Climbing Carrauntoohil: A Spontaneous Journey to Ireland’s Highest Peak

It’s 6 a.m. in Killarney, Ireland. A backpacker sits quietly in a hostel common area pondering his plans for the upcoming day. He has none, but knows there are breathtaking natural landscapes all around this region and he is in Killarney for exactly that reason. Suddenly a German traveler enters the room, breaking the silence with a friendly greeting and a smile. He has a small bag packed and is on his way out, explaining that he heading off to go hike Ireland’s highest peak: Carrauntoohil. He then utters a sentence that is music to the lone backpacker’s ears…“Do you want to come?”

The lone backpacker was, of course, me, and this was the beginning of a compelling day in County Kerry. I love spontaneity while traveling. It’s out-of-the-blue opportunities like this one in Killarney that have led to some of my favorite travel experiences.

After hastily throwing on some shoes, the German (Jan) and I hopped into his rental car and made our way toward Carrauntoohil. As we approached our destination the roads became very narrow and winding, with vegetation frequently encroaching on the edges. When we arrived at the trail entrance there was an unattended shed with some vague signage about parking fees, but there was nobody in sight—only a goat to greet us. In fact, goats were the only other living creatures we saw for the first stage of our hike (most of the other hikers did not show up until later in the day).

First leg of the hike

The view of Carrauntoohil’s peak is fairly unobstructed, so as we meandered along the beginning of the path we kept our goal in constant sight. The mountains naturally formed valleys within their negative space, and in these valleys were a number of serene lakes and ponds that barely had a ripple across their glassy surfaces. It was beautiful, but the best part: there wasn’t a soul in sight.

The trek through the lowlands was easy, but things got a little more interesting when we made it to Devil’s Ladder. This segment is packed with loose rocks (some quite large) that frequently shifted during the climb up. Because of this hikers are warned not to ascend Devil’s Ladder in a direct vertical line. Doing so will potentially result in the lower hiker getting hit with falling rocks that are loosened by the hiker above. This warning is with legitimate reason—there were multiple times during our ascent when tumbling rocks had to be avoided. In addition to the falling rocks, some sections were also steep enough that the use of one’s hands was necessary. Many of the rocks were also wet from the small streams that wove down the mountainside, posing yet another challenge. It wasn’t overly difficult, but it wasn’t a walk in the park either.

Devil's Ladder

Once you make it up Devil’s Ladder you are greeted with expansive views of the surrounding landscape, making it easy to trace the exact path that has led you to that point. There are no trees or bushes—only the lofty green curvatures of the earth and numerous craggy rock outcroppings. On this particular day the sky was blank with a white-gray overcast, creating an eerily stoic sense of tranquility.  The final set of switchbacks up to the summit is vaguely defined and does not demarcate a definitive single path over the loose shale and gravel. When we reached the peak it was cold and we were enveloped by a thick fog that would temporarily part to reveal scenes of steep cliffs and sloping terrain. At the top a solemn iron cross stands alone on a stony, uneven plateau…the highest point in Ireland.

Carrauntoohil's Peak

The summit is captivating in its barrenness; the cross looks cold and unceremonious. Just beyond, a small sign reads, “Turn Back Now—No Descent Route,” as the plateau abruptly ends with a sharp drop-off. To explain the effect that this climb had on me, a little background information is necessary. I had been backpacking through Ireland for almost two weeks at this point, in search of the most inspiring natural scenery I could find. I had been successful in this endeavor—from the gripping serenity of Glendalough to the staggering vastness of the Moher Cliffs—I had witnessed some of earth’s fine gifts. But after skipping over Kerry on my way from Cork to Galway, I began to feel as though I had missed something very important. Upon hearing of my route, a hostel-goer in Galway was shocked at the fact that I had passed over Kerry and urged me to go back (which I knew I had to do). There was a crucial piece of my trip through Ireland that had not yet been realized. That piece was Carrauntoohil.