Located just outside of Killarney, County Kerry, Carrauntoohil is the tallest of the Macgillycuddy Reeks range and Ireland’s highest peak. It is within an hour and a half drive from Cork and about four hours from Dublin.
Standing at a height of 3,406 feet (1,038 meters), Carrauntoohil is not a huge mountain by many standards, but it deserves respect and caution for anyone attempting to reach the top.
The majority of climbers choose to base themselves in nearby Killarney, where there is a wide variety of accommodation to choose from, with something to suit every budget and taste.
Check the Weather Before Climbing
The quickly changing Irish weather can have a huge impact on your climb and with the steep uneven trails, even the most experienced climbers can have problems here. Catch Carrauntoohil on a day with good weather and it’s an achievable climb for anyone with a good level of fitness and comfort on extremely steep, rocky terrain.
Caution should be exercised by anyone unfamiliar with the trails ascending Carrauntoohil, as there are sheer drops along some of the paths. An experienced guide is recommended for most summit attempts.
John and I climbed with Mike, a guide from Kerry Climbing, who was also a member of Kerry Mountain Rescue. He was a wealth of knowledge and inspiration during our full day on the mountain.
As an experienced hiker, I have successfully climbed Mt. Whitney in California, the highpoint of the lower 48 states in the U.S.
I’ve also summited Uhuru Peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, so I wanted to give the strenuous Brother O’Shea’s Gully route a try.
We met Kerry Climbing guide Mike at Cronin’s Yard, (Lat 52 1’35.74”N / Long 9 1’35.74”N) just outside of Killarney which is the main starting point for the climb. Also climbing with us were eight other hikers who we first met that morning at Cronin’s Yard.
The area features parking, shower and restroom facilities, camping spots, and a small tea shop.
From the trailhead at Cronin’s Yard to the top of Carrauntoohil and back should take about 6 – 7 hours, or maybe a little longer depending on your fitness level and how many rest stops you take. It was a lot tougher than I was expecting, and I hadn’t climbed a mountain of any significance in many months, so our climb took us most of the day!
Ascent via Brother O’Shea’s Gully
And we’re off! At first, the trail is very easy to follow. For the first several miles, it’s basically a rocky road walk. The size of the rocks make for wobbly ankles though, so I had to be extra careful so I didn’t roll an ankle and ruin my day before getting to the top.
The trail crosses a foot bridge about a mile in. About 2 miles in, there is another creek crossing, this time an easy rock-hop. By this point, we were well into the valley, with a great view of the upcoming route.
The ground becomes quite boggy in this area but the climbing itself Is not too difficult. A few colorful sheep watched us as we hiked by.
After passing the bog section, we got our first look at the mountain we hoped to reach by the end of our climb. A light fog had rolled in but it broke just enough to give us a glimpse of what was to come!
The climb began in earnest at this point. We left the bog behind and headed up the very steep and rocky gully. I put my trekking poles away as we ascended because they were more of a hindrance during the climb. I needed both hands to assist getting up and over large boulders on several occasions and the poles just got in the way.
Once we got to the upper level lake, we took a short break. Sheep were up here too!
I thought the colorful paint on the sheep’s backs was interesting. It’s put there so the owners will know which sheep belong to them. The sheep all graze together on common land.
Look at my red face! The trail is really steep and requires a lot of effort to climb. Not only are there big bounders to climb up, other areas have loose scree and small rock which adds to the difficulty.
For some reason John doesn’t look as tired as me.
After leaving the first resting stop, we begin the climb up another boulder field. The fog is above us so at least we can see where we are going. I admit, I had a really difficult time with the rocky terrain. I was constantly worrying about twisting an ankle, or re-injuring the knee I had surgery on last year. I wasn’t about to stop no matter how hard the climb was however, so up we go!
After reaching the next resting area, I took pictures of what was still to come, and what we had just climbed.
Approaching the last of the resting areas before the summit push to the top. Those spots of color you see in the middle of the picture is the rest of the group hiking ahead of me. Right below the crest of this ridge, the scree was very loose and treacherous. Mike decided that he needed to tie a safety rope around my waist to assist in getting me up this section.
Whew! Climbing Carrauntoohil is not for the faint of heart!
After pushing on uphill over yet more boulders, it was now just about 20 more minutes to the top. Of course, it’s a perfect time for the celebratory selfie at the top!
Similar to my trek up Kilimanjaro and my ClimbKili guides, I owe much of this summit to my Kerry Climbing guide Mike. He was instrumental in getting me up this unexpectedly difficult mountain!
The View From the Top
Marking the top of Carrauntoohill is a giant cross and there are a number of plaques which have been placed there in memory of fallen climbers. You will also find a simple walled, open shelter where you can sit to escape the wind and eat your lunch. On a clear day, you can see the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.
Additionally, the views across the surrounding Macgillycuddy’s Reeks makes the climb more than worthwhile.
Sorry for the shaky video! Live action climb filming was tough to do considering the extremely rocky terrain. The commentary is for my daughter Ryan.
After eating some snacks and taking in the views, which were for us somewhat limited that day by a little bit of fog, it was time to head back down. We would be descending down the rocky and steep zig-zag route but we were all thankful that we could see more of this beautiful area so no complaints from anyone in the group.
After descending off Carrauntoohil itself, we had to climb another ridge first.
This handsome guy met us at the top of the ridge. He wasn’t too bothered by us passing by but when we got fairly close to him, he dropped off the side of the mountain and scampered sure-footedly down the rocky terrain.
View of the descent trail, far below the ridge where this photo was taken.
Entering the zig-zag section of the descent trail. In the U.S., we would call these switchbacks. The trail down was just as long, but not quite as treacherous and steep as Brother O’Shea’s Gully. I would imagine that climbers wanting an easier route to the top could ascend this way.
The rest of the group had hiked on ahead of us. John and I both struggled with knee pain on the way down and used our trekking poles to help take some of the pressure off of our aching joints. Mike hiked ahead at this point also. He told us that as we passed farmland to the right of the trail, we would be nearly back to the trailhead and Cronin’s Yard.
This is definitely a climb we would recommend to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. As always, be prepared for bad weather and be sure you are familiar with the trail before embarking on this climb, or hire a guide service.
If you make it to the top, you’ll have a rewarding, memorable and enjoyable experience climbing Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain.
I am so glad that I was able to add Carrauntoohil to my list of completed highpoints. It was tougher than expected, but we all made it up, and more importantly, everyone made it back down safely.
Have you climbed Carrauntoohil? Let me know how it went for you in the comments below.
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