Climbing high in the Reeks

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The snow and ice – and full-circle rainbows – made climbing in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks last weekend magical, writes John Collins

LAST SATURDAY while the rest of the country was thawing out under grey skies, I was enjoying a typical bright Alpine day, with crunchy snow underfoot and a warming sun in the sky. I marvelled at ethereal full-circle rainbows floating above the clouds. I saw the winter sun’s rays glistening in the frozen fingers of waterfalls and tried to guess which wild animals left frozen footprints in the snow.

All this was experienced in our own backyard rather than having to travel to some exotic overseas location. I’d signed up for a day’s snow and ice climbing with Outdoors Ireland, an adventure sports guiding and training company outside Killarney, Co Kerry, which culminated on the summit of Ireland’s highest peak – Carrauntoohil.

For Nathan Kingerlee and his team at Outdoors Ireland, the Arctic conditions provided a rare chance to bring clients up into the winter wonderland of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

Before you turn the page convinced this is an activity only for the brave and foolhardy, let’s clear up what’s involved. If you’re thinking about the elite climbers on the news recently tackling an almost vertical frozen waterfall to the summit of Carrauntoohil, think again. This is an activity that any reasonably fit person that’s done a bit of hillwalking and has a head for heights can master.

My guide is Dave Roche, a genial Corkman who has climbed all over the world but seems to have a special grá for Ireland’s highest peak, which he first summited when he was 18. The plan is to walk into the Hag’s Glen and head up to Lough Cummeenoughter (also known as Devil’s Spy Glass Lake).

Rather than heading for the summit by the popular O’Shea’s Gully route, we’d strike out north from the frozen lake, climbing a snow-filled gully to reach the Stumpa an tSaimh ridge leading to Beenkeragh (1,010m). From there we’d walk and scramble across the airy Beenkeragh ridge to reach the highest point in Ireland, before descending through the Heavenly Gates and retracing our steps to the car park.

If it all sounds a little hard to follow, it is. Even in ice-free fine conditions, this can involve moments of tricky navigation that require someone familiar with these mountains or adept at map reading.

As we walk through the Hag’s Glen the morning is grey and overcast. Dave points out where various landmarks, such as the Hag’s Teeth, lay hidden in the cloud and each time we look up, there seems to be a more tantalising shade of blue behind the clouds.

On the rock path up to Lough Cummeenoughter, we encounter more snow and ice, and we stopped to fit crampons to our boots. Suddenly, instead of stepping gingerly and checking for black ice, we are stomping our spikes into the ice and getting a firm grip. Even more miraculously, as we’ve climbed the sun has burnt off the cloud and we are rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding peaks that would be worthy of the Himalayas. We break for a short lunch on the banks of the lake. Dave has spotted a steep snow-filled gully parallel to our planned route which has been protected from the sun by its steep walls, meaning it will have crisp snow that is easier to walk on.

It’s time for the ropes, climbing harnesses and helmets to come out. Dave explains that if one of us were to slip and fall the combination of our waterproof clothing and the snow and ice would mean we’d probably slide all the way back down to the lake. That focuses the mind as Dave zigzags a path up the gulley, kicking steps into the fresh snow and I try to keep the rope between us taut as I follow.

Soon we are out of the gulley and traversing a steep slope to the shoulder of Beenkeragh in warm sunshine. Above the clouds, the Cork and Kerry mountains peek through like islands in a sea of candyfloss. A short scramble to the summit of Beenkeragh and we are rewarded with a view of a circular rainbow floating above the clouds – a rare phenomenon that occurs when you are above the ice crystals in the air that diffuse the light.

The short winter day means we have to press on if we are to make the summit and return safely before the light fades. Although there are a few hairy moments on the ridge to Carrauntoohil, we make good time and are on the summit at 3.15pm. Glad that I have an old hand like Dave with me, we quickly make our way down and find the path to the Heavenly Gates with ease – a potential difficulty if you are not familiar with the mountain.

As we plod back to the cars with our head torches lighting up the way, I’m tired but elated. Dave says it’s been one of the best winter days he’s had in the Reeks for years. A little part of me has become a child again and is hoping for more snow.

* Check the Outdoors Ireland blog (outdoorsireland.blogspot.com) for the latest snow conditions on the Reeks. At the time of writing, the forecast return of Arctic air means conditions could be right this weekend for snow and ice climbing.

* Kerry Mountain Rescue advises that in the current conditions you should not enter the mountains without crampons and an ice axe, and you should be proficient in their use. You should also be able to navigate in low visibility. Standard warnings for winter hillwalking – carry food, water and suitable clothing – apply.

* outdoorsireland.com

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