Carrauntoohil – Ireland’s High Point

Ireland’s western coast is strewn with fantastic mountains. The southwestern tip of the island contains the famous Ring of Kerry, a loop that tours the Iveragh Peninsula of County Kerry. This region is a quintessentially Irish mix of rock and green. The mountains and the sea intersect in a sensory delight.

Nestled in the peninsula’s interior is the country’s tallest mountain range: MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. In Irish, the range is called Na Cruacha Dubha, which translates to “the black stacks.” Just 12 miles in length, this range manages to contain most of the nation’s tallest peaks and its most stunning knife-edge ridges.

A panorama of MacGillycuddy's Reeks - photo by Matpib
Pots of gold await in MacGillycuddy's Reeks - photo by Jonathan Hession

Standing above the rest of the crags is Ireland’s High Point, known as Carrauntoohil.

This name is relatively close to the original Irish nomenclature, Corrán Tuathail. The title means “Tuathal’s sickle,” which is a wonderful phrase for a jagged mountain. The etymology of this name is murky. Unlike other crags in Ireland, such as Croagh Patrick, Carrauntoohil does not appear in surviving texts from early periods of Ireland’s history. Tuathal is an Irish first name that means “fervor over the people,” but, if it is an eponym, the antecedent is lost to the mists of time. Some historians have suggested the term “inverted sickle,” as the word tuathail can mean “left-handed” and apply to something reversed from its proper orientation. Why this description would christen the mountain is unclear. Early 19th-century citations sometimes called it Gheraun-Tuel or Garran Tual. These terms replace “sickles” with “fangs,” another apt name for a mountain. Perhaps this title was the one used in previous ages, as other mountains in Kerry are dubbed géarán, or fang. In this scenario, Tuel/Tual might have been a degradation of Tuathal, leading to Géarán Tuathail. Tuathal’s Fang!

Carrauntoohil rises 3,407 feet above sea level. This rather modest elevation places Ireland 164th on the list of countries ordered by High Point. Despite the rather low ceiling, Carrauntoohil provides some gnarly relief, as it ascends those 3,407 feet in just 10 miles of distance from the ocean. She is a rather lovely visage, as well. One can easily see a sickle or fang in her contours.

Carrantuohill - photo by Enter

The guts of Carrauntoohil are composed of Old Red Sandstone that’s between 350 and 410 million years old. The last ice age affected the region significantly, carving glorious arêtes, U-shaped valleys, and cirques (often called corries in Ireland and the rest of Great Britain).

Arêtes are the narrow ridges that separate valleys or drops in mountain ranges. Particularly gnarly arêtes form spectacular knife-edge connections. The Beenkeragh Ridge connects Carrauntoohil to Ireland’s second-highest mountain, Beenkeragh, and the seventh-highest, fantastically named The Bones. Another arête attaches the High Point to the third-tallest peak, Caher.

Beenkeragh Ridge as seen from Beenkeragh; Carrauntoohil is on the left; the green area is The Bones; Caher on the right - photo by Adam Ward
The view of Caher Ridge from Carrauntoohil on the way to Caher East Top - photo by Rafael Rodrigues Camargo

The glacial artists chiseled incredible sunk reliefs in the sandstone. A cirque, or corrie, called the Eagle’s Nest sits near the northeast face of Carrauntoohil. Cirques are bowl-shaped recessions that often form lakes when the ice recedes. At the Eagle’s Nest sits Ireland’s highest body of water, Lough Cummeenoughter.

Often, the largest features created by glaciers are U-shaped valleys, which result when ice moves along the edge of a mountain. The center of the glaciers leaves deep indentations, which are bordered by higher areas, forming a U. Three such valleys strafe Carrauntoohil. Each one contains a picturesque lake with gorgeous names. Hag’s Glen lies to the east; Coomloughra – “hollow of rushes” – is to the west; Curragh More, or the “Great Marsh,” rests south of the mountain.

The views of these lakes, ridges, and cliffs are breathtaking.

The Eagle's Nest in winter, with Lough Cummeenoughter in the bowl - photo by Reeks District
Lough Cummeenoughter - photo by Gareth McCormack
Hag's Glen - photo by Valerie O’Sullivan
Coomloughra - photo from Active Me

Various routes exist for the climber interested in summiting Carrauntoohil. One can link the other high mountains in a strenuous loop. The most straightforward trail ascends via the Devil’s Ladder. If the diabolical name deters you, another route, known as the Heavenly Gates, balances the scales. The 9.5-mile Coomloughra Horseshoe has been called Ireland’s “finest mountain route,” as it mixes the three tallest peaks with a slew of ridgewalking. The intrepid completionist can undertake the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks Ridge Walk, a 16-mile traverse of the entire range.

In the United States and many other places, mountains aren’t viewed as prime real estate for residences or financial endeavors. In Ireland, things are a bit different. While hiking Croagh Patrick, one can watch shepherds bounding around the rocks as their sheep graze on the mountain’s flanks. In Kerry, the mountains are privately possessed, though the owners allow hikers to use the land. A trip up Carrauntoohil is likely to yield views of blazed sheep!

Sheep and rocky resplendence, a climb of Tuathal’s Sickle seems to have it all.

Climbing up Brother O'Shea's Gully with the Eagle's Nest and Lough Cummeenoughter below - photo by godo godaj
The Heavenly Gates - photo by Britishfinance

Further Reading and Exploration

The Carrauntoohil Hike Guide – The Irish Road Trip

Hiking Carrauntoohil: Ireland’s Highest Mountain – Expert Vagabond

Carrauntoohil – SummitPost

Carrauntoohil – Peakbagger

Carrauntoohill – AllTrails

Our finest mountain route – The Irish Times

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