Tuesday 9 June 2009

Doing a deal with the Devil's Ladder

Warning signs now mark Carrauntoohil’s popular Devil’s Ladder ascent, but many believe more drastic action is needed to protect both climbers and the mountain

A QUARTER-CENTURY ago, I approached my first ascent of Carrauntoohil with trepidation. Tales of a giant couloir known as the Devil’s Ladder on the upper reaches of the mountain conjured up images of towering ramparts and scarifying heights. My apprehensions, however, proved groundless.

Halfway up a benign, flower-strewn gully, somebody casually mentioned that we were now traversing the notorious Devil’s Ladder. Then to our immediate relief the climb leader said not to worry, “the Ladder is just a poodle given fangs by the fantasies of Victorian travellers”.

However, on subsequent visits, it became clear that “the poodle” was developing fangs. As its popularity grew, the erosive effect of countless boots made it ever more unfriendly, with bouncier boulders and skating-rink screes. Soon it was fundamentally unstable, with many walkers injured as a consequence.

Eventually, the once-easy, grassy ramp at the head of the Ladder began disintegrating dangerously and walkers started frequenting other routes for safety reasons. Particularly popular were the somewhat exposed but wonderfully scenic Heavenly Gates Path and a grassy defile north of the mountain known as Brother O’Shea’s Gully.

Of course, the inevitable happened here as well. Both tracks have now become badly degraded, while a huge boulder has recently lodged itself in a dangerous position on the Heavenly Gates path. The heavy rains of the past two years have, meantime, further destabilised the Ladder, with a series of recent landslips resulting in the erection of signs by the Beaufort Community Council warning walkers of the dangers posed by the Devil’s Ladder and directing them to a switchback mass path about 200m to the east.

With the number of overseas walkers growing rapidly in recent years and more Irish people taking to the hills, does the growing infatuation with Carrauntoohil mean that the mountain is doomed to fall apart? International best practice suggests that such an outcome can be avoided. The highest peaks of the other nations occupying these islands get many multiples of Carrauntoohil’s ascents and yet suffer fewer dangers from erosion.

THE REASON IS simple. Scafell Pike, Ben Nevis and Snowdon each have relatively stable sacrificial paths to the summit. These hard-wearing trails prevent the sequence of erosion and degradation, followed by inevitable safety issues that then force walkers onto new tracks – such as the switchback mass path mentioned above – where the cycle inevitably repeats itself.

The argument for such a tourist route is that a track is “sacrificed” to expediency in a way that keeps most walkers on one route so as to preserve the integrity of the mountainside. Tourist routes are a compromise between environmental preservation and safety on one hand and maintaining the landscape on the other – a model that works reasonably well for most jampot peaks worldwide.

So is the construction of a stable sacrificial track the answer to the present safety concerns on the Devil’s Ladder? Mountain guide Nathan Kingerlee, who runs a company called Outdoors Ireland, first drew attention to the recent land slippages. He agrees a sacrificial path to Carrauntoohil summit is essential, but funding constraints mean it is presently unlikely to happen.

“In recent years, we have only used the Ladder as a last resort due to its instability, and lately one of my guides almost had a serious accident when a coffee-table size boulder thundered out of the mist, narrowly missing him,” says Kingerlee.

“Outdoors Ireland won’t be using the Ladder in its present state,” he adds, before admitting he rarely concedes to fear on a mountainside, but on a recent descent of the Ladder, he was genuinely scared.

Kerry-based mountain climber Gerry Christie is generally more sanguine about the situation. He has been involved in several rescues of injured people from the Ladder and is also in favour of a sacrificial path.

“Tourists should be encouraged to use this route, freeing up the more challenging areas for experienced mountaineers who know what they are about.”

Like Kingerlee, however, Christie is not optimistic thatsuch a sacrificial route will be constructed soon, given the complicated land-ownership structure of the area and the economic climate. What, then, should be done about the problems on the Devil’s Ladder?

“I have descended the Ladder in the past few days and I just can’t see the need for people to be signed away from using it. There is, of course, a requirement to be careful, but that need has been there for years,” says Christie.

John Cronin was raised at the foot of Mcgillycuddy’s Reeks and comes from a family in which the farmyard was a traditional starting point for Carrauntoohil ascents. Cronin recently opened Ireland’s first climbers café and is well aware of the dangers posed by the Ladder route, but believes the warning signs are counterproductive. “People who would normally use another route are now going up the Ladder out of curiosity, and in recent weeks, the numbers climbing it have actually increased,” says Cronin, echoing the views of just about everyone else I spoke with. “The solution to the present problems lies, not with signage, but with the construction of a safe summit trail.”

He is looking forward to the first step in this process, when “two footbridges provided by Liebherr Ireland are put in place this summer by Kerry County Council to facilitate river crossing”. Cronin disagrees, however, with those who see the recession as a hindrance to sustainable development. “The construction of a safe route on Carrauntoohil would be a sound investment given the extra tourism revenue it would generate, but everyone must be fully on board before this can be achieved.”

Mountain climber and Kerry-based businessman Con Moriarty was involved in erecting the Devil’s Ladder warning signs, which were funded by Killarney Chamber of Commerce. He believes the present situation has arisen on account of Carrauntoohil continuing to remain privately owned and also “because of a shameful neglect by some state agencies prepared to stand back and watch while our highest mountain is literally washed into the Gaddagh.”

When asked if developing an agreed management plan for the Reeks is a complex problem he replies: “It isn’t a huge problem for highly frequented mountains in other countries – it’s just a complex problem here because this is Ireland.” But if everybody appears to favour of building a sacrificial pathway on Carrauntoohil, why hasn’t it been done long ago? “Not everyone was in favour,” says Moriarty. “Planning permission was secured for the erection of footbridges in the Hag’s Glen, the implementation of a Devil’s Ladder erosion control plan and a small facilities building at Lisleibane, but funding was lost because of objections from a handful of local mountaineers.” But if Carrauntoohill is privately owned, what about the attitude of the landowners to an erosion control path? Here, Moriarty readily accepts that objections from landowners were also a factor in the demise of the initiative.

SO WHERE TO FROM HERE? Gerry Christie is against a facilities building at Lisleibane because he believes this would detract from the essential wilderness experience. He would, however, support a sacrificial track up Carauntoohil “if funding was available and broad agreement, including that of the landowners, could be obtained”.

To this end, he intends meeting with Con Moriarty and other interested parties to explore the possibility of some kind of immediate emergency work on the Ladder to render it safer for use as a Carrauntoohil ascent route.

But what of those wishing to ascend out tallest peak in the meantime? According to John Cronin, Carrauntoohil is a wonderful mountain and while he does not go so far as to directly advise people to avoid the Devil’s Ladder, he quickly points out “there is a wide choice of other fine ascent routes making for a great days outing.”

Irish Times


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