The walk­ers who dis­cov­ered the dan­gers of win­ter on Car­raun­toohil.

Win­ter walk­ing is re­ward­ing but can be haz­ardous, as sev­eral hik­ers dis­cov­ered on Car­raun­toohil last year

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - John G O’Dwyer

About 8am on De­cem­ber 26th, 2017, Alan Wal­lace set off to climb Car­raun­toohil, ac­com­pa­nied by this brother-in-law, Ger and 18-year-old son, David. A long-stand­ing tra­di­tion ex­ists of climb­ing to the roof of Ire­land on St Stephen’s Day, but this morn­ing Wal­lace found the moun­tain hushed and eerily de­serted. Deep snow blan­keted MacGil­ly­cuddy’s Reeks, and the weather fore­cast was pre­dict­ing fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion; this had de­terred the usual horde of hol­i­day-time walk­ers.

His group was well pre­pared. A long-serv­ing mem­ber of Kerry Moun­tain Res­cue Team (KMRT), he is an ex­pe­ri­enced moun­taineer with an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the ter­rain. Sum­mit­ing around noon, the trio en­coun­tered rapidly wors­en­ing weather. An icy gale whipped across the snow­fields, while a white-out had de­scended on the moun­tain. Dis­ori­en­tat­ing and dan­ger­ous, this is a con­di­tion where it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish earth from sky.

Soon en­veloped by a full-on bliz­zard and with no vis­i­ble land­marks, they were forced to nav­i­gate by com­pass. Wal­lace re­calls: “These were some of the most chal­leng­ing con­di­tions I have en­coun­tered on the [MacGil­ly­cuddy’s] Reeks. The snow was waist-deep, vis­i­bil­ity was vir­tu­ally zero, a storm was rag­ing and the cold was in­tense.”

Trou­ble

Well- equipped and ex­pe­ri­enced, the group de­scended a gully known as the Devil’s Lad­der. Safely off the moun­tain, they were mak­ing their way towards the carpark and the prom­ise of food and an evening with fam­ily, when out of the gloom loomed the KMRT res­cue ve­hi­cles. Clearly, some­one was in trou­ble.

The news: a climber was lost on Car­raun­toohil. Wal­lace im­me­di­ately grasped the grav­ity of this: in the pre­vail­ing weather it would be al­most im­pos­si­ble to sur­vive a night on open moun­tain­side. It was im­per­a­tive the climber be lo­cated quickly. Fam­ished and cold after a long day, Wal­lace, nev­er­the­less, joined his fel­low vol­un­teers in the res­cue ef­fort.

Hav­ing iden­ti­fied his lo­ca­tion as some­where on the south­east of the moun­tain, the climber was ad­vised to stay put and await res­cue. Sev­eral teams then headed out into the storm and be­gan a la­bo­ri­ous sweep search.

Even­tu­ally, the ca­su­alty was lo­cated in deep snow near Car­raun­toohil sum­mit. Now en­veloped by dark­ness, the team had to painstak­ingly as­sist him down for im­me­di­ate trans­fer to hos­pi­tal.

In the mean­time, two other climbers re­ported they had also be­come lost while de­scend­ing Car­raun­toohil. A team was dis­patched to their lo­ca­tion, which was on steep ground ap­prox­i­mately 400m above the Devil’s Lad­der. Now fol­lowed the phys­i­cally de­mand­ing task of help­ing the climbers – who were show­ing the early symp­toms of hy­pother­mia – to de­scend the snow-choked and slip­pery Devil’s Lad­der.

One of the pair soon be­gan los­ing sen­sa­tion in his feet, so it be­came more ur­gent to get down for re­warm­ing. Plough­ing through the deep snow­drifts proved ex­tremely de­mand­ing, how­ever. A fresh team, in­clud­ing Wal­lace, was dis­patched to help the tir­ing res­cuers. “It was tough go­ing, but even­tu­ally we man­aged to get the ex­hausted and dan­ger­ous- ly cold climbers down for trans­fer to hos­pi­tal,” said Wal­lace.

As the team were about to stand down, a third emer­gency call was re­ceived. A high-al­ti­tude camper re­ported his tent had been de­stroyed by the storm. The ex­act lo­ca­tion of the ca­su­alty was un­clear, with com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fi­cult on a poor phone con­nec­tion; then the sig­nal died.

Work­ing on scant in­for­ma­tion, the most likely po­si­tion ap­peared to be the Black Val­ley side of the Reeks. As much of the na­tion cel­e­brated St Stephen’s night with fam­ily and friends, the team trans­ferred to this iso­lated area and com­menced a sweep search by torch­light that con­tin­ued into the early hours of De­cem­ber 27th, but to no avail.

Renowned fick­le­ness

Ac­cord­ing to Wal­lace “search­ing for a ca­su­alty on a dark, stormy night with­out lo­ca­tion co­or­di­nates is like look­ing for a nee­dle in a haystack”. That night Wal­lace reached his home in Kil­lar­ney at 2.30am. His sleep would be short, how­ever; the search re­sumed at 8am.

With its renowned fick­le­ness, the Kerry weather now be­stowed a crys­tal-clear morn­ing. A res­cue he­li­copter could be safely de­ployed, and soon the camper was lo­cated. Winched from a ridge – known as The Bone – he was trans­ferred to hos­pi­tal, while the team mem­bers re­cov­ered his be­long­ings, be­fore re­turn­ing to their fam­i­lies in late af­ter­noon.

Next day, there was an­other call­out which came just be­fore mid­night. A group of three climbers re­ported that one of them had fallen 10m and bro­ken a leg on Car­raun­toohil’s Howl­ing Ridge. Evac­u­at­ing a ca­su­alty in ice and snow con­di­tions from the ridge – which is graded very dif­fi­cult – would in­volve a highly tech­ni­cal op­er­a­tion.

After dis­cus­sion, it was de­cided to post­pone the evac­u­a­tion un­til morn­ing. An ad­vance party of two was dis­patched in the in­terim with food, warm drinks, spare cloth­ing and first aid to sta­bilise the ca­su­alty and pre­pare for res­cue at first light. This party con­sisted of KMRT vol­un­teers, Piaras Kelly and Ai­dan Forde. Ac­cord­ing to Kelly: “It was a hor­ren­dous night when we set out; the rain was buck­et­ing down. This meant it was snow­ing heav­ily at al­ti­tude. Luck­ily, it be­gan to clear as we climbed and even­tu­ally, we could pick out the three head­torches.

“Reach­ing the group about 3am, we found they had al­ready moved off the ridge. As­sess­ing the in­jury, we con­cluded the leg was not bro­ken, so it was pos­si­ble to as­sist the group to Car­raun­toohil’s sum­mit. We then de­cided to short-rope them down by the Devil’s Lad­der,” ex­plained Kelly.

Just when all seemed un­der con­trol, the moun­tain played its fi­nal card: the res­cuers were en­veloped by a se­vere thun­der storm. Kelly re­calls: “Light­ning flashes lit the moun­tains like day­light and thun­der rolled. Car­ry­ing steel iceaxes we were pet­ri­fied, but there was noth­ing that could be done. We just con­tin­ued bring­ing the ca­su­al­ties down.”

The storm passed, but in a fi­nal cruel twist, Kelly badly sprained his an­kle in a hole con­cealed by snow. “I was in agony, nearly as bad as the ca­su­alty. An­other cou­ple of vol­un­teers had to be called, but even­tu­ally we man­aged to reach safety and dis­patch the ca­su­alty to hos­pi­tal as dawn broke. Then when I took off the boot, my an­kle was like a bal­loon. It took months to heal, but the suc­cess of the res­cue made the pain worth­while,” con­cluded Kelly.

Christ­mas 2017 was a tough and phys­i­cally de­mand­ing time for KMRT, but no­body com­plained. The im­por­tant fact was that eight peo­ple had been res­cued with no­body se­ri­ously in­jured. This is what counts as a happy Christ­mas for Kerry Moun­tain Res­cue Team.

■ An icy gale whipped across the snow­fields, while a white-out had de­scended on the moun­tain. Below: Kerry Moun­tain Res­cue Team

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