Cragfast on Carrauntoohil
Taken from the Diary of Ed Jones
Rising early at 6.45am, after dozing to 94.4fm for forty minutes, I began preparations for my mountain mission. Preparation is everything, be prepared! Checklist; survival tin, wolfskin, woolly hat, four bottles of water, torch, sarnies, choccy bars (for strength), binoculars, camera. All important items on an alpine expedition.
The day was overcast but I sensed it would blow over and turn out fine. At Killarney I procured photocopies of a few lesser known routes up (and down) Carrauntoohil – Irelands highest summit. As the great peak – 1038m, grew larger and larger in my windscreen, so did my smile. I paid for the car park at ‘base camp’ and bought a postcard of the imperious mountain. An enthusiastic couple enquired of my plans and interestingly copied down the alternative descent route I had in mind. “We make for the gap of Rohan.” I jested, and we made jollies about the ‘sheer cliff’ aspect of my proposed return route. The day was gorgeous, just a puff of cloud near the summit. After crafting my sarnies (cheese) we all proceeded up the Hag’s Glen together, myself bare-chested, boldly going. We were soon at the two lakes or loughs, Gouragh and Calle, near to the steep ascent that is the Devils Ladder! Lough Gouragh, with the summit as a backdrop, made for a worthy detour and good photos.
Following the stream feeding the lake I rendezvoused with my original trail whilst wondering whether I was going to come out in front of or behind my fellow walkers. The track led me to the bottom rung of the aptly named Devils Ladder – a steep, rocky, gully full of loose boulders and scree, water trickling down. It was hard going up this section, but there were sixty-some-odd year olds ‘climbing’, so I had to persevere and made it up relatively quickly. Topping the ladder we all paused to survey the splendid panorama. A t-shirt was required at this point, as the temperature had swiftly dropped. I half heartedly searched for the route down that I had in mind, but instead made haste for the summit. Another thirty minutes scramble over rocky ground and there I was, the highest person in Ireland, for a time…
I touched the cross – a sixteen foot tall iron erection (minus the chained bike of folklore) for good luck. There was quite a party up on top. An American photographed my accomplishment whilst I waved the Irish flag that was living beneath the cross. Thinking the mountain should be slightly higher I added a few pebbles atop of the little stone shelter that generations had built right on the summit. The Americans marvelled that the sheep went so high on a ridge opposite… high altitude grass must be a delicacy. I descended to a little grassy hump on the southern side where my sarnies and narna awaited. A pleasant ten minutes ensued whilst my t-shirt de-sweated in the splendid summer sunshine. ‘Ahh… time to go. I hope I make it back in time for a dip in the sea!’
Retracing my steps downwards, meeting people coming up, I would tell them – ‘Only another ten miles to go!’ Ha-ha! Near the top of the Devils Ladder I confidently strode towards what I thought was the ‘rocky outcrop’ as per my guide. My alternative descent route was through ‘Heavens Gate’ (two big rocks) and then down the northeast side of the mountain. On the way I found a miniature stone circle, contemporary by the dimensions, up-righted a recumbent stone and added a central stone for the photo. Off again and my path was none the clearer. ‘It’s gotta be just down here a bit’ – so continued till I found what I thought was my ‘track’. The ‘track’ was poorly defined and I accepted it was probably seldom trod as it became an ever increasingly difficult course to navigate. My photocopied guide had mentioned ‘sheer drops to your right’ which were there alright. A few slips on wet ground and my confidence in the route, the guide and my own abilities started dwindling.
‘You know, I bet this isn’t the path, I’m far too high up’ I thought, ‘I’ll make my way down a bit… well, that’s the way I want to go!’ After a few dead ends, indeed, sheer precipices only a fool would dare enter, I doubled back and headed for the only visually inviting target… the path I came up on. Lowering myself from ledge to ledge I muttered ‘One wrong move here Ed, and you’re a goner!’ It was true, my last ‘drop off’ was the killer. I found myself on a small ledge, no way out! One side: an overhang, the other: a steep gully, wet and dark, back up: the steep rock face I just dropped off, two feet straight ahead. fresh air! Surveying and analysing my ledge I concluded it would be safer at this time not to make a move. Now I had owned my survival tin for about a month, its only action so far, the little knife for cutting some fish. This is where €12 investment pays off. I broke out the tin, disregarding the green tape to keep it waterproof. Incidentally I have just replaced said green tape, you never know! Then broke out the whistle letting out three sharp blasts.
People stopped to gaze up from far below. I blasted out three more toots and shouted ‘I’M STUCK, HELP!’ I waved my red woolly hat above my head and received the same signal back from the folk below. They seemed like ants, about four hundred meters beneath me. Firstly I thought I heard the call ‘JUMP’ … my imagination was clicking overtime. Then came the call “I’m coming up for you.” Phew, someone’s coming to check out my situation. He arrived shortly hailing from Norway and thus used to mountains. I forget his name, as you do, when you are stuck on the country’s highest mountain “I am below the ledge you are on but I can’t get up any higher” he yelled. “you would only be stuck like me if you did.” I replied. “I will try to see if there is another way on this side.” he said. “I don’t think so, it’s a sheer drop and a damp gully that’s well steep also.” I informed him. He said he would have a look anyway and asked if I had any injuries. I told him not but was a little scared, for sure, but had food and water. It was useless, we had no rope, but his girlfriend had a phone and called the mountain rescue. Good job I to
uched the summit cross for good luck!
My Norwegian friend said he would move down a bit to meet the rescue team when they arrived and to be patient. A strange mixture of nervous excitement hit me as I considered my situation, and hopeful imminent rescue. I pondered upon a solo escape attempt once more, but this only added to my nerves rather than excitement. My mind began playing over things – There’s a lot of sheep poo on my ledge! Has this just come down in the rain? I think that’s rabbit poo! Are those sheep footprints? If sheep can get onto my ledge surely I could get off? Hold on, a sheep could have fallen onto my ledge, walked around a bit, pooed itself that it was stuck, rubbed up against the cliff for a night, (hence the wool on the rocks), then gave up the ghost and plummeted to its doom, or maybe made a miraculous leap to safety… or the poo had just fallen down, they weren’t really sheep tracks and the wool had just blown there? Who will ever really know..?
I broke out my binoculars to see how many people were looking at me from below. There was always someone looking up, which was good, as I did not feel alone, even though I was… But I also thought that they were just waiting for me to fall..! My Norwegian friend shouted to me periodically “Ed you ok?” – “Yeah thanks” would be my reply. To amuse myself I broke out the binoculars to view sheep on the opposite mountain side, I counted them, but not to go to sleep, I scored forty-seven. Then I rated the sheep for precarious positioning. I was becoming slightly bored! Reading the instructions in my survival kit I discovered – If you’re defiantly not sure you can escape then try to obtain help. I had done the right thing. Had I tried and fell? not worth thinking about.
Finally a little toy truck trundled into view and four ants emerged. I furiously waved my red hat again eventually being spotted. The ants waved back and shouted… We shouted back. Ace! Professionals on the way, but they all have day jobs too. My Norwegian friend was informed, via a message he received on his mobile, that there plan was to come down from above. Thanks modern technology. An eternity passed till I caught sound of my would be rescuers above. “I’m here go to your right a bit, ok -I can see you now, can you get up on the side there? “No there’s a big drop next to it.” “Ok we’ll come down the gully to you.” “Ok thanks.”
Another age expired till I saw a figure enter into the gully above. “How are you? Are you by yourself?” “Yeah fine ta.” “What we’ll do is abseil down, I’m not coming any further without a rope.” Crumbs! they need a rope just to reach me! A third age passed as more ants arrived far below. Eventually Tim came swinging into view wielding a slender white rope. He made good progress down the gully to my right and clambered onto my ledge. On Tim’s way down the other guy at the top shouted “does he smell?” Strange, I thought. I later learned he was referring to a sheep carcass rotting away up the gully. Now was that the sheep from my ledge making his attempted get-away..? Poor thing.
I donned my helmet, courtesy of Tim, and harnessed onto to his rope. Tim instructed me to make my entrance into the gully as we readied to descend into no-mans land. I climbed out first by myself, but then the momentum of Tim, as he swung out to greet me, knocked me off balance and into a sharp rock. “Oooch.. that hurt!” “You ok?” “Yeah fine!!!!!!!!” Lets just get down, I thought. looking down was a tad scary, but look we did to ready ourselves for what was next. Tim went first controlling the descent with a switch on the belay loop. We swung in and out, off overhangs, into moss and onto loose rocks, which we ushered away shouting ‘BELOW!’ as they fell. Down two biggish drops, only one more to freedom, or terra firma as they called it. This one we swung to the right pulling all the remaining rope with us whilst the walkie-talkie blared away. Finally..! Touch down, into a reception of soaking wet moss.
We were greeted and undone by around six ants which had now become people who gave me choccy and water. Thank the almighty that’s over. Not too nice an experience but an experience it was! I regained my composure and enquired about the operation as we made our way down to the three awaiting trucks. I was last to arrive and asked if I could take a family portrait of the crew who kindly obliged. The sun was just peeping over the moody mountain who seemed to be brooding in her narrow defeat. My Norwegian friends had disappeared, which was a shame, as I wanted to buy them a large drink as I was in need of one myself.
On the drive down to the teams H.Q. a chap in the back of the wagon had a call from the papers. He poetically recounted my ordeal – ‘An English visitor was stuck on a ledge… he could have got off and down very quickly but would have come to a very sudden stop, which would not have been beneficial to his health.’ he commented, and put me in my early twenties. Chuckling, I kept anonymous. Apparently I will be in tomorrows Irish Independent. Woo!
John then gave me a lift to his mothers, I met her earlier as she runs the car park at ‘base camp’. She offered me a cuppa but I declined. We then located the point where I had been stuck, on the postcard of Carrauntoohil I had purchased earlier. Leaving for home my first stop was a Guinness (for Strength) then back to my campsite. The poor old chap who runs the site saw me drive to my tent. He enquired of my day, as I had told him my Carrauntoohil plans. He’d noticed my absence and was about to call the police, bless the guy. I recounted my story and I think he was suitably impressed and relieved. Just like me!
Many thanks go out to the sixteen kind folk of the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team and to the unknown Norwegians whose alarm raising and rescue attempts will always be revered. Seriousness aside… After my ordeal one rescuer enquired “What’s your last name? …o.k. that’s called Jones’s gully now”. Hah! Excellent! A part of Irelands highest mountain named after me!!! My elapsed time on return to my car: 9hrs 50min 52.84 secs.
FOOTNOTE: The next year I completed Offas Dyke long distance footpath and raised €1216 for the Kerry Mountain Rescue – Many thanks again guys!