(by Ambrose Flynn, August 2011)
Sea-stack climbing in Donegal.
Sometimes unconsciousness is an opaque mistress hiding behind a veil of firing electrons and open synapses. But tonight the unconscious is a fluid asymmetrical playground for dark contorted shapes rising from an Ocean; servile figureheads performing an ancient ritual and granting passage deep into the unconscious. A sensory occult is being explored through flashes of barnacles, yellow lichen, green mosses, white water crashing against altars of granite. Silence! A fading whisper can be heard, “Are you having fun gentlemen” as the opaque mistress returns to draw the veil and recede into light; morning floods the tent.
Our 6:30am start from An Port receded from our minds as we are guided towards the pebble beach. Realm of the Senses and Fortitude in Distress are no longer contorted fluid shapes residing in the unconscious. They are now towering beacons of granite, definite and coarse, guiding us with a timeless certainty. As we pass above their flanks on our ascent of Port Hill we witness the parental anxiety of Toralaydan Island as it cradles several smaller stacks. The Atlantic is calm. Neptune is holding his breath.
Several hundred feet below us An Bhuidéal stands forlorn, scared by a fissure of time, as the North Tower seeks autonomy from the Main Stack. Our group too has split, pods of excited silence walking alone and enjoying the visual feast. We near the hidden steep grassy slope towards our host Cnoc na Mara and its disciples, Lurking Fear, Tormore Island and the Hidden Stack. As we stand facing our host we are children once more, our minds sparking with the kinetic energy of unlimited possibility! Alive! Descent.
Arriving on the pebble beach our host and disciples are no longer abstract monoliths huddled in sacred ritual but rather a unified wall of granite and basalt throwing down an imposing stand of defiance; perspective shifting away from the servile. But our quest is just and we are skilled, unafraid, anxious and ambitious. Iain is inflating our vessel as Barry makes ready for the voyage to our host. Cast away, they move slowly towards the seaward prow of Cnoc na Mara. Contact, barnacle-coated basalt, seaweed-shrouded, Barry is on and Iain is spinning away towards land. Accompanied by dry bags and absolved of societal conservatism I am bound for the unknown, a new route on the seaward side of our host. We slide past Lurking Fear and I am delivered onto a small platform, dry bags emptied and the ferryman is spinning away once again, “Good luck!” He says something about the proposed route but my mind is black and empty; alone, Pincher Martin sorting through climbing gear accompanied by rhythmical swell and circling fulmars. The ferryman is back and Wolfgang is delivered, “Good luck lads.” Everything is cyclical!
We rack up with little talk and decide to solo the first pitch towards the large ledge on our right, somewhere! Our host is mindful and the granite is solid. Arriving at the large ledge we feel the watchful eye of Tormore Island behind us, but our preoccupation is in picking the line above. A v-groove high and snaking to the left is selected. I lead-off. Again the climbing is easy and movement is swift despite a nagging tentative inclination. Flashes of yellow lichen smear the granite and below white water is caressing the toes of our host and disciples. The weight of time is heavy, leaving its mark everywhere, there can be no doubt that we are nothing, irrelevant in all but to ourselves! Cams are placed, a belay ledge has been decided upon and Wolfgang is climbing.
On reaching the ledge the ‘dance of the change-over’ begins. Cams, nuts, hex, quickdraws, slings, extenders rattle to the beat of concentration. Wolfgang is leading. Having only met each other a day earlier the climbing partnership is fluid and assured; a gift from the ferryman. The lead is thoughtful as Wolfgang arranges pro before moving right into the exposed v-groove, “Ok, watch me here!” Confident fluid movement is followed by those dogmatic words, “Safe.” Enveloped by a heady mix of on-sight climbing and situation, we are children again, regressing towards awe-struck naivety and … “Climbing.”
The v-groove is a half-open book with a large crack where the bindings have split, enticing one to bridge out into space. A novel half-finished and made beautiful by time. Off-width and enticing the crack provides a reference point only, as the face to the left calls for exploration. I reach Wolfgang and the dance begins again; above and to the right a roof awaits. Our host has provided quite a banquet! The granite is still solid but each hold is now tested before every move, surmounting the roof with a pinch of atmosphere thrown in, moving diagonally left, everything is cyclical!
Suddenly I’m pulling up onto a grassy ledge using clumps of grass as handholds. It seems our host is not without a sense of humour! The comfort of granite is now a residual memory as a steep grass slope awaits virgin steps. Moving slowly I pull onto another ledge only to be assaulted by a baby fulmar; fortunately its aim is poor and I’ve encountered a case of parental neglect! Now ten metres above the last piece of pro a group of boulders comes into view, phew! “Safe.”
Wolfgang ascending, appears and decides against our last dance as he moves above me and out of sight. Empty fulmar nests, stench of decaying waste, softness of grass, ancient Ocean in constant motion, sitting there watching linked via a synthetic umbilical cord to a German gentleman; life is strange and wonderful. “Safe!” The final act completed, we shake hands and I descend onto a small platform, tied-off and safe, the curtain closes on the first part of this act.
Mike is at the summit block belaying the other lost souls across the arete; words spoken absorbed into silence, “The objective danger is through the roof … amazing … absolutely …”, two beings connecting through shared experience. Iain comes into view climbing, walking, hand railing across the spine of our host. An exchange of words and spinning away once again he descends the contorted discs.
Colm is next to join the high-wire troupe, moving cautiously, climbing the 4b wall separating the lower from the higher spine. Again climbing, walking, hand-railing broken by volleys of colourful language coming from within and above. Connection, a solo electron descending along our host’s central nervous system!
Piaras is next to grace this magnificent stage, moving quickly, focused, the backdrop a peripheral splash of colour. Proprioception is everything! The new dance of descent continues. Iain shouts from a distance and words are dissolved; the Ticking Crocodile is against us therefore Wolfgang and I must leave our island of safety and explore our host’s spine. I wilfully omit the technicalities of our descent, save to say that while Barry was ascending the spine, I was descending; a fusion of five lost souls playing out an act on a knife edge with skill and confidence!
Moving out onto the arete with half a rack and rucksack, hand-railing, standing, turning my back to the 4b wall and descending, adrenaline coursing, unable to open a screw gate, hand-railing, decision-making, switching sides and arriving at the abseil rope. My field of view narrow to the exclusion of our brothers from Belfast, I need a minute! Iain urging swift efficiency, descending towards two more lost souls, unclipping, letting out slack, clipping, Ricky goes into instructor mode, stepping past them and abseiling again towards familiar faces. Piaras and Colm wash my fear and adrenaline away with a volley of abusive language followed by laughter. Barry joins us and immediately sets up another abseil rope, descending. Wolfgang appears followed by Mike and Iain, descending. Iain has manned the ferry and is spinning away towards the pebble beach as Barry takes sanctuary in the Ocean.
The final act is nearing completion as we all stand on the pebble beach looking back towards our host and disciples, now a unified wall once again. Neptune, one who can express such rage, has today held his breath; the Ocean calm and servile. Our host, Croc na Mara, has also displayed patience. A towering mass of granite and basalt culminating in an arete too prominent and inviting to have been accidental! Our host moves us to look and question deep, demanding that we pay attention to our insignificance. Our reasons for being here, together, at this place and time is ephemeral. Playing our part in a perpetual transitory story, one day we will transmute to another state but our voyage will live on as a trace element of something else. Perhaps something as beautiful and inspiring as Croc na Mara and North Donegal.
A depth of gratitude to Iain Miller for his endless enthusiasm and vision.
Update: Iain now runs Unique Ascent, which offers adventure activities and training, based in Donegal. Their website is at www.uniqueascent.ie.