With every Adventure Trip that Tribal Fitness puts on, we always make sure we have everything planned properly, with every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed. So with the big Kerry Weekend coming up in July, it was time to plan in our recce. Looking at our diaries, a weekend in February was the only time we were free to go. But there was a stumbling block. Massive storms had hit Ireland. And Kerry was mainly under water with no electricity. OK we thought, no big deal, we don't need electric on the hill, so if we can get through on the roads then we're good to go.
However, an abundance of trees had fallen, so if the roads weren't flooded they were blocked. And the storm was still lingering around the mountains, with high winds, snowfall and low temperatures leading to ice formation. We contemplated cancelling our recce, but we knew that if we didn't go now, then we'd not get another chance. So, we decided to take on the challenge.
Kitted Out For The Weather
We studied the weather charts and forecasts and spoke to people in the area to get a feel for the severity of the weather. We decided we had a window of opportunity over the weekend to climb the highest mountain in Ireland - as long as we were very prepared with our timings and full winter expedition kit. So, Tribal's Adventure Chief Joe, and myself, took a big breath and said 'let's go for it!'
We got the extra pieces of kit that we needed to ensure a safer trip, planned our timings, planned our routes, then sat back and started to get excited! This was going to be a challenge. And an experience. Joe is a very experienced mountain leader, but this was definitely going to be a new experience for me. Of course I have hiked the Mournes, and taken on longer endurance and altitude hikes across Peru, but I've never done more technical climbing in snow, ice and storms, on a very steep hill side, so I was nervous and excited.
We loaded the new Tribal Landrover to the brim with Adventure Training gear and hit the road. Destination: the heart of the Kerry mountains.
We looked in awe at the fantastic mountain ranges and studied the hill side with binoculars. We looked for contours, conditions on the summit, evidence of people currently climbing and simply just appreciating the beauty of the magnificent nature that was presenting itself in front of us. The excitement (and fear for me) was growing as we sorted out our kit for the early start the next morning. We went through our check list twice, ensuring we had all the correct clothing combinations packed, along with ample food, technical equipment such as crampons and ice picks and emergency provisions including first aid kits and tents. We were fully loaded up and ready for any eventuality. After all, you never know what is ahead of you on the hill, so being prepared is key.
With sunrise came a wave of emotions as we stood and looked over the fields at the summit of Carrauntoohil and the snowline of the Devil's Ladder. Both looked impressive, but hard work!
After a final kit check, we were suited and booted and ready for the hill. Come what may. Joe had the timings all worked out so we knew roughly what walking speed we had to maintain if we were going to have enough day light to reach the top of the Devil's Ladder. We didn't have summit fever, and agreed that if we could manage the summit then that'd be great, but our primary aim was to complete the Devil's Ladder!
We were encouraged to see a few other groups out on the hill. Safety in numbers and all that! But we soon realised that they all weren't going to tackle the famous landmark. This could be a lonely climb.
The scenery along the 4KM hike to the base of the Devil's Ladder is simply breath taking. The rugged outline of the mountains towering above you, with peaceful lakes to your side, beautiful waterfalls in front of you and dramatic fog settling down on the snow topped peaks.
On finally reaching the base of the Devil's Ladder, I stood in amazement and somewhat in disbelief as I looked up (a long way) and took a moment to myself to think about what lay ahead of me for the next few hours. This was a steep climb. This was a hard climb. This climb would take concentration and stamina. And that's in good conditions with a light day sack. But here I stood, in strong winds, thick snow ahead, a waterfall rushing down the hillside, and a fully kitted rucksack on my back. I knew then, this was going to be hard. But there was no option. I would never turn back. So up we started.
Scrambling up through the steep rocks was exhilarating. Truly satisfying and enjoyable. It's a fantastic feeling knowing that you are gaining height on the mountain as you negotiate the water flow through the rocks. Stopping once in a while to take a look back at the view is to be appreciated as you quickly get a sense for what you are already achieving. You can see the start point from hours ago and how you felt standing back there looking at the challenge ahead.
It's Called Devil's Ladder For A Reason!
About half way up the Devil's Ladder, the snow line came. We stamped and stomped through the deep snow to continue gaining height. It was getting harder now. And colder. And the wind was picking up. I'm not ashamed to say, that at this point, my jolly mood of scrambling up the rocks was starting to change to concern and fear. I let a few 'what ifs' slip in to my thoughts, but I quickly batted them out of there. There is no room to let thoughts like that creep in as this only holds you back. I got a grip of myself, I re-focused and ploughed ahead, until I had to stop for a rest. I innocently turned my body around to lay back on the snowy hillside to take a breather, and I saw the view. My heart skipped a beat. Then it jumped in to my mouth. I was breathless and lost for words. The realisation of how high I had climbed, and the conditions I was in, sharply hit me. 'What am I doing?' I asked myself. My reply was 'I have no idea Nichola. What the heck ARE you doing?. But quickly I realised I was doing what I always want to do. Challenging myself. Conquering fears. Making myself a stronger person. And submerging myself in beautiful nature'.
Fighting The Fear...And The Weather
I knew I was right, and I got my head down and just concentrated on my immediate environment, and didn't think about what was above, or certainly what was below me! I got control of my fear enough to keep battling upwards. Then stronger winds came. And I froze. I can deal with all weather conditions, in any environment, but strong winds scare me. I didn't feel safe. I knew I was. But I didn't feel it. It was mind over matter. I got reassurance from Joe and we decided it was time to put on the crampons and get out the ice picks to provide a bit of help with the climb and a feeling of security.
It wasn't long after this point I doubted if I would make it to the top of the Devil's Ladder. I could see the top, but I wasn't sure if I had it in me to get there. But the temptation of reaching the end of the climb and being able to sit or stand normally without the fear of falling down the mountain side was overwhelming. So I dug deep and got there as quickly as I could. But I was greeted with over 100mph winds and a hail storm. There was obviously going to be no rest for us here. The wind was literally picking us off our feet. We couldn't walk against it. We found it hard to see through the goggles. The ice storm was cutting in to our faces. Through various nods, winks and our own version of sign language, we decided not to pursue the summit. I wasn't sure I'd make it alive! The weather was closing in on us. The winds were just too strong, the visibility was reducing due to the fog and we only had a certain amount of day light time left - and we still needed to get back down the Devil's Ladder! We were both disappointed that we wouldn't summit the highest mountain in Ireland, but safety has to come first.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
So without being able to take any rest breaks, my attention immediately turned to preparing to descend the mountain. I couldn't stand up. I couldn't sit down. I couldn't walk. But somehow, I had to find the energy and mental focus to concentrate on negotiating my way back down safely. This was going to be harder than climbing, because I would be aware of the sheer drops, the winds, the deep snow, the slippery icy rocks. I took a deep breath, nodded at Joe, gave a thumbs up, and asked him to lead the way.
After a while of cutting pathways in to the snow, we decided to have a bit of fun. It was time to get the ropes out! Attaching ropes meant that not only could you experience the feeling of descending the hill via abseil, but it also provided a sense of security. So I was all for it! A mixture of crampon work, ice picks and using ropes saw us off the snow covered area. The crampons came off, the ice picks went away, and we quickly continued to scramble down the remaining half of the Devil's Ladder, which had now becoming faster flowing due to the hailstorm, rain and melting snow.
When we finally reached the base, we decided not to stop for food and just eat a few snacks on the go, as we wanted to ensure we covered as much ground as possible before nightfall. The winds were horrendous by now, and physically lifting us and blowing us down the valley. The sky closed in with ever changing cloud formations and fog. The lakes were like a wave pool at your local leisure centre, and the ravens danced and glided in the wind currents overhead.
The End Is Never The End
We were exhausted, very cold, soaked to the bone with mud up to our knees from falling in bogs: but we were ecstatic! We couldn't be happier. Every now and then we'd stop, look over our shoulders holding on to each other to battle the on-coming wind, and just appreciate the view of the challenge we'd both just completed. Amazing.
Although we didn't want the day to end, we knew our memories of the climb would last forever. And the thought of a hot shower, cup of tea and some dry warm clothes encouraged us to finally make it back to the Tribal Landrover at Cronin's Yard, where we felt totally elated.
Now we are looking forward to returning in July with a group of Tribal clients, in sunny weather (fingers crossed) and make it to that summit! It's the same hill, the same route, but a whole new experience awaits us.
That's the beauty of nature, and I will always choose Adventure.
(If you want to put a bit of adventure back in your life, check out the full 2014 Tribal Adventures brochure and book your place on a trip today. Feel free to join us over on Facebook too.