(by Iain Miller, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2010)
First ascents of Donegal sea stacks.
It was 6am and I was nearly 30km from the nearest main road, 5km from the car, at the base of a 250m sea cliff and I was totally and utterly alone, no-one knew where I was or what I was doing, I had no means of contacting the world in the event of the proceedings resembling a pear, and 300m out to sea was the object of my desires. The south-westerly winds were causing the distant sea to smoke, Neptune and his legions of the damned were “in the Building”. I was standing on a small outcrop 6 metres above UBER white water violence, a Lidl dingy mattressed in front of me, a dry bag full of toys clove-hitched to my left wrist and the beast on my right, a 60m half and a 60m single alpine sacked on my back and all that was left to do was commit to a super-scary big fucking leap into the rage and thus enter The Realms of Chaos.
Two summers ago whilst on a cliff-top stroll along the An Port highway, I stumbled upon a huge collection of Leviathans of such gothic architecture and nautical nastiness that a quest was immediately begun; alas it is fuelled by the overpowering rush of an inner tide and thus two years on nearly 50 virgin Donegal sea stacks have been spanked with no end in sight. HURRAH! The main residence of the leviathans is An Port, a little-known road end at the entrance to Shambala, in South West Donegal, where a cliff-top walk will leave you speechless. The islands of Aran, Owey and Tory also play host to a further collection of these nautical bad boys.
Standing head and shoulders above the masses is “Cnoc na Mara”, a 100m sharks-tooth stack, which sits 120m from a storm beach in a truly magical and outrageous location. Its landward arête rises for 150m out of the Atlantic Ocean and provides a VS like no other. Its last pitch, a 60m summit ridge, is unforgettable. Next door to Cnoc na Mara is “An Bhuideal” a twin-headed 50m beast whose north summit is a super-skinny and UBER scary place to be, again climbed at VS. Both of these stacks are outstanding adventures but do require a tad of nautical wisdom! For a big leapfrog in atmosphere a visit to “Dare 2 Be,” the Matterhorn-style stack to the north of Skelpoona, accessed by a km paddle along the base of 200m-high inescapable looseness, is a tad “full on”, and on the island of Aran lives the Giant’s Reek stack, a 120m monster in an absolutely committing location.
The daddy of Donegal’s more adventurous stacks is Satan, a 70m stack on the seaward side of Gull Island. It is protected by conflicting tides and has a very high death potential as the only landing place on the beast is in the very centre of Hades. The stack is so named, as make a mess of the dingy work and the beast will take your soul.
And so our stories begin …
FA Satan XS,5a 70m
And Sho, with our souls still intact from our previous visit to the lair of Mephistopheles, Noble Brother Martin Boner and I descended once more unto the realms of darkness.
The object of our desires was an ascent of the Dark Lord himself; this 70m stack sits to the west of Gull Island and simply put, it is in the most remote and inaccessible location off the mainland of Ireland.
HURRA, Welcome to the Abyss!
Each carrying our 20kg beasts of burden, an early morning 4km trot across the hinterlands of Slievetooey followed by a 100m steep scramble and we arrived at our wave-washed base camp.
It was now a 500m sea passage to reach the base of Satan and as neither of us had spoken for the last hour we paddled out in continued silence. Paddling out into this amphitheatre of outrageous natural beauty, fear and intimidation, it was near impossible to suppress the sensory overload, as I felt we had now reached and breached the bounds of the sane and in the distance the coronach played on.
20 mins of easy atmospheric paddling later we arrived at the Gothic labyrinth separating the two stacks; we alighted onto the easiest island; Satan looked very, very difficult to land on, Neptune was in the building! Oh, Happy Days!
"This is Fackin Awesome!" quipped Brother Bonner; I agreed and we once more descended into silence.
The only way to access our goal was a small recess in the channel between the two stacks; I don’t wish to labour the point BUT this channel was truly surreal!
"DEAD, your God is dead. FOOLS, your God is dead. USELESS prayers of lies. BEHOLD Satan’s rise!" roared our hosts as we made the journey across the Styx to arrive at the sanctitude of the 6th inner circle.
And whilst in celebration of Rage the heavens grew strong, the key to the 7th gate of Hell lay momentarily unguarded.
Changed clothes, sorted the toys and climbed a 25m pitch of immaculate basalt to arrive at a col to the south of Satan and between an offshoot lump. A further 30m pitch took us up steep basalt blockiness to the bottom of twin summit towers; The Horn of Satan, if you will! A third 35m pitch climbed the steep corner crack between the horns to arrive on the summit ridge; a thought-provoking ridge scramble and we sat aloft the Prince of Darkness.
"Let’s get the Fack out of here!" suggested Brother Bonner, and I couldn’t have agreed more.
We abseiled and down-climbed the route to our mighty vessel.
Toys sorted and we set sail, 10 minutes later whilst paddling up the final channel and awaiting the final big lump to spit us free of the labyrinth and out into open sea. I turned to ask Martin if he was having fun yet, head bowed he was in silent prayer as we were lifted 6 feet and carried out into open sea on the crest of a monster roller. Arms raised as we both roared at the sky, we had been reborn into the world having left behind the gothic architecture of Satan’s abyss.
A superb paddle back to the beach was had as all the tension and vertical concerns were now behind us!
This was a truly awesome adventure, I would just like to thank our hosts Satan and Neptune for their hospitality, and although we were never actually asked to part with our souls I do feel we aged 10 years in one particular memorable paddle stroke!
FA Tormore Island VS 200m
It was in the midst of a monsoon 7am on a Sunday morning that the troops gathered on the pier at Burtonport. Noble Brothers Alan Tees and Peter’s Cooper and McConnell sat in the gloom as the vertical rods from the black sky rained down. There was hope, the forecast was good. Cha Cha …
The object of our desires was the summit of the 150-metre unclimbed sea stack, Tormore Island, approx 20 NM south of our rain-lashed pier. Two of the party had made several attempts at taming this beast previously, so by default the approach of choice today was to be by RIB. Our noble steed was being captained by Paul Bathgate, a veteran of nautical misadventures along the Donegal coastline. Our noble steed itself was a 76 mph monster of a RIB and we were on our way.
Now I’m not sure if my fellow cohorts knew what to expect when I mentioned using this type of vessel for an attempt, but upon setting sail and Captain Bathgate opening the throttle a tad, the white knuckles and blank expressions from the troops spoke volumes. Exshellent Mish Moneypenny, we were having mucho fun and we were only 30 seconds into the adventure.
Ten minutes later we rounded the north end of Arran Island into quite atmospheric seas and for the next 40 minutes we got a nautical kicking! Words can’t describe the journey suffice to say it was emotional!
As we arrived at Tormore it was under siege by legions of white horses, Neptune was furious! Our fearless/insane Captain navigated the channel separating the stack from the land, sensory overload had already been reached and breached as we entered the cauldron of angry white sea. Some pretty amazing boat-handling skills left four wide-eyed fools on a non-tidal ledge at the bottom of the landward face of Tormore Island. With a "See you at Four" our boat and Captain screamed out of the channel and into the maelstrom!
And Lo, as ordered the rain stopped and the Sun came out. Happy Days Let’s cane the beast, we cried in unison.
The first 45 metre pitch was a V. Diff affair on superb quartz and growing atmosphere to an excellent block belay.
We were climbing caterpillar-style, meaning as three met the next pitch is led while the fourth is ascending the last? Ehmm, kind of makes sense to me?
Anyways, as Brother Cooper came up, Brother Tees led off up the second pitch of slabby mixed ground to a lofty perch below the monstrous roofs.
Pitch three bypassed the roofs on the left and had a modicum of exposure as further mixed ground took us to a huge ledge and superb peg belay. Thankfully the discovery of this belay meant we could now defo get off this stack, a minor point of concern, which I had been pondering all morning!
Brother McConnell powered up pitch 4, a vertical celebration of grass and mud. Oh and 2 rubbish runners in the first 30 metres, a rude awakening to stack world. The summit ridge was reached and a solitary block belay in an ocean of green was had. One by one we scrambled the last 20-metre grass ridge to a spectacular summit. No-one said very much as we savoured where we were. Simply Awesome!
Photos were taken and evidence of previous visitors sought, none found. Happy Days Indeed!!
We made an abseil descent of our route; four 45-metre abseils using the now-insitu peg belays took us to the non-tidal ledge to await our lift home.
Being last to ab, I arrived at the ledge to an ominous silence. The seas were now crashing green either side off the channel and every fourth wave threw thousands of tons of green on to the stack opposite us. This was absolutely awesome to watch, alas not so good for our travel arrangements, we had no sleeping bags! "What do you think?" asked Alan.
"Aw, it’ll be fine." came my confident reply. Internally I considered us to be fucked, if you pardon my French.
For the next half hour we sat in quiet contemplation, and WHOOSH into the channel came our boat at 50 degrees to Port and riding a monster Greeny, full astern and Captain Bathgate and Crewman Mike Crowe got thrashed about in an astounding display of seamanship; our mighty vessel was getting an almighty kicking. Several passes of our ledge and the luggage was safely stowed. Then for the next 10 minutes the boat stayed in the centre of the cauldron riding the chaotic seas.
"RIGHT, I’M COMING IN AGAIN, I CAN’T STAY IN HERE ANY LONGER, GET IN!" came our orders from Captain B.
And in he came; a single nano-second later we were all in the boat.
"THANK F*CK FOR THAT!" our nautical maestro roared as we crashed through green to exit the channel and out onto the high seas.
Now that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was a high-end emotional exit from a stack.
The journey back to Burtonport was bumpy, but in full daylight and sunshine it was excellent sport! Half an hour later saw us in sheltered water between Arran Mor and Burtonport and Captain B gave the beast full throttle, 60 mph + and we arrived in Burtonport Harbour, a bit like flying on a very very low-flying plane.
having discovered the rabbit hole does indeed exist in Western Donegal, it was time to discover how deep it really goes and so a journey of solo adventures commenced. The commitment required and the sense of primal fear that accompanies these journeys has to be experienced to be believed. As always, a tad of logistics and planning is the key to success and of course the adoption of perhaps less orthodox climbing equipment such as 600m of 6mm polyprop, a lightweight Lidl dinghy, a single lightweight paddle, divers booties, a 20ft Cordette, a pair of Speedo’s, heavy duty dry bags, 20m of 12mm polyprop, an alpine hammer, a snow bar, a selection of pegs, a chest harness / inverted Gri-Gri combo and a big grin!
Whilst playing on the surf some of the more memorable moments have been paddling with dolphins, bull selkies and a massive basking shark, all within 15 foot of my tiny Lidl dinghy up to a kilometre from land. Alas a moment of mild concern was had whilst taking a 60-foot screamer, landing in the sea and realising there was an angel standing at the base of the stack.
Standing on micro summits many, many kilometres from anywhere deep in the knowledge that you are truly alone is the true embodiment of being the owner of dynamic rope!
I have refrained from writing anything regarding the safety aspect to adventure climbing suffice to say it is a very dangerous activity and every time I go out to play, the rope work, boat work and planning that accompany these activities is extremely thorough and anal so as to ensure a maximum margin of safety.
I have developed a unique method of nautical access using non-climbing equipment and techniques which would take many pages to describe and explain, so after nearly 100 top-end adventurous days out without serious incident either I am extremely skilled, very lucky or have sold my soul to Neptune; the jury is still out.
But the tale continues …
Iain Miller runs Unique Ascent, which offers adventure activities and training, based in Donegal. Their website is at www.uniqueascent.ie.