Lough Barra … too briefly

(by John Duignan, August 2011)
A weekend climbing trip to Donegal.

Last weekend the road West to Donegal called. I set off with Barney Crampton – a great storyteller that shortens our journey and has me hooting with laughter. The new road system meant we were started on our Lough Barra route at 10:00 hours: Tarquin’s Groove – a three-star Hard Severe had long been on my must-do list as an example of the best of Donegal granite. The first two pitches of this six-pitch climb were a scramble on grass with little rock. The pitches above it were on perfect granite, free of vegetation. The wind favoured us; the clouds held back.

Barney on Tarquin’s Groove

Tarquin’s Groove rides up the edge of the Delta Face which has the cleanest area of rock on Bingorm West above Lough Barra. There are many multi-pitch routes on this face. Seeing two stars beside Ploughshare (VS 4c) on the vegetated Main Face, we chose it next.

Barney on Pitch 1 of Ploughshare

It took two hours hauling on wet heather, moss and grass to get to the base of the climb. The belay was adequate but I hoped I wouldn’t be testing it too hard. The moves on the pitch above led up to two ancient pitons below a wall. Above this the route appeared wet and lichenous with no gear (let no-one ever complain of Luggala!). After multiple tries and an intervening shower I admit defeat. Barney – who confidently climbs at a way higher standard – was examining the moves when the rain started again. Time to go. Setting up the abseil, we were delighted to see the rain stop – until the midgies came out. To paraphrase Christy Moore, “dem fellas would eat the Lamb o’ God and come back for the gravy”. We found an ancient sling under the overhang which makes us suspect that we were not the first to abseil from this point. We vowed to return to this crag again and taste some of the fine lines we could see.

Rising above us – Erin Go Bráth, Main Face, Bingorm West, Lough Barra

A beautiful meal above the beach on a midge-free Cruit Island and the gentle sound of the waves outside our tent were a fine end to the day.

Barney on the granite Traderg Wall, Cruit

I woke up to the sound of rain on the tent – happily this quickly dried off. Some easy climbs on Cruit and a chat with Tim Fogg and his wife Pam, who climb there regularly. It is clear why the low-lying granite sea-cliff climbs are so attractive when the weather is bad – the clouds completely covered the inland hills.

Planning to return again to this part of Donegal, we decided on a recce to the Poisoned Glen, approaching from a col near Lough Barra – avoiding a long wet slog in along the Poisoned Glen valley. The Ballaghgeeha Buttress is immediately accessible at this point with three-star routes from V.Diff to E2. Further down the valley side views of the Castle crag and the stunning West Buttress with Donegal’s probably most coveted line – the three-star HVS Nightshade. The granite – even from this distant col view – looked as clean as any line in Yosemite. We sat in awe for some time staring at the view below – to me it held the same wonder as the first view of Everest above Namche Bazaar.

Harold Drasdo in his book The Ordinary Route writes of how the Poisoned Glen cast a spell on him. It is a joyous book about this great English climber’s life but the chapter on his climbing in Donegal is electric in his enthusiasm for this special place and the demands it made on so many different climbing skills. He returned to the Glen repeatedly over a decade and is the principal name to be found on routes in the Glen. Other famous lines were created by Bonnington and our own Emmet Goulding and Calvin Torrans.

Our visit was all too short. But heading into this winter I am bouyed by the hope of returning next Easter (a midge-free time!).