Free as a bird in Glendalough

(by John Duignan, April 2011)
A great day’s climbing in Wicklow.

The approach to the Main Face is carpeted with alpine flowers – dog violet and saxifrage are easy to name; others I can’t recognise. A lizard scampers underfoot; a family of goats with a magnificent elder puck goat pass above us. The forecast for bad weather must be happening in a different part of Wicklow; the crag never looked better.

Hugh (Reynolds) hums as he gears up for his first day outdoor climbing this year. Soon he is cruising Scimitar Crack – an onsight HVS lead, laybacking and bridging well.

Scimitar Crack – Hugh laybacking the crux

Cracks on the Garden of Eden is next. Hugh chooses the bouldering moves of the HVS variant. Inspired, I find the layback moves on the pitch above fantastic – VS climbing at its Glendalough best.

Cracks on the Garden of Eden – upper pitch

A sunsoaked lunch at the ledge below the Prelude ramp allows us watch a young lass making her first ascent of Prelude-Nightmare. I plead with her to shed the massive unneeded seagull-basher cam – she laughs back that it is a lucky piece. Shut up and admire her catlike grace.

A day like this calls for something special. I have been repulsed by the Upper Cliffs too often – the weather wrong; conditions poor; too wet underfoot. Hey, I have a whole bag full of excuses. Truth is, they scare me as much as they fascinate me. One anonymous climber (hello Terry!) recalls the "trumpets of angels calling" while climbing Cornish Rhapsody. Another, Helen, recalls getting her knee stuck in Cuchulainn Groove.

Despite the heat, when we scramble up, Cuchullain Groove, true to its reputation, is wet along its length and has a small pool at its bottom.

We choose Freebird, a HVS climb I often admire from the valley below. The moves on the first pitch are delicate and in places unlikely; Hugh thoughtfully works the pitch. Before long he is grinning down from a hanging belay which makes the best of the poor anchors available.

Hugh cruises the first pitch of Freebird

I wonder why the second pitch looks so steep when it appears so laid back from below? The climb is a stunning Yosemite-like splitter crack; it is highly vegetated after the Winter. I garden as I go but recall Gerry Moss’s advice to bring an ice axe for this; my puny nut key is not up to the job. My mood swings widly from joy to fear when the crack is very overgrown. The upper third holds are juggy and the pressure is off.

Freebird second pitch

The guidebook suggests abseiling from tat at the top of the second pitch. Would trad climbers object to bolts and chain at the top of this pitch? Surely it would be safer and wouldn’t take from the joy of the climb. I add a new sling to the tat above.

Freebird on the Upper Cliffs proved well worth the visit; don’t forget the ice axe to do your bit gardening! I have never seen conditions better there than they are – I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.