“ Location: 52° 0′ 0″ N, 9° 31′ 0″ W „
Torc Is Cheap
'Convenience' is a word that breaks out the hardened hillwalker in hives. One is meant to embrace the challenge of the outdoors, to eschew the comfy sofa, to try to strike that unsteady balance between climber and peak, and generally make one's experience as pure as possible. But some folk might like the idea of a mountain walk 30 minutes from the airport that can be accomplished within a few hours without needing the aerobic threshold of an Olympic rower. So, this one's for you.
Torc (like many mountains, it's named after the wild boar) is an irascible little peak 1755ft in height, just south of Killarney. Shagged with trees and sporting a fine waterfall at its base, it squats like a watchdog over the town's eponymous Lakes, providing both a literal and metaphorical gateway to the higher peaks of County Kerry.
Leave Killarney on the N71 towards Kenmare: this is the start of the fabled 'Ring Of Kerry', one of the world's great drives on the right sort of day (that being 'nice weather, out of season'). If you're 'in season', be aware that you'll be driving against the flow of tourist-laden coach-delivered Death, but this won't present a problem if you're only going as far as Torc. (It's beyond Torc that the road starts getting interesting, with its cavernous potholes, vast subsidence and Last-Stop-Before-The-Next-Life narrow blind corners). After a couple of miles you'll draw alongside Lough Leane, largest of the Lakes of Killarney, and then the entrances to Muckross Priory and House: low level walks, National Park Visitor Centres, jaunting cars, traditional farms and gardens, if that's what you're into. And a couple of miles later, on the left, a spacious car park is signposted for the Torc Waterfall.
It's only a couple of hundred yards to the waterfall along an obvious maintained path (past a National Park information point: open from the end of June to mid September). Any able-bodied person incapable of handling the moderate gradient of those couple of hundred yards should probably reconsider their lifestyle: I suspect (without having tried) that a wheelchair user could be taken within viewing range of the falls. This ease of access is something of a double-edged sword: you'll be lucky to get any quiet contemplation done here at any time of year, unless one turns up in the middle of the night. But let's not be churlish: Ireland is a land surprisingly unblessed with waterfalls, and this 60 foot cascade is one of the better ones. It's possible to clamber carefully to the very foot of the falls, but most pedestrians will be content to view them from where the path doubles back steeply uphill. For this is the point that separates the folk 'going to the waterfall' from those 'going up the mountain'.
Torcin' 'Bout a Revolution
Actually, that's not entirely true: there are several colour-coded trails based on the falls looping through the woods above and around (see the notice board at the car park for details: none of them are more than a couple of miles in length and as such are suitable for the vaguely active family party). But the route up the mountain does go round this sharp left hand bend, and onwards and upwards, through the woods. The rumble of the falls gradually recedes to be replaced by a veritable parliament of birds, and gaps in the trees allow views over the lake. I saw a wild, untamed teenage couple attempting to snog each other to death hereabouts, but they may not have been indigenous. After about ten minutes you will pass a track on the right leading to a bridge over the stream: this signals that the top of the wood is near. Ignore it, unless you're doing one of the colour-coded things, and soon you'll arrive on a road next to another car park. Yes, I deliberately didn't tell you that you could have reduced the climbing by about 400 feet by driving up here. You'd have missed that nice stroll up through the forest, and besides, this is what you get for reading the daubing of an exercise fascist.
Anyway, once you've finished swearing, you need to turn right along the road. This soon becomes a rough track: the Old Kenmare Road. As you walk west along it, the trees thin out and the Owengariff River burbles down to the right. After a few hundred more yards the track decides that it prefers its burbling on the other side, and crosses a bridge before hanging left and hugging the river bank on its way up the valley. Throughout your use of it, the Old Road is delightfully easy to walk upon, only rarely conspiring to be anything more severe than 'gently uphill'. In fact, whisper it, the most strenuous part of the entire ascent is the bit up through the wood...
The valley becomes more open and bleak as you progress. Deer and hares are often seen here, comparatively easy to pick out against the stark hillsides. One could continue along the track as far as Galway's Bridge on the New Kenmare Road (aka the previously used N71), as do many hikers, forming as it does a section of the popular Kerry Way (whose markers you may notice hereabouts). But it's worth bearing in mind that you'd eventually reach the striking-and-supposedly-haunted derelict church of Derrycunnihy (at the junction of the Old and New roads: you can't miss it on the N71. We're talking late-night female apparitions, passing cars, drivers looking in drivers' mirrors, something suddenly being on the back seat, etc. Yikes. Where's Derek Acorah when you need him? Actually, probably playing one of his frequent shows at INEC in Killarney...seems like the Irish haven't cottoned onto him even if everyone else has), and the owls in Kenmare itself are really vicious, allegedly.
Hmmm. Anyway, after about a mile the river bends obviously away to the left (south), and soon afterwards the path up Torc is signposted on the right. This was built by a specialist party in the last few years, and rather succinctly sums up the problems of managing tourist access to wilderness areas. Torc is probably the most climbed mountain in Kerry (more so than even Carrauntoohil) and is only really easily accessible via the slope you are now eyeing up. Said slope is tough grass, dotted with outcropping rock, but is otherwise 'easy' and as such can be climbed almost anywhere. And 'anywhere' is exactly where it was getting climbed: there is no obvious natural line, so the (mostly) inexperienced pedestrians were wandering (and eroding) at will. So the decision was taken to build a path. To the environmentalist/mountain sportsman in me, the concept is anathema, but having thought about it and (more importantly) sampled it...I have to concede that it has been done with a fair amount of discretion, is well-routed (it's a doddle, with the very occasional very short steep sections seemingly trivial next to the general gentle gradient) and now serves as a fine introduction to the pleasures of the mountains.
So, up we go. The path, a mixture of pitched stone (on the steeper bits) and railway sleepers swaddled in wire mesh, meanders back and forth to mitigate the steepness. Until the latter stages of the climb the view is largely limited to the barren wilderness south of the Old Kenmare Road, with the legendary peak of Mangerton glowering over the landscape, a landscape that was extensively inhabited until the clearances of the 18th/19th century. That said, the glimpses of the Upper Lake (another one of the four Lakes of Killarney) to the south-west (and the striking peaks beyond) will hopefully inspire those who find this ascent awakens a primal desire to throw one's self at all the other big pointy things out there. And as one nears the summit, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane peer over the shoulder to the left of Torc's peak, giving the ailing tourist a last psychological push to the top.
As you sit on your heathery throne your eye's first port of call will probably be the blue expanses of Muckross Lake and Lough Leane to the north, with Killarney (and some rather indiscreet hotel developments, unfortunately. Nobody has yet come up with emerald-coloured concrete) prominent. Gradually turning left, the lakes are buttressed by the prominent Tomies/Purple Mountain group. To the left again is an end-on view of the east section of Macgillycuddy's Reeks, and the long straggle of the Upper Lake provides the frontispiece to the grim defile of the Black Valley (whose inhabitants all died in the potato famine. The Irish: We Don't Do That Whole Euphemism Thing). Moving on we come to a convoluted area of lesser peaks, smaller loughs and Celtic badlands, before the mountains reassert themselves with the high dome of Mangerton. The panorama concludes with the fertile outline of the Paps (properly, The Paps of Dana: yes, Dana's Boobs), before the land declines into West Cork.
All of this assumes that you can actually see the view. After numerous visits where Torc's status in my mind was as 'something to do when I can only spare a couple of hours', Ryanair's switch to their winter Stansted/Kerry timetable forced my hand: it was December and I did only have about three hours of daylight. And a Chevrolet Kalos. I didn't have the weather though, and my plod up through the forest was accompanied by the gradual transformation from 'overcast' to 'murky': by the time I left the Old Kenmare Road said murk was gently weeping on me, and so it continued to the top, only with a gradually increasing windspeed. Fortunately, I have a man on the spot with multiple ascents to his credit, and I've ransacked his photo archives to fill in the gaps in my mind's eye.
Descent by the same route is easy and advisable. Inspection of the map would have told you that the way up is roundabout and circuitous, but with good reason: Torc is a rough little peak, and attempts at shortcuts are likely to lead to discomfort or trouble, or both. This applies on a smaller scale too: don't be tempted to cut the corners of the path on the way down. If you crave a bit of variation you could go over the bridge at the top of the wood and take the trail on the other side back down to the road, but you won't see anything comparable to the waterfall if you go that way, and the few hundred yards along the N71 at the end exposes you to a possible encounter with tourist-laden coach-delivered Death. Be careful, people.
(6 miles, 1750ft ascent)
Careless Torc Costs Lives
Unless you're seriously languid, the ascent of Torc won't take you a whole day. So, a somewhat non-exhaustive list of things worth seeing nearby...
Killarney - Probably the second most visited town in Ireland by tourists (so there's lots of accommodation, but it's wise to book in advance). Pleasantly bustling, with lots of pubs and shops and pubs. Pubs, too.
Gap Of Dunloe - On the other side of Tomies/Purple Mountain from Torc lies this rather dramatic glacial defile. Jaunting cars (horse and carts carrying passengers) run through the gap (normal cars, jaunty or not, are frowned upon), and the splendid watering hole of Kate Kearney's Cottage is situated at its foot.
Lady's View - Carry on down the N71, past the scary church, and you'll reach a car park overlooking an excellent vista looking back to the three main Lakes of Killarney. This is so-named on account of Queen Victoria's ladies in waiting proclaiming it the finest view they saw during her time in Ireland. Slightly further up the N71 is the junction of Moll's Gap with its craft shop, a place that feels almost comically remote considering it's on a main road, and a little further on again...the road descends to the sea at Kenmare. Owls. That's all I'm saying.
Having got that far, you might as well carry on around the rest of the Ring Of Kerry (arrival at Kenmare suggests you've mastered the art of not being wiped out by oncoming coaches): at the risk of being as repetitive as U2's oeuvre, it really is a bit special.
So, Torc: a fine excursion. And a final nugget from my mate Dave who lives nearby...'if you want to add an addendum to your review you could add that half a mile further down the road is another car park, where a 15 min walk takes you to Dinis Cottage (tea room, best choc cake ever) and The Meeting of the Waters.'