An Irishman's Diary


Nearly 20 years ago, on the third Saturday of February 1987, a Kerry man in his twenties from the Gap of Dunloe and a 16-year-old youth roped themselves together beneath Ireland's highest mountain at a place known locally as the Heavenly Gates. They attached ice-climbing crampons to their boots and then began moving cautiously up a steep face of snow covered Carrauntoohil, writes John G O'Dwyer

Leading the climb was Con Moriarty, who was already an experienced mountaineer. Four years previously he had made the first ascent of the hardest route on Carrauntoohil. This was the distinctive line of Primroses Ridge, rated very severe in climbing terms and dramatically separating the north and east faces of the mountain.

Now he had just returned from a winter climbing expedition to Scotland. On Ben Nevis he had been enthralled by ascending world famous Tower Ridge in snow and ice conditions. Scotland had, of course, a historically strong tradition of ice-climbing but the sport was virtually unknown in Kerry. Moriarty was now anxious to prove that challenging ice-climbing could also be found in Ireland and the severe winter of 1987 provided the perfect opportunity.

When, in mid-February, fine snow conditions presented themselves, Moriarty wasted little time. Youthful climbing enthusiast John Cronin, whose family home is in the shadow of the McGillycuddy Reeks, was literally roped up at short notice for a winter attempt on the then little-known east face of the mountain.

As the pair moved upwards they were surprised to find themselves on a well-defined and exposed ridge no one had discovered previously. It had remained unclimbed because - unlike the famous Scottish ridges - it is not easily identifiable from the glen below. Even today the line of this "shy ridge" is discernible only to those who know exactly where to look.

As the features of the route unfolded, it became apparent that in many ways the climbing was superior to Tower Ridge. Clearly it was harder and also, unlike the Scottish ridge, it never relented but presented a continual series of intriguing challenges. Many times the ice-crusted way ahead seemed barred by towers of vertical rock, but somehow hand-holds and foot-holds always presented themselves and upward progress was maintained. Moriarty remembers "the characteristically rapid height gain of the area, the immediate grandeur and the magnificent scenery of our parish and beyond". Then the climbers were distracted by piteous howling from below. Moriarty's dog Grimsel had followed to the foot of the ridge, but then found the going beyond even the climbing abilities of a Kerry husky.

As the lonesome howling continued, the route veered right and suddenly the pair found themselves in familiar territory. They had joined the top of Primroses and the way ahead to the summit was now unobstructed. Incredible as it seems, they had - a mere 20 years ago - stumbled upon a previously unknown geographical feature of our highest mountain. It offered 200 metres of vertical ascent and was promptly named Howling in honour of Grimsel - the husky that didn't bark but howled instead.

Howling Ridge is today generally regarded as Ireland's finest mountaineering route and is climbed hundreds of times annually by both Irish and overseas climbers. Originally it was done as an ice climb but today it is best known as a summer route. It isn't the most difficult ascent on Carrauntoohil but it is by far the most enjoyable. "Have ya done Howling yet?" is a common "getting to know you" inquiry in Irish mountaineering circles. Indeed, Howling has become a rite-of-passage ascent for many hill-walkers eager to make the transition from mountain rambling to the knee-knocking intensity of scrambling and dangling on rock faces.

On sunny days, when the mountain is in friendly mood and the sandstone offers excellent friction, climbing Howling provides the heart-lifting feeling that comes with rising rapidly heavenward on a superb mountain face. In venomous mood, however, it lays many traps to snare the unwary and the consequences of simple mistakes have varied from extremely serious and fatal.

Today, John Cronin is senior fire officer for Kerry Airport and on March 31st he will open Ireland's first dedicated climbers' cafe beneath Carrauntoohil. Con Moriarty has an outdoor shop in Killarney Outlet Centre and is currently writing a book about his beloved McGillycuddy Reeks. He remembers the mid-1980s as a golden age for Kerry mountaineering. "Not only did we discover Howling Ridge, but the severe winters of this period allowed a group of enthusiasts to put up a plethora of wonderful new ice-climbs on the north and east faces of the mountain."

But if ice-climbing first came to Kerry about 20 years ago, is it now set to fall victim to global warming? Con fervently hopes not: "For over 20 years I have ice-climbed on the McGillycuddy Reeks every winter - I hope I can continue to do this for the next 20 as well."