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Misty Mountain Hop

Misty Mountain Hop

“ So I’m packing my bags for the misty mountains (where the spirits go!)” - Led Zeppelin, 1971

The huge grey cross appeared, almost magically, through the thick fog above. Never before had I been so aware of the spirit of the mountains. I stood there, the highest point of this island, itself so full of myths and legends, and felt something really special. It wasn’t the climb itself, neither was it the usual elation of reaching the summit; it was more than that. It was just being there and breathing in the atmosphere. The cloud lifted momentarily, giving just the briefest glimpse of the sparkling loughs in the valley below - the moment was complete, and I sought refuge from the cold wind in the summit shelter. It was time for reflections, on what was surely, a fitting conclusion to a memorable trip.

For various reasons the ascent of Carrauntoohill had been left until last – and it didn’t disappoint. High level ridge walking, first class scrambling and solitude so seldom found in the high mountains of the UK. My limbs ached as I commenced the final descent from Caher. My soul, however, felt rested, satisfied and revitalised - touched by the spirit of Ireland’s highest mountains.

County Kerry

The first thing you’ll notice as you drive into Kerry is a completely different pace of life. The next thing you’ll notice will be the mountains. Not just the jagged skyline of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, nor the huge coastal views of Brandon Mountain, but the seemingly endless hills and peaks that surround you on all sides.

 

Combine the hill walking possibilities with clean beaches, a unique and colourful culture, genuine hospitality, warm melodic music and, of course, a few pints of the black stuff, and the experience is quite unlike anything else in the British Isles. The unexpected bonus is that its so easily accessible and suprisingly inexpensive.

Kerry is a large county but its roads are small. Consequently, there’s not really an ideal base for everything. Unless touring, compromises must be made. We chose Glenbeigh, a small coastal village within easy driving range of Killorglin and Killarney. One of the many attractions on the infamous Ring of Kerry (a must for all visitors), Glenbeigh overlooks the surf battered beaches of Rossbeigh Strand, a 5km sandy peninsula which reaches out into Dingle Bay.

With so many mountains and so little time, it’s always difficult to know where to start. We chose the highest first.

The Macgillycuddy’s Reeks

At 3,414ft (1,039m), Carrauntoohil is the highest mountain in Ireland, towering over its neighbours and guarded on almost all sides with spectacular cliffs. It is possible to climb it in isolation, starting from the farm on the banks of the Gaddagh River (GR836873). The route takes the path north through the spectacular Hag’s Glen, tracking along the side of Lough Callie, before battling with the seemingly endless steep screes of the Devils Ladder. From here, there is a further 1,000 vertical feet to climb, along a well-marked path to the summit. If there was an Irish equivalent of the pony track up Ben Nevis, this would be it. Like the pony track, this route is the most suitable for inexperienced parties and the views and magic of the summit are reward enough for your toils.

For a committed walker with a good head for heights, the best way to climb to all of Carrauntoohils’ summits and tops, with a minimum of backtracking, is in two separate outings. Both offer high level ridge walking and scrambling that is second to none in quality.

 

The Carrauntoohil Horseshoe

Early Tuesday morning, five tired and stiff bodies began the long pull up the stony track to Lough Eighter. The sunshine and fresh clear air did little to ease the aches and pains caused by excessive walking, too many late nights and the odd drop of Guinness. This, however, was the biggie, the piece de resistance, the one we’d all been looking forward to. To our delight, the tops were clear of mist for the first time all week and the awesome views at the end of the valley only heightened our excitement. By the time we crossed the small dam at the outflow of the lough and started to climb up the steep grassy hillside of Skregmore, the effects of the previous night were finally forgotten. The anticipation of the delightful airy ridge and the highest point in Ireland took over.

 

We reached the saddle just west of Skregmore’s 2,782ft (848m) summit and stopped for a well-earned cuppa. The wind was quite chilling on the ridge so we shuffled back down a few metres to shelter from the worst of it. Typically at this stage, in came the clag! Where there had been glorious views only a few seconds earlier, there was now nothing but greyness. The summit, only 50 metres away had vanished, replaced by thick swirling Irish mist.

Undeterred and rested we pressed on, optimistic as ever that it would clear by the time we topped out! We never did! Only a few moments later, as we descended from the summit cairn, Nikki tripped on some loose scree. Instinctively, she threw out her hand to protect herself and took the full impact through her wrist.

Fortunately nothing was broken but she was clearly shaken and suffering from shock. It left us with no option but to back off - the mountains would still be there tomorrow. Reluctantly we retraced our steps down the hillside, diverting slightly to eat our lunch on the side of Lough Coomloughra. Inevitably, within 5 minutes, out came the sun! Bathed in sunlight, the summit of Carrauntoohil looked more inviting than ever. Still, the daunting cliffs of Caher, towering above the lake, made this a wonderful place to rest and served only to strengthen our resolve to return again later in the week and see them at closer range.

A few hours later, in the aptly named Climbers Inn at Glencar, after the odd glass of medicine, Nikki’s spirits finally picked up. The bruising, however, stayed with her for weeks.

The Eastern Ridge

Whilst not as high as the peaks on the horseshoe route, Cnoc na Peiste (3191ft/988m) and the ridge that connects its outlying tops, offer equally as impressive walking. Again, most of it can be scrambled as close to the ridge top as possible, and the quality of the rock and quantity of useful holds make it a route to savour. For those without a head for heights the difficult sections can be avoided by following faint paths around the obstacles.

 

Again, we were surrounded by thick cloud by the time we made the first top and had to make do with occasional gaps in the cloud to take in any of the views. The walking though (or should that be scrambling?), was totally absorbing and the quiet was only exaggerated by the lack of visibility. After the grassy summit plateau of Cnoc na Toinne, it was a real disappointment to descend onto the Devils Ladder and start the route back; losing not just the elevation we had enjoyed all day but also the solitude. For the first time on the entire walk, we met other people as we descended the treacherous screes. An hour later we arrived back at the farm, once again replete.

Brandon Mountain

Named after St. Brendan, who took his inspiration to travel from the incredible views from the summit;
Brandon Mountain is situated on northern edge of the Dingle peninsula. It appears to rise straight from the ocean itself to a grand height of 3,127ft (953m) and, although isolated in comparison to the Reeks, its subsidiary top, Brandon Peak and the outlying ridge of Gearhane, combine to form a day worthy of any hillwalker.

A friend had visited Brandon Bay last year and, on a hot, sunny day, climbed Brandon Mountain with his girlfriend by the Pilgrims route. Approaching the summit they saw three walkers on the knife edged east ridge. The small guidebook they had bought suggested that this route was impassable and seeds of an idea were sewn - to return with his usual walking buddies and tackle the east ridge.

 

It may have taken years for his plan to come to fruition but, by pure coincidence, our trips this year overlapped by a week. With the advantage of a second car we were able to contrive a horseshoe route from Faha without a fairly lengthy road section at the end. We climbed from the farm, stopping briefly at a small religious shrine on the way. Then, trending to the right, away from the more popular Pilgrims route, we followed a dry stone wall to the spot height of 822m. Here we got our first glimpse of the east ridge and it certainly looked awesome as it narrowed in front of us. To the right, the drop was huge down to the Owennafeana River below. Here the remains of a 2nd World War airplane can be clearly seen. It crashed when it ran out of fuel but incredibly, its German crew all survived!

The ridge was awesome. Stopping occasionally to wave to walkers on the path below, we had a sense of real exhilaration, and after some challenging scrambling on slippery rock, we started the final climb to the summit cairn. Impassable it was not; the scrambles however, were not avoidable and it certainly wouldn’t be the route for anyone of a nervous disposition.

This time, the thick fog that had been with us all week stayed away and we were able to marvel at the views. The coastline was visible in all directions whilst, much closer, the loughs in the valley below glistened in the afternoon sun, surrounded on three sides by monster cliffs. Still ahead of us was the airy ridge leading over Brandon Peak and on to Gearhane. Both came and went without incident, we stopped only occasionally to watch acrobatic ravens and to admire the views. Finally, we made our way down the trackless, boggy south east spur of Gearhane to the car, now clearly visible in the early evening sunshine.

The Carrauntoohil Horseshoe (take two!)
We finally returned on Thursday - our last day. Sadly this time, with a smaller party, the week’s activities had taken their toll on the group. Despite an awesome sunrise over Lough Caragh and a close encounter with an otter, (the first wild one I’d ever seen) the sun again refused to shine. The ridge however, proved every bit as good as it looked and, with only the briefest gaps in the cloud to admire the views, our attention was firmly focused on the route ahead and picking the best line on the scrambles. Looking back now, it was probably better that way – it gave us a chance to open our minds and feel the true spirit of the mountains.

Sadly the week came to an end but not before we paid a few more visits to the Climbers Arms - Where else in the world do you find a pub with a pulpit in the bar! Let alone one that serves stamps and petrol but has run out of crisps and peanuts?

There is no doubt that this is a unique and interesting place to visit. I take away many memories, none though, as strong as the spirit of the misty mountains.

“Over the hills and far away…(where the spirits fly)”

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