As I wound my way in heavily overcast skies and low cloud, along the narrow road leading to Dursey Island, on the southwestern tip of the Beara Peninsula, the presenter of a jazz channel introduced a piece of music he was about to play on air, Keith Jarrett’s solo piano masterpiece Köln Concert, recorded in 1975. “Go where it takes you”, he said. As the first bars began to sound, it seemed a metaphor for the journey I found myself on, as I headed towards the tip of this Peninsula in the west of County Cork.
Having been working on contract in Shannon, County Clare, for over a year, I had undertaken a number of weekend trips on the west coast of Ireland, yet too few to do adequate justice to this wonderful country. Always drawn to the mountains, I felt I couldn’t leave without having hiked in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountain range in County Kerry. Stretching slightly over 19 km, it includes the highest peaks in Ireland and the only peaks on the island that are over 1,000 metres. The highest of these is Carrauntoohil at 1,038 metres. On the Friday afternoon, just outside Limerick, after encountering slow-moving traffic on the N21 towards Killarney, a road notorious for it, I diverted to the N20 to Cork, arriving in Killarney two hours later via Mallow.
I had booked a B&B on Park Road, on the northern side of the town. After checking in, I headed out for a stroll. Passing through the town centre, I made my way in light rain past Killarney’s famous racecourse (it surrounds a golf course) down to Ross Castle on Ross Island on the edge of Lough Leane in Killarney National Park, built in the late 15th century as the ancestral home of the O’Donoghue clan. My return took me through woodland, past the Demesne (land attached to a manor during feudal times).
Killarney National Park, which totals 10,236 hectares, lies immediately to the south and west of the town. Designated in 1981 as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, it comprises the Upper, Middle & Lower Lakes surrounded by mountains and woodlands. The Park is an area of outstanding beauty and includes the peaks of Mangerton, Torc and Shehy. To the west of the park are the MacGillycuddys Reeks.
No sooner had I made an exit through the park gates than I stood before the Cathedral of St Mary. I walked onto the High Street, which is lined from one end to the other with pubs. At the southern end I entered Sheehan’s, a traditional pub with a long slender bar-room and stage at the back end, at a relatively early hour, before all the other tourists in town and the locals arrived. The friendly doorman-cum-bouncer assisted in grabbing a stool, suggesting that I position myself near the door. A local traditional Irish music trio were soon to perform, it seemed. They were thoroughly entertaining – the guitarist also had a good voice. I got chatting to a young German couple sitting next to me, who hailed from Nuremberg, were I spent time as a student during my student days. We ended up discussing Dortmund and Bayern’s Champions League slaughter of Spanish football giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. I walked back to my B&B. Feeling a bit peckish, I sacrificed my principles and popped in at a MacDonalds en route.
Killarney National Park had been serious choice to spend a weekend on Irish soil, as I had been keen to climb some mountains within the MacGillycuddys Reeks range. After leaving the B&B around 9h00 Saturday morning, I drove along the N72 heading west out of Killarney. I located the turn-off which led me to Cronin’s Yard, which, for over 200 years, has been used as the traditional starting point for ascents of Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil. I arrived with a sense of expectation laced with trepidation. I knew I wasn’t fit enough and my torn cartilage in my left knee might prove a hindrance. Going up on my own, albeit that I had a good route map, would not be too clever. My prayers had been answered though. On a beautiful, warm sunny day, the car park was packed with numerous groups and dozens of hikers about to set off. All I needed to do was to latch onto one such group, which I did, as they set off on the track that soon crossed two bridges, Patie O’Shea (a Beaufort community activist) and Angela Kenny (who died here in December, 1987).
The group leader was a local who rattled the words off so fast that I understood absolutely nothing, in all honesty, which was a shame, as he pointed out details en route I was keen to take note of. His teenage ginger-haired son and daughter seemed cut from the same cloth, hikers in the making. Instead of taking the traditional route by first utilizing stepping stones to cross a river in Hag’s Glen and taking the path which led between Lough Gouragh and Lough Callee and then up the Devils’ Ladder, we headed off to the right along a less clearly defined path with both lakes now to the left, around the base of a pinnacle which some refer to as Hag’s Tooth, though the correct name is Stumpa an tSaimh, meaning ‘stump of the sorrel’. Turning away from the lakes, we climbed between Carrauntoohil (on our left) and Stumpa an tSaimh around a wall of rock to a boggy flat section, continuing up until we reached the intersection of a number of routes, near Lough Cummeenoughter.
Several routes to the top beckoned, a choice of one of three gullies, Circular, Central or O’Shea’s Gully. Whilst undoubtedly far more challenging than the Devil’s Ladder, it is infinitely more scenic, also offering protection from the wind. I am not certain as to whether I ascended Central or Curved Gully however the route presented two segments where the rock climbing skills and care were required. Gaining a foothold proved particularly difficult when having to negotiate a waterfall.
Once above it, I knew there was no way back down this route. At this stage the group had dropped me, however I found myself in the company of other climbers. The path turned back on itself briefly before reaching a spot where I rested for a moment whilst overlooking Lough Cummeenoughter. A French couple had stopped for lunch. Having successfully climbed the second of the difficult passages, the ridge above seemed achievable, though the steep gradient still proved unrelenting. The sense of almost having made it spurred me on. Another large group had assembled just below the col and on the recommendation of their group leader, donned additional jackets, gloves and headgear.
In contrast to being sheltered from exposure to the elements on the ascent, the last few steps to the col gave way to a sudden blast of howling cold wind but it didn’t detract from the vista before me, as I gazed down upon the expanse comprising the Coomloughra Horseshoe surrounding Lough Eagher and its larger neighbour Lough Coomloughra bathed in sunshine. Turning sharp left on the col towards the east, I ascended the last couple of hundred metres to the summit, shrouded in mist at this stage. Dozens of hikers had taken shelter at the rock enclosure adjacent to the large wooden cross. There is no doubt that this is an immensely popular mountain to climb. I crouched down to pour tea from my flask which I drank eagerly. Possibly due to exhaustion, the appetite for food had however deserted me.
With the cloud increasingly moving in, I descended with the group whom I had met at the col. Descending towards the south in a zig-zag fashion down a scree and rock path, we eventually reached an area where the path underfoot gave way to thick grass. Here we parted ways, as they were about to turn east for the descent of Heaven’s Gate. The group leader pointed into the mist ahead, stating emphatically that the Devil’s Ladder lay about 300 metres further on. The lip of the descent soon appeared out of the mist and I saw a small group heading towards it too.
The path at the top of the Devils’ Ladder is badly eroded, making it quite slippery. In fact, Descent is a slow, painstaking process and is where my dodgy knee is at its most vulnerable. Mostly though, the terrain comprises loose stone and boulders, some areas channeling water depending how much rain had fallen. Mini rock slides are known to occur [as reported here], making it very unstable. Consequently, the variability of the terrain means that there isn’t really a distinctive path. In very wet conditions it appears to be nigh-on impossible to descend, the floods of water causing massive erosion [see YouTube clip here], which should really be taken care of. Despite the lower regions of the gorge being covered in mist, visibility was good enough on this occasion, with not too much water to contend with. At times I found it easier to slide down on my backside rather than risk stepping forward. It felt like an age before I got down. From here on it was a long slog back to Cronin’s Yard which, by the time I reached it, was bathed in sunlight. The French couple I had seen having lunch whilst ascending Curved Gully, were sitting in their car which had been parked next to mine. Though pre-occupied reading a map, she looked up, smiled and waved.
I headed back through Killarney’s town centre, which tends to clog up with traffic, notwithstanding the fact that it was a Bank Holiday weekend and one on which the 2013 Rally of the Lakes event was being staged (more of that later). I located Muckross Stables B&B, not far from Muckross House, though not before I had stopped to pick up a pack of ciders. I announced my arrival at the B&B to the elderly lady who responded to the knock at the door. Situated up the valley off the Muckross Road heading south out of Killarney, it was a lovely setting however I wasn’t too enamoured with the tiny room, roughly nine square metres. Despite not having an en-suite bathroom and having to venture downstairs to find one, I was too knackered to complain. A shower and a few ciders was the priority as I settled down for the evening.