First Ascent

(by Pádraic O’Halpin, from Irish Mountaineering, 1962)
The first ascent of Ploughshare on Bingorm West, Co. Donegal


At thirty-eight there cannot be many serious first ascents left.

Not that any thought of such a thing was in my conscious mind as we looked upwards at Bingorm above Lough Barra that day, About us in tents people prepared for their day of walking or of climbing, some on the known routes of Bingorm, some for the very steep virgin faces of Lough Veagh, some for a tramp across to the Poisoned Glen. We knew that many had tried to find a route up the centre of the main face; some months ago, with better climbers than I, we had prospected along the high heather ramp that bounds the foot of the face and found it difficult even to get off the ground sufficiently to see what difficulties lay in the moves ahead.

As we looked up from the camp site beside the stream we could see on the left the Delta face, where many fine routes had already been done; then the Thin Gully, conquered last year; then the complex of slab and crack that Hugh Banner and Jim O’Neill had linked some months before. Watching them on that route, it became clear that the characteristics to be faced were holdless friction on stepped slabs with overhanging rises at head height, high enough to shut off the upward view but not so high that if unseen holds existed they could not be over reached. On the main face itself these were the dominant features, and no cracks or gullies as on the left of the main face could be seen until some hundreds of feet towards the right the face once again showed vertical rather than horizontal faults; on these vertical faults Betty Healy, who was climbing with me today, had made new routes in the past.

These faults looked tiny from where we stood. Climbers now beginning on the Delta face were no larger than match heads. A year before, when I had never climbed at all, I had seen as something inconceivable those figures moving slowly under great overhangs and could not imagine the quality of that neural itch. Now I was myself taken.

That there was a route–that there would in ten years be many routes–was not to be doubted. So in that mixture of hope and fear we set off.

Before most climbs, and before every new climb, I am afraid. I have now been on enough new climbs to know what is most to be feared. When I began to climb first, I had no conscious fear at all. Now the greatest f ear is that of being afraid: the mindless panic that any of us who climb badly know well, the hurried feverish search and search for holds, the growing realisation that there are no holds or if there are they cannot be seen, the free hand passing fruitless over bare rock, up and down, up and down over the same rock, then in the instant before fall the saving nick or the surge of body power that sweeps over the overhang–or the fall. And how everything is speeded up, as on that chimney on Brant when I called out “Frank, take me,” and as my body swung slowly out into space I watched with detachment my right hand moving infinitely slowly to the only hold which would save the body from its fall.

Yet I have never fallen; if I had, or, if one can say it, when I will, perhaps I will be less afraid. I doubt it.

So with fear and hope the path up to the climb was taken. We crossed the road and leaped onto the tussocks of the bog; wetness overran our boots. It is a short slog up to the steep heather slopes, themselves quite strenuous, and among them the bare bones of very steep rock, a sober reminder of what was to come. For some reason one thought of Menlove Edwards on the Llanberis cliffs, the rocks and bones of innocence declared.

Nothing looked tiny any more. The cliffs now waited above us as we gained the heather along the base. At one part the terrace reached up a tongue under a series of wrinkled overhangs and here I drove in a piton in the rock to belay Betty for the first pitch. She moved out on friction surfaces, such as I had not seen in the only Welsh rocks known to me, Cyrn Las and the Three Cliffs in Llanberis. The Welsh characteristic is multiplicity; as if cut by a jeweller the rock presents planes to the eye which may or may not be holds; here the smooth unbroken sweep of granite with only curious wrinkles or folds and somewhere, but not here, a vertical quartz intrusion. Here there was only friction.

She advanced delicately on footholds invisible to me; after about fifteen feet she put in a piton. This was some comfort; the terrace was very narrow and away from under her line of advance; she walked on a steep roof slab whose eaves projected well out over the steep heather face vertically below. Now she was protected for a time. She rested on the piton, then faced again into the rock and stretched up finding something there. Nothing very much obviously, for as she pulled up she was clearly searching. This was the passage which had defeated others. No one had advanced beyond where she now stood, never in the thousands of years before.

On such a platform where there is no clear way of advance or of later retreat after the move, great determination is necessary. As she fought with this circumstance I was crouching to take the strain of her fall. While I was crouching she had made the move.

She now stood on footholds above the overhang looking not down in victory but along the thin ramp up which she was to move. Up this, over another above it and then out of my sight she went. She was well above her piton now.

I examined the piton closely, not in anxiety of its security, but to spill over some of the tenseness. It was well driven and the hammer marks had bruised its head. It would very likely hold a long fall. The rope ran out slowly, up and over the overhang and out of sight. What holds were found I supposed I would soon see. Then the rope halted.

It moved a little and stopped. Even before I heard her voice call that she was coming off I had faced outwards, dug my heels in as well as I could and braced hard against the piton, crouching and waiting, realising that I was not wearing gloves. As I worked paying out the rope, the up-tilted roof waited; then I realised that the rope was still moving and that she had not come off.

I called out to ask how things were. There was no reply. The rope stopped again, perhaps sixty feet run out and with relief I heard the clink of a piton hammer. At least there was no longer danger of a hundred foot fall, five times the height of a two storey house. This piton I later pulled out with my fingers.

She called out, asking how much rope was left; then the rope ran out again, stopped for several minutes, moved on again and stopped finally. There was a shout of delight. I stood up and could not stop smiling.

She shouted to come on.

Climbing over her route, I was so elated that the difficulties vanished, noting only the bareness of the route, and the oddness and necessity of the few holds. Ahead the piton at the end of her sixty foot run-out came into view and to reach it there existed only the smallest wrinkle along the face, a minute beetle’s balcony; my fingers searching for holds almost penetrated the blank faces. The piton was inserted behind a vertical overfold; I reached down to it, worked it up and down and pulled it out.

Just above me the rock face changed; a horizontal band of whorls and curved water shadows such as one sees in a stream bed–but now vertical–allowed a right hand traverse of a different quality to the massive tongue of long-haired marshy plants, on top of which I now saw Betty sitting jubilantly. A runner around this vegetation had been her last ‘protection.’

When we had discussed the pitch in every possible way, we had to think about the next pitch. Projecting over our heads was the great line of overhangs clearly visible from below; no way there. A clear line over the band of whorls lay as a traverse out under the overhangs to heather ledges and was very likely an escape route. Behind the wall of the great niche we sat in there might be another vertical possibility. I moved out on this relatively easy rock, so sculptured that just on the comer there was a natural runner unusual to find in Lough Barra, and as I came round and stopped, the overhang problem was drastically solved.

A high triangular slab pockled with tiny studs of crystalline rock ran its apex up to a break in the skyline. It was delicate, beautifully exposed, and the enclosing walls overhead of the overhangs constrained it like an arrow; to have tried another easier route would have been sacrilege.

It went with delight; I did not know that my runner had come off. From a little cave I took Betty up, and after a rest we led through alternately on easier and shorter pitches to where we sat victoriously relaxed, the main face of Bingorm under our feet.

The main features of the climb were its delicacy and exposure. Despite the first few moves on the first pitch, it was not very strenuous, but it did require steadiness on very small holds with little protection. If less serious, perhaps we could call it a hard severe, but such a grading on such a long run out was unjustifiable. Certainly the initial moves were being downgraded at that. We settled for Very Severe, perhaps harder, and when it is climbed as often as it certainly deserves and when all those hidden holds that are brought to light by each new ascent are seen we can think about regrading.

We built no cairn above or below, but certainly as we moved over the mountain top and down through the Deep Gully shouting up at the climbers on the Delta face there was the thought that this was a day that we would remember.

This was on Ploughshare in May 1961.

Leave a Reply