The Poisoned Glen: 1950-1970

(by Peter Cooper, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2010)
The history of "one of the crucibles of modern Irish climbing … set in one of the finest locations in Ireland".


Recently, as part of guidebook work, I have begun researching the development of rock-climbing in The Poisoned Glen. It was one of the crucibles of modern Irish climbing, despite such an ominous name, and it is set in one of the finest locations in Ireland. One-thousand-foot faces of virgin granite may just have been the attraction to those rare early climbers. Members of the recently-formed IMC were very much at the vanguard of its development, along with a few British climbers.

The Glen is steeped in a rich history, particularly through the 1950s and 60s, that deserves to be recorded and it will be; in the next Donegal guide. The climbing connections that weave through this tale are numerous, to say the least. There is, possibly, too much information to be contained in a guidebook, hence this article and a liberal use of footnotes.

I do, however, need to make it clear that this article is a ‘work-in-progress’ and it is also an appeal for information at the same time. As write, I am awaiting replies to phone calls, e-mails and letters for assistance from some of The Glen’s early pioneers. They are still with us, thanks to God. There are others I’ve yet to contact. But, a deadline’s a deadline! I intend to provide a follow-up article, to fill in the current gaps I have and to tell The Glen’s story up to the present.

Located in Donegal’s Derryveagh Mountains, the climbing is at the head of a majestic Glen and is spread over 6 crags: Creag na mBreac, Ballaghgeeha Buttress, The Castle, Bearnas Buttress and The Far West Buttress.

Exploration of The Glen first began with Irish botanist Henry Chichester Hart [1], who was scrambling up and down The Glen’s gullies in the 1880s, undertaking his botanical surveys. I wonder if he would have even bumped into a shepherd out there and what would have become of him if he’d had an accident back then? Let’s not dwell! Because of his in-depth and intimate knowledge of the mountains of Ireland, his native Donegal in particular, he wrote the Irish section of Climbing in The British Isles (1895), under the editorship of ‘the-father-of-British-climbing’ Walter Parry Haskett Smith [2]. Not too bad for a first climbing connection.

In the 1930s the YHANI did explore climbing possibilities in Donegal, at Malin Head; but I’ve yet to find any records for The Derryveagh Mountains.

So who did climb the first rock climb in The Glen?

The earliest recorded rock climb in The Poisoned Glen, and in Donegal, was in 1950, when W. B. ‘Gaspé’ Gibson and Maurice Mc Murray [3] climbed Green Grass Gully on The Castle. This gully was also known by Hart as the un-climbable ‘E gully’; he’d named them gullies A-F. With its ‘particularly savage grass sections’, which were found harder than the rock sections; it gets a nominal Hard Very Difficult grade. Put yourself in their boots, happening upon the unclimbed Poisoned Glen. I certainly think I’d have climbed more than one line and I know I’d have returned for more. What were they thinking? Coincidently, in 1952 this team also put up the first routes on Lough Belshade’s crags too. And, they were also active in early Mournes exploration from the late 1940s; Mc Murray edited the 1959 Mournes guidebook.

So I think we can take 2010 as the 60th Birthday of Donegal climbing.

A regular climbing partner of Mc Murray’s, Philip Gribbon, was to get the next line in The Glen, in 1952. Jubilation was climbed by Gribbon [4], Joe Madill [5], Seán Rothery [6] and Doug Sloan, all IMC members; it became The Glen’s first Severe. It is also recorded that they climbed what was probably the 2nd ascent of Green Grass Gully. Again, we get a team going into this glen and recording only one line; when all is there for the taking. They certainly couldn’t be accused of being greedy.

The oracle of Irish climbing history, Joss Lynam [7], wrote an article for The British Mountaineering Council’s Journal on The Glen, reporting on its 1,000-foot faces. IMC members may have heard of him. I’ve yet to read it but, the article must have highlighted potential rather than merely record the two climbs that had been done up to that point.

In 1953 Yorkshireman Neville Drasdo, inspired by Joss’s article, travelled from the UK with Vivian Stevenson to The Glen. They met up with Dublin-based IMC climbers they’d previously contacted; somehow no new routes were done. Perhaps the Irish climbers diverted them with some golden Irish grain and maybe a pint, or two, of porter, stout or plain? Whilst in the Alps that year, Neville’s elder brother, Harold, met Frank Winder, Peter Kenny and Rothery [8]; they were very enthusiastic about Donegal’s potential.

April 1954 saw the Drasdo Brothers hitch from Yorkshire; obviously Neville had not been put off by the previous year’s experience. The Original Route (S) and Greystone Rib (S) were both climbed on The Castle. Somehow, these were the only new routes climbed in The Glen that year. So finally we had a party go in and do more than one route. Well, they had come some way.

“We fell deeply, blindly, helplessly under the spell of Donegal.”
(H. Drasdo, 1997)

I’ve had a couple of telephone conversations with Harold and his memories of his times in The Glen are remembered clearly and affectionately. Alas, cameras and film were a luxury in those days.

1954 was also the year that Winder and Paul Hill went into Lough Belshade and breached the mighty face of Belshade Buttress; quite a coup [9].

And, so far we are only at 1954. The following year developments really took-off. 1955 was also the year that things took off, over the hill, at Lough Barra.

In the April of ’55, Gribbon, Miss K. Claus, Doug Sloan and D. Bond climbed White Walls (VD); Creag na mBreac’s first climb. Miss Claus therefore gets the distinction of being the first lady, known, to have climbed in The Glen, but the ‘First Lady of The Glen’ is undisputedly Miss Betty Healy [10]. ThatAugust saw Ballaghgeeha Buttress climbed for the first time. Winder and Miss Healy climbed Route Two (S); H. Drasdo, P. McMahon & Noel Masterson claimed the fine Diagonal (VD). Extra lines were also added to the buttress by the Hiberno-Anglo team of Winder, Healy and H. Drasdo; Ulysses became the first VS grade climb in the Glen.

Drasdo, Healy and Winder were to remain friends from then on. They, and Donegal, both feature in Harold’s 1997 autobiography: The Ordinary Route. Winder eventually went on to add his name to nine new climbs in The Glen and Healy six.

The emphases of the early climbs were ‘alpinistic’ in their aims, long multi-pitched climbs finding their way to the top; often combining pitches with earlier climbs. Route-finding and abseiling skills on the big faces were to be valued. Winder recounts this in his IMC Journal article, Ulysses.

August 22nd 1956 saw H. Drasdo back, and with H. J. Thornton he climbed Golliker (VS), the West Buttress’s first route. August 26th, the Drasdo Brothers recorded The Glen’s first HVS: Berserker Wall on Ballaghgeeha Buttress. The following day they climbed the Glen’s 2nd HVS: Kon Tiki.

1956 also saw the 2nd ascent [11] of Spillikin Ridge, in Co. Wicklow’s Glendalough, by the Yorkshire climbers Brian Evans, Allan Austin and Miss Jennifer Ruffe. Spillikin Ridge (E2) was climbed by Winder, Kenny, Hill and Rothery. It was a landmark climb for the Ireland of 1954, showing that although a much younger sport in Ireland than the UK, the best climbers were already at the heels of the finest British climbers.

August 1957 saw the return of Allan Austin [12] and party, this time to visit The Poisoned Glen, on Harold Drasdo’s recommendation. Of the four routes climbed, Nightshade (HVS), jointly led by Austin and Brian Evans [13], stands out as one of the finest routes in Donegal [14]. It takes a line up the central dièdre on the Western Buttress, before tackling the roofs above. Originally graded VS, it’s now HVS, it received 8 pegs on its first ascent; far from normal practice for Messrs Evans and Austin. It should be noted that at this time Austin was on-sight-soloing fierce gritstone ‘XS’ [15] in Yorkshire. It remains a sought-after lead. I haven’t yet found out if it has had a free ascent; any answers out there?

Hammer and Sickle (HVS) was climbed by H. Drasdo and Geoff Sutton [16]. This was a good challenging line and was not to see a first free ascent until 1981, which came courtesy of Calvin Torrans. They also climbed Tarantula that year.

The CC Journal of 1958 reported that a party of climbers from Cambridge UMC had visited The Glen and did “useful work on new cliffs”. There are no routes recorded from them though, and which new cliffs these were is not known. 1958 also saw Staffordshire MC members visit and climb a new Severe on a high-up cliff, but this seems to have been lost or never properly reported.

1958 turned out to be a quiet year due to it being a very wet one. Dubliners (?) was climbed by Betty Healy, Brian McCall and Frank Winder; it was considered to be the year’s only worthwhile climb. The 1959 CC Journal noted that in ‘58 “the low tide of Irish pioneering continued”. Irish route information supplied to the CC at this time was generally provided by Seán Rothery. I wonder what was going on back then; there’s no mention of any ‘tidal variations’ in the Irish climbing scene in the IMC Journal of the time.

Ronnie Wathen [17] (an IMC and CC member) added a new route, Piglet’s Crack (VS) in April. One would imagine that the route would be interesting, if not challenging, as Wathen was to get one of the earliest repeats of Winder’s Spillikin Ridge; quite a status symbol for the time. The route somehow ‘slipped out’ of the 2002 Donegal guide, but it will be re-instated; as long as we can find it. I’d be grateful to hear your opinions on this and other lesser-known climbs in The Glen (and anywhere else in Donegal); feel free to use the CCC’s on-line guide’s comments section.

1959 was a good year for new-routing parties; ten routes were added, highlights being: Rafiki (VS), Fiona (VS), Flanker/Un-named Route (VS), Route Major (HVS) and Rattlesnake Rib (VD).

1959 saw Vivian Stevenson [18] back in Ireland with Corporal John ‘Zeke’ Deacon, Sergeant Terry Thompson and Corporal Bill Morrow; all were instructors from the Cliff Assault Wing of the British Army’s Commandos. Stevenson was now a Lieutenant in The Royal Marines. They were in Donegal to meet up with the Drasdo Brothers in The Glen; the visit is told fully in the Wearin o’ the Green article (IMC Journal 1960). With the Drasdos, Stevenson climbed the seven-pitch Linear B (VS). Finishing their trip in Glendalough the marines climbed Spearhead, with Frank Winder, and Cornish Rhapsody; each were graded ‘XS’ at the time [19]. The IMC journal of the time raved about these particular routes. Twenty-five years later these routes were still highly-regarded enough for inclusion in Rock Climbing in Ireland, and are still sought-after ticks over 50 years on.

For those of you fortunate enough to have climbed The Devils’ Slide on the UK’s isle of Lundy, take note that it was climbed in 1961 by Climbers’ Club Vice President, Admiral Keith Lawder, and ‘Glen pioneer’, one Zeke Deacon [20]. It’s a fine Glen connection and an iconic route, should you ever see it. I wonder if it matches the experience of climbing on the granite of Donegal’s isles?

Geoff Sutton was back in The Glen and climbed, with Andrew Maxfield, the line of Fiona (VS). It is quite close to his 1957 route, so it may have been a line spied for a return or perhaps a re-match? It was freed by Goulding in 1968.

Harold Drasdo and Eric Langmuir also put up the first route in Glen Veagh in the April of ‘59. The following day, fellow Glen pioneer Betty Healy was also above Lough Veagh new routing. What a feeling that must have been for them, opening-up the new-routing on all three of the Derryveagh crags. And for Drasdo these were crags in another country, though certainly not a foreign one; by that time.

Activities in the 1960s started off with the new-routing scene focused upon Lough Barra’s cliffs and there were concerted efforts to push lines up the faces at Glen Veagh, though not with the greatest of success.

A pioneer of many of the hardest Welsh routes, at this time, was Hugh Banner; he came to Donegal and climbed at Lough Barra, adding Rule Britannia, but it is not recorded whether he visited The Glen.

When was the first guidebook?

Ronnie Wathen [21] produced a typewritten guide to The Glen’s climbs and this formed the majority of The Glen’s text in the 1962 IMC Donegal Rock Climbs. The guide stated that it would be many years before the Donegal cliffs would be worked-out. I would add that there’s still plenty of potential out there now. Compiled by Rothery and Healy, it records 30 climbs at The Poisoned Glen. Amazing but true, it was reprinted in 1978!

The majority of the1960s recorded very few routes being done in The Glen, or indeed Donegal. Donegal was described at the time as “Ireland’s largest rock climbing area”. The Irish notes in the 1967 CC Journal noted “This area, with Ireland’s finest granite crags, has been almost entirely neglected during the past year.” The wet slog into The Glen without the certainty of bagging a brace of new routes was considered to be a major factor in Dublin’s climbers not making the long trip up to Donegal. The earliest exploration of the sea crags was starting to happen, though much of this was found to be vegetated and scrappy.

By 1968 the Donegal guide was unavailable and a typewritten guide was in production by John Forsythe and Robin Merrick, according to that December’s IMC newsletter. Dawson Stelfox’s 1985 Donegal guidebook references this guide as being produced in 1973.

Emmet Goulding and Paul McDermott were in The Glen in ‘68; they climbed Saoirse (HVS) and bagged the line many climbers had eyed, Obituary Corner. Oft-tried, it had repelled many. It is a striking line on Bearnas Buttress and bears comparism with the famed Cenotaph Corner. It would have been a fine day to have witnessed them climb it, particularly if it had already spat you out. Goulding was already active on the other Derryveagh Mountains crags; from ‘62 onwards he’d been new-routing in Lough Barra and Glen Veagh, often making the first free ascents.

In 1969 Harold Drasdo called into Dunlewy’s only bar for a drink and bumped into famous British mountaineers, Chris Bonnington and Nick Estcourt, recently returned from conquests in the Himalayas, and completely anonymous to the locals. They’d been to Donegal’s Slieve League [22], only to be disappointed. Having next to no information on The Glen, it was Harold who showed them the line next to Obituary Corner, one of the finer unclimbed lines remaining. Harold had provisionally named it Obituary Column. The compelling line had repelled several teams of Glen devotees for a number of years. Estcourt succeeded in leading this VS; the name stayed. And, for them, that was it. No other lines and no return for more new routes. Other fish to fry.

‘69 was also the year that Harold Drasdo climbed his last new route in the Glen, The Direct (HVS) on Bearnas Buttress; with Jim Williams. The Direct, had had the ‘doubtful distinction’ of a twelve year gestation period, being comprised of many pitches forced over many attempts, until being completed that year. Between 1954 and 1969 the Drasdo Brothers’ names were to appear on a very respectable tally of 20 first ascents here.

A new era wasn’t to begin: five years passed before another two routes were recorded. This leaves us with a clear time-break for this article.

In a 1970 Paddy O’Leary article, re-printed in an IMC newsletter, it was noted that in 1968 many routes in The Glen had received second ascents and that after a lull it was once more ‘in vogue’. Importantly for the eager climbers amongst you, reading this now, O’Leary announced that there was a new ‘status symbol’ amongst Ireland’s climbers. And that was, to have climbed The Glen’s bigger routes such as Nightshade and Slanting Grooves in a day; let’s see this resurrected now! I expect to see queuing in The Poisoned Glen this summer.

The other side of this particular story is that the focus on the bigger cliffs meant that Donegal’s smaller cliffs and isles saw no development at all. For instance, Gola, one of Ireland’s finest climbing experiences, saw no development until the mid 1990s. Imagine that. Still the upside was that there was something left for the later generations of climbers. A second ‘Donegal’ guidebook wasn’t published until 1979’s S.W. Donegal, Malinbeg, and other sea cliffs, by Jimmy Leonard.

One thing that I do find puzzling is, The Glen’s first E1. Currently I have Calvin Torrans and Clare Sheridan adding the first E2 (Rah) in 1978; they also added the first E1 (Bad Blood); but not until 1993. Their abilities are beyond question, but I would imagine they puzzled this one too. A gap of 37 years between the first HVS and the first E1? HVS’s were being climbed in The Glen in the mid-1950s; Winder, Austin and the Drasdos had already put up extremes and Miss Healy had repeated early Irish extremes; so again ability is unquestioned. Goulding was going great guns in the early 60s and Doug Scott added E2, on Sail Rock, in the late 1960s. Things don’t add up, I want answers!

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s a new-routes logbook was kept by the O’Donnell’s who lived at The Lodge, Poisoned Glen. Now however, if you want to check details of routes, add comments or submit a new route then go to the Colmcille Climbers Club website: www.pete-smith.co.uk home of the on-line Donegal climbing guide.

I hope the historical aspects of this article have been fascinating and the climbing connections engaging and that you can answer my appeal for information. Importantly, I hope it’s inspired you to visit The Poisoned Glen. The CCC’s members will happily try to meet up with you, if you send a message via the Club Secretary, Anthony Feeney, at the above web address.

I’d like to appeal to all of you for information and for any historical pictures, relating to Donegal’s pioneers and significant ascents on any of the Donegal crags.

 

Footnotes

  • [1] Hart was a member of the Alpine Club, The Linnean Society and The Royal Irish Academy. Hart prepared reports for The Royal Irish Academy on plants: Galtee Mountains (1881), SW Donegal (1885), S Donegal (1886) and Flowering Plants of the Mountains of Ireland (1891).
  • [2] W. P. Haskett Smith, pioneer of Lakeland rock and world famous, within climbing circles, for his 1886 ascent of Napes Needle; on the slopes of Great Gable. This feat is considered to be the first example of cragsmanship for its own sake and not just prep for the Alps. Haskett Smith celebrated the golden jubilee of the Nape’s Needle ascent, in 1936, by repeating the climb; at the grand age of 76. Some boy!
  • [3] Both were members of the newly-formed Belfast Section of the IMC, formed March 1952.
  • [4] Gribbon was a keen new router in the Mournes and edited the first Mournes guide in 1959. He was also the first Treasurer of QUBMC, which was formed in 1950.
  • [5] Madhill was killed in a climbing accident that August, whilst in Glencoe. He was a founding member of the IMC’s Belfast Section.
  • [6] IMC President 1970-72.
  • [7] One of the founding-fathers of the IMC in 1948 and President 1982-84.
  • [8] All three later served as IMC Presidents, Winder having the distinction of serving two separate Presidencies.
  • [9] Belshade Buttress was almost breached in 1952 by Gibson and McMurray, but wild weather, in such a remote spot, caused them to bail-out; one pitch from the top!
  • [10] Healy was that rare thing in 1950s Ireland: an Irish climber and female, who led new routes and at a standard as good as the men too! Hats off to Betty Healy.
  • [11] This was reported in the IMC’s journal; a later journal records Harold Drasdo as being the first to repeat the climb.
  • [12] The young Bradfordian quickly gained a formidable reputation, with on-sight-solo first ascents of High Street at Ilkley (1956) and The Shelf at Crookrise (1957); both are formidable Yorkshire Gritstone E2 climbs.
  • [13] Evans was co-founder, with Writer Walt Unsworth, of the Cicerone Press, established in 1967 after frustration at the lack of exploration-guidebooks to the English Lake District.
  • [14] The 1958 CC Journal reported that it was said to be the finest route in the area, possibly in all Ireland! High praise indeed.
  • [15] The Extreme Severe grading category hadn’t yet been invented, XS were simply climbs known to be harder than Hard VS.
  • [16] Sutton climbed with many folks and in many places but of interest is that in 1955 he was on the 1stascent of Scotland’s Old Man of Stoer, with Don Whillans and J. Barber. A nice connection with The Glen, I think.
  • [17] Wathen was at Dublin’s Trinity College and went on to become its climbing club’s 1st President. He joined the IMC in the mid-1950s. He was described as an ‘Irishman by inclination’. He was also a climbing partner and friend of British climbing legend Don Whillans.
  • [18] Stevenson was first known to the Drasdos from around 1950, via The Wall End Barn, a famous climbers’ dossing-place in Great Langdale, Cumbria. Handy for The Old Dungeon Gill hotel and its famous bar. In December 2009, Harold Drasdo informed me, during a phone call in December 2009, he’d just had a visit from Stevenson; 60 years on and still friends.
  • [19] Healy and Winder got the coveted 2nd ascent of Cornish Rhapsody, that year.
  • [20] Lundy, in The Bristol Channel, UK, was initially pioneered by the Royal Marines and they published the first rock-climbing guide to Lundy.
  • [21] A very popular character, on several scenes, his 3-sided headstone, in County Wicklow, describes him as ‘Mountaineer’ on one side, ‘Poet’ on another and ‘Piper’ on the next.
  • [22] Amongst Europe’s highest cliffs, but no rock worth climbing. Beautiful though.


Peter Cooper is a Lancastrian-born Yorkshireman living on Inishowen, Donegal (no, there aren’t many of them). He is President of the CCC and Editor of the Donegal guide. Contact: retepcooper-AT-yahoo-DOT-co-DOT-uk .

Main information sources: IMC Newsletters, Journals and website, CC Journals and website, The Ordinary Route by Harold Drasdo (1997), Rock Climbing in Ireland by Calvin Torrans and Dawson Stelfox (1984), Donegal guidebooks (1962, 1985 and 2002), The Villain:The life of Don Whillans by Jim Perrin (2005) and Climbing in the British Isles edited by W. P. Haskett Smith (1895).

Additional thanks for time given to: Miss Betty Healy, Harold Drasdo and, the slightly younger, Alan Tees.

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