Flashes from the Past

(by Steve Young, from IMC 50th Anniversary Volume, 1998)
An Englishman’s memories of his climbing days in Ireland.


Roger Hodgson, my old college climbing mate was not a flasher as far as I know. He did however carry his climbing gear in a large old suitcase, but he certainly did not wear a long dirty raincoat. In 1977 I met up with him on an IMC Fly-Drive trip to Scotland. I believe it was some turning point in Irish Climbing history. A group of us set off from a lay-by in Glen Coe under the leadership of Jimmy Leonard to make the Aonach Eagoch traverse from east to west. I arrived at the ridge with Roger and awaited the arrival of Jimmy, Kevin and party but alas nobody arrived. Fearing they had gone on ahead without us, Roger "flashed" off into the swirling clouds like a frightened whippet to bag some more "Monroes". On the way we passed some members of the Northern IMC. Before we knew it we had completed the traverse and we were in the Clachaig and still no sign of Jimmy. What happened that day I will never know but the IMC never seemed the same again, something was missing. Jimmy and Kevin eventually arrived with the question "where have you two been ?"

I landed in Rosslaire in September 1971, not knowing what language was spoken, what currency was accepted or what side of the road to drive. On route to Avoca where I was to work at a copper mine, I climbed on my first dew covered rocks just outside Wexford, found English of sorts was spoken, pounds were accepted and it didn’t seem to matter what side of the road you traveled. After three days of mining I had to find more rock and Edward Pyatt’s book "Where to Climb in the British Isles" took me to Glendalough. On giving a word of encouragement to the only two climbers on the cliff, I was unintelligibly sworn at, I was to learn later, it was Christy Rice and Doug Milnes making the first ascent of Great North Road.

The next place to visit that day was Luggala, my eyes widened at the sight of this magnificent piece of rock. I descended to the lake, crossed the river and gazed up at the awe-inspiring lichenous slabs and overhangs, not for me, and I continued on to Dalkey. At first sight I was disappointed but the view out over Dublin Bay was great. Down in the East Valley three climbers cursed and swore at a white "lift" of granite. I descended and introduced myself. Obviously the "luck of the Irish’ was with me now, it was the chairman of the IMC, Jimmy Leonard and Joe Mulhall and Paddy Lyons. Before I knew it I was on the rope and leading Diphthong. That done, plans were made for Thursday night at the Teachers Club in Parnell Square. Jimmy said, "drink the night with Paddy and you’re made". I left the quarry feeling content, I had climbed and made contact with "the rock scene". Somehow I found the Teachers Club, downed thirteen pints of Guinness and later found Avoca. By now I’d forgotten what side of the road to drive! People, places and events figured high on my recollections of nine years of Irish climbing. This dissertation is fractured in time, the people, places and events flash by as I stumble across the qwerty world as I trace out these memories.

By October, I was amused to find the climbers packing away their gear, it was the start of the "bog trotting" season. I was not used to this, I had to climb. Jimmy and Joe were persuaded to unpack the gear and plan for more climbing, "but it will be wet, the rock slippery and cold" said Joe. This I soon found out after climbing Sweet Erica. Another weekend saw me arriving at the gate to Luggala only to find a very steamed up blue Ford Anglia parked by the roadside. Jimmy, Joe and Paddy poured out of the car followed by a very flat barbecued chicken wrapped in a "space blanket". The trio had spent the night in the car and "flattie" was breakfast. We climbed Bearcats in sleet conditions that March day.

On the snowy and wet days of a Wicklow winter, recognition of people from afar was complicated by the poor selection of gear available to the Dublin mountaineer. The standard uniform of the IMC in the early seventies was the royal blue Peter Storm anorak and the red Joe Brown balaclava. In these days Eddy, Martin and Ann Mulhall and John and Moira Gibson were frequent followers of the Wicklow weekends in the Wicklows.

It was winter, the annual IMC winter camp was the highlight of the post Christmas season and the meet was the seed for further winter adventures and plans for new "lines". I believe the leadership of this event was Joe Bent, I arrived at Fentons in Seskin after following a nightmarish drive over the snow covered roads from Aghavannagh in my rally 1952 Austin A 40 Somerset. The setting sun, the crisp snow and the herds of deer were a far cry from Derry and the troubles. I was greeted in the bar with cat calls, it was the weekend following Bloody Sunday and Brits were an unpopular breed. After a few Guinness’s and canned "sarnies", we were all friends again and we set off for the long slog up Lug. Being the "most sober", I was to lead the staggering group up a hill that I had never been on, the trek was tortuous, cold and consuming. At the summit, John O’Connor feverishly fought in the dark with Cathy and his tent, borrowed from AFAS for the night. Some how there were too many poles and they were too long! I settled into my down cocoon. All night long I was troubled by a shivering Joe, who, like a puppy was snuggling up and looking for warmth. In the morning, JO’C’s problems were obvious, the misshapen and torn tent told the story of the night before. The A pole tent had been pitched with double poles! Following this abortive night on the hill I swore I’d never go on a Lug snow camp again.

The next winter saw a cease fire in the North, somehow I was again in Fentons but this time I was prepared, I had no gear so I was not camping. The lessons of the previous year had also been learned by all, the mountain was ascended in the afternoon, the tents pitched and everybody returned to the bar for the evening. I just went along for the exercise! After the pub closed I somehow found myself stumbling back up the mountain with the same old group of fanatics, this time I had no sleeping bag only Jimmy’s ‘duvet court’! I don’t remember who’s tent I was in but I was the last of four in the two man tent and my boots were flung out into the darkness. It was a cold night for me, six foot tall in a four foot bag and no karrimat. The morning came very wet, the night had been a monumental thaw and then a freeze, we emerged. The tents were still standing, the pegs lay where they had been planted in the now vanished snow. I vent my anger at a bewildered Joe Bent, the look on his face spoke his thoughts "what did I do, bloody unprepared Brit". The tattered group spread out across the hill and descended, iced up tents folded up like sheets of ply wood. Out to my left I spotted a person crouched amongst the eroded peat. The sun glinted on his beret. As I approached, the familiar green beret and the glistening globe identified the stranger as a Royal Marine. Words were exchanged, he was making a foray into the South during an IRA cease-fire. I warned him to lose the hat as the hill were "alive with the sounds of subversives". The hat was promptly removed and this stranger vanished amongst the sculptured peat. I have often wondered what would have happened if others had noticed his badge and what was his actual mission.

Living in Avoca or Ballykissangel as it is now known, a different group of people inhabited the village. Egyptian pictures covered the interior walls of the old converted Chapel just down the hill from the church, it was inhabited by two mine workers ( and a later to be discovered cat) that kept the strangest hours, they only ate T-bone steak and were often seen carrying in boxes of canned foods from either an old rear engined Renault or a nifty Fiat. Being climbers and having our own grave yard outside the kitchen window kept our minds focused. In summer the building was cold, in winter it was cruel. On one memorable week end, Bob Richardson bivouacked in our living room and commented it "was worse than a night on Mount Rainier". On another occasion, after dealing with the Irish Times gasket in the Kosangas oven control valve we set off after supper for a night ascent of Lug. It was warmer outside than in the Chapel. At the summit in a complete white out we turned to each other and asked for the map and compass, we had neither. The thoughts of an inquiry, the testimony of AFAS supremo, Paddy O’Leary and Joe Bent detailing the exploits of "the unprepared Brit" and the grave yard back in Avoca spurred the survival instinct, the flash of cannibalism. No, I’d rather get back to the "big Bertha, McVitie’s and hot chocolate". The following morning, our co workers reckoned we had been at "some party" last night by the look on our faces! The smell in our kitchen was not from the pile of sea soaked ropes and sweaty boots. The trail of crawling maggots lead from the poor old Chapel cat that had died seeking heat from beneath the unused side door to the grave yard.

The search for new rock took me to all areas of Ireland. A brief note in the IMC Dublin Section Newsletter 8 requested information on "sea cliffs on the West Coast" yielded nothing until I received a call from Joe Whyte suggesting a trip to the huge unclimbed Cliffs of Moher in Clare. Somehow we descended to the foot of these crumbling layers of limestone and shale. In the high wind it snowed "coal dust", the perilous looking incut black layers sent us on a speedy retreat. (later climbed by the legendary British adventure climber Mick Fowler) So as not to waste the complete weekend, we headed to Lisdoonvarna and Doolin for a night of whistle, fiddle, bodhran and Guinness. A visit the next day to some small roadside rocks on the road up towards Black Head provided an interesting diversion. When I had had enough of this I decided to head to the beach but my journey was interrupted by the unexpected appearance of the "Mirror Wall" at my feet, my eyes watered, I had to pee. The group was called over, we found a way down and the "rest is history".

Autumn saw great activity in Clare with IMC visits each weekend. On one occasion Bob Richardson and Leslie and myself made the Friday night dash to climb the Great Black Diedre, a line seen by many and yet un-attempted. Early on the Saturday morning Bob and I abseiled to the foot of the third and most impressive corner south of Mirror Wall. The sea was rough and hopefully going out. Bob lead off in great style, his blue Robbins Big Wall Boots teasing the black limestone as he laybacked and bridged the cut. Totally absorbed in the challenge he failed to notice my shouts above the powerful calls of the breaking Atlantic. I started to gurgle, the prussikers were clipped to the abseil rope and I hauled myself out of the sea. I guess at this time climbing still had ethics, Bob aborted and the pair of us prussiked out of the fury. Jimmy McKenzie and Joe Mulhall climbed Pis Fliuch very soon afterwards, unaware of our attempt. Following our near drowning, we raced back to Luggala for the Sunday. Here we almost completed the hard aid route of Question Mark as Christy Rice and Doug Milnes screamed their way up either the second ascent of Banshee or a still yet unnamed route. Confusion reigned at McDonagh’s the week as Bob and I had been seen in Clare and Wicklow the same weekend. We left them guessing. A meet was arranged for a new cliff at Lamb’s Head in Kerry, found by Mike Harris and Mary with new routes referenced in Ernest Lawrence’s short lived magazine, Irish Adventure Sports. The climbing was interesting and different. Sandstone sea cliffs and zawns gave way to great "pub crack". The IMC descended on sleepy Caherdaniel from their hideaway somewhere along the coast road. The fresh salmon had gone down a treat and now it was time for the Guinness. Christy and Veronica played darts, Jimmy, Dave, Mike and Steve discussed plans for the next day and threw glances at the others seated around. The band played and the atmosphere grew. A leather jacketed group surrounded a distinguished gentleman with a patch over one eye. He began to sing. Christy’s darts made their mark, Veronica’s hit the "iron lung" below the board, the giggles started. The crowd called for hush. Dave was on edge, it was Jerry Jones no less. The rattle of the iron lung continued, the giggles grew louder, it was too much for some. Suddenly pandemonium broke out, Dave’s comments had been enough, we ran for the car, jumped in and sped off. Who was the fifth man with us, an unsuspecting passer by shoved into the Fiat. The night was dark, the coast road tortuous, the speed terrific. The blinding lights behind, how was Jimmy keeping up in his old Anglia. "Its not Jimmy’ it’s a Merc", who but JJ would have a Merc, the pace quickened, my heart missed every other beat. Around the next corner I swung hard left, lights off and into our gateway. The Merc sped by. We rapidly infiltrated into the night out towards our hideaway. But where was Jimmy? After what seemed like hours Jimmy arrived. "What happened to you lot" he barked, "I had a flat tire to fix". What happened back there we shall never know, was it JJ’s, Veronica’s giggles or a Garda raid.

The plan was to tackle the Stacks of Broadhaven off the North Mayo coast. Somehow O’Murchu thought we’d paddle out on our air beds and make the first ascents of these towering sea stacks. At first sight, these were islands, far removed from the guide book description of "detached rock pinnacles" some two miles off shore and secondly the Atlantic is no place for a air bed paddling. Following this first visit, North Mayo became a favorite venue, real adventure climbing at the edge of the world. Sometimes we camped and sometimes we stayed at the Pollatomish Youth Hostel. I was enrolled as Steafan Og. Various people accompanied us including Jim Butler and the infamous "kidnapping" of Dave Walker and Harry Connolly. On route to Mayo one weekend we passed the Glendalough hut, called in for five minutes and asked the unsuspecting pair if they wanted to climb a new route. "Yes", was the answer, "bring your gear and sleeping bags". En route they were convinced we were on the way to the Peoples Crag in Kerry. A few hours later we were overlooking the Atlantic at Portacloy. Donal and I climbed Googliox" a 200′ pile of unconnected Lego blocks, while the two younguns caused huge sulphurous rock slides to crash down to the sea some 500′ below. Following this traumatic experience of climbing while huge boulders crashed past our loose route, I refused to drive home on the Sunday night. "We must go, its school tomorrow", yelled Harry. A call home to their disbelieving parents got the reply of, " No, David, you are not in Mayo, you are in Wicklow," came a frantic Mothers reply. A day of school missed in such a good cause just goes to build character! The experience of abseiling from tent pegs will never be forgotten!

The experiences of Mayo are best remembered following a twenty two hour stint on the slabs beyond Googliox, the Turneresque dawn, lashed soaking wet to a miniscule ledge just above the dying power of an Atlantic force eleven gale in June. We heard later of broken masts off Aran and snow on Carrot ridge. Donal, Cecil O’Gorman, Brendan Proctor and myself must count ourselves very lucky after that night. We escaped with our lives but we left behind mega bucks worth of gear!

Following on from some of my Dalkey pioneering, I was invited by Sé Billane to join a group of the Spilllikin Club in Healys in Roundwood one evening after climbing at Luggala. The comments of Big Paul McHugh, following his second ascent of Distrust were most complementary, however, I felt I could not join such a select group without first passing their basic membership requirements. The next week end Donal and I set off to Glendalough with my list of entry level V.S’s to do. The first was Jacky. I’m not sure what happened but I guess Donal did not want a "Brit" getting into the Spillikin club and so he led off. Up the left trending crack, gear was placed, feet pressing hard against the steep wall, hands following the crack towards the wet patch. Something was wrong, I sensed trouble, I kept the rope "slack free", pop, like a cork out of a bottle, Donal shot backwards and down to end head down, inches from my feet. So ended my attempt at joining the "lads", Donal spent months in plaster. The secretary at the mine was highly embarrassed, the word got out that Donal "did it" falling off Jacky! The west coast continued to have a powerful attraction, like the moon on the tides, the cliffs, the sea and the ever present adventures pulled me back for more. I would leave Avoca early in the morning and head west, always trying to beat my previous time record. Ask Jimmy of the rush to Donegal and the rush back that included a new route on Ben Cormac and we still caught up with the others even though we tested the seat belts in Mullingar!

One memorable week end I headed for Malin Beg, I picked up a lonely hitch hiker and his load on the Wicklow Gap road and continued over to Hollywood and on to Naas. Somewhere a Garda road block halted us. My hapless passenger was led away and I was questioned. Apparently the house of Sir Alfred Bight had been ransacked and paintings stolen. My companion was a artist carrying a canvas en route to Naas and the road south! I left him in good hands. My main problem on this journey was that I had a new car, a Fiat 128 3p, no tax, no insurance certificate and no license plates and every Garda in the country was manning a road block. A lot of careful discussion had to take place at each stop to ensure my continued journey to Donegal. After too many stops to mention, including the "smoldering Garda" near Sligo, his pipe fell through the burned hole in his tunic pocket and the quiet pee near the Loch Erne power house where I was surrounded by a patrol of troops I became resigned to a late arrival. Powering along the road in an attempt to make up time , the car was hit by a fist sized rock, thrown up by a passing truck. It glanced off the bonnet and hit the windscreen, I ducked, mounted the verge, regained control, the screen remained whole. As I followed the rough road from Malin More over to Malin Beg, a sea gull dropped a crab, whoosh, the screen instantly shattered. I limped onto the camp site in a state of shock. I was reassured by Benny Kinsella not to worry, it was only a car! Easy for him to say. The weather forecast was bad, I’d spend the night and power back in the morning and beat the threatened bad weather back to Wicklow. Up went the tent, out came the food, in went the can opener and "what’s this". It turned out to be a mislabeled beef steak in gravy from Irish Meat Packers that was destined to the "Golden Orient" as a curry paste. Now with no food, I came to the conclusion that O’Murchu had put a "leprechaun’s curse" on me following the Jacky debacle. The great Irish hospitality shone that night, I was fed and I slept sound. The next morning, I raced back to Wicklow, missed the rain but was met by the continuing curse. A letter was pinned to the door from Donal. We had been fingered as the masterminds behind local antique robberies and we were under surveillance by the Garda. Somehow we never went to Mountjoy.

The IMC hut at Glendalough provided a great base for the Wicklow granite giants of Twin Buttress and Luggala. Under the watchful eye of Barry O’Flynn the club members were guided on their way through life, his taste in music, his desire for order, his concern for "over indulgence, so eloquently covered in his mammoth fifty page report in 1974 on the IMC and his awakening call for mass each Sunday will be remembered by many. Thanks Barry for the welcome you always gave me and the fatherly advice but I guess time just had to run its course and you were eventually "ousted" by the new generation, the "boomers had arrived".

New dogs appeared on the block, Joe and I had to keep pushing the new route button. We descended from Luggala over the boulders late on a Sunday evening to see Higgs and Co. on a new route. "No way will they get up that today, we’ll grab it early next week end." It rained, two weeks later we were back. Up at dawn and on the wet rocks at Luggala before the UCD hut was awake. With much squirming in the mud we completed the route. Shouts from below asked "how did you find it, we climbed it in the dark" We knew the race was over, we could just climb for recreation, the competition was too great. The traverse out left at about severe lead to a fine ledge. As I abseiled the grass below my feet started to peel away to reveal clean white granite. With a little help the grass rolled away like a carpet to expose a dream slab and cracks. This was promptly climbed, we felt rejuvenated, Golden Oldies – Side One was born. Sean Windrim and Anthony Latham passed by, "where the f— did that appear from". The 1993 Wicklow guide indicates that nature has reclaimed the rock. No doubt in our environmentally challenged climbing kingdom nobody will enjoy the pleasure that Joe and I sampled that day.

Visits to Clare always carried memories, the night at the pub listening to the wonderful sounds of the west, to arrive back at the cottage to find it full of down after an alsatian had eaten my sleeping, the stones rattling off the roof as we prepared for bed and to awaken to the smells of peat fires and fresh soda bread.

The Dalkey Archive written so eloquently by Dermot Somers concerning my 1979 guide book caused ripples for a long time. Many of the comments were true but the fact that I "ignored contemporary comments on grades and quality" is a myth. A meeting was held with Higgs, Torrans, Windrim and Ryan to thrash out the grades. The minutes of this meeting were given to the FMCI prior to my "deportation." Dermot once wrote a wonderful description of me following a bad night in Clare. He had left his pullover at the foot of the cliffs, We arrived up from the Dancing Ledges and he enquired, "Did anybody bring up a brown jumper?" I palely looked at him, "I brought up my lunch, my breakfast but I havn’t brought up a pullover yet". The times spent climbing in Ireland holds so many more stories, the people, the places and the ever present dangers and near misses. I see Joss lying on his back in the quarry in about 1975 saying he was too old to climb, Leslie telling Donal and myself that she was about to get engaged, and Bob, while soloing nearly fell off In Absentia when he heard the news from "the Dwarf". The sight of Donal and Benny peeing as they were illuminated by the search light on a British Army "Pig" somewhere near Kilkeel and the sight of a powerful looking weapon in the top of the pack belonging to the person in the lower bunk at the Mournes hut. Sledding with Mick Daly and family one weekend when Glendalough was cut off by snow, we should have started the Irish Bob Sleigh Team and the wonderful meal prepared by Mary and Mike Harris later that same winter. The peppered steak was the best ever.

My favorite routes must be Pentax at Luggala for its audacity, The Real Thing for the "coke haul" and Stereo Tentacles, for the sounds of O’Murchu making the final moves. The ultimate "flash" must have been Creeping Paralysis, chalkless, EB’s, no cleaning and imaginary protection, at E2, this must have been my most technical piece of climbing.

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