Hit your peak on home turf

For a few brief weeks each winter, if the weather is just right, eager climbers grab their ice axes and crampons and head for the high, snowy peaks of… Kerry? Lenny Antonelli spends a cold day learning snow and ice climbing on Ireland’s highest mountain 

Sunday Times, March 5, 2017 

(Please note this is my original version of the article, not the edited final version that appeared in the paper.)

Even in Ireland, winter can bring a deep freeze to the mountains. It might seem balmy at sea level, but up in the hills you can find yourself walking through deep snow and surrounded by thick cloud. If you love hillwalking, this is an exciting time, as the mountains you know and love are transformed into strange, snowy landscapes. 

This is prime time for winter mountaineering, Irish style — ice axe, crampons and all. Which is what I was doing meeting mountain guide Piaras Kelly of Kerry Climbing, and a group of eager climbers, on a dark January morning at Cronin’s Yard, the traditional start point for ascents of Carrauntoohil. Through the dim light I could just about make out the snow-capped ridges of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks above us. 

Our group huddled into a small hut. Most of us were keen hillwalkers eager to try something a bit more adventurous. Piaras briefed us on what we’d need for the day, including: lots of layers (and one extra of everything, for when the first lot invariably get soaked), tough boots, walking poles, ice axe, crampons, and plenty of high energy food. He showed us how to put on crampons, and how to hold an ice axe correctly.

Then he spread a map of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks before us. “Today we’ll be climbing Curve Gully,” he said. Most of the year this is a steep scramble up a narrow cleft full of loose rock. But in winter conditions it fills with snow and ice.

He showed us a photo of a narrow, white line running vertically up a rocky mountain face. This was Curve Gully. “See that tiny spec there?” he said, pointing to a minuscule dot, towered over by the huge mountain. “That’s a climber.” My stomach dropped a little. Piaras joked: “If anyone wants to head back to the car, now’s the time!” 

We set out on the track into the Hag’s Glen, a wide valley leading into these mountains. To the south-west was the snowy summit of Carrauntoohil. But the air was warming, and meltwater came down from the hills in gushes: flooding sheep-trails, creating fresh streams, and tumbling over rock-faces. Beside the trail, the icy-clear Gaddagh River ran fast and fresh out of the valley.

We turned onto a rougher side trail. As we climbed up, snow appeared in patches underfoot, and we hiked up to one ice-carved bowl high above the glen, then another. Up here, everything was covered in snow. In the mountains, temperatures can drop one degree for every 100m of altitude. And here on the north-face of the mountains it stays coldest for longest. “It’s like a fridge up there,” Piaras said. 

He kept up a quick pace. We wouldn’t be taking a long lunch break today, he told us. The day was too short, our hike was too long, and we’d just get cold. Instead, we should snack every time we stopped. Further up the snow deepened, and it was time to put on our crampons.

For the uninitiated, a crampon is basically a frame of spikes that straps onto your boot, giving you better grip in snow or ice. It’s also an excellent contraption for slashing open your own leg. To avoid that, you need to walk with a wide gait (sort of like a crab). Crampons on, we continued upwards, and Piaras pointed ahead to a snow-filled wedge between two rock faces. “That’s the start of Curve Gully,” he said. The real fun was about to begin.

As teenager in East Cork, Piaras started hillwalking in the Comeragh Mountains. Hillwalking turned to scrambling, and scrambling turned to rock climbing. Soon he was learning winter mountaineering in Scotland. “If you weren’t switched on, and you weren’t prepared, it could be very dangerous,” he says. 

Back in Ireland, he realised that winter climbing in Kerry could be just as good — when the weather was right.  At the time, he was working as a carpenter in Cork. “I used to ring mates down here in Kerry asking, is there a snow on top? Is it worth my while driving down?” he says. “My boss knew if there was cold, Piaras wasn’t going to be in, because he was gone to Kerry.”

He started guiding professionally, set up Kerry Climbing and moved right to the foot of Carrauntoohil. “Kerry always got there weather, but you had to be there to snatch it,” he says. “So here I am.” 

“I live at the bottom of the mountain, I can stick my nose out the door at night and feel if the temperature has risen by two degrees or if it has dropped by two degrees.”

His love for these mountains, or rather his addiction to them, is obvious. He might have been up Curve Gully countless times, but on our climb he seemed ecstatic to be going up again. “Imagine having this as your backyard,” he said to me as we walked out of the Hag’s Glen, mountains at our backs, later that day. 

Crampons on, we entered Curve Gully. Ice axe in one hand and walking pole in the other, I started climbing.  Those at the front of the pack had to kick fresh steps in the snow. But those at the back, like me, had a staircase already prepared for us. “Get off the escalator!” Piaras would yell, telling us those of us at the back to practice breaking our own trail (which was exhausting work). 

A little ways up the gully, Piaras gathered the group together. It was time, he said, to check for the risk of an unusual hazard for Ireland: avalanche. We dug deep grooves around a cube of snow to isolate it from the rest of the snowpack. Then we pressed our fingers into this cube, to check how hard and soft different layers were. The idea was to see if any layer could slide off easily. 

Piaras told us that in all his years climbing, he has personally only seen one avalanche in Curve Gully, when a man and his dog were swept down. Luckily both emerged safely above the snow. Piaras gave us a primer in avalanche safety and we continued up. 

The gully steepened as we climbed. Looking back down was both terrifying and exhilarating. We navigated some short ice-steps, the trickiest bits of the climb.  Near the top, we met two experienced climbers coming down. I watched in envy as they laid down and let themselves slide down the snow chute, using their ice axes as a brake. This is known as glassading — and it’s a fun way to descend if snow conditions are right, you’re sure nobody is below you, and you can use an ice axe properly. 

“Ever ski down this?” I asked Piaras, half-joking. “No, but I know somebody who has,” he said. Further up, we stopped for a few minutes while Piaras showed us some basic ways to make anchors and use a rope in in the snow and ice. 

Then, with a final few steps, we made it out on top. But while the gully had been sheltered, there was now a biting wind, and thick cloud on top. The cross at the summit of Carrauntoohil was crowded with hikers, many of them looking ill-prepared for these conditions, but all smiling and happy. 

We took selfies at the summit, had a quick snack and gulped down hot tea. Then we started back down a gentler descent route through deep, fresh powder. We followed a rocky trail back towards Cronin’s Yard, looking out on the Hag’s Glen, just as the invisible sun was preparing to go down over the snowy peaks behind our backs.

Winter climbing: how to do it

Are you keen hillwalker who wants to get more adventurous in the mountains? Before you rush out and buy an ice axe, brush up on your navigation skills by doing navigation courses such as Mountain Skills 1 & 2. Or why not try rock climbing with a local club or gym (see mountaineering.ie for details of clubs and course providers). 

Kerry Climbing run winter skills courses on Carrauntoohil each year when weather is suitable, with February and March being peak season. Ice axe and crampon rental is available. See www.kerryclimbing.ie and keep an eye on Facebook.com/KerryClimbing for course announcements. For courses in Scotland, Piaras recommends Paul Swail Guiding (www.paulswailguiding.com), Jonny Parr Climbing (www.jonnyparrclimbing.com) and Bren Whelan (www.mountaintraining.ie). 

For those with winter climbing skills already, Piaras Kelly’s new book MacGillycuddy’s Reeks: Winter Climbs is the first ever book exclusively about winter mountaineering in Ireland, and is available from www.kerryclimbing.ie. It describes dozens of winter climbing routes, with an emphasis on lower and mid grade selections.  

Lenny Antonelli stayed at the four star Killarney Avenue Hotel, part of the O'Donoghue Ring Hotels Group, which has three hotels in Killarney town. For outdoor enthusiasts, the group offers walking, hillwalking and cycling holidays. For more information or reservations see www.killarneyavenue.com or call 064 6621111. 

Transfer to Cronin's Yard provided by Euro Taxis & Tours, Killarney, who offer transport to and from all walking and hiking locations near Killarney, as well as guided tours of the Ring of Kerry, Beara Peninsula and Dingle Peninsula. See www.eurotaxiskillarney.com or call 087 2923896 for more information.