Winter on Macgillycuddy's Reeks

Winter is a spectacular time to hit Ireland's highest mountains. But conditions are notoriously temporary, so you've got to get out while the going's good. With this week's early snow Stephen McAuliffe has been doing just that. Here's his account of the Coomloughra Horseshoe, perhaps the greatest ridge walk in the Reeks.

This article has been adapted from Stephen's blog Howlingmist


The Magillycuddy's Reeks are a compact range of mountains in County Kerry, stuck out on the far southwest tip of Ireland. All bar two of Ireland's ten 3000ft mountains are to be found here, and a wide range of exhilarating high level walks can be enjoyed. When conditions allow, superb winter adventures can also be had, but these are usually all too fleeting thanks to the southerly location and coastal influences. All the more reason to make the most of them! The Coomloughra Horseshoe passes over Ireland's three highest peaks: Caher (1001m), Beenkeragh (1009m) and of course Carrauntoohil itself (1039m). This scrambly ridge route offers a great day out in both summer and winter; but it is by no means all that is to be found hereabouts. It's just the tip of the iceberg.

Looking back along the ridge to Carrauntoohil - the best bit of the round if scrambling is your bag  © Stephen McAuliffe
Looking back along the ridge to Carrauntoohil - the best bit of the round if scrambling is your bag
© Stephen McAuliffe

In the predawn darkness I set off for Kerry, for what I hoped would be a snowy winter day on one of the best rounds in the country, the Coomloughra Horseshoe.

Under clear skies, a nice dusting of snow down to about 600m promised an early taste of winter, so I was really looking forward to getting out in it. Driving towards the start of the route was special, with views towards the Sleive Mish mountains glowing pink in the first rays of morning sun. But I didn't have time to be stopping and taking photos - I was on a mission.

The mountains of Dingle, from Caher  © Stephen McAuliffe
The mountains of Dingle, from Caher
© Stephen McAuliffe

"The ridge that links Caher to Carrauntoohil is pleasantly narrow in places and I enjoyed the airy feel as I stuck to the crest all the way"

Leaving straight from work meant I was nice and early in the almost deserted car park and it was 08.20 as I set off up the rather unappealing hydro road. This stretch is never a pleasure but the expanding and glorious views were a delight in the crisp morning air. Soon enough I arrived at the huge and spectacular coum that is encompassed by the three highest mountains in the country, and what a lovely sight it was this morning with snow covering the steep slopes. Now all I had to do was choose which way I would do the round. I went for Caher, first as I prefer to cross the Beenkeragh ridge from the Carrauntoohil side as this gives nicer scrambling.

Heading for Beenkeragh  © Stephen McAuliffe
Heading for Beenkeragh
© Stephen McAuliffe

The long slope up to the east top of Caher is fairly gentle but gets a little steeper towards the top; more than compensated for by the delicious views across the void towards Skregmore and Beenkeragh. Finally I reached the top and on a day such as this the feeling of delight was hard to beat as I stopped and looked around at the beauty that lay in all directions. The ridge that links Caher to Carrauntoohil is pleasantly narrow in places and I enjoyed the airy feel as I stuck to the crest all the way. There were just two others on the summit when I got there and it was a real pleasure to sit and enjoy an early lunch in the sunny, almost windless day.

Looking towards Coumasaharn  © Stephen McAuliffe
Looking towards Coumasaharn
© Stephen McAuliffe

I looked down towards the Beenkeragh ridge and found I was really looking forward to the challenge it would offer. I didn't think that crampons or axe would be necessary as the snow was soft powder and there wasn't any ice to be found (I did have them in the bag though, better safe than sorry) and indeed that proved to be the case. The steep descent to the top of O'Shea's gully was easy in the soft snow and once I reached the ridge I stuck to the crest once again. It is always more challenging when the rocks (and holds) are covered with snow but with a little patience I found everything I needed for safe progress. Once past the initial difficulties (which is the best bit) I stuck to the path and reached the summit of Beenkeragh.

The East Reeks - wonderful clarity, with the distant Galtees and Knockmealdowns very clearly seen  © Stephen McAuliffe
The East Reeks - wonderful clarity, with the distant Galtees and Knockmealdowns very clearly seen
© Stephen McAuliffe

A short rest here and I went carefully down the snow covered boulders towards Skregmore and eventually reached the hydro road again. So around 13 kilometers and 1200m of climbing done and I was back to the car in just over five hours. In the car my face was burning from the heater but also I suspect glowing with satisfaction after a smashing winters day.

Here's hoping there will be many more this season.

Full-on winter high on the Reeks  © Stephen McAuliffe
Full-on winter high on the Reeks
© Stephen McAuliffe

Looking back to Skregmore, the final main peak of the round  © Stephen McAuliffe
Looking back to Skregmore, the final main peak of the round
© Stephen McAuliffe

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