Stake-out

(by Gerry Moss, May 2007)
Climbing at Loop Head, Co. Clare.


It’s a fair few miles from the Burren to Loop Head, the southernmost point in County Clare, but it’s worth every step of the way. Light years away from the hustle and bustle of the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, Loop Head is an area of peace, tranquillity and outstanding coastal scenery. It’s the part of Clare most visitors, climbers included, never get to see. More’s the pity.

Almost ten years have passed since last I climbed at Loop Head – so it was high time, then, for another visit. The previous trip was with Liam and Emily, this time I travelled with Herbert.

Our first port of call was Steve’s Slab, near Tullig Point, first climbed on in back in 1977 by Steve Young and Jim Leonard, both IMC stalwarts at the time (Steve is the man who gave us Majongg, one of the most popular VS climbs in the Quarry). I have sung the praises of this slab before, and rightly so, for it is a unique feature of our coastline. If this same slab was on the other side of the Irish Sea it would be regularly celebrated in words and pictures in the British climbing magazines, but here, because it is a little off the beaten track and because we are a very conservative lot, it lies neglected and rarely visited, and is in danger of being consigned to oblivion. A smooth, dark slab, at a gentle, uniform angle, it rises from the sea to a height of almost fifty meters, unsullied by ledges of any kind. Set at the back of a recess, guarded on either side by buttresses, and protected from the worst onslaughts of the sea by some rocky reefs, the slab is often a tranquil spot in otherwise turbulent waters.

The climbs are modest in difficulty, yet the fact that they can only be approached by an abseil of almost 50 meters adds a dash of piquancy and this, combined with the impressive rock architecture and breathtaking backdrop of the restless sea, makes for a memorable experience.

Our first attempt to climb here, all those years ago, was foiled by a lack of belay stakes (we had expected to find at least one in situ), but this time we came well prepared and, after hammering a couple in, spent a pleasant evening ticking off the three existing routes. Well satisfied with what we found, we vowed to return on the following day with another stake, to suss out the possibility of adding some new routes.

But first I wanted to introduce Herbert to some more of the delights of this beautiful area. The following morning we drove as far as the end of the peninsula and rambled around the lighthouse to view some of the most impressive sea cliffs on our coastline. Then we went climbing at the Bridge of Ross, an area noted for its natural arches and better known in Victorian times than it is nowadays. Back in the eighties, the County Council, in anticipation of an influx of tourists, created a large, surfaced car park, and laid out some paths, complete with benching. It all looks rather forlorn now, deserted and sadly neglected, yet, undeterred, the sea continues to put on a never-ending, spectacular performance of power and might for the delight of the few.

We repeated some of the routes we had put up on our original visit and even added one more, ‘Little Bro’ a short, steep and fingery HS up the slab to the left of ‘Stonechat‘. An incoming tide eventually put an end to our frolics and we packed up and headed back for Steve’s Slab.

But we never got there. As we walked in along the path we stopped to examine a small, newly erected stone cross. Then I noticed a narrow slab below the cross and we scrambled down to investigate. It was too inviting to pass by, so we roped up and had a go. The face was covered in a network of thin cracks but, disconcertingly, these proved, without exception, to be shallow and worthless (but who am I to go pointing a finger?) It was all very delicate, progress depending on the slightest of dimples for the feet, the skimpiest of pimples for the fingers. Fortunately the rock was sound and the friction superb. Halfway up, and getting a little concerned, I headed out to the edge – I’ll surely find some comfort around the corner, – I thought. Not a bit of it. Uncomforted, I padded on upward while, below me, Herbert was participating in a belated version of that ancient Easter ceremony ‘the washing of the feet’ as the incoming tide started to slobber all over him, much as a playful puppy would. So we were both somewhat relieved when I reached the top and commenced taking in. While this route – ‘Crusader’, VS 4b – might never achieve wide popularity, it may strike a chord with those on a restricted diet – it contains absolutely no trace of nuts.

By the time we had finished these shenanigans the afternoon had flown and it was time to hit the road. So we never did get to try some new-routing on Steve’s Slab. Which means we will just have to go back again. Terrible, isn’t it?

Steve’s Slab: the climbs described.

Approach. The original approach, as described in 1977, included the crossing of some fields, not an option these days. Luckily, recent developments have helped to provide a straightforward, trouble-free approach. Travelling southwest from Kilkee on the R487, drive through the little village of Cross then, about a kilometre beyond the cemetery, turn right at Oughterard crossroads onto a dirt road. Follow this until a new section of this road swings left (west) to arrive at an extensive area of sand and gravel workings at the edge of the cliffs. There is ample parking here. A pleasant walk of 15 – 20 minutes, along a narrow path, with the cliffs on your right and the field boundaries on your left, will bring you to the slab, which has been likened to an inclined hard-surfaced tennis court, with a cave at its eastern end (right, facing out). The top of the slab is level with the path and only 2 or 3 meters away from it. There are good belays, holds and gear placements in the cracks, and the higher you climb, the better the friction becomes. The foot of the slab is reached by an abseil of almost 50 meters, and two metal stakes are in situ. The climbs are described from right to left as seen facing out to sea from the top of the slab.

  1. Crystal Crack. V. Diff.
    This quartzite crack starts near the bottom centre and runs up diagonally eastward.
  2. Tension. Mild Severe.
    This climb is described as starting from a slight circular recess, but this is difficult to see from above. A better option might be to belay as for Crystal Crack, and climb up to the depression. Then continue by zigzagging back and forth between the discontinuous cracks above.
  3. Bird Nest Crack. V. Diff.
    This is the easiest climb of the three and takes the wide quartzite crack to the left (looking out) of the previous two climbs.

Enjoy.

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