These are my riches, these and the bright remembering
Of ridge and buttress and sky-shouldering spire
These I shall count, when I am old, of an evening,
Siting by the fire.
- Showell Styles
The MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, also known as Na Cruacha Dubha, or ‘the black stacks’ are home to the highest mountains in Ireland. Before the nineteenth century it was virgin territory; no one scaled its peaks, nor were there conclusive barometrical measurements to ascertain its heights.
In 1812, a Dublin-born artist, explorer and writer by the name of Isaac Weld was led by local guides to what he was led to believe was Carrauntoohil. On the exposed summit, they witnessed a dozen eagles hovering by. Weld writes, ‘… the ridge leading to the summit is so narrow that I could drop stones into its depths from each hand simultaneously’. Weld then noticed a higher peak ahead, but his guides convinced him otherwise, saying it was an optical illusion and that the intervening ridges were impassable.
Back at base, an old grey-haired man challenged Weld by saying that if it had indeed been Carrauntoohil, they would not have returned before dark. The old man also said that Carrauntoohil soared above these peaks, and invisible from where they stood at the Upper Lake. Weld had to try again. At daybreak the next day, he left with another guide, trudging a lake-filled valley due west of the Upper Lake. They ventured into another remote valley and ascended a steep slope to a broad summit; and from there Weld saw, for the first time, the pointed fang of Carrauntoohil. Weld’s ascent of Carrauntoohil that day took him seventeen hours, an admirable accomplishment at the time.
The exposed summit Weld stood on the day before was in fact the Big Gun (939m/3,081ft), one of the summits on the eastern end of the Reeks. It is linked to another two summits by interconnecting ridges to Cnoc na Péiste (988m/3,241ft) and Cruach Mhór (932m/3,058ft). These are much harder and narrower than the popular Beenkeragh ridge which extends to Carrauntoohil. This walk takes 6-7 hours with around 900m of ascent and a lot of narrow and steep ground to negotiate. It’s a serious route with some scrambling – you’ll need good balance on rock and a head for heights.
Where To Park
There are a few parking spaces on the southern (Black Valley) end of the Gap of Dunloe at the Head of the Gap (Grid Reference V 871 837).
Lake Of The Cuckoo
Walk around 1.7km down to a hairpin bend then leave the road by crossing a fence and head west towards a cascade. Cross the river at its safest spot, probably higher up around some pine trees. As you gain height, you’ll see a cluster of deciduous trees below – these give golden colour in the autumn. The cuckoo is a common visitor here in May and that’s where the name of the lake in the corrie above stems from: Lough Googh or Loch gCuach meaning ‘lake of the cuckoo’. Ascend by following the river and its many cascades to Lough Googh. Cross it later then skirt around the lake’s southern edge to ascend a grassy gully to gain the Feabrahy Ridge (Fear Bréige, ‘the false man’).
Hill Of The Serpent
Once at the top of Feabrahy, turn right and head steeply up until you arrive at the summit of Cnoc na Péiste (‘Hill of the serpent’) marked by a pile of rocks. The view here along its narrow ridge toward the next to summits – Big Gun and Cruach Mhór – is one of the finest and scariest mountain setting in Ireland.
Below in a dark corrie to the north sits Lough Cummeenapeasta (‘Lake of the coum of the serpent’), guarded by sheer cliffs. Here, early on 17 December 1943 a DC3 transport plane, flying from Morocco to England went wildly off-course and crashed into the cliffs below. The conditions were savage at the time and no one even saw or reported the incident – it was not discovered until a month and a half later.
Cnoc na Péiste is linked to the Big Gun by a sharp-crested ridge or arête. There is a well-defined path that crosses from the ridge’s north side to its opposite end on occasions but the safer option is to pick up a rocky path lower down on the Lough Googh (southern) side – this will bypass all difficulties you might encounter by cresting the ridge.
The Big Gun
At the end of the ridge, you’ll have to veer north and ascend a steep, rocky section then carefully scramble up to reach a small cairn that graces the exposed, table-size summit of the Big Gun. There are stunning views onward to Cruach Mhór, down to Lough Cummeenapeasta, back along Cnoc na Péiste and farther across to Carrauntoohil.
Now the ridge ahead becomes narrow once again, with large boulders forming slabs and sharp pinnacles, or gendarmes. Experienced scramblers with a head for heights may wish to crest this. However, it is advisable for most walkers to tackle the ridge by outflanking all the pinnacles and rock slabs either to the left or right (whichever is easier) using vestigial paths. However even so, some scrambling moves may be required and you will need to get your hands onto the rock. Be careful not to lose too much height as you bypass these rocky features.
Cruach Mhór And Descent
All difficulties end when you reach a broad section of the ridge below Cruach Mhór. Ascend the slope that leads to a large stone grotto at its summit. A local man, Tommy Sullivan laboured for years to bring cement, gravel and water to these heights to build this grotto in the 1970’s. From here, all the difficulties pale in comparison to what you’ve been through. Descend northeast to Cruach Bheag, then down to a saddle before continuing up to Cnoc an Bhráca and Cnoc na Tarbh before veering south down a spur toward Drishana. Leave the spur around 275m after Cnoc na Tarbh by veering left and descending steeply southeast down to Gap Cottage. Once down on the road, turn right and walk back to your car at the Head of the Gap.
Is This Walk For You?
If you suffer from vertigo, or are of nervous disposition, then this walk is not for you. There’s a lot of steep and hazardous ground on either side of Cnoc na Péiste, The Big Gun and Cruach Mhor. If you feel the route is beyond you at Cnoc na Péiste, it’s probably best to return the way you came.
It is not advisable to attempt this route in strong winds or gales. In winter, under snow and ice conditions, this route becomes a serious mountaineering venture requiring the use of crampons and ice-axes.
Regardless of whatever App you use, you’ll also need good map and compass skills. The Macgillycuddy’s Reeks often has its own micro-climate resulting in low clouds and/or mist. Remember most accidents happen on the way down and in poor visibility it is imperative you take the correct descent route. Wear good hiking trousers (no jeans) and even in the summer, bring along a warm hat and gloves. Also make sure you pack an extra fleece layer and waterproofs just in case it rains. You’ll need good boots to do this hike, ideally 3-4 season ones with good ankle support. Carry a headtorch, a packed lunch and sufficient liquids to drink. Bring along a fully charged mobile phone and if you have to call for Mountain Rescue ring 999 or 112. Note also if it rains, the rivers may be difficult to cross.
Eye On The Weather
The temperature at the summit can be up to 8°C colder than at the Head of the Gap, and colder still if you add any wind-chill. The Kerry weather is influenced by changeable Atlantic weather systems, so check the forecast on the morning of your walk and be equipped for all conditions. Forecasting the weather is a bit of a specialist subject for me. I’ve come up with the knack of getting the forecast nailed over the years – as a photographer who climbs I need the conditions spot on to come away with the best images. My advice is to use yr.no – use the website not the App and always look at the latest update. Look up ‘Macgillycuddys Reeks’ there and dive into the detailed, hour-by-hour forecast – this gives you all the important information like cloud cover, the wind-chill factor, precipitation and wind speeds. Apart from yr.no, the met.ie Rainfall Radar and Atlantic Charts are also useful.
About The Blogger
Adrian Hendroff is a member of the Outdoor Writers & Photographer’s Guild and a Mountaineering Ireland approved course provider. He is a fully-insured mountain guide and runs regular navigation and Mountain Skills courses. Adrian has written several Irish walking guidebooks for the Collins Press and is a regular contributor to newspaper/magazine features. He also runs outdoor photography workshops. More on Adrian see www.adrianhendroff.com or www.fabulousviewpoints.com