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Monday 10 December 2018

A peak performance

Cormac Looney's climbing weekend in county Kerry left him on a high

Cormac Looney on top of Howling Ridge
Cormac Looney on top of Howling Ridge
The ridge itself

You better keep your phone turned on. Once the wind blows up we won't be able to hear one another-- even if we shout." So, is that why they call it the Howling Ridge?

I am standing at the top of a narrow gully on the north-east face of Carrauntoohil with local guide Nathan Kingerlee. He's about to show me one of the classic routes to the summit of Ireland's highest mountain. Only 430m of rocky ridge and a stiff breeze lie between us and the top.

The excursion is one of a number of guided day climbs offered by Nathan's company, Outdoors Ireland (www.outdoorsireland.com), in the MacGillycuddy Reeks, just outside Killarney, Co Kerry.

Scramble

The company offers weekly hikes to the summit of Carrauntoohil, snow ascents (weather permitting) and rock scrambling, among other outdoor pursuits. And today's the day for a scramble up the classic Howling Ridge route. Considered a step up from hillwalking, the climb, negotiated and narrated by Nathan, is the perfect way to blow off the winter cobwebs -- literally.

As I stand at the Heavenly Gates -- a grassy platform at the foot of the ridge -- it's clear that we'll be getting a lot of fresh air. But for an aspiring climber like myself, with very basic rock skills, it's too good a challenge to resist. And Nathan, who lives in the foothills of the mountain and has run courses here for six years, is the perfect guide.

He's well versed in the myths and legends of the famous Hag's Glen below. On the walk in he points out the fairy fort at Lisleibane and the island on Lough Callee where the hag who gave the glen its name lived, along with the lake which she supposedly walked upon to reach the shore. But now we're looking up, not back down, as we clamber, roped together, up over the rock.

Despite its steep appearance the climb is suited to experienced and fit hillwalkers. While a couple of the pitches have drops of 100m or more, safe guiding on the part of Nathan means that weekend climbers -- such as myself -- have little to worry about. If anything, the occasional gusting wind and stunning views below ensure that you'll reach the top on adrenaline alone.

And after three hours of shimmying, stretching and hauling, with a few breaks to check kit, munch food and fire off some snaps, we're topping out at the bottom of the summit plateau. Taking just a brief stop to admire the health and safety-driven 'danger here' sign, we're shortly at the summit cross.

Descent

With perfect timing, this being Ireland in February, it starts to rain. But the view on a clear day, as I've seen, is breathtaking.

When it comes to the descent, Nathan offers a choice of gullies dropping back down from the summit. We opt for the Central Gully, a knee-testing descent back down into the Hag's Glen. From there we stroll back to our car, and on to a well-deserved swim and shower in the sumptuous Killarney Park Hotel, followed by a well-earned meal in the award-winning Park Restaurant.

The hotel is one of Outdoors Ireland's accommodation partners and is perfectly situated in the centre of Killarney for an evening stroll around the town -- albeit with some rather stiff limbs. But before I make it back to the hotel, Nathan reveals where today's route got its moniker. The Howling Ridge is not named for the wind, it turns out, but for a dog owned by local climber Con Moriarty, the first man to ascend the route. His hound remained at the foot of the ridge as he climbed it, barking and howling after her master as he ascended.

Couch potatoes may agree with the dog, but for those willing to go a step beyond the usual weekend hike, the Howling Ridge is highly recommended.

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