Head Games

(by John Duignan, May 2010)
It may be true that E1 is the grade that unlocks many great climbs in Fairhead, but us lowly VS climbers can have our day in the sun too. The pickings may be thinner but the menu is still first class.

It was Hugh’s (Reynolds) first Head trip. Small pangs of guilt for missing the Glendaloch Beginners meet (any beginner call me and I’ll glady make up with a day at Glendo), but I just don’t give up on a chance to climb with Hugh. Napoleon chose his generals by whether they were lucky or not. Hugh must have a direct line to God or d’udder fella – I have never had a bad day climbing with him.

The Barnish Cafe is a must on visiting the Head; Calvin Torrans, with nare a spare ounce on him, is known to cry when describing its delights. So famous is it that the garage in whcih it is situated is in the guidebook. After three hours driving, an Ulster fry is a joy and well worth the risk of not being able to get off the ground when the climbing starts. At the next table, a local family are speaking more Irish than I’ve heard in any Southern restaurant in the last decade.

A farmer at the small National Trust carpark lets us know that climbers are welcome to stay in the adjacent field – what a great boon for those who intend a weekend visit. We head towards the Ballycastle Gully descent, which gives quick access to many of the VS routes.

At Fairhead, many VS climbers will start at The Prow and be rewarded with Black Thief (***) and The Fence (**). It gets the evening sun, dries quickly, and has a range of single-pitch routes you can abseil off.

Black Thief, on The Prow: Gerry Galligan gliding up it, 2007

Fairhead has its own website with up-to-date information on the routes and what gear to bring amongst other matters. For everything else … there’s Terry . Our own Terry O Neill is an invaluable and generous wizard on Fairhead, gifting even the shakiest VS climber (thanks T.) with enough confidence to give it a go. Advice such as which climbs to start on (Chieftain an easy touch at the grade) or avoid (Taoiseach a dangerously loose second pitch) is really helpful.

Roaring Meg: Climb on left with overhang in mid-picture

We choose a route each. I have long lusted after Roaring Meg– a stunning ** 100-metre 3-pitch VS. The first pitch has been uprated to 5a and feels like that the moment you step off the ground. I am knackered by the time I set up a belay at 35 metres. The climbing is fingery and in the shade and hard toil on a cold day but today is perfect weather for it. One great joy is – like many Head VS climbs – it can be laced with gear.

Hugh romps up the second pitch, placing bomber but much more spaced gear. De boy is in top form. Another pitch flies in – all different – and we amble back across the cliff, looking out at beautiful Rathlin Island.

Clare Sheridan and Calvin Torrans at Fairhead

Along the way, here come the King and Queen of Rock. Calvin Torrans and Claire Sheridan have just topped out on Mizen Star (a *** E2) and are singing its joys. They are great ambassadors for Irish climbing and have put Fairhead on the international map.

Girona, pitch two: Liam Convery and Bob Norton, 1990s.
Pic courtesy of Terry O’Neill collection.

Girona *** – the classic picture of it side on shows a climber stepping off the pillar at the start of the second pitch. Both pitches are tremenduous – of the finest at VS grade in Ireland. At 47 metres (guidebook is wrong on this) the climb gives a mix of laybacking, bridging, chimneying and face climbing. Like the Prow climbs, it catches the evening sun.

Girona: Hugh Reynolds powering through the crux first pitch

Too soon, time to go. Even being too late for food at the excellent Monasterboice Inn on the way home can’t dampen our spirits.