Experiencing the mountain at its magnificent best, going higher than ever before and reaching my limits.
Just for this post I have decided to use the photos I took on the hike instead of sketching the amazing scenes we saw – I don’t think I could come close to capturing the magnificence of this mountain and the weather conditions we experienced. (Edit – One sketch added later – nearly as hard as climbing the mountain!)
The forecast shows one day at the end of this week with neither thick cloud or freezing conditions on Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain in the wonderfully named Macgillycuddy Reeks. An early start finds me with my son Will in the car-park at the start of the ‘Hydro Track’ route; but not quite as early as we hoped after a missed turn around Killarney. It’s the Solstice: the days will be getting longer but we have limited daylight time for this long hike.
We have driven through mist and drizzle and are doubtful about the forecast, but as we get nearer, the Reeks poke their heads through the cloud and the skies begin to clear. Once booted up, we set off up the Hydro Track on the Caher (Coomloughra) route, concrete at first and then rough track to the lough.
Lough Eighter lies still and eerie; we have already reached 400 meters and as the peak we are aiming for appears briefly through the cloud, high above, I begin to comprehend the task we have taken on. Across boggy ground and then onto the slippy, rough, grey, scree, steadily climbing towards Caher (Cathair: ‘Stone Fort’) that stands at 1001 meters, my legs and lungs begin to feel the strain and I need to take frequent stops. The going is slow and the gradient gets steeper as we get higher, now enveloped in thick cloud that clings damply to us. At the steepest section above 700 meters, Will plots a meandering route to take advantage of the contours which makes the going a little easier. The eroded path that heads straight up the shortest route is hard going and the loose scree easily slips away from under our feet, so his route is worth the extra distance.
As we struggle up the steep rise to 950 meters the sky clears and we are under cold blue skies looking down onto the clouds. It’s a wonderful moment. The cloud comes and goes, swirls up the ridge, fills the glen before clearing to reveal Coomloughra and Eagher loughs below.
Caher has three peaks so once at tiny stone-built shelter on the first at 975 meters there are two more shorts descents before ascents to 1001 and 983 meters. This is higher than I have climbed ever before and I am certainly feeling the strain. My legs are burning and I need more frequent stops to catch my breath but the scenery itself is breathtaking so is well worth the pain.
From the second peak we look across the glen to see our ringed shadows – a ‘Brocken Spectre‘.
A steep, rocky scramble leads down to the ascent to the last of the three Caher peaks. As we look down, the path looks precipitous but once on it the going is easy enough.
The path becomes narrower as we approach the Caher ridge: a precipitous drop into the glen on our left and a steep slope to our right with the cloud below swirling like waves breaking on a rocky shore.
Traversing the ridge becomes a scramble over rocky steps, narrower and more slippery as we go. I was apprehensive about this section before we set out but find it less scary than I imagined although the fear of a slip is always in my mind and I am now extremely tired. But now we have a decision to make – we are running out of time, I am reaching the limits of my strength and the sun is getting low. Carrauntoohil is only a short distance away but we have a descent before the last climb and it will take more than an hour, maybe two, to get back to where we are for our return. We press on for a few more meters but I slowly realise that I really am at my limit now and if we carry on, our final descent will be in the dark. We turn back as Carrauntoohil disappears in the cloud.
Looking back, Caher looks higher than it seemed and I have a hard time getting back up that rocky ridge. We sit for a few minutes to take on more fuel but I find that I can’t eat much as tiredness sets in. But the view is still amazing as the low sun lights up the clouds below us.
I am disappointed not to have reached the top but relieved that we are on the return leg, the way we have come. It turns out to be the right decision because we reach the car-park in darkness – but not before we have enjoyed the setting sun lighting the hills below us during the grueling descent.
The final sunset is glorious but the last steep descent down the rough concrete of the Hydro Track is painful!
We reach the car-park in complete darkness – so dark in fact that we miss a turn, can’t find it and have to ask directions. The long journey home is through thick fog and I am grateful to let Will do the driving. It was good to have him with me to share his mountain experience and this is certainly not a route one should attempt alone.
In retrospect, I reached, and possibly passed my limits today. This was higher than I have ever been, certainly more difficult than anything I have done before but well worth it. We were blessed with the most perfect weather conditions which showed the mountain at it’s best and this may have been the most memorable experience of the year.
About the route
The route is easy enough to follow as the path is quite eroded. There are no way-markers of any kind so navigation skills are required when visibility is poor and a good map and compass are essential. The Caher ridge is quite exposed and could be difficult in windy conditions.
Our route on Google Maps
Total ascent: 966 meters. Maximum altitude 1001 meters. 7 hours.