Little did we anticipate what the weather and terrain had in store for us…
We were following the Kerry way to the base of the mountain and then the plan was to follow the Black Mare Ascent (I think this is what it’s called. The most popular ascents are via O Shea’s Gully or the Devil’s Ladder but the race route didn’t follow either of these) up over Cahir peak, which is the third highest peak in Ireland and up to Carrauntohil. It was a nice morning and the rain was falling in a soft mist. The trek along the Kerry Way was a good distance but it was very enjoyable and team spirits were high since we knew that to finish as a ranked team, we just had to bag the two mandatory controls and then high tail our asses back to the finish.
We crossed a fast flowing, deep river that we shouldn’t have and it was a bit of an ordeal to cross back when we realised we were wrong but we soon got back on the right path to start the main ascent.
Carrauntoohill rising out of the mist
The wind was dangerously strong and the mist had thickened so it was a case of moving quickly on to the next one which was at the end of the Cnoc na Peiste ridge.
We’d done this trek in training but that was back in May and conditions couldn’t have been more different as it was a beautiful summer’s morning with excellent visibility. There was 5 peaks to ascend and the CP was on the fifth one. Each peak had several mini peaks on the way up and Mike was driven demented by Peter and I asking “Is this peak 2 or peak 3”, “Is this peak 3 or peak 4” “Are we there yet”!!!! The wind was dangerously strong and we had to concentrate fully to avoid being blown over. It took another two and a half hours of climbing before we were there and that wasn’t bad going considering the conditions. So now controls in the bag, all we have to do is get down. How hard can it be???
Bloody hard is the answer. Daylight was beginning to fade as we descended, it was wet and windy and the mist was so thick now that visibility was limited to about 10metres. Peter was panicking and in his haste to get down off the mountain, I thought he was either going to disappear into the fog never to be seen again or topple himself off a cliff. Sean had really bad vertigo and was struggling to move quickly enough to keep warm. There seemed to be sheer cliffs everywhere trapping us and no way down off the mountain.
Peter led us down some of the way until we spotted the lake and then we were able to use that as a reference point. We wanted to follow the lake down to where it met a large river but this was easier said than done as there were endless cliffs and waterfalls to negotiate and at times we had to go back up and around in order to go down. I did most of the descending by scooting down on my backside on the wet grass. I felt safer this way as I was less likely to lose my balance and it was actually quite fun. Although I made ribbons of the pants I was wearing and I’d only bought them a couple of weeks previously!
After what seemed like forever we reached the lake and what a relief that was! If we followed the lake around now it should meet a river and then the road. It was difficult terrain to cross with lots of slippy rocks and gnarly boulders and snags of heather to trip you up. By the time we came to the river we were all exhausted and short of food and water. The river was exceptionally wide and it thundered down the mountain. We kept by its banks for a while but the banks were steep and it was scary because we couldn’t see where we were going. After a while we met another river entering at right angles and we were screwed now. We couldn’t cross the main river, it looked like we couldn’t cross the tributary, we couldn’t see anything and we couldn’t go down any further because it was too steep. And that was when the bothy came to our rescue!
We were all soaked through and freezing and the only way to keep warm was to keep moving so we had no option but to get the bothy out and huddle under it till dawn when we hoped we’d be able to figure out the next move. The ground was rocky and the bothy was tiny. Our breathing was causing water vapour to condense on the surface which then flowed down in rivets so that at times I thought it was raining inside the bothy too. It was also claustrophobic and a couple of times I had to frantically exit only to return just as quickly because it was so cold outside.
Dawn brought a welcome respite in the wind and rain and after we had put on what dry clothes we had remaining and divvied up Peters remaining rations, we realised that we could easily cross the tributary river half way down and that there were ITERA arrows on the other side of the main river. We had rounded the lake on the wrong side so all we had to do now was get across the main river and in the daylight it was easy to pick out a place where we could cross.