Carrauntoohill, December 2014

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Carrauntoohill is the large peak on the right

I’ve been hillwalking in the MacGillycuddy Reeks since the 1980s and I’ve probably been up Carrauntoohill, the highest peak in the range at 3,406 feet – and the highest in Ireland – at least once a year over that time.

It was in the news recently when some people carried an angle-grinder to the summit and cut down the steel cross that had stood there since 1976. This was in protest, apparently, at the number of schools run by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The culprits have not been identified nor are they likely to be.

The incident resulted in some debate in the media as to what should be done – should the cross be re-erected or, as Atheist Ireland recommended, should there be a “more inclusive” symbol put in its place – if, indeed, there should be any object put there at all. The need for planning permission was mentioned, something that was not of concern back in 1976.

In the event, one week after the felling, the cross was re-erected by a group of local people and there it stands none the worse for its sudden impact with the stony ground. The culprits unwittingly helped in its swift restoration due to the clean cut at the base and because they did not cut it into pieces and hurl them down the steep northern side of the mountain. I suspect that once they felled it they got out of the area as quickly as they could.

I’m glad it’s back upright. The first sight of the cross as one makes one’s way through the last few hundred feet to the summit is always a relief – finally! I’ve made it! In poor visibility it serves as a useful landmark. I’ve never regarded it as a symbol of Catholic triumphalism – it’s just a simple steel cross that has been there for a long time and the summit would not be the same without it. Leave it be.

The incident prompted me to make another trip to Carrauntoohill last Saturday. The recent cold weather would have the Reeks looking their best with their winter raiment of snow. The forecast was for good sunny spells and the only consideration at this time of the year was the hours of daylight – it would be getting dark shortly after 4pm and the round trip to the summit would take about 6 – 7 hours so an early start was necessary. I left home around 5:45am for the 1.5 hour drive to the starting off point at Cronins’ Farm and I began my trek up the Hag’s Glen at 7:30am. The sky was beginning to brighten but a head torch was necessary for the first 20 minutes or so.

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Sunrise behind the Eastern Reeks

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Sheep crossing my path up the Hag’s Glen  

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The first rays of sunlight hitting the flank of Carrauntoohill 

My route was up the glen and thence the ascent of the Devil’s Ladder – a 500 feet steep gully – on to the saddle (a narrow, level stretch of ground between Carraountoohill and the Eastern Reeks) and thence the remaining relatively easy 1000 feet to the summit. This is the most popular route although there are more interesting options such as via The Bone, The Heavenly Gates or O’Shea’s Gully.

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Ascending the Devil’s Ladder

The snowline began about half way up the Ladder and it was thick on the ground on top. The usual path was not visible due to the snow and so I just followed the footsteps of a climber ahead of me. By the time I got to the summit visibility had significantly worsened. It was obvious that there wasn’t going to be any sunlit vistas of the Reeks anytime soon and it was too cold to linger there for  long. After a bite to eat I set off back down the slope. It was snowing now and the marks of my footsteps on the way up were becoming indistinct. I was soon down below the cloud however and the saddle at the top of the Devil’s Ladder wasn’t too far away.

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Looking towards the summit of Carrauntoohill from the top of the Devil’s Ladder

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The first glimpse of the summit cross in the deteriorating visibility

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I usually try to avoid going down the Devil’s Ladder as it can be awkward to negotiate and there is a lot of loose rocks to contend with. However, my preferred option of descending via the Zig Zag path would have meant climbing Cnoc an Toinne the top of which was above the cloud line and I wasn’t prepared to deal with poor visibility in the snow. I made my way down the Ladder therefore and my walking poles gave me badly needed support.

It was disappointing that despite the good weather forecast the night before there wasn’t a clear sky on top. The views are spectacular when there is and especially so when there is snow on the mountains. Still, seven hours traversing this wonderful part of Ireland is always a pleasure regardless of the weather.