Howling Ridge Adventure: Epic just got EPIC-ER!
‘Leave that behind and that. And leave that behind too. You won’t need that and you should be leaving that behind as well’. These were the words of advice offered up by Mr. Byrne in my kitchen the day before my first ascent of the mighty Carrantuohill in Co. Kerry.
The plan was for an early start (4am to be precise), in order to facilitate the drive to and from Kerry and the climb without the need for camping. A tall order but we reckoned we had it in us!
4.45am and Katarina is standing in my driveway right on schedule. We pack the car and get into it and fifteen minutes later we’re still staring at the clock wondering where our third climber is. 5.20am and a grinning John Lennon appears, already with a tale to tell. (As the details are confidential suffice to say plenty of booze, not enough sleep and some driving manoeuvres that Arton Senna would think twice about were involved!)
The car journey passed happily with plenty of gabbin’ about the day ahead and we arrived at the car park at the base of Carrantuohill with time to spare. As we surveyed our surroundings the most outstanding feature was the snow that covered the top of all of the surrounding peaks. Smiles of joy and trepidation were exchanged and a call to Base was in order to let Jim know our current status. Needless to say the advice was to go for it but unsurprisingly to leave more stuff behind, namely the rock shoes that I had hoped I could depend on to get me past any tricky spots on the ascent.
It wasn’t long after that James arrived and our team of climbers was complete. While the boys ate sambos Kat fashioned her rather unique gaiters and soon we were on the track that would lead us to the base of our climb. The walk in went smoothly and, if I’m honest, slowly! With plenty of hill-walkers out and about the track was crowded in places and while we made up time on some of the steeper sections by and large the hill-walkers were beating the crap out of us when it came to speed! After a couple of hours we arrived at The Hut (or as it is now fondly referred to; Lyndobaggins-Hobbit-Hut). We decided more sambos were in order and washed them down with some Baileys Coffee. As it turned out we couldn’t have timed this little interlude better – the heavens opened and a grand shower of hail-stones came down, but we were sheltered (somewhat) in the entrance to the Hobbit-Hut and enjoyed the stormy view in relative comfort.
Once the shower cleared we set off again and reached The Heavenly Gates in a matter of minutes. We took some quick pics and then excitedly geared up; myself and John taking the first lead of the day. It was at this point that the decision that influenced the course of the rest of the day was made by our little group – we decided to climb simultaneously! Yes, you heard correctly, two leaders taking off at the same time from the bottom of the crag. Big mistake! However, this is effectively the style we opted for (I believe it’s never been done before so I think this means we can name it – if we’re aiming for a name that sums up the style effectively I think the name Arseways-Style is fitting!) In any case, off we went on our merry way, stepping over each other’s ropes and clipping each other’s gear when necessary along the way and low and behold we made good progress on the first three pitches. 1.30pm and we were all quite chuffed with our position on the mountain and felt we hadn’t long to go before we’d reach the summit.
How wrong we were! A few more pitches and we were into the snow. The heavens were opening sporadically with showers of sleet, snow and hail and conditions on the route were getting worse. While none of us had a problem with the climbing, rope drag was causing some difficulties and frozen digits resulted in dropped gear and some delays at belay-stations as leads were switched to facilitae thawing out! The climb was however amazing and the conditions, while tricky, were exhilarating to climb in. I was astonished at how effectively my hard boots gripped the sandstone even in the freezing conditions and our outdoor clothing performed fantastically well which meant that, apart from some cold fingers, all of us remained comfortably warm throughout the climb. Thank God for modern equipment, perhaps one day I will manage an ice-climb after all!
At this stage our progress was slowing, and there is no question that mistakes were starting to be made as we all became a little more tense about the time we were making. Thankfully we all stuck together and John and James assited myself and Kat on two occasions where real danger was a potential threat. It was a great comfort to know they were there and willing to help when help was needed. Once again I was reminded of how important friends are in the mountains. James assisted Kat with a tricky belay station and John slowed to ensure the safety of my second when I hadn't adequately protected a traverse for her. Thanks guys, it was truly appreciated!
Finally we finished the last pitch. 'OK Lynn,' said John as I arrived at the final belay station, 'James, Kat and myself are happy to untie and scramble the rest at this stage. Are you up for that?'. 'Absolutely' I replied, 'let's go!'. Truth be known, I hadn't a clue of the time at this stage but I was certainly aware that it was getting late and progress on the route had been slower than anticipated. With snow falling and bad visibility, I just wanted to get to the summit as quickly as possible as I knew the only way down was over the other side of the mountain.
I began scrambling up across the loose shale and snow dropping my feet heavily and digging in as hard as I could as James had instructed to stop my footsteps sliding back down. The ground was tough but James was right behind me offering support and shouting directions each time I veered too far to the right. I knew there was some distance between us and Kat & John but I was happy that John would get Kat through the last leg while James had my back. The scramble was longer than I expected but I felt I set a good enough pace and finally James alerted me to a landmark up ahead that I knew was the back of the 'Turn Back Now' sign I had seen in so may photos of the summit. Never was I so glad of a landmark being pointed out to me! A rush of exhilaration passed through me knowing the long slog to the top of the mountain was almost done. Now we had only the descent to think about, a challenge, but one I felt able for knowing that the mountain had allowed us to come this far unharmed.
The wind was howling at the summit and finally I decided it was time to get the anorak on to protect me from the elements. There was a short wait while the second pair made their way up to meet us. The grin on John Lennons face as he appeared on the summit will go with me to the grave, it was the face of a man in his absolute element. The look on Kat's face will also come with me to the grave but for different reasons!
Joking aside Kat had had a tough scamble to the top of the mountain. She was the only one among us without hiking boots and unfortunately her footwear paid its toll on her. Each step Kat had taken as she scrambled slid back on her as her shoes refused to bite into the snow. Also Kats's glasses had not been fitted with windscreen wipers before setting off and therefore, whatever about the fog, Kat couldn't see a thing as the snow melted and the heat of her body steamed them up with every step she took. Demoralised and almost out of stamina Kat was ready to give up, but she knew this was not a real option and instead settled for an energy bar and relied on John's patience and assitance to get her through the final meters. Happily her resilience paid off and we all stood briefly at the top of Carrantuohill, tired and thrilled in equal measures!
Our rest at the summit was brief, gear was transferred into rucsacks with James and John insisting on carrying the devils share (once again, thank you lads!). We set off down the track that leads off the summit aware that we needed to have a good trot on to get us to the carpark before darkness fell. John was the only one among us who had climbed Carrantuohill before and he knew that in order to descend into the correct valley we would need to veer off the track and head left at some point. With John leading this is exactly what we did. We began traversing around the mountain to the left while continuing to loose height in small increments. As time passed John began to question why it was that we had not yet met the track that would lead us safely back to the Heavenly Gates? Visibility was still very poor but we all began scanning and looking for the elusive track. Now and again one or other of us would grow convinced we could see something in the distance. 'There it is John, down there, can you see it?' we'd call out, but none of us were ever right.
Another call to base camp for some words of advice were in order. Again a reminder of the great friends we have made, friends willing and waiting to hear of our progress and to offer support and advice when the going gets tough. After the call we pressed on a little further along our traverse to the left. Conditions were not improving and I began to become concerned that the mist may have fallen into the valley at this stage making it impossible for us to ever reach a point where we would see landmarks and be able to guage our position on the mountain. Aware that there are dangerous gullys and cliffs on the mountain I started to become convinced we sould return to the track we had left and either take a compass reading from there or use it to descend to a less dangerous point on the mountain, albeit perhaps into the wrong valley. Talk of calling mountain rescue also became a topic of conversation and all in all tensions began to run high. As we looked for tracks the group splintered and at one stage the only other climber I could see was Kat. I didn't like it. I thought back to the night walks I had done with Chris and I thought also of the shelter in my backpack that I knew would only be of use if we were all together on the mountain. 'Lad's we need to stick together!'
We changed direction, heading back the way we came, and it wasn't long before John and James spotted the kernels that indicated the track we had originally left. Relief! Nice work guys. Suddenly everything became easier. We followed the track and apart from a Y-junction that seemed to appear as a final test of our patience we descended relatively easily out of the bad weather and mist and into a bright clear evening with the saddle of the mountain opening up before us guiding us to the Heavenly Gates. We left the track and once again headed left and this time managed to find two tracks! Word of advice if you find yourself in the same position - opt for the upper path!
Finally we arrived back at our starting point, the Heavenly Gates. One last push to the carpark and our day was done!
There is no doubt that Howling Ridge is a spectacular route and a fantastic introduction to mountaineering. It is demanding and certainly pushed each of us to our limits at one stage or another throughout the day. Mountains are majestic, sublime places and they are also dangerous and therefore they test not only our physical stamina but also our mental strenght. We rely heavily on our own ability when we go to these places but also on those who we choose to climb with. I have made many friends since I began climbing in the outdoors and I know that these friendships will last a lifetime but I have also seen how the stresses felt on days such as this can put a strain on relationships. Sticking together, being there for one another and not loosing patience with each other or the situation you find yourself in can be the very thing that gets you up and down safely. I was delighted to have made my first ascent of Carrantuohill with the people I did and I will always remember them as the people who got me there and back safely. There is no doubt that tensions rose between us when the going got tough but ultimately we needed each other and looked out for each other and arrived safely home to tell the tale. Thank you guys for another exciting day out, I'm already looking forward to our next adventure!