The Poisoned Glen: the 1970s Onwards

(by Peter Cooper, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2010)
This is the second part of an article focussing on the development of Donegal’s Poisoned Glen.

The previous article looked at the early developments from 1950 up until 1970. As with the previous article, I need to add that this is not the definitive history as the story is still developing; a concise version of the two articles will be published in the next Donegal guide.

To briefly recap

The Poisoned Glen and its place in Irish-rock-climbing’s history really started with Gibson and Mc Murray’s ascent of Green Grass Gully in 1950. The major players in its early development were the IMC’s climbers and a few, significant, visiting British climbers; they were all truly pioneering and at very respectable grades too. The IMC produced The Glen’s first guide in 1962. By the end of the 60s Irishmen McDermott and Goulding had led the great and oft-tried line of Obituary Corner [1], and British climbers, the famed Estcourt and Bonington, had bagged its sought-after sister-route Obituary Column (VS) [2]. Frank Winder was concentrating on his biochemistry career, having made a very significant impact on Irish climbing; he left a tally of 9 routes in The Glen – often climbing with Betty Healy [3]. Healy climbed on half a dozen new routes in The Glen and was an editor of the first Donegal guide with Seán Rothery [4]. Yorkshireman Harold Drasdo had climbed his last new route in The Glen, The Direct (HVS) on Bearnas Buttress. Between himself and his brother Neville, they ‘bowed-out’ with a tally of 20 new routes in The Glen. Andrew ‘Max’ Maxfield and R. Wilde, appear from records, got the last route of the 60s with Un-Named Route in the September of 1969, bringing the tally of climbs in The Glen to 45 routes; and that marked the end of the first two decades of climbing in Donegal’s Poisoned Glen.

Many of the routes remain classic lines worthy of your attention; some are among the finest climbing experiences to be had in Ireland and other routes are over-due for re-appraisal.

1970 onwards

When the 1960s ended a new era didn’t begin: 5 years had to pass before another two new routes were recorded. Pat Redmond and Dave Walsh [5] climbed Kongen (HVS) in the August of 1974. Walsh recalls his eldest brother, also a climber, introduced him to The Glen and that they had climbed lots of routes there. Eventually he spied the line of Kongen. Having been rained-out of Norway that summer, Redmond and Walsh returned to climb in Donegal, the line was climbed and it received the Norwegian word for king as its name. Though the line wasn’t climbed entirely in the style Walsh would have liked:

“I couldn’t make a move about a third the way up without protection. Pat had a go and made the move and got protection in. Then he couldn’t make the next (crux) move where the wall bulges a little. To my horror he pulled on a nut and finished the route. We have “discussed” the matter many times since. Pat was my best friend over 25 years but we never saw eye to eye on that. To our amazement we couldn’t get up the last easier-angled bit. The corner straight above didn’t go and the shelves to the side were rounded off and we couldn’t manage. We tried for hours and hours and eventually ran out of time. It was pitons or abseil, and we chose pitons.”

The tale for Walsh did eventually get a happy ending:

“I always knew it would go and I eventually got back in the early 90s. I strolled up the main pitch and though the last pitch slowed us, Finbarr Crowley got a wee wire in and protection wasn’t an issue. Then it was straightforward delicate HVS slabbing, and he was up to it. Really it’s a magnificent route”.
(Dave Walsh 2010)

On the Last Small Buttress Anaconda Corner was the second new route climbed in the October of 1974, by the team of Findlay, Moore and Hawkins. Its name continued a tradition of snake-themed climb names started in 1959 by Frank Winder.

There were no more new routes for four years. June 1978 saw legends of the Irish climbing scene Calvin Torrans and Clare Sheridan [6] add three routes. The 140m+ Rah on the West Buttress was the first E2 in the Glen; it rates 5c and gets 3 stars. It was to remain the hardest route in The Glen for fifteen years. Calvin and Clare also added the Glen’s first E1, Bad Blood on Creag na mBreac, but not until 1993. It can happen that a harder grade is climbed first but this was a fairly astonishing time scale. In my previous article I noted that it seemed almost incredible to believe that E1 had not come to The Glen prior to this date (37 years after the first HVS), especially as some of its 1950s pioneers had climbed extremes elsewhere by the mid-1950s. There’s still no answers, suggestions or objections come forth on this subject. Calvin and Sé O Hanlon [7] were to do the First Free Ascent (FFA) of Goulding and McDermott’s 1968 route Saoirse (HVS). Calvin let me know he climbed Nightshade (HVS) ‘free’ about 30 years ago, but also confirmed he wasn’t the first to do it; alas he does not know who did the FFA. Does anyone out there have the answer for me? In 2010, Dave Walsh still clearly recalled his ascent of Nightshade and rated it as “the best route I ever climbed in Ireland, never mind Donegal”. Calvin also got the FFA of pitch 3 of Geoff Sutton and Harold Drasdo’s 1957 route Hammer and Sickle (HVS) in 1981. Calvin still has ambitions in The Glen!

1978 also saw the IMC’s 1962 Donegal guide re-printed, containing 30 climbs in The Glen and with no updates whatsoever. There must have been a perceived need for it but I doubt it would have caused a stampede. I wonder how many copies were sold? So until the publication of 1979’s Malinbeg guide, to those not ‘in-the-know’, it would have seemed that no other climbing had been done and no other crags developed in Donegal. Now we have the internet and a tally of 1500+ climbs in Donegal on the CCC’s web-site.

1979 saw the ascent of Mamba (VS) on the Last Small Buttress by a team consisting of Tom Hand and Emmet Goulding. There is a possibility that this was the same line as College Route, done in the late 60s by Maxfield and Rittman. Either way, 30+ years on, this was the last new route recorded on this buttress; perhaps there’s some lines that were overlooked? It was nice to see a return by Goulding to new-routing in The Glen, having been active throughout the Derryveagh crags from 1960 onwards. He lives less than an hour away from these crags, so we should be encouraging him to get out more.

1985 saw Dawson Stelfox’s [8] 1985 Donegal guidebook published, the first whole-of-Donegal guide since 1962. The Poisoned Glen did not feature in Stelfox and Torrans’ Rock Climbing in Ireland guide of 1984. This did not go un-noticed at the time and I wonder if this would still be the case, if the guide were to be compiled now? Frank Winder’s routes elsewhere in Ireland (and Donegal) did feature in the guide but none of his Glen contributions made it into the final draft. Perhaps this would not be the case if a new selection were made? Especially as some of Malinbeg’s routes have fallen into the sea.

On Creag na mBreac, Alan Tees [9] added Dubious Maiden (HS) in 1985, putting that year’s guidebook further out of date. Also putting his own guidebook out of date, on the Ballaghgeeha Buttress Stelfox and Andy McFarlane climbed Anachronism (E2) in 1988. Dawson returned in 1991 with Mrs Stelfox, Margaret, adding Jaundiced Eyes (HVS).

Niall Grimes‘s [10] 1993 Donegal Supplement showed that development had slowed down further, as attentions had gone away from the mountain crags to the outcrops; nonetheless four new routes were recorded. Oddly, Grimer did not add any routes here; which is curious as he was active over on the nearby Lough Barra crags with Al Millar.

1993 saw Derrymen Paul Dunlop [11] and Kieran Gallagher Chasing the Dragon; this line was The Glen’s first E3, and remains its hardest line to the present day (now there’s a challenge!).

“We basically knew that this buttress was the cleanest in the glen and that it is close to the road if you walk from the Lough Barra side. So myself and Kieran Gallagher went down for a weekend to see if there would be new routes … the line of Chasing the Dragon really stood out quite prominently and was just waiting to be climbed.  It didn’t require much cleaning and so I decided to just do it. I wasn’t aware that Chasing the Dragon was the hardest route in the glen … I’m quite pleased about that!”
(Paul Dunlop, Summer 2010).

I recently contacted Paul regarding a tale I’d had relayed concerning his efforts at trying to free Nightshade. The route he’d actually been trying to be free was not Allan Austin’s Nightshade but Calvin and Clare’s Rah (E2), with Al Millar.

“The route was Rah E2 5c which has a point of aid at the crux pitch that myself and Alan Millar set out to free. It started out ok but the higher up we went the wetter the crag was; one pitch before the crux pitch was like crossing a slab with a sheet of water flowing down it, it was very bad. Alan got to the crux pitch and it was impassable because of the wet. At this stage we were too high up to start retreating so we just forced a new route to finish, but by this time it was pitch dark (it was October) and we had no head torches so we had 2 long pitches of new climbing in complete darkness, then a nightmare 3-hour descent  where you couldn’t even see your feet on the ground or Alan standing right next to you … very scary considering the massive drops all around. So we had to sit down and crawl for hours down in the dark, falling over small buttresses not knowing when you were going to stop. I got hypothermia, broke most of my finger nails halfway to the quick and felt nothing … it was a bad day out!”

In August 2010, I was reading some copies of Irish magazine Rock Climber and in the back of it I found 2 new routes dating from 1994, Summer of My Dreams (VS 4c) and Emigrants Eyes (HVS 5a), both climbed in June by G. Murray and M. McNaught. This was going to possibly scupper the later new routes on the buttress. Fortunately, Kevin McGee has provided an accurate photo-topo showing where the routes overlap – but it also shows enough independence for all the lines to be listed. I was dreading telling the new-routers that their lines had already been done, as I’ve been there myself and it can be disappointing – to say the least. Ironically the magazines were lent to me by previous Donegal guidebook editor Alan Tees. Here’s to serendipity.

Alan Tees’ 2002 Donegal guidebook reflected the continued focus on developing Donegal’s outcrops and isles.

Development since the guide hasn’t ceased though. Alan Tees, Marty McGuigan and Marty’s son Mark added a new line to The Glen in 2003: Return of The Eagles (HVS 5a), which finds it way up two pitches and 50m of fine Donegal granite on the West Buttress, with the added bonus of an off-width followed by overhanging flakes with hidden holds.

2005 saw the Millar Brothers [12], Al and Dave, cleaning halfway-up the Castle Gully, adding Spectrum (E2) and Chemical Brothers (E1). Al returned with fellow CCC member Donna Ryan, and they climbed Claymore in the Gully (E1) and Llanrwst or Bust (HVS). What set this period of development apart was its intensity; four new routes done in one year is something where the Glen is concerned but this was four in maybe just a month and certainly under two months. Also, they were not on the Ballagheega Buttress – this was some new territory.

In 2007 recently-immigrated Orcadian-Scotsman, Iain Miller (CCC) took time out from sea-stack-conquering and explored the Castle, producing a ‘gri-gri-solo’ (ask him, I don’t know either) of To Be Continued (HVS 4c). The route goes up to the base of the very fine looking feature Portcullis Wall, which Iain describes as “ahem, a bit harder”.

The July of 2008 saw Donegal natives Kevin McGee and Patrick Tinny (CCC) climb Patagonian Summer (HVS) on the smooth walls of Ballaghgeeha Buttress. However, a short-lived bit of confusion over whether this was a new route was settled by Alan Tees. Alan was there the day a peg was placed, prior to a bail-out by Paula Turley and partner, on the original attempt of this line. McGee and Tinny took time-off from developing Crocanaffrin in June 2009 and climbed The Mistress (HVS), the Glen’s 17th HVS line. Kevin and Patrick display the Donegal climbing spirit amply; with only a couple of years climbing experience they were new-routing in the birthplace of climbing in Donegal.

What next?

Lately it would seem that climbing in the Glen is seeing a minor revival [13]. The potential is still out there for the hardy gardener, with a very long rope and lots of time. The lines are out there for the keen, but it’s a touch of boldness that‘s going to help most – on the cleaner faces. An acceptance of long walk-ins, possible damp routes and horrendous midges on calm summer days do seem to be necessary to get the most out of your day.

When I first drafted this article the next line was: ‘And, more winter potential could be out there for those with a penchant for starting out before it gets light.’ Well, the Christmas of 2009 proved to an absolute bumper year for winter-climbing throughout the Donegal highlands, including The Glen. Fine efforts were made by many members of the CCC. It saw new winter routes climbed, which further adds to your reasons to find your way there. Iain Miller had a Christmas Day to make many of us envious. Rather than stuff himself with turkey and trimmings Iain was new-routing on the Donegal ice! See the reports on the CCC website’s logbook [LINK] and on-line guide.

Developments since last article (1950-1970)

Whilst browsing the internet I came across an article featuring Trinity College’s Reverend Caesar Otway, which referred to him abseiling in The Poisoned Glen in 1853. He published Sketches of Ireland. I’ve been unable to find the article again and research his mountain adventures further. I’d be very interested to read an article about him, if somebody else knows about him: he could prove to be an historically-important early figure in Irish climbing. Though, abseiling’s one thing, climbing is another.

It is entirely probable that the Reverend Otway and Henry Chichester Hart would have known of each other, if not met, being of the Irish gentry class and Trinity graduates.

H.C. Hart is known to have been scrambling/climbing in The Glen in the 1880s and alphabetically named its gullies. In 1895 Hart wrote the Irish edition of Climbing in the British Isles for editor Walter Parry Haskett Smith. Having skim-read H.C. Hart’s Donegal plant books I know that he not only listed the plants he found but also said where they occurred in the Donegal highlands – via altitude. He had extensive knowledge of not only The Poisoned Glen and Mount Errigal, but was also familiar with Lough Belshade too; there’s every chance he would have scrambled the easy gully behind the main face. Hart’s intimacy with the Donegal landscape at its time was incredible and probably equalled by very few since. Additionally, Hart was also a Justice of Peace and wrote many critiques of Renaissance plays, particularly Shakespeare’s. They were a posh lot, the early Irish climbers. But should you go to the Fanad penninsula his house still stands and the garden is open to the public, at Carrablagh, north of Port Salon; importantly there is good climbing at Crocanaffrin and bouldering, developed by Glen pioneers the Millars, near Fanad Head.

Harold Drasdo sent a very informative letter, which arrived after the previous article had been submitted for publication. It will be of use in the next guide’s production. Al Millar met with Harold in the early 2000s and interviewed him; he is also in possession of Harold’s own annotated 1962 Donegal guide, which corrects some of the lines. Neville Drasdo also contacted me and recalled his times in Ireland climbing with IMC members Winder, Rothery and Kenny, and the impressive climbs they did. Following climbing in Wicklow, they were guests at a party given by Bill Perrott. The Drasdo’s even got entertained by a warm fire in the library of the large house across the lake at Dunlewy, reputedly owned by members of the Guinness clan at that time.

I have managed to contact Allan Austin regarding his time in The Glen and had a positive response but, alas, nothing has come through before this deadline.

It was a nice surprise to recieve an e-mail reply from Chris Bonington, confirming he’d enjoyed visiting The Glen in ’68 but other than remembering it as being one of the wettest places he’d ever climbed he couldn’t recollect the actual climbing. He did however share his memory of that night, when he’d given his Eiger talk to IMC and Queens climbers in Belfast. It’s the only time he’s given a talk under the protection of armed British soldiers, who all enjoyed his talk; later he was taken to the Officers’ Mess and entertained til very late into the night. It possibly beats camping at Dunlewy.

I was in touch with Belfast-based artist Dan Shipsides; he had an exhibition ‘Pioneers’ which was inspired by the early members of the IMC. As a result the audio interviews he conducted with Winder, Healy and Rothery are now available as free downloads.

Well, that’s the story so far; it continues to develop and I hope you’ve enjoyed what I’ve shared with you. Thanks to all those who have assisted in helping with these articles. I hope you’re all feeling inspired to go to Donegal, will you get your new line in time for the next Donegal guide?

I am still appealing to all of you for your memories, any gap-filling information and historical pictures; relating to Donegal’s pioneers and significant ascents on any of the Donegal crags. If you know any retired climbers, prod them for info and any pics they may have up in the attic; they may have valuable ‘stuff’ relating to Irish climbing history!

Should 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 can be contacted via the CCC’s on-line guide page.

Peter Cooper was President of the CCC (2008-10) and is Editor of the Donegal guide.

Bibliography

  • Climbers’ Club Journals on CC web site
  • Harold Drasdo, The Ordinary Route, 1997
  • W. P. Haskett Smith, Climbing in The British Isles (1895): Ireland by H. C. Hart
  • Donegal guidebook, IMC 1962 (unaccredited in the guide: Healy, Rothery and Wathen)
  • Dawson Stelfox, Donegal, FMCI 1985
  • Alan Tees, Donegal, MCI 2002
  • IMC Journals on IMC web site
  • 1984 Rock Climbing in Ireland

Conversations, correspondences and e-mails (so far) were with: Harold and Neville Drasdo, John Duignan, Paul Dunlop, Betty Healy, Kevin McGee, Al and Dave Millar, Iain Miller, Alan Tees, Patrick Tinney, Calvin Torrans and Dave Walsh.

Footnotes

  • [1] This was the sought-after line that many of The Glen’s regulars had lusted after.
  • [2] The line having repelled many Glen regulars, including Harold Drasdo who with his brother Neville had climbed The Glen’s first two HVS’s back in 1956. A line not to be taken lightly, perhaps?
  • [3] Healy was a keen new-router on crags throughout Ireland and was a climber of some repute; she climbed better than many of the male climbers in Ireland at that time. Now in her late eighties she still recalls her climbing times, in the 50s and 60s, with much fondness.
  • [4] Seán Rothery served as IMC President 1970-72. He also pioneered notable new routes on several of the Derryveagh crags.
  • [5] Dave Walsh was IMC President 1986-88 and pioneer of many routes at Malinbeg.
  • [6] I cannot start to say how many routes they have climbed in Ireland, from the late 1960s onwards, but let’s just say it’s a hell of a lot! And always at a good standard too.
  • [7] Sé is a legend of Irish cycling, winning The Rás several times in the 1960s. He served as IMC President 2003-4.
  • [8] Editor of Donegal Rock Climbs 1985, leader of first Irish team to climb Everest and became a President of the Mountaineering Council of Ireland (now MI). He’s also an architect, in his spare time.
  • [9] Climbing since the 1970s, a long-term member of the North West Mountaineering Club, later he became a founding member and the first President of the Colmcille Climbers Club, edited the 2002 Rock Climbs in Donegal; eventually he became President of Mountaineering Ireland.
  • [10] Derry lad, ‘Grimer’ was a keen activist in Donegal from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. He is now resident in Sheffield and employed as guidebooks editor at the BMC; his definitive Stanage guide won that year’s BANFF guidebook award.
  • [11] Paul and brother Raymond are well known for being talented climbers and have many hard routes in Donegal. Paul also gained a reputation for significant hard ascents in the Burren, often solo. Paul has been at the fore-front of the campaign for a new climbing wall for Derry which should help see not only a rise in climbing standards but also a long-overdue rise in numbers climbing in the North West.
  • [12] Sons of Donegal, the Millars are also part of the Derry scene that gave us Niall Grimes, the Dunlop Brothers and a significant jump in climbing standards. Al was a member of the CCC from its inception and a long-serving secretary. Dave Millar continues the family’s new-routing tradition at a good standard, is a member of the CCC, and a keen contributor to the Donegal guidebook.
  • [13] New routes over a 7-year period were more than double the 4 climbed in the 8 years between the Stelfox guide and Grimer’s supplement.

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