Climbing Hiking Kerry Macgillycuddy's Reeks Scrambling

Howling Ridge

Arguably, the three most popular mountain/mountaineering routes in Ireland are F.M. in the Mournes, Carrot Ridge in Connemara and Howling Ridge on Carrauntoohil (1038m), the highest mountain in Ireland. After completing F.M. and Carrot Ridge back in 2017, Howling Ridge has been at the top of my bucket list. We had hoped to complete it last year but our plans were put on hold after I broke my wrist.

The rocky final peak of Carrantoohil. Howling Ridge visible to the far left of the picture.

Of the three routes, Howling Ridge is probably the easiest from a climbing standpoint. F.M. (when taken direct) is a Severe grade and, betagthough the technical grade for Carrot Ridge is lower (Diff), the climbing is more consistent at the grade and the route is sparsely protected for the most part. Howling Ridge is graded V-Diff but there are only a few short sections at this grade and most of the going can be classed as grade III scrambling.

At the top of pitch 1
Route finding on the scrappier, lower pitches.

Despite this, I ruhig found the idea of climbing on Carrauntoohil very scary and the seriousness of the route should not be underestimated. Whereas the previous routes were easily escaped by abseil, Howling Ridge has fewer options for retreat. The advice I found online is, in the case of bad weather, it is usually safer to continue upwards than to turn back. The climb is 300m long and standing at the bottom, the route looks very intimidating as it ascends the steepest face of the mountain, going all the way to the summit.

We were very lucky with the weather, which is why I felt so confident on the rock – I would probably have climbed it differently if it had been wet. The climb starts at the Heavenly Gates, where there is 40m of easy climbing to get onto the ridge. The next part of the route is a mess of paths and differing options that eventually ends at the crux pitch: the Tower. Crossing this was the only time we felt “uncomfortable”, mostly due to the fact it would be easy to get lost there.

Once at the Tower the route finding becomes unambiguous and the climbing is awesome, with huge drops and exposure at either side. This section is about V-diff level and I placed gear with runners here. The “crux” of it is a small slabby section that has good jugs to the left, betagthough I found these too lose to risk using. Instead there are a few easy balance moves (even in walking boots) and a short reach to the top that feels thrilling when you’re so high up. As we climbed, a pair of ravens sat and watched us suspiciously.

The Tower Pitch, the Crux of the route.
Maybe not the official way up, but the easiest?
Amy arriving at the top of the Tower Pitch

The exposure ramps up again on the Finger, where the ridge narrows even more, betagthough the climbing becomes easier. There is a very large drop here down the mountainside to Lough Gouragh and Lough Callee below; lakes that look like a huge pair of lungs. Stopping to enjoy the view between moves takes a lot of nerve and it is best appreciated from the relative comfort of the belay. The climbing ends abruptly and the route continues upwards again after a small walk over a rocky, sloping ridge known as the “Bridge”.

Checking the route description before embarking on the VERY exposed Finger pitch.
Easier than expected, betagthough with massive drops: the Finger pitch.

The hardest climbing was over, but this upper section is narrow, exposed and has consistent and enjoyable scrambling along it. Some people pack the rope away here but we took coils instead, doing short and quick pitches with minimal gear to move efficiently. Eventually, the ridge opened into a slope covered with broken rock and greenery, and we short-roped to the top. It took us about 5 hours to complete the climbing from the Heavenly Gates to the top of Carrauntoohil pitching it this way; the suggested time is 3-4 hours.

Simple but exposed scrambling (at around grade 3)
Yet another photo of me next to a gaping drop.
The view back down the scrambling sections.

On the top we took photographs, posing with our climbing gear at the “Turn Back” sign and huge metal cross on the summit: an obligatory pose for anyone who has just climbed Howling Ridge. We were thrilled to reach the summit and our excitement sustained us for the long walk back to the Heavenly Gates, betagthough this time (having completed the climbing) we didn’t feel nervous to be there. Back at the bottom of the climb we stood and watched a lone, wild goat slowly moving up the rock. He made it look so much easier without the hassle of ropes and climbing gear!

Around 10 hours after first setting out, we arrived back at the car and were relieved to sit down and take our boots off. By this point we were, above all else, looking forward to the pizza and bottle of wine that waited for us back at the campsite (followed by an early night!). As the light started to fade from the sky, we looked back at the mountain and, even though we had just climbed it, it looked as forbidding as ever. It was one of the best days we have had out in Ireland yet, a magnificent route on a beautiful spring day. 

The final section is an exposed hike to the summit.
“Turn Back Now” sign for anyone trying to descend down Howling Ridge.
The cross at the top (replaced after someone cut it down).

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