Donegal Pride of All – the Malinbeg Meet

(by John Duignan, June 2010)
"It’s Donegal, it’s summer, there are no midgies, the only thing chilled is the atmosphere and the beer". Climbing at Malinbeg, Sail Rock, Skelpoonagh and Muckross, on a perfect weekend.

It’s Donegal, it’s Summer, there are no midgies, the only thing chilled is the atmosphere and the beer; it was a marvellous choice of weekend for a meet. It’s great to see so many beginners pushing out the boat. Ken, leading VS in his first year is up before us all, has had a run on the beach, got the porridge on and is leppin’ up and down to get onto the rock. Donal Óg with lovely smiling wife Margaret is in great form and delighted to be back after all the years since he last climbed here. I’m climbing with Hugh Reynolds who is on fire, chasing one desperate lead after another.

Bill and Ken help Rafal and Marta
pitch tent in ferocious storm … not!
Tony the meet organiser chills out

Malinbeg gives a great intro to sea-cliff climbing with the short steep friendly routes on Neptune Wall at the North End, with little tidal threat. Bosun’s Ladder (S) and Hydrophobia (VS) are three-star routes with great gear placements.

Hydrophobia on the friendly Neptune Wall

Salmon Pink further on the crag proves as devious as it looks – a chop route with delicate and strenuous bridging with risk of a ground fall. It feels under-rated at VS. Calvin’s Corner, a three-star Hard Severe, gives magnificent bridging fun.

Hugh Reynolds laybacks Lord of the Flies (Main Wall, Malinbeg)

Main Wall, Malinbeg, with Flying Enterprise and Fiddler’s Green on middle two ramps

Hugh Reynolds dancing through Fiddler’s Green

Main West Wall, with its abseil approach and tidal aspect feels more serious. We sample four routes – all great. Lord of the Flies, a Hard Severe with high mantleshelf and great laybacking is a must-do. Flying Enterprise (half-way through some of the moves I am reminded of where its name comes from …) at VS and Fiddler’s Green at HVS are three-star routes that alone would have made the trip worthwhile.

Roaring Forties line is along the edge of Sail Rock

Sail Rock is next up, beside the very impressive Slieve League. The approach is busy with hikers and tourists but as we gradually move down the scree away from the sunny slopes above, we sense how isolated Sail Rock is. The photo in the Donegal guidebook of this quartzite slab with its famous Main Mast put up by Doug Scott right up its centre is iconic. All that comes to mind now is the stern guidebook warning about this being "a very serious crag where waves can extend half-way up the face". The crumbly dry grass and loose rock on the spur approach mean we abseil in. The basin below is awe-inspiring with massive walls circling in an amphitheatre and the booming sound of the sea below. Up close the steep rock falls back and we fight like schoolboys for the first lead. Roaring Forties is a three-pitch VS along the outer edge of Sail Rock. The climbing is superb. The belays give stunning views out to sea as far as Benbulben across the bay. Small fishing boats pass by and break the sense of isolation. The final pitch is Hugh’s and is definitely one of the most memorables pitches I have ever climbed. The wind has battered and carved the rock. Although at times fragile, we are entranced by the magical wind carvings on the rock appear like Ogham writing on the vertical wafer-like layers. The rock offers great friction. The route is as memorable a day out as Dream of White Horses or Seventh Heaven or a day in Luggala – my highest level of praise.

Hugh Reynolds on Paradise in the Picture-house, Skelpoonagh Bay

Skelpoonagh Bay beckons on a laid-back Sunday. The sandstone looks very brittle. We come here to look at a two-star route Paradise in the Picture-house, a rising traverse over a zawn with waves crashing into a sea cave below it. Beside it a three-star route The Fruit Palace gets the following guidebook write-up: "a wild trip giving the most mind-blowing position for a route of its grade in the country" and "belay here after changing your underpants". The two routes share the same start. The position is as it says on the tin but sadly the rock is brittle. I chose a V.Diff line beside the climb to enjoy the ambience. As Hugh follows a hold breaks off. Hugh then calmly goes back down, traverses out over the zawn and powers up the line of the VS. This man has cojones. Later talking to Gerry Moss – Ireland’s expert on cliff climbing – he recalls an IMC climber being helicoptered out of the Bay unconscious after a head injury after a hold broke off. I let myself off a hiding for being such a wimp on this delicate sandstone.

Searching for that elusive V.Diff at Muckross Head

On then to view Muckross Head. It is clear why it is such a popular venue for strong climbers; the horizontally striated firm sandstone offers some amazing lines and rises above a sunwarmed platform – great for young things to sun themselves on between climbs. Morning Glory, a taster Hard Severe, offers great gear placements and a fun twisting line through the overhangs.

Beach at Muckross Head … who needs climbing?

The beach just down from Muckross is a great way of relaxing and clearing off the grime. Amazingly the water is warm and the views of Sail Rock and Slieve League on one side and as far as Sligo in the sunset make it hard to pull away for the trip back to Dublin.

The venue was great. The company excellent. The journey to the crags through a rural landscape from a time where everyone moved at a gentle pace in the sunshine and has time to chat and share a story.

Donegal, Pride of All, we love ya!