by Barry Watts
Drawing some inspiration from climbing challenges such as No Sleeps till Bakewell and the Dalkey Forty, Conor Warner and I decided to set out on our own climbing challenge-The Alternative Burren Way. It all started a s a conversation at the SUAS wall last April, the aim was to hike and traverse all the limestone crags of the Burren with recorded rock climbs and to lead a minimum of one route at each venue. Unlike these and other climbing challenges there is no shortage of rough rocky terrain, scree, hazel thickets and scrambling up and down craglets to be had in the Eastern Burren and the crags are stretched out over a distance of 60km. There aren’t that many developed paths between and over hilltops (particularly in the Eastern Burren) so it’s more like a mountaineering challenge than a crag rats climb fest. Our best route would be to start in the South East of the Burren in the National Park and following a skewed n shaped route North and West across the Burren hills before passing by Ballyvaughan and onward West hitting the Atlantic coast at Fanore, the final coastal stretch would be a South Westwards line down to and finishing in Doolin. We decided the crag order would be as follows.
Scailp na Seisri
Aill na Cronain
Doolin sea cliff
I reckoned that three full days should do it with overnight camps after Scailp and Murroughkilly before getting the last bus home out of Doolin at the end of the third day. We have both been walking and climbing in the Burren for the past 25 years and we each have our own strengths, I would defer to Conor’s navigation and knowledge of local geography while I would be the ‘’rope gun’’ of the team. In August Conor did some reccies of access routes between crags and scoped out some camping spots, we also fixed dates for the weekend of 20-22 September. In the week before it became clear that an Atlantic weather front was going to move in and soak the Burren for up to 15 hours on the Saturday. Conor had already booked Friday off work and as the weather was good for that day I said we should just go for it and see how far we could get before the weather deteriorated. Kit wise we longed to go lightweight but we also had to cover ourselves, the climbs ranged from 10m to 40m in height with a bag hauling section required so bringing my 25m climbing wall rope was out of the question, likewise the protection range of our rack needed small to large gear to match the terrain, technical gear going from micro wires up to large hexes and a size 3.5 cam were thrown in along with 5 krabs and 9 extenders. There are almost no clean supplies of surface water on the route so we were each packing 3.5L of water from the start.
My girlfriend Audrey dropped us off at the Mullach Mor trail head in the Burren National Park at 09.30 and we each scoffed a breakfast roll and shouldered our 16kg packs, Conor carried the stove, tent and food and I the climbing gear while we each carried our own sleeping bags, mats and spare clothes. The start was easy and gradual as we were crossing the lakeside limestone pavements at Lough Bunny before following up the way marked track to the top of Mullach Mor. We met some young day hikers on the popular trail and they were bemused by our large parks, It was a lovely sunny Autumn morning and the air wasn’t too hot with a gentle breeze, 25 minutes later we could view the Mullach Mor crag.
Conor and I discovered and developed many of the routes at this crag and it was a pleasure to go back nearly 20 years on and repeat the familiar long classic of Young Fella HS 4b. The climb follows a steep ramp followed by a wall and a nice corner to finish, the crux is in the first few moves and there is loads of gear all through it’s 22 meters, I led it and the limestone holds were grippy and positive, we returned back to the bottom to grab our packs and departed Mullach Mor after a positive start to our trip, We didn’t go to the summit cairn but instead made a bee line from the top of Mullach Mor crag to Slieve Rua. Geraldine Murphy and I had developed some routes on the highest buttress of Slieve Rua in 2017, I had pre cleaned the routes in advance but there were two routes that I hadn’t got back to and one of these was a sheer face split by a prominent crack line. I suggested that Conor give it a go and he really enjoyed the moves and dispatched it in good style to produce Divide and Conquer VD.
We descended, repacked our bags and crossed over Slieve Rua avoiding the summit cairn and headed North towards Turloughmore, Our plan was to not to summit Knockaines and so we picked our way slowly over rubble strewn karst and hazel scrub down to a back road in the townland of Leitra. The sun was hot and we power walked up back roads and crossed fields to start ascending Turloughmore, This hill is a bit like the Burren’s answer to Hungry Hill, a veritable fortress of stacked rock tiers from every direction. I don’t think it gets much attention from walkers or climbers but it’s south facing slopes offer a series of good scrambles and amongst the short buttresses and wild slopes there is some good climbing potential. We had been moving all morning long and so we were both beginning to feel the straining weight of our packs on our backs and feet, We stopped for a few minutes amidst sharp rubble strewn slopes, took in water and had chocolate and nuts. Time came to move and our progress to the top tier of Turloughmore South was slow. There is no developed crag (yet!) at Turloughmore but Conor had put up two routes back in 2002 and so we made the (well probably) second ascent of Out of Oil HS.
The rock was solid and the gear good, the crux was making progress off the ledge and so I had to smear off both walls to gain high footholds to reach a vertical flake to finish. Conor followed up and again we descended and repacked our bags, We took a long descending line North and West over rock and scrub passing Turloughmore North on our right to reach a back road that would lead us into Keehilla Nature Reserve and Eagles Rock.
We had really been moving as efficiently as our bags and our climbing abilities would allow but time was creeping up and it became obvious that we would not make it anywhere near Scailp or Moneen Mountain for our overnight camp site. After 1km of walking on the back road admiring the hedgerow foliage and burning holes in our feet we turned left or West and entered the nature reserve via a grassy walking path. The path made a nice change from walking on back roads and cross country scrub and rock, We had a break after an uphill section in a grassy meadow and ate half our lunch rolls and dug further into our water, Another back road was crossed and passed through the small nature reserve car park, the unwelcome sight of a car with a smashed window stood before us, it was paradise up here in the high Burren and some pratt had ruined a fellow traveler’s day. A nice flat level path brought us Northwards in the shadow of Slieve Carran’s East face brought us past the hermits cave and up to the thick hazel forest below Eagle’s Rock, the East Face above is steep, wild and vegetated, a place for Eagle;s no less and we were going to ascend it by a rock climb on Eagle’s Rock,
A Burren hazel forest has to be seen to be believed, from the outside they look like an impenetrable jungle but to those who explore in they are a world of shade and mossy greeness, Tolkien holidayed around here and he brought these landscapes to his Lord of the Rings novels, Conor led the way into the forest and we were out of the sunlight in an instant, Conor displayed great route finding skills in getting us through the jungle and up to Eagles Rock. The crag was the scene of a great spate of IMC activity in the 1970’s and more new route development took place in the 1980’s, Dave Walsh views it as THE inland crag of the 70’s! The crag is home to the Cardinal Pinnacle another great HS, and also the longest climb in the Burren, Eyrie, this fine three pitch HS takes a devious line to avoid a large blank overhang. Unlike the previous crags which we had descended and reascended before continuing we were using this climb to access the summit plateau of Slieve Carran. We would therefore be bag hauling up each pitch big wall style. and allied with dwindling day light this added extra adventure and commitment to the climb. Conor re distributed the non climbing equipment between our two bags as I geared up, The first pitch is a 9m off width crack in a corner and should be named the cyclists crack, foot jamming, thigh pushing and high stepping with one’s feet is the best way to ascend it. A leftwards traverse over ledges and a short chimney brought me to a good belay, I dropped a loop of free rope and pulled up both bags. Conor joined me and tidied our crowded ledge and We stared up at the crux wall apprehensively, It was after 6PM, it would be dark at 8 and the wall looked steeper and blanker than I remember years back, I stepped off the belay and got into position below the hanging slab and shallow corner, there were no footholds below chest height on the slab but there were a few layaway’s for your hands with the hope of better holds higher. I placed two good wires and committed to the move, I rocked over onto the slab and my left foot planted on a good foothold, I thought of Alan Douglas and Dave Walsh on the first ascent in Nov 1972, ”they must have been some fair climbers” I thought. Once on the slab more good wires led to big holds and the shallow steep corner was turned on the right to reach the easier upper slab and eventually a wide belay terrace. Here was the critical moment, ”if the bags got stuck here We’d be here for the night” I thought, on the second throw the haul loop reached Conor and I hauled the bags up to the terrace, Conor joined me and I sped up the laid back cracks of the last pitch, bags were re hauled and Conor joined me at the top, we re packed our bags and set off up the steep hillside, it was 19.30, Conor gave me the impression that we would have to smash through a morass of hazel and thorns but there were only a few patches of scrub and some interesting scrambling and traversing, ”had anyone climbed this before?” I thought. Topping out Slieve Carran was grassy, flat and windy but we felt like we’d accomplished something to get here, Conor spotted a walled cattle shelter 200m’s away and We pitched our lightweight hiking tent behind it’s walls. I ate the last of my lunch roll while Conor made tea. At about 21.30 all the lights of East Clare came on and it was a sight to behold looking at them over the shelter. All night the wind roared across the mountain top but only small gusts occasionally hit our tent tent due to the shelter. The Burren is a part of Ireland where the hill farming tradition of Booleying or transhumance is still carried out, in the Summer cattle are brought from the high hilltops to the dry valley floors, however in the winter the valleys flood with seasonal lakes or turloughs and so cattle are brought up to the hilltops for winter months.
Our alarm went at 06.45 the next morning, Conor got a brew on while I snoozed a bit longer, He added some hot water to our dehydrated pasta and ate the first half and I finished the bag, despite its sawdust and cardboard texture it was very welcome with the last of my water. It was another lovely autumn morning and We got the tent down, packed our bags and were on the road around 07.40.
At first glance Slieve Carran has a level grassy top but the ground is all uneven and pock marked. I was wearing a pair of cheap waterproof ”breathable” approach shoes which are great for a 3 hour forest dander or trail walk, in a bid to save weight I wore them, however they lacked foot support, were sweaty and the soles were slippy in the morning dew. As the day wore on the soles of my feet were getting heat blisters. Conor wanted to ascend over Turlough Hill and descend down the far side to the main Carran-Bellharbour road to reach Scailp, my feet were feeling the miles and so I suggested we take to the green road and boreen at Aghaawinnaun and avoid the mountain tops and rough ground for as much as possible. Conor saw my point as I jabbered on about Roman armies and the value of military roads. Descending off rocky slopes into grassland, animal paths soon gave way to dusty double track green road and tarmac boreen. I washed my grimy face in a horse trough as a group of horses looked on in the morning stillness. Conor shared the last of his drinking water with me.
We got a decent pace going on the boreen and only stopped to let a duo of farmers bring their herd back to pasture from milking. Farming is going good we thought as they sped past in an Audi and a big new transit van on their return home. We reached the Bellharbour-Carran road and walked Northwards toward the Scailp. We stopped at the Turlough Outdoor Education Centre, refilled all our water bottles and drank till our stomachs were swollen. Shortly after leaving the centre the southern sky began to start clouding over as predicted. A new house had been built right across the path up to the Scailp so we had to walk further West on the road and cut across the hillside. It was good to be off the tarmac in one way but my feet were in bits. The Scailp is a deep rocky ravine which was formed in 1675 when an earthquake caused the roof of a cave to collapse. In terms of climbing history there was a blitz of the crag by IMC groups in the 1980’s but there are still a few new lines to be had. I climbed a hand crack on one of the shorter buttresses closer to the top of the Scailp, the rock walls up here are shorter but the rock is secure and well featured, I called it Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem VD.
We slogged up Moneen Mountain and I exchanged texts with Audrey, she was returning from Tuam to Limerick that afternoon and would be able to pick us up at 15.00 in Ballyvaughan, this would rule out a visit to Aill na Cronain and our adventure would end at Aillnagapple.
We descended the far side of Moneen Mountain and found the crag in no time, Conor’s reccies had really paid off in this regard. He put on a brew and we had another pack of pasta. Watching the clouds move in he was happy to give Aill na Cronain a skip. The sextet of climbs at Aillnagapple were developed in 2010 by Dublin climbers Stephen McGowan and Ailish Grennan, I racked up and squeezed sore feet into the slabby starting cracks of Attack of the Orange Spider Ants* 15m S . The rock. protection and moves improved the higher I climbed and there was a nice finale at the top. Conor joined me at the top and we descended down rock slabs back to our bags.
Reunited with my phone I discovered it was 14.55 and I had missed calls from Audrey. We re packed our bags and walked downhill and Westwards towards the nearest farm and farm road. I gave Audrey sat nav directions and she picked us up on a back road at 15.30. Our adventure was over and the next stages await us for another weekend.