Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Coomloughra and Carrantuohil : the most beautiful ridge and mountain walk in Ireland

This northern view of the Reeks shows the splendid ridge containing Ireland's highest mountains

  • Some parking space at start-point, may need to park slightly further away
  • Very steep initial stretch on Hydro Road, pace yourself here
  • Long pull up to Caher is dry, bog-free (almost), gets very steep
  • Some steep. rocky sections over three peaks of Caher
  • A long, fairly steep climb to summit of Carrantuohill, 'roof of Ireland'
  • Option here to return by same route, or continue to Hag's Glen
  • A long mountain walk, needs clear weather and long summer's day
  • Distinctive and rare mountain flora, especially on Carrantuohill
  • Amazing mountain views, especially into Coomloughra and down Iveragh
  • Highest mountains in Ireland, recommended to walk in group of four (minimum)
  • Please consult Kerry Mountain Rescue site for safety guidance and advice

 I want to give an overview here of the route up the Hydro Road to the Reeks, in Kerry. I'm straying slightly out of the Co. Cork area here, but I know this is a mountain range that anyone interested in hill-walking in Ireland will be interested in.

 For more detailed information on routes, I'd recommend reading or consulting (among others) the book 'Carrantohill and the MacGillyCuddy's Reeks' by Jim Ryan (Collins Press). I'm just trying to give a few pointers here, based on my own experience.

 I personally found the route that goes up the Hydro Road (from the Glencar side of the Reeks) the best way up onto the mountains. The traditional access route onto Carrantuohill, the Devil's Ladder, is extremely eroded, and in the past the large number of walkers using it has created a risk of rock fall injury for walkers. By contrast, the Hydro Road access to the Reeks is less used, and gives a longer, somewhat gentler and more satisfying mountain walk.

 The start-point is found by driving or cycling out the minor road to the Gap of Dunloe from Killarney, and instead of turning for the Gap, continue on towards Beaufort along the small road that runs directly below the mountains. Go through Beaufort, and after some miles, as you've passed the Reeks ridge, there is a turn right for Killorglin. Keep left here, and it is over 5 kms from here to the start-point. As the long ridge below Skregbeg comes into view on your left, you might spot a road running straight up and then below its flank. This is your track, the 'Hydro Road'. Look out for a wide semi-circular farm entrance on the right just before the 'Hydro Road' turning on the right. One car might fit in the farm entrance, or a couple more at parking at the 'Hydro Road' entrance. Otherwise park a little up the road (avoid leaving anything valuable visible in the car, as always).

 Make sure to allow plenty of time for this walk. I ascended Caher and Carrantuohill from this point, and the round trip to Carrantuohill took me eight hours, in mid-July. If taking a longer option, allow more time. Always aim to be off the mountain by sunset, if you're not an equipped night-walker.

 The initial stretch of the 'Hydro Road', an access road for the ill-advised hydroelectric scheme on Lough Eighter, helpfully at least surfaced in concrete, is extremely steep. Only those with good fitness should attempt this mountain walk, and this very steep section lets you know this. Even the ascent to the highest summit of Caher (your first peak) on this route involves about 900 m of ascent.
So pace yourself on this first steep section, don't wear yourself out for later. (At least the Hydro Road is a vast improvement on the previous access from this point, which could involve trudging around boggy fields).

 The initial section of the Hydro Road climbs straight up the hillside, then turns right to run almost on the level, then gently climbing under the ridge above. It's now a rough track at this point, and could be wet after wet weather. Keep on, and eventually you come to the bridge over the fast-flowing river that flows out of Lough Eighter. Cross and keep up the track till you emerge beside the lake, and the (I think) disfiguring concrete structures connected to the hydroelectric scheme. Ignoring them, enjoy the view over the lake to three-summited Caher and to the left of it Carrantuohil, and then Beenkeragh, the three highest summits in Ireland.

 Looking to your right, you see a slope leading to a plateau which sweeps to the left, and you need to make your way straight from the lake's side straight up to the edge of this plateau. You mau encounter some boggy ground on the way up and on top, so plan your route by looking well ahead. From the edge of the plateau, your route will be up onto the edge of the glacial corrie of Coomloughra, all the way to the first peak of Caher. You will keep to the edge of the cliffs / steep slopes that edge the great coum (glacial hollow), and the route becomes very steep in places. It's advisable to get into practice for a couple of weeks before you undertake this climb, with steep hill-climbing exercises.

 The first peak of Caher, a true peak if ever there was one, at well over 900 m in height, is your first waymark. Just follow the cliffline of Caher to the left, keeping clear of its dangerous edges, to its next higher peak, at 1001 m, and savour the vertiginous views into Coomloughra and its trapped hour-glass lakes. Then over the third peak of Caher, over steep and rocky ground, with steep falls right to the lake at Curraghmore. Take extreme care along this whole section.

 Eventually, you reach the saddle or col between Caher and Carrantuohil, and you way up to the summit of Carrantuohil is clear before you, a long and steep enough climb over increasingly bare and alpine-like rock, with beautiful alpine (and other) mountain flora visible in the crevices and amongst the stones. Reaching the summit, you're at 1041 m, highest point in Ireland, with staggering views. One day I climbed here, and could see from Cork Airport (its white buildings) in the east, to An Blascaod Mor in the west, almost the whole expanse of Munster.

 Now I will detail the options from the summit of Carrantuohil, either returning by the same route to where you parked your bike or car, descending to the Kerry Way by way of Curraghmore or continuing to the Hag's Glen via the Zig-Zags. The second and third options here will necessitate you parking a second car at the access point in each of those directions.

 I've avoided recommending a descent via the Devil's Ladder into the Hag's Glen, as that route is so eroded and therefore quite an unsafe and unpleasant descent. If you wish to head down into the Hag's Glen, which makes this more of a loop walk, head down from Carrantuohil in an easterly direction, till you reach the col below where the Devil's Ladder branches off to the left.

 Ascending eastwards from here will bring you to the summit of Cnoc na Toinne, which is where the route known as the Zig-Zags descends into the Hag's Glen, and from where you can walk down to Cronin's Yard refreshment and resource centre, to your waiting second car. I won't give full details of the Zig-Zag descent here, except to say it's one of the safest descents on the Reeks. I want to do a separate post on it very shortly. Details on the route can be found on activeme.ie or in Jim Ryan's book 'Carrantuohil and McGillycuddy's Reeks'.

 Another descent from Carrantuohil, to extend your walk, involves returning to Caher, and descending from there to Curraghmore and thence to the Kerry Way path. The path then takes you on to a place (near Lough Acoose), where a second car can have been parked. Be aware that the descent from Caher to Curraghmore is very steep, and only for very fit and experienced hillwalkers.

 Please note that I'm only giving an overview of routes here, based on personal experience. These can be dangerous mountains, and have a high accident rate. Please consult detailed route maps and guides, and take all safety advice, before setting out.

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