Looking for the ultimate in challenging circuits? Most hillwalkers would point to Kerry's demanding Coomloughra Horseshoe as hard to beat, writes JOHN G O'DWYER
There are a few candidates for this honour; Dingle's Brandon Ridge, Connemara's Glencoaghan Horseshoe and Mayo's Mweelrea Circuit immediately spring to mind. But nearly all hillwalkers now agree that one route stands out above even such splendour. Kerry's Coomloughra Horseshoe is virtually impossible to match in an Irish context, as it takes in our three highest summits and offers an adrenalin-filled crossing of a memorable mountain ridge, great long-range coastal views and a bird's-eye panorama over some of Killarney's renowned lakes and fells.
The walk begins at a locked gateway in Kerry's scenic Glencar (see right). From here the going is steeply upwards, but at least there is a concrete roadway to grease the wheels of your ascent. Eventually, the track bears right and eases before swinging left and passing by a lonesome neck of water into superlative Coomloughra, a valley eternally overlooked by Irelands most elevated landscape.
The route now follows the skyline in an anticlockwise direction, with the really hard work beginning as you ascend the western spur of Caher mountain. After a thigh-burning slog you are rewarded with the first top of Caher's three-headed summit. As you continue along the ridge, past the summit proper, huge cliffs tumble menacingly to your left, but it is easy to stay off the edge, as the rightward slopes are more benign.
Next, a short descent brings you to the col with Carrauntoohil, from where bouldery terrain rises uneventfully to the roof of Ireland. Here you will discover memorable views, the wonderful feeling of being above it all and an incongruous metal cross. Look for the small plaque at its base, however, with a poignant tribute to the Limerick-born mountaineer Ger McDonnell, who died when scaling distant K2.
It's time now to relax and consider your options. Straight ahead that beautiful beast Beenkeragh Mountain beckons beguilingly. But such allure invariably comes at cost. Here it is reserved for those prepared to scramble across the eponymous knife-edge ridge, where fear is always a light sleeper. If doubts exist about the weather or your ability on rock, the best advice is to resist the charms of our second-tallest summit. Instead, retrace your steps over Caher secure in the knowledge of having scaled Ireland's highest and third-highest peaks - a good day's work by any standards.
Those continuing, however, should contour briefly along the cliffs north of Carrauntoohil, then descend a rocky path northwest towards the grassy col marking the start of Beenkeragh Ridge proper. From here experienced scramblers will likely keep their trouser seam aligned to the ridgetop and tackle all obstacles head on. Others will prefer easier tracks on the west side that avoid most difficulties.
Eventually, everyone comes together for the sharpish ascent over large boulders to Beenkeragh's small cairned summit, where the views are, if anything, superior to those from Carrauntoohil.
From here descend steep, rock-strewn slopes and then follow the humpback ridge northwest over Stumpa Barr na hAbhann and on to Skregmore. The route is straightforward: you simply stay on the broad crest and cross each top as it comes.
Beyond Skregmore the final steep descent from Cnoc Íochtair brings you directly back to Lough Íochtair. Once beside this lake the horseshoe is complete, and all that remains is the concrete path back to your starting place, in Glencar.
Coomloughra Horseshoe, Co Kerry
Starting point Leave Killarney by the N72. At Fossa head left for the Gap of Dunloe. Continue, leaving the gap on your left and later ignoring a sign for Carrauntoohil until you reach a T-junction. Go left for about three kilometres; the starting point is a wooden gateway on your left, marked with a mountain-rescue notice. No parking here, so shoehorn your car into the nearest safe spot on the roadside.
Time Allow six hours for Caher, Carrauntoohil and back. About seven hours should complete the full horseshoe.
Maps Harvey Superwalker 1:30,000 Macgillycuddy's Reeks; Ordnance Survey Ireland 1:25,000 Macgillycuddy's Reeks.
Suitability Be warned: this route follows the highest elevated ground in Ireland and is for experienced walkers only. Be prepared for an energy- sapping day, and leave plenty of time to finish before dark.
Accommodation Lough Acoose House (066-9760105, www.acoose-house-glencar.com) is a scenically situated family-run guest house seven minutes' walk from the trail head, with views over Lough Acoose and Macgillycuddy's Reeks. Evening meals are provided. For more options, call Killarney tourist office (064-31633).
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