Belshade, Land of Heart’s Desire

(by John Duignan, May 2011)
An atmospheric weekend climbing at Lough Belshade, Co. Donegal.

In equal measure we are drawn here by Dawson Stelfox (the route names: Classical Revival, Land of Heart’s Desire …), Hugh Sharkey ("the best granite in Ireland") and Gerry Moss ("the rock is so good you can just walk up the VD approach with your hands in your pockets").

All week the weather forecasts were dire. Only consolation was that Donegal may not be the wettest part of Ireland for the weekend. Windscreen wipers on full, Friday saw Hugh (Reynolds) and myself heading up the road.

Treated ourselves to a hostel (Linda’s Independent Hostel, Donegal Town at 16 euro a head was excellent) on Friday night. The walk-in to Lough Belshade in the Bluestack Mountains of South Donegal is 1.5 hours guidebook time. Doing a recce Friday evening, the notice banning walkers on the approach track spelled trouble.

We lugged in our climbing and camping gear over a boggy alternative – double the time and hard on the knees. However it was beautiful terrain too – fields of bluebells, rhodedendrons, violets, mountain pansies and even the odd orchid to distract from the hard work.

Belshade Buttress rises above the lake

We pitched tent on the sandy beach below the Belshade Buttress. The setting showed off the Buttress dramatically.

The fine granite V Diff approach

The sixty-metre V.Diff approach pitch on the Buttress was wet and slippy as was the first of the five-pitch Byzantium, a classic VS put up by Frank Winder in the 1950s. Hugh bridged wider and wider and made an improbable dyno to get by the first few moves. Part of two pitches were vegetated but the route had fabulous granite.

The view of our tent and the lake receding into the distance, a huge raven gliding overhead and the noise of the wind lent a very remote feeling to our surroundings. The crux pitch contained a delicate (wet) ramp with a layback runout above. It felt harder than VS. We both were struck by the courage of the first ascensionists in their big boots and minimalist protection.

Hugh on last pitch of Byzantium, Belshade Buttress

There is something special about camping by a lake with a good meal ahead of you. Even better when your companion has secreted away a bottle of wine!

We woke early on Sunday to the sound of rain beating on the tent. Donegal wove its magic – by breakfast a stiff wind was blowing the rock dry. We climbed on Blaeberry Crag between the showers and really enjoyed its short routes and magnificent Belshade granite. As a shower petered out, Hugh took in Waterloo, a ** Severe that went despite wind and rain and left you wanting more.

Hugh on Waterloo, Blaeberry Crag

Climbing by diary in Donegal is never going to be a certainty. If it’s rain , the Donegal hills make for great hiking. The month of May with its low rainfall, low midgie yield and longer days fulfilled its promise. Donegal will call you back again and again.