Rock climbing in Donegal, Ireland.
by Iain Miller
The county of Donegal sits in the most North West point of the Republic of Ireland. What Donegal provides for the visiting rock climber is more rock climbing venues, routes and unclimbed rock than the rest of Ireland combined. The wealth and diversity of the climbing available is almost unlimited from the mud stone roof at Muckross in the south of the county to the Granite slabs at Malin head, (Irelands most northerly point) in the North of the county. Donegal boast Irelands longest rock climb, the 800m Sturrall Ridge, Irelands highest sea stack, the 150m Tormore Island and Irelands highest mountain crag in the Poison Glen. There are currently over 2000 recorded routes on over 150 crags throughout the county, I have calculated that if I was to climb a new route every day I would still be climbing new routes in 150 life times away, there is indeed a lot of unclimbed rock.
Where the rock climbing in Donegal truly excels is in itís sea stacks. There are over 100 sea stacks with currently 150 recorded routes to their summits. The stacks are found along the coast of Donegal mainland and itís islands, what these sea stacks provide is a collection of the most adventurous, remote and atmospheric rock climbs in Ireland.
Sea stack climbing involves accessing these huge towers of rock sticking out of the sea, it is this access that makes these rock climbs to special. A normal day on a sea stack will require a 200m descent to sea level to access remote and isolated storm beach, where it is highly unlikely anyone has ever stood before. The is followed by an UBER commiting sea passage along the bases of currently unclimbed 250m sea cliffs in a totally commited and unescapable locations to gain the bases of the sea stacks. The commitment required and the sense of primal fear that accompanies these journeys has to experienced to be believed. As always, tad of logistics and planning is the key to success and of course the adoption of perhaps less orthodox climbing equipment such as 600m of 6mm polypro, a lightweight Lidl Dingy, a single lightweight paddle, divers booties, a 20ft Cordette, a pair of Speedoís, heavy duty dry bags, 20m of 12mm polyprop, an alpine hammer, a snow bar, a selection of pegs, a chest harness/inverted Gri-Gri combo and a big Grin! We then climb these towers of rock to arrive on pristine pinpoint summits far from anywhere in the real world. Standing on a pinpoint summit over 100m above the ocean, 500m from the nearest point of land and 20KM from the nearest main road can easily be described as a truly spiritual experience.
For the past 5 years I have been exploring the sea stacks of County Donegal, and have currently climbed over 60 previously unclimbed sea stacks in the county and recorded over 150 new routes on the Donegal's Sea Stacks. During these adventures we have seen first hand the true beauty of these little known places in Ireland.
The main residence of the sea stacks is the Sleivetooey peninsula in the South West of the county, access to the peninsula is by a narrow winding 20km B road which takes you to the AN Port road end. The An Port road end is quite simply the most beautiful location in Ireland a trip to this road end is an outstanding journey in itís own right, but itís what lives either side of this road end that makes it a mind blowing location.
|An Port area, Donegal|
|An Port Topo|
To the south of An Port lives a chain three sea stack each with an increase in commitment to reach their bases as they span further and further away from the remote storm beach launch pad. To the South the skyline is dominated by the Sturrall Ridge, which provides an 800m rock climb requiring a 300m sea passage to reach itís base. It is given the grade XS which is a little used grade in the UK or Ireland as it means there is much more than rock climbing skill required for a same ascent. Approx a third of the way up the ridge there is a 50m section of climbing that will live forever in your memory!
Travelling North from An Port the sea cliffs and sea stacks just get bigger and bigger. After about a 600m clifftop walk you will be overlooking the 90m Toralaydan island which is flanked on itís south and North sides by a further very difficult to access stacks. At the sea ward tip of itís southern side lives the Baltic Tower an ascent of itís sea ward face provides a super scary climb called Icon, at an amenable grade of 5.3 it provides an immaculate climb in a super terrifying location.
A further 500m to the North of Toralaydan lives An Bhuideal an immaculate and iconic twin headed stack. There are currently three routes to itís twin summits and all three are world class adventure rock climbs. The super slim North tower of this stack provides an unforgettable experience with a three pitch 5.7 route to itís tiny extremely exposed summit. The rappel descent from this summit involves a wee bit of prayer as the rap anchors are a pile of rocks and the landward face overhang alarmingly in itís upper half.
|An Bhuideal distant view|
|An Bhuideal topo|
Travelling a further kilometre North takes you to a stunning viewpoint over looking Tormore Island, Irelands highest sea stack. To the south of Tormore is the 100m Cnoc na Mara, it is difficult not to get emotional when talking about the mighty Cnoc na Mara.
When I first saw this 100m sea stack from the overlooking clifftops it was the inspiration to climb every unclimbed sea stack in Donegal. It is safe to say this stack represents all that is great about adventure climbing. It's impressive soaring 150m long landward arete provides one of the most rewarding and adventurous rock climbs in Ireland. It is easily an equal to the mighty Old Man of Hoy off the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland. Access is by a monsterous steep grassy descent followed by a 20m abseil to a storm beach at the enterence to Shambala. As you descent this steep slope sitting out to sea Cnoc na Mara grows with height as you descend reaching epic proportions as you get closer to to beach. Gaining the beach alone is an adventurous undertaking in it's own right and is an excellent taster off what is to come. From the beach paddle out for about 120m to the base of the stack. The Landward arete is climbed in four pitches each pitch being much more atmospheric than the last. The fourth pitch is the money shot, a 58m ridge traverse with 100m of air either side of you as you negotiate the short steep sections along this outstanding ridge traverse.
Gaining the summit is like being reborn into a world where anything is possible it truly is a surreal and magical place to be. The whole world falls away below and around you, as you are perched on a summit far from anything else.
Tormore Island is a gigantic leviathan, a sentinal of the deep standing guard at the nautical gates to the Slievetooey coastline. At 150m at it's highest point above the ocean it is Ireland's highest sea stack. This huge square topped stack can be seen for many kilometres along the coast either side of it. It can even be clearly seen from the Dungloe/Kincaslough road some 40KM to the north. Access is a very involved affair and entails gaining the storm beach as for Cnoc na Mara, Lurking Fear and Tormore Island. From here it is a 500m paddle around the headland to the north of the storm beach and a further 250m paddle through the outstanding channel separating Tormore Island and Donegal mainland. At the northern end of the land ward face there is a huge ledge just above the high water mark. In 2008 a team of four climbers took a 250HP RiB and landed on the land ward face of the stack. Two members of the party had made several attempts to land on and climb the stack in the past. We were aware of the story of the man who was buried here. During our climb of the stack we searched any possible place where someone could be buried and found no possible burial site or any trace of the passage of people on the stack prior to our ascent. We found no evidence or trace of previous visitors on the summit. To get off the summit back to sea level we made four 50m abseils leaving behind two 240cm slings and 4 pegs as abseil anchors.
We climbed the very obvious land ward arete at the northern side of the land ward face, this huge feature can be easily seen from any position along the coast overlooking the stack. The route we took to the summit was climbed in 5 long pitches following the easiest line up this huge feature. The descent was by 4 50m abseils down the route back to our start point on the huge ledge above the high water mark.
|Cnoc na mara topo|
To the North of the Tormore view point the land falls away down into Glenlough bay, a truly spectacular bay containing a further 4 sea stacks and Ireland largest raised shingle storm beach. On a day of huge north west motion the roar of millions of tonnes of shingle being moved up and down the beach by the incoming seas can be deafening even from the cliff tops 200m above the beach.
|Glenlough Bay topo|
To the north of Glenlough bay the land swing to face north and for a stretch of 7km the sea cliffs increase in height to 300m. At the base of these monster sea cliffs are a further 4 extremely inaccessible sea stacks, The Unforgiven (60m), Pyramid Stack (50m), Satan (80m) and Gull Island (90m). Of these sea stacks Satan is the daddy, This 80m sea stack is one of the most fearsome and dangerous stacks in Ireland. It sits off the north west face of the mighty Gull Island and presents considerable logistical and nautical problems requiring a tad of planning prior to attempting an ascent. Access is by walking 4KM over the Slievetooey summit from the south and descending it's northern slopes to an outstanding location on the clifftops over looking Gull Island. Descend the very steep grass to the boulder beach joining Gull Island to the mainland. There is an abseil stake in place (2009) to safeguard the initial part of the descent. Once on the boulder beach paddle 500 or so meters west along the base of Gull Island to the entrance of a surreal gothic channel separating Satan and Gull Island. This channel is outrageous and leads you to the only landing place on the stack. Land on the stack at the convergance of the channels in the centre of this gothic labyrinth.
The stack was climbed in three pitches up it's south face culminating in a superb final pitch up a steep groove and rocky ridge traverse onto the majestic and super scary summit.
The stack is so named as make a mess of it and the beast will take your soul.
Further sea stack action can be found on the Islands of Arranmore, Owey and Tory where a further 20 outstanding sea stacks live but this will require a further article.
|Stac an Iolar. Arranmore Island|
|Center Stack, Tory Island.|
|Arch Stack, Maghery|
For further information on the rock climbing available in Donegal visit http://www.uniqueascent.ie/home a truly mind blowing amount of rock climbing in Donegal awaits you.