I have discovered that I can now quite easily imbed photo slideshows. Likewise, I have stumbled upon some old photos from my first trip to Ireland when Michael and I climbed it's highest peak. Check out the story below that I originally wrote immediately following the climb back in 2008 (?). I have edited it a couple times, but have not touched it in a while. Below is a recent edit. Enjoy.
Today I had, without a doubt, the worst shower of my life. You know how you feel after a long day of skiing; you're soaking wet and freezing cold, a cold that will not go away without a hot shower. Well that was me today, and after my long-anticipated shower, I'm still freezing cold. This despite wearing two long underwear shirts underneath a wool sweater, and long underwear under my jeans.
Barring a cataclysmic seismic event on the island of Ireland, nobody will ever stand on a spot higher than Michael and I have. That spot was Mt. Carrauntoohill, which menacingly juts skyward, rising 2500 vertical feet (to a summit at 3500 feet) from it's base, and looks more like a peak you'd see in Switzerland than Ireland. The snow began about halfway up the mountain, and the surrounding slopes, green as Kermit, were engulfed in snow at their peaks. And we stood on the highest one.
Since coming to Ireland, Michael and I have been craving some adventure. We'd stopped at each castle we'd seen along the road and traveled to the brink of the Atlantic to see Europe's oldest lighthouse. At Hook Light, we braved the wind and rain, and watched an offshore gale send 15-foot breakers smashing into the rocky shoreline, their spray lifting skyward nearly as high as the lighthouse itself. We drove onward from Wexford, where we'd spent the first night on the Emerald Isle, with no destination in mind, just enjoying the scenery. We stopped again along towering cliffs guarding Ireland's southern coast, and couldn't stop telling each other we were actually in Ireland. It was everything we'd expected and then some.
Around 7pm last night we rolled into Killarney, which looked like a nice spot in Lonely Planet. There is an enormous national park on the town's doorstep, and we wanted to explore. After wandering through town and stumbling into Neptune's Hostel, we headed for a pub. Three Irishmen with fiddles and a concertina played sea chanties and Bob Dylan while we enjoyed the best-tasting Guiness in the world. It was during then that we decided to attempt climbing Ireland's highest mountain, and by the second beer we reckoned it'd be easy.
Upon returning to the hostel and telling the receptionist of our plans, our expectations were immediately brought back to earth. She warned us of the snow in the mountains, the relentless wind that scours the summit, the plummeting temperatures and the fickle weather… and this was in the summer. She suggested we instead rent some bikes and go explore the more accessible parts of the park, which included a large lake where stood a 15th century castle. It sounded nice, but we had already decided we had to at least attempt the mountain, and turn back if it got ugly.
The alarm went off this morning at 7am, and we'd purposefully parked the car in a lot where it needed to be removed by 8am, to motivate us into action. I ate two enormous bowls of Irish Muesli to top up my energy stores, and we geared up as if to go skiing, and set off for the base of the mountain. After driving maybe 15 minutes, we caught our first glimpse of the dazzling peak, and exchanged nervous laughs and asked ourselves what the hell we were getting into. I cannot emphasize how large and intimidating the mountains look here. The highest peak rises to only 3500 feet, but the fact that they rise from sea level, and are strewn with sheer cliffs, jagged peaks and unfathomably steep slopes makes them appear downright terrifying to anyone with the idea of climbing one.
We arrived at a small farm at the end of a stunning one-lane road. The road followed a series of switchbacks as it descended into a large valley filled with grazing sheep. At the tiny car park, there was a donation mailbox to leave your 2 Euro for use of the lot. In the summertime there is a small hut with fireplace and hot showers, but it is inexplicably closed in the winter, when, ostensibly, one might need it the most.
Climbing the mountain involved far more than just scampering up it's steep slopes. We first had to navigate a 4 mile valley, slowly rising from the car park, vaguely following a cascading river that brought snow runoff down from the hills. Aside from my inadequate footwear (I was only wearing running shoes), we were dressed for the occasion, I in my ski pants and puffy coat, Michael in a similar getup of waterproof fabric. We decided to hike up into the valley to the base of the mountain, assess the weather and the conditions and make a decision from there as to whether we'd actually go higher.
The walking was arduous, steadily increasing in elevation. We followed the riverbed, which cut a deep swath through the surrounding green fields. We had to stay up on the steep slopes of the bank, as far above in the fields, the grass was more like a swamp, and the only dry footing was hopping along the rocks along the river. Two or three times we had to ford the river, skipping from one side to the other while trying to keep our feet dry. This was no small task, as the river was 15 feet wide at it's narrowest, and moving at a decent clip, with rapids and several small waterfalls. We pushed on however, the mountain looming ever closer, drifting in and out of the low clouds. Only once were we able to catch a brief glimpse of the impossibly high summit.
The hike through the valley continued ascending until we were in the mountain's shadow; here we were greeted with the most stunning scenery yet. Not a sole was in sight, the only sounds the rushing water and the howling wind, as it tumbled down the steep slopes of the surrounding peaks, seemingly trying to halt our progress. The valley was surrounded on three sides by towering peaks, and we had the feeling an ant might have if walking between the fingers of some ones outstretched hand. At the terminus of the valley were two lakes formed by the runoff of the neighboring peaks, which spilled into the river below. This was an unexpected surprise, and we stopped here to take a rest and some photos before pushing up the most difficult portion of the hike. We'd been walking for 2 hours.
Two peaks, one to our right and one to our left dominated our immediate frame of view. Between them ran what's called a 'saddle', connecting the peaks in a concave arch of exposed rock and snow. To reach the low point of the saddle, we were faced with the difficult task of ascending the 'Devil's Ladder' a chute right up the middle, 1000-foot cliffs boxing us in on either side. This would have been difficult in dry conditions, but because of the snow up at higher elevations, there was quite a bit of runoff, which cascaded down the Ladder, making the climb slippery and cold.
Most of the climbing on the Ladder was zig-zagging between the cliffs, looking for rocks to hop onto to increase our elevation. The ground was unstable, with loose boulders at every turn, and we took extra care not to knock one of them on the person following. Several times we had to boost each other up to a higher rock, but we continued on, rather swiftly, and the going was tiring, but not extremely difficult. But every time we turned around we were granted a fantastic view of the valley we'd just traversed, and also reminded of how steep this slope was – and that we'd have to walk down eventually.
At this point we were in uncharted territory. We half expected that we'd turn around at the base of the Ladder, but the weather was holding, we'd only gotten a few drops of rain on us, and by now we were pumped to at least get to 'Christ's Saddle', and re-evaluate there. After all, it was enormous fun, and serious adventure, and we were in our element.
With about 50 feet to go on the Ladder, we hit the snow line. It was already mostly melted, but made the going a bit slower – the rocks we'd been using as footsteps were now hidden under a melting layer of snow, and it was getting steeper. The final pitch was almost straight up, and we reverted to climbing up on our hands and knees, digging into the snow for traction. I reached the Saddle first, and was greeted by a phenomenal view of the opposite valley, lakes and rivers bisecting the green fields below. To my right was the summit of Mt. Carrauntoohill, our mountain. The neighboring peaks made up the MacGillycuddy's Reeks, the highest range in Ireland. They were much closer and much scarier at our new vantage point. We now stood at 2400 feet; we knew this thanks to Michael's GPS…we'd been setting waypoints every half hour in case the weather turned and we lost visibility on the way down.
I was dead-set on making the summit by now. I never imagined even getting to the Saddle, and was now inspired to keep going. We rested for about 15 minutes, but soon my feet began to get chilly – they were soaked by now, and the temperature had dropped to below freezing – there was about a foot or two of snow drifting in the 30+ knot winds. We needed to keep moving.
I led the way, and the going was much easier on the ridge that led to the summit. I was suddenly living every adventure story I've ever read about climbing a mountain, and could hardly contain my enthusiasm. Michael was dragging a bit, so I carried the backpack for the final push. The snow got firmer the higher we climbed, and the slope gradually became steeper and rockier – and it got progressively windier. The strongest gusts were in the range of 30-40 knots, which was disconcerting, but for the time being the peak was in the sun. Clouds were building to the south however, and I urged Michael to pick up the pace if we were going to make the summit in sunlight. I did not want to get up there and be stuck in a cloud…we had already had more than enough adventure to worry about finding our way down.
I was 50 feet higher than Michael when the summit came into view. There is a large steel cross marking the summit, and seeing it for the first time energized me. I nearly ran on my hands and knees for the final 100 feet or so. Then I crested the last ridge and stood up. Words cannot describe the feeling I had at that moment. I experienced a surge of adrenaline, was overwhelmed by the 360 degree view, was scared by the sheer drop of the cliffs on the north face of the mountain, and was overcome with an enormous sense of accomplishment. I'd just done something I'd always dreamed of, and felt an enormous sense of pride. But at that moment I also confirmed to myself that I can do absolutely anything. Suddenly I decided I'd climb more mountains, I'd sail around the world, I'd complete that full Ironman. I discovered again that I have it within myself to do anything that I set my mind on doing.
When Michael crested the final ridge we high-fived each other, embraced, and soaked it all in. We took photos of each other and of the surroundings. You could actually see the ocean from our vantage point, and we couldn't believe we'd made it all the way to the top, two wanna-be adventurers probably in way over our heads. But we made it, and we savored every second on that peak. Strangely the wind actually died down, and we experienced a serene peace, standing on our spot, the highest in all of Ireland, 3500 feet straight down into the ocean.
The entire way up, we kept saying to ourselves that the hard part was going to be coming down. We stayed in the snow drifts on the descent from the summit along Christ's Saddle. Here the footing was much more secure, and we traversed from one side of the ridge to the other, following the snow. We made remarkable time, and arrived back at the top of Devil's Ladder by 1pm, the original time we said we'd turn around, no matter what. We were a bit concerned about descending the Ladder, especially the snow-covered steep section near the top. Michael went first, sliding on his ass most of the way, and I followed close behind, scurrying crab-like on hands and knees. The volume of runoff had increased dramatically, and the climb down was much slippery and wetter than the climb up. It didn't much matter, because it had also started raining, and we were completely soaked.
Our legs were quite thankful when we emerged back onto relatively flat ground. Now all that lay between us and the warm car was 4 miles of hiking through the river valley. This time we headed for the left side of the river, and followed its banks, again hopping from rock to rock. Getting our feet wet was less of a concern however, which made the route-finding a bit easier. Fording the river was now only a matter of walking through a shallow bit. The sheep looked at us funny, and we steered clear of the horned ones. This is after all their territory, and we thanked them for letting us use their mountain as we passed by.
After 6 hours of near constant walking and climbing, we finally crossed back into the car park, in the pouring rain, soaked and delirious with satisfaction. As it turns out, we timed the weather absolutely perfectly. When we were on the summit you could see dark clouds rolling in from the south, so we didn't dawdle and headed down with haste. It paid off, because soon after leaving the Ladder behind us, it began raining in earnest, and continued the length of the valley. The mountain was now cloaked in rain and fog, and when we turned around for one last glimpse, it was gone.
Which leads me to my horrifying shower. We finally returned to the hostel and proudly announced our success to the same receptionist who tried to steer us towards the bike-rental. She happily rented us another room, and even offered to do our laundry for a discounted rate. When I finally stepped into the shower, the only hot water was literally a trickle, barely enough to get the soap out of my hair. I stood there, freezing, trying to get warm, unsuccessfully. Now I sit in the café of the hostel, having drunk my second cup of tea in an effort to bring my core temperature back up, to no avail.
The sense of accomplishment I'm feeling right now I have never experienced. I think it's a combination of doing something totally on a whim, with little preparation, something we probably had no business getting ourselves into, and the ecstasy that nature provided our senses at the summit. The photos I got are amazing, but they of course do little justice to the serenity and the peace we felt standing on that mountain. I'm physically drained, but mentally bursting with energy and enthusiasm. Suddenly all bets are off. I've opened up an entire new part of myself and the boundaries within have become limitless. I have stoked a long-smoldering fire within myself, and it won't easily be extinguished.