised by the exhilaration of making it to the hilltops, and were initially made wary,
then intensely curious, then elated by their discoveries of waterfalls, sheep skeletons,
abandoned farm buildings, and bogs that could suck off their boots.
But, despite the positive experiences of Beara,
the kids were not ready for the challenge of climbing Irelands highest peak in
neighboring Kerry. So it was decided that the kids would go pony-trekking with their
mother on the day Freddy and I would climb Carrauntoohil.
At 9AM we formed a two-car caravan for the half-hour drive across
the Caha Pass north from Glengarriff, Cork, to Kenmare, Kerry. We stopped at the helpful,
well-equipped tourist bureau in Kenmare. There, Wendy, Freddys wife, made
arrangements for a pony-trek in the Killarney National Park for her and the kids, while
Freddy and I purchased Ordnance Survey Maps for our hike. By 9:45 we were ready to climb
back into our cars and head north for our respective adventures. We agreed that we would
meet back at the Kenmare Tourist Office promptly at 5PM. Wendy warned us not to be late or
she would worry that Irelands highest mountain might have claimed us as victims. I
figured we could get to the trailhead in an hour, do the climb in 5 hoursafter all,
Freddy and I are experienced alpinists, fit and properly outfittedand drive the hour
back to Kenmare and have 15 minutes left over for a celebratory Guinness. Piece of cake.
The day appeared mostly cloudy and the predicted weather promised some sunny
breakthroughs, little wind, and some scattered showers. Freddy and I were almost ready. We
had our boots, rucksacks, maps, food, drink, gloves, compass, raingear,
evenwere optimistssunglasses and shorts. What we didnt
haveand what no one at the tourist office could tell usis how to get to the
trailhead to climb Carrauntoohil. But, I reasoned, we had a quality Ordnance Survey Map
(OSI Discover Series #78 1:50,000) and an excellent Michelin road map. Combining the two
of them should put us on the closest road to the mountain at the earliest possible time.
Then came a bad omen. I couldnt find the
way out of Kenmare. I took the wrong road off of the town square and within two minutes
was already lost and at the end of a country road leading to nowhere. Wendydriving
the other carshowed no impatience with me when, at a gravelly U-turn point, she
smiled and took the fore. Sheepishly, I followed her and the kids up and over Molls
Gap and into the Killarney National Park. My study of the likely route to Carrauntoohil
suggested that we should avoid the congestion of Killarney town. These days
Killarneys too full of traffic during the holiday season to be considered anything
but a city. Carrauntoohil is due west of Killarney in a remote area of which it is the
center point. This region is circumscribed on my Michelin map by roads of various
color-coded grades: green roads to the south and west and red roads to the east and north.
It looked to me like the green roads were secondary two-lane scenic routes and the red
ones would be primary two-lane roads, whichbecause they went through downtown
Killarneycould be much more heavily trafficked. I guessed that we would make better
time getting to the trailhead by taking the green roads clockwise around Carrauntoohil
rather than the red roads counter-clockwise through busy Killarney. Realizing that meant
that we had already missed a key turn. We flashed a high-beamed good-bye to Wendy and the
kids in the lead car and pulled into a lay-by on the mountain road so we could make our
second U-turn of the day (Map point ). Then we
climbed back up the winding hill to the intersection at Molls Gap.
At Molls Gap our secondary
(green) scenic route, the R568, drops away to the west, bound for the village of
Sneemdid Dr. Seuss name this place?and the famous Ring of Kerry road round the
Iveragh Peninsula. Even better, a great valley opened up, plunging away to the west. From
our perch at Molls Gap we could see the geography of much of the peninsula, and, to
our ready excitement, Macgillicuddys Reeks defined the north rim of the valley. One
of those high points to our right must be our goal, mighty Carrauntoohil.
Our excellent Michelin map informed us that we
must descend 6 miles toward Sneem into this valley as far as a place called
Derreendarragh, where we must leave the R568 and turn north toward the mountains. This
road, though unnumbered, should be easy to findthere should be no other roads to the
right between Molls Gap and Derreendarragh. After ½ hour we arrived in Sneem
. Somehow we missed our turn and never saw Derreendarragh at all.
We had gotten held up in a "road works" projectthats Irish for
"road under destruction". Maybe the dust of the "road works" had
obscured our turn-off.
Sneem seemed worth a snoop. There were three
pubs and a village green. But not today, not if we were to climb Carrauntoohil. U-turn
number three occurred immediately. We retraced our steps through the construction zone
nine miles. And there, there at the very start of the "road works" where the
highway crew had first flagged us, there was our unmarked roadway junction .
TO PART TWO