Looking down on Lough Cummeenapeasta on the way up Cruach Mhor.
In mid July I finally got round to tackling a walk I’d been planning for months – a traverse of the ridge that forms the eastern end of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in Co Kerry, are the highest mountains in Ireland. The highest mountain in the country, Carrauntoohil, is found there, and I had ventured into the Reeks the previous year to climb it:
I had been planning to go back ever since – if you want to visit the highest peaks, MacGillycuddy’s Reeks are the place to go. Mountainviews.ie, the excellent website for hillwalking in Ireland has several lists that can be completed, and the 900 meters up list contains only 14 summits – 12 of them are in Co Kerry, and 11 of those are in MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. I had already bagged one, the highest of all, when I’d walked Carrauntoohil, and had long wanted to visit more. This walk alone would allow me to tick off 6 more of the 900 meter summits, plus a finish with a second visit to the 845 meter high Cnoc na Toinne which I previously summited on the same day as Carrauntoohil. My planned route would take me over the area commonly referred to as the Eastern Reeks, although there are two further, smaller peaks in the range further east. The mountains visited on the route would be Cruach Mhor 932 meters, The Big Gun 939 meters, Knocknapeasta 988 meters, Maolan Bui 973 meters, Cnoc an Chuillinn East Top 926 meters, Cnoc an Chuillinn 958 meters, and finally Cnoc na Toinne – the baby of the bunch at 845 meters! I was both excited and a little bit apprehensive at the thought as this would undoubtedly be my most difficult walk this year, probably the hardest I had ever undertaken. The ridge is notorious due to its height and exposure, forming a knife edge in places, and although I intended to drop below the crest of the ridge to avoid the worst parts, I would always have to rejoin it for the summits, and there would inevitably be difficult and dangerous ground, plus the physical challenge of a long walk with a lot of ascent.
Approaching the Eastern Reeks, with the first summit, Cruach Mhor, on the left.
I had been talking about the trip for a while, and it sounded attractive enough to my sister, who had previously joined me on Croagh Patrick, to make her decide to come along. Kerry is far enough from Tyrone for a bit of planning to be needed. We thought we would need at least two, and possibly three days – one for the long drive down, one for the walk, and maybe another overnight stay before taking the long drive back. As a result, the bank holiday weekend in July seemed the best bet and we committed to taking the trip then. As it turned out, the weather forecast was far from ideal, but the plans were difficult to change, and we set off early on the morning of 11th July in heavy rain for Kerry. It was forecast to be drier the next day, but it looked bleak as we arrived in Kerry that evening. We were camping at Cronin’s Yard, a well known campsite and starting point for walking in the Reeks, on a farm at the foot of the mountains. We took advantage of a short break in the rain to pitch our tents, then got chatting to some fellow walkers at the site. It turned out that a big charity walk over a similar route to ours, although even longer, had to be abandoned that day due to the terrible conditions – these are not mountains to be taken lightly or tackled in adverse weather, and there have many outings for Kerry Mountain Rescue over the years, as well as several fatalities. We could only hope for better the next day, and if we got it, we would have a challenging day, so there would no drinking or sampling the Kerry hospitality for us! Instead, we headed to nearby Killorglin for something to eat, then retired to our tents for an early night, and an early rise in the morning.
The next day, in our excitement, we were up at six to find the weather much improved. It was still grey and overcast, with drizzle, and low clouds were hiding some of the mountains, but it was much better than the previous day, and good enough we felt, to allow us to continue. We could always turn back if it looked like getting worse, before we were committed to the ridge. By 6.30 we were off walking, initially taking the track from Cronin’s Yard which leads eventually to the well known Devil’s Ladder ascent of Carrauntoohil. Before that however, we cut off left, to the east, across the bog towards Cruach Mhor, which was one the summits untouched by the low cloud. Our initial target was what looked like a ridge about halfway up the mountain, but we knew it was actually just a low edge behind which lay the hidden Lough Cummeenapeasta. It was already difficult walking over boggy ground and then a steep pull up to the lough.
Setting out from Cronin’s Yard in gloomy early morning weather. The view is in the direction of Carrauntoohil and Beenkeragh, both hidden by cloud.
The track we initially followed from Cronin’s Yard.
A view of our first target – Cruach Mhor.
Looking out across the bog to Cruach Mhor.
A look back along the track towards Cronin’s Yard.
We had left the track now and were crossing the bog, heading for the top of the grassy slope on the right, with Cruach Mhor rising from there on the left. Behind the top of the slope, we knew Lough Cummeenapeasta to be hidden. Further back, on the right, is another of the summits we planned to traverse, Knocknapeasta.
A fair distance and some boggy ground to get across before we even reach the slopes of Cruach Mhor.
The rising sun in the east.
The highest peaks still hidden by cloud, although the sharp point of the Hag’s Tooth can be seen.
A little closer, although we still had that steep, grassy slope to climb to reach Lough Cummeenapeasta.
Even in grey, overcast conditions, there is a beautiful bleakness to this wild landscape.
Beginning to get some height now.
By now we were well up the initial climb up the grassy slope.
Arriving at the top of the slope, and we had reached the end of what we had been thinking of as stage 1. Looking across to Knocknapeasta – the third peak we would cross on our walk.
The first stage of our walk was complete. We had reached the top of the initial slope on to the shoulder dropping down to the west off Cruach Mhor. On the other side was the previously hidden Lough Cummeenapeasta and we stopped for our first rest to recover our breath and take in the new view down over the lough. It had already been a tough walk, and we were only about halfway up the first of seven mountains on our planned route! On the plus side, I knew that by the time we got to the top of Cruach Mhor at 932 meters, we would have most of the ascent for the day done, if not the distance. From there, the rest of the summits lay along a ridge, and there would be a lot less ascent and descent between each peak. As we rested, we also got a chance for a closer look at what lay ahead. We were about halfway up Cruach Mhor, but undoubtedly, the hardest half was in front of us. The slope got much steeper, losing its grassy character, and looking increasingly rocky as it ascended. Once we reached the top of Cruach Mhor, the ridge walk would begin. From here, the summits beyond Knocknapeasta were hidden by its impressive bulk, but we could see most of the ridge leading to it, and it was definitely dominating our thoughts now! The ridge looked absolutely impossible from here – almost sheer drops rising to a knife edge. It seemed too steep to find a path anywhere below the top of the ridge, and the top itself did not look like anything either of us would consider walking along. All I could think was that maybe a route could be seen closer up, but that I would rather turn back at any point if necessary than continue over ground beyond our ability. For now, we were rested and started the steep climb over rocks up to the top of Cruach Mhor.
The northeastern face of Knocknapeasta dropping steeply down to Lough Cummeenapeasta. You can see part of the ridge we would be crossing dropping down from the summit towards the left of the frame.
The ground getting steeper on Cruach Mhor’s slopes, with a stretch of the ridge visible behind.
The slope getting increasingly steep with height.
We weren’t able to brood on the ridge ahead for long, as all our concentration was required for the climb up the remainder of Cruach Mhor. The higher we got, the steeper the ground became, and it gradually became completely covered in large rocks and boulders. Scrambling was required, with the use of hands needed at all times. It was steep enough to mean that a fall would be serious, possibly fatal, and at some points it was uncomfortably closer to rock climbing than hill walking. It was made even worse by the fact that it started to rain for the first time that morning, making the rocks and any small patches of mossy ground between them, extremely slippery. Thankfully, the climb stayed on just the right side of our capabilities, and there was no actual rock climbing required, just difficult scrambling in poor conditions, and we knew that as long as we fully concentrated, making sure of each step and handhold before committing any weight, we could manage. Progress was slow and careful, but we were able to do it safely. At times like this, it is important not to get too committed to reaching a summit, and push beyond your limits. I would have turned back without a thought, if it had become too difficult. It is also your own ability that counts – there are some who would have skipped up that slope without pause and have considered it easy! Others no doubt, would have taken one look at it and turned back. (The only photos I have from this section were taken on flatter bits, where the ground looks perfectly walkable! On the steeper parts, there are no photos because my hands, and mind, were full occupied, so please judge me kindly here).
Lough Cummeenapeasta contains the wreckage of a plane that crashed there in World War II, and the wing is visible just under the surface close to the shore. It was clearly visible to us at the time, and even in the photo above, I can make it out, knowing where it was. I don’t know if anyone else will be able to see it, but it appears as the merest hint of white, almost touching the shore and pointing away at a right angle just under the water. It is almost in the centre of the frame, about half way along the steep, far shore.
Near the top.
Near the summit, and we were now getting views of the start of the ridge walk as far as the Big Gun, the previously hidden second summit on our walk.
A view showing how steep some parts of the slope got near the top.
The summit of Cruach Mhor is marked by a shrine – like a short section of high stone wall, with a little grotto in one side, in which there were several small statues of the Virgin Mary. I’m not in the least religious, and do not agree with the mania in Ireland for putting religious items on the top of some of our wildest places. I had to admit though, it was an impressive achievement to build this up here, and on this occasion too, as we hunkered down behind it, I was extremely glad of the shelter it offered. Just as we arrived at the top, the rain increased in intensity and the cloud closed in around us obscuring the views. Simultaneously, the wind really picked up – maybe the mountain had been sheltering us lower down. The wind was really strong at this point, and very cold even in mid July, and as we sat with our backs to the stone shrine, it definitely helped.
The shrine from behind, on the side where we took shelter from strong wind which accompanied the cloud closing in around us.
The grotto with statues on the other side of the shrine.
As the cloud continued to thicken we could still just about see our next target, The Big Gun, 939 metres high, and even its name gave it a menacing air. Despite its height measured from sea level, the ridge leading to it required very little ascent or descent, not much more than 30 or 40 metres I’d guess, and less than half a kilometre in distance. The difficulty with this part of the ridge would be its knife edge nature and exposure, with big, steep drops on both sides. The fearsome reputation of the Eastern Reeks walk rests solely really on the section from Cruach Mhor to Knocknapeasta, with The Big Gun in between. After Knocknapeasta it is plain sailing, but the ridge is formidable up to that point. Fortunately, Mountainviews.ie is a great source of information for all ability levels, and one of the tips I’d read there when planning this trip, was that the top of ridge could be avoided between Cruach Mhor and The Big Gun, by dropping down the northern face a little. There a path could be found that would actually take us round to the far side of The Big Gun. There was then a fairly easy ascent back on to the ridge, and we could double back on to the summit of the Big Gun from the much easier western side. We might have chose to do that anyway depending on how the ridge looked to us now that we were on it, but with visibility getting worse by the minute, we quickly couldn’t see more than a couple of metres ahead, so settled for the safer route.
The Big Gun and the ridge ahead quickly disappearing in the cloud.
More of our journey along the Eastern Reeks to come in Part 2.