Built to Scale
“Where are you off to?” the cab driver asked. I told him, Heuston train station. I was going to County Kerry to climb the two biggest mountains in Ireland.
“I am a Kerry man myself, though I never climbed Carrauntoohil,” and he inhaled for a long moment.
“I used to run marathons,” he said. “Ran my first marathon in 1967. My shoes were shit. I wore a hole in the soles by the end of the race.”
This was not what I expected from a Dublin taxi at 6 am.
“I finished in 2:20,” he said. That’s fast. Blazing fast for a first marathon. Olympic qualifying times these days are 2:15-2:18. “I kept at that time until about 1971.” With a rye smile he looked back at me, clearly enjoying my incredulity. “I never got blisters. I suppose my feet were just tough. Walked to school every day in my bare feet, along with all the other kids in Kerry.”
I asked if he ever ran for his country. As every old Irishman will tell you, Ireland is a small country.
“Oh, I was asked once,” he replied, drawing out his hesitation. “I was asked to run for Ireland in Belgium, but I was to be a best man at a wedding that weekend, so I declined. Never got asked again.” He laughed, but there was a hint of sadness in it.
Soon enough the train was rolling. I was on my way to Killarney, and I promptly fell asleep. Waking with a start and drool all over my jacket, I could sense I was drawing near to the mountains of Ireland. My intuition was perhaps aided by the conductor’s announcements.
Soon enough, I stumbled off the train at Killarney, the end of the road for this particular train. With my brain still in first gear, I pieced together logistics for the day. I needed food. I needed a way to get to Carrauntoohil. I (probably) needed a map. I needed a way to get back before the last train left for Dublin. Parting the seas of ponderous tourists – for Killarney is a dyed in the wool shamrock and sheep Irish Tourist Town – coherence was finally achieved, albeit with the aid of a mostly-deaf octogenarian taxi driver.
This driver, older than the last and in that stage of old age where he is not totally clear what is going on, but is perhaps too deaf to have it explained to him, set off aggressively on narrow roads towards the trail head. Conversation proceeded in fits and starts, his deafness and age combining with my inability to understand the Kerry accent to form a thick haze of confusion. But I then got the question that many American tourists these days are eager to avoid or confront: “What do you think of Trump?”
I was ready for this. This was my time.
My defense of my country and acidic condemnation of the Trompster grew more impassioned by the breath. I paused a moment, collecting my thoughts before ascending once more into the breach, but he asked another question, “What do you think of Dublin?” I suppose Irish people aren’t as interested in the American president as Americans are.
The road to Carrauntoohil is a single lane. In fact, calling it a single lane is rather generous. It is barely wide enough for a car, and the stone walls ensure a cozy fit on either side. Good fences make good roads I suppose. Our man behind the wheel drove fast. He was probably driving these roads the last time Charlie Chaplin made a hit movie. Naturally, he was also keen to expound on the beauty of County Kerry, highlighting scenic views and historical structures. Though I very much appreciated his local perspective, the road required, at a bare minimum, his full attention.
Predictably, we narrowly avoided an accident. The situation required some deft wheel work from Mr. Healy, who, despite a backup camera, maneuvered his bumper close enough to the hedge to give it a shave. The hedge and I both owe much to that camera.
Finally at the drop off point, it was time to ensure that Mr. Healy would return for me so that I might sleep in Dublin that night. I reached into my pocket to pay for a cab ride more exciting than most, only to realize that we were no longer within the dominion of Mr. Plastic. And, naturally, I had only pocket change. I promised Mr. Healy that when he came to get me we would stop and I could get some cash. His response: “Well I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.” Off he drove and, camera in hand, I began my walk bright and early at a quarter to one.
Variously greeted by friendly donkeys and less friendly but Technicolor sheep, I made my way up into the valley and caught sight of Carrauntoohil. I would wager that Carrauntoohil translates from Irish to ‘King of the Dwarves’. Though an imposing and beautiful mountain in an imposing and beautiful cirque, it struck me much like Midwestern climbing does in the US. Fine climbing in its own right, but, given what else is out there, Carrauntoohil appears a bit diminutive, but perhaps my perspective has been warped by Hood and Rainier.
Despite lacking the Mountain-ness of many American ranges, the mountains of Kerry are striking. In a country where palm trees grow readily and many parts of the country do not receive snow ever, these mountains appear to have been sent by central casting straight from the arctic. Covered in loam, peat and scrub, they are all exposed rock and elbows, a precarious heap of loose boulders.
This valley is shaped in an almost perfect U shape, with Carrauntoohil at the apex of the curve.
Walking in past red, blue and green sheep on a perfectly manicured gravel highway, Ireland’s tallest mountain announces itself rather boldly. Among the undulating ridgeline, its pinnacle juts out just enough to entertain the notion that this is the tallest mountain in Ireland. Often, tall peaks are embedded in a larger mass of rock rather than free-standing, obscuring their true distance from the salty seas. Carrauntoohil does not make this mistake. It puffs up its chest as you crest a hill and asserts it Mountain-ness, to which most onlookers respond, I think, breathless, either ‘this is it?’ or ‘this is it!’ It is impressively imposing and diminutive simultaneously, both an easy ascent and a formidable achievement.
It is beautiful, without a doubt. Wet, misty clouds snag on the ridgeline, rolling over into my sunny day, the dark rock slick with moisture. Na Cruacha Dubha – The Black Stacks – loom over the valley. Macgillycuddy's Reeks, as this range is known, strikes me as a cross-over attempt between the treeless Talkeetna range in Alaska and an unfinished addition to the Honey I Shrunk the Kids series where Ricky Moranis has only shrunk the kids down to pint size. The Black Stacks are tall mountains, but they’re to scale for Ireland.
This is perfectly suited for the visitors seeking an economy-sized ascent of Ireland’s tallest mountain. There are several easy walk-up options (brochures say the Devil’s Ladder is the easiest. Go figure) and bottom to top to bottom is a casual day for casual hikers. It is perhaps not surprising then that many of the visitors wear jeans and tank tops and smoke cigarettes at the summit. Of course, I am thrilled to see regular people exploring such terrain for a whole litany of reasons we all know. However, the Black Stacks feel Big and Isolated and Epic. They look as though the passage of years doesn’t tend to bother them. They do not look like a tourist thoroughfare a short drive from a Quaint Tourist Town.
Reaching the summit, the eager climber has an unobstructed view over Na Cruacha Dubha and the sprawling green hills. The Atlantic peeks through valleys and clouds. It is an A+, unqualified incredible natural place. Next to this eager climber stand dozens of hikers in jeans, sandals and tank tops, lighting up cigarettes, seemingly instantaneously teleported from the shopping district in Killarney (Quaint Tourist Town). Some admire the scenery, while others are still standing in Killarney on top of Carrauntoohil.
Perhaps the gathering on top struck me because I climbed up a different way, on the faint memory of a path. The kind of path that fades out and cliffs out, only to peek around a corner just before the hike becomes unroped climbing. It was hard. I was scared. A foot slip on this stale cookie rock would’ve meant a quick and early descent. It was exposed and big (to scale) and windy. Let me state again, I was afraid.
Before we go any farther up the mountain – SPOILER ALERT – I did not slip and fall to my death.
I am a fit, healthy 20-something climbing Carrauntoohil and I felt unsafe scrambling and tottering up this mountain. How on earth did my experience and the experience of these hikers get us both to the same summit? Conceivably I could have reflected in that moment that in life there is almost always an easy way and a hard way to do the same thing, but I was otherwise engaged eating packaged wafer delights.
I need not expound on the view from the top, on the ridgelines radiating in every direction, on the vibrant, almost emerald green of the field below, on the barrenness of these mountains, on the sight of the Atlantic Ocean or on the true serenity of a mountain top and how the frenetic, jittery energy of everyday life becomes invisible and inconsequential sitting on a big enough pile of rocks. Looking down on the rest of the world is calming. Perhaps that’s why kings built so many towers and castles.
Naturally I couldn’t stay on the summit forever, I had a sense of urgency to sustain. Tromping down one of the ridge lines that forms the valley I made my way up, any pretension that the trail I was on was for anyone besides sheep quickly disappeared. A man I hiked with to the summit with told me that the sheep often get themselves stuck on cliffs: “They just sit there until they starve to death.” Perhaps sheep are not the most trustworthy trailblazers.
Bagging several of Ireland’s other eight tallest peaks, I picked my way between boulders and piles of shit until I reached the end of the ridge proper. The unforgiving and narrow sheep-killer expanded into a talus field, dotted with patches of moss and rainbow sheep. I wasn’t going to be walking on the edge of a cliff and the trail was just a few thousand feet below, but beware you that underestimate a boulder field.
It’s not as if I have bad knees. I am, after all, a healthy, fit 20-something, but those rocks did their best to convince me. Not surprisingly, sheep do not forge linear and logical trail networks to larger human trails, so my descent wandered from attractive rock to grassy slope. Just as the novelty and joy of climbing down a talus field wore off, my knees began to ache. I stopped for a minute and took stock of my surroundings; those first fifty feet had been grand, but there was still a long way to go. The horseshoe valley, and, more importantly, the parking lot, were farther than I liked.
Refusing to stop moving and starve out of obstinacy, I set off again, bounding and slipping my way down. I’d like to think I learned some important life lessons on that walk, maybe something about avoiding mandatory dangerous situations, relishing my perpetual youth or even just appreciating a once in a lifetime experience in a beautiful place in the midst of physical discomfort. Instead I learned about all the different ways tired and achy knees can bend and grumbled about trail builders.
Interminable experiences tend to go on for quite some time, but this learning experience eventually did end on the aforementioned gravel highway. No longer was I struggling down slippery rocks and brambles! This was the Autobahn of gravel highways. I puttered along, carefree, and then a helicopter chopped through the valley.
The pilot was looking for someone on the far ridge. On closer inspection, the helicopter was a part of Kerry Mountain Rescue Team. I had seen a helicopter search for a teenager the summer before in the Tetons, and it had proved fruitless. Several 4x4s and an ambulance were parked on the road. Half a dozen men were staring, rapt, at the helicopter as it made passes over a small pond below the ridgeline.
After several passes, I asked the least self-serious looking one what the injury was. “A woman fell and broke her wrist. Hard to get down from there with a broken wrist.” At least the emergencies were to scale.
Rolling into the parking lot, I poked my head into the lodge/café/info kiosk/campground office for some water and a snack. Sandwich already in my mouth, I again realized I was beyond the reach of Mr. Plastic. Oops. Free sandwiches always taste better anyway.
And, somehow, the octogenarian cabbie rolled up, ready to return me to the Quaint Tourist Town. With a thanks for the free sandwich, I was off, whisked back towards pavement and the dominion of Mastercard and Visa.
Despite my early apprehension of the man’s grasp of events at hand, Mr. Healy revealed himself on the return trip a man who had done much reflection on his circumstances and culture. I asked how Ireland has changed in his life. He said the Church had changed more than anything, that the Church used to run the country, that he had been through the school system and felt the corporeal wrath of academic displeasure, that he was a widower who had recently bumped into the woman he loved in his youth but he would be refused communion if he remarried, that he had jettisoned the dogma and ritual for a more basic code of human morality. This man, who could barely hear me and I could barely understand, had thought long and hard about the world that shaped him, and wanted to make it a better place. He was proud of the migrant communities in Ireland and immensely curious about their experiences and perspectives. He spoke at length of his desire that people be able to live how they like and not enforce their beliefs on others. He told me to write history because it disappears otherwise. And, inevitably, he asked me if I was Irish.
 Carrauntoohil and Beenkeragh. Bigness is a relative term. They top out at 3409 and 3314 feet respectively.
 This seems to almost be a point of pride among Irish people, particularly the older generation.
 I suspect he wondered how a person so senseless could be allowed to travel alone, let alone in a foreign country, but perhaps he was speculating as to mental faculties of my entire generation. His true thoughts we may never know.
 It’s a perfect U if you don’t look at the maps.
 Ireland’s eight tallest mountains (Furths, as defined by the Scottish Mountaineering Club) can be summited in a day from this trail. Net vertical for the day might reach 4000 feet.
 I am confident that I will remain a fit and healthy 20-something well into old age.
 Most directions.