Seventh Heaven

(by Kevin Byrne, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2003)
The 13-pitch Connemara classic on a sunny summery day.

Good Friday 2002 and the sun shone warm on the sea cliff of Ailladie. An early(ish) start from Dublin rewarded us with the best day’s climbing of the weekend. That, plus the nice hostel, a few pints, a trip inland to Scailp na Seisrí next day (again sunny), should have left a feeling of real satisfaction. And it did … but … strangely I suppose, the arrival of Hugh and Eileen at the tail end of the weekend full of the joys of having just done Seventh Heaven on Ben Corr in Connemara, left me with a slight feeling of envy that seemed to take the sheen off Ailladie and Scailp na Seisrí. One of those vague feelings that knows no logic for its existence but still can’t be shaken off. Annoying. I put it down to a preference for climbing in mountain settings, for mountaineering over ‘cragging’.

It wasn’t a case of “Far Off Hills Are Green”. Seventh Heaven is a long-established route dating from the early 1950’s but it has retained an aura of respect that keeps it in a category well above its “At Least Hard Severe” Grade. An acknowledged classic, it has often been talked about in whispers of route-finding difficulties, wet rock, lack of protection, problematic escape and even benightment. “Technically OK But Don’t Screw Up” would be a more apt grading – if such a grade existed. Over 330 metres (1000 ft) in length and with 13 pitches, it’s one of the longest routes in Ireland and the annual number of ascents has always been decidedly low. The fact that other routes on the Central Buttress of Ben Corr hardly ever receive an ascent only adds to the mystique. You’ll understand then why it was on my mental tick-list of “Must-do’s for the Middle Grade Climber”.

Weather is a key factor. There’s an amount of vegetation on the buttress that takes time to dry. Facing more or less north does little to help and so a sustained period of good weather is one essential ingredient for success. Unfortunately in 2002 opportunities to exploit periods of good weather disappeared for most of the Summer and though they did return in Autumn, somehow the opportunity never fell into place and Seventh Heaven was duly returned to its designated location in the recesses of the brain.

Fast forward to Easter 2003 and another period of good weather drawing to a close – Good Friday would again be the best day of the long weekend. The plan this time was to go north to the Mournes and the west wasn’t really on the radar. Various groups were heading in that direction and inevitably it featured in conversation. Then a casual mention in a text message. “Fri wd b prfct 4 7th Hvn” got the juices flowing and in no time the inconvenience of going west was set aside and Eileen had opted out of her planned sea-kayaking trip.

Six a.m. on Friday morning and we were on our way. The luxury of a camper van allowed us to enjoy breakfast 3½ hours later on the shores of Lough Inagh. The day was perfect, warm, without being too hot, the strong-ish early morning breeze steadily easing back.

We got to the foot of the crag about noon and spent some time sussing out the route from below. It looked a long way up and we knew the line would be less obvious once established on the route! By 12.30 we were off on the first of the 13 pitches. A pleasant slab of nearly 30 metres which forms the first pitch was followed by another before the first bit of vegetation intervened. The next two short pitches were somewhat marred by semi-vertical heather, purple moorgrass and sundry other species. It was while wading up through this undergrowth that something snagged the camera on my rucksack belt and sent it flying nearly four pitches back to earth. Speechless, we watched it bounce on the slabs and from rock to rock until it finally came to rest on the slopes below the start. Staring in disbelief was a salutary but seemingly pointless exercise. Then the cursing started *%#@”^!*.

The pitches stretched from one to the other. The climbing was delightful. Protection sparse enough so time wasn’t lost placing gear. Leading through. Never hard enough to cause worry. Secretly I began to understand how the intervening year had made it all a bit of a blur to Eileen. There was just so much rock.

The key 8th pitch, the Milkbottle, beckoned us on and eventually we arrived on the grassy, damp ledge below it. Though nominated as the crux pitch, the Milkbottle is actually no harder than the pitches immediately preceding it. By now we had been climbing for 3 hours and time was marching on. Still, we took the time for lunch and to feel the warming effects of the sun, just now coming onto the crag.

Once the Milkbottle was passed the difficulties were over and we were able to enjoy the expanding rock scenery. We even had time to prise out a piece of gear left behind last year by Hugh and Eileen … thanks to an old peg literally breaking off in our hands. Had there been another ascent since then? Surely at least one?? The final pitch was completed at 6.30 and we sat down with a real sense of satisfaction to finish off the food. This is what climbing is about. Alone on a huge crag. Warm, sunny. Beautiful mountain scenery. A pleasant tiredness after six hours of effort and concentration. Wonderful.

An hour passed in what seemed like a few minutes before we began the descent to the col between Ben Corr and Bencollaghduff. We detoured back up hill to look for the camera and Eileen found it with pinpoint accuracy. Ahh, the skills of the qualified mountain leader!!!! More astonishingly, the camera was unmarked in its protective case and apart from the battery lock coming undone, seemed to be totally undamaged! A minor miracle.

Making our way back to the van and a welcome rest, as darkness descended, we may have surprised a group of backpackers camping well up the valley. The lightness in our step belied the fact that we’d been on the go for nearly nine hours.

If Seventh Heaven was in Wales or the Lake District there would be a long, long queue on days like this. But it’s not. It’s there waiting on the north side of Ben Corr in the remote Gleann Eidhneach. Unspoilt, waiting for anyone who cares to enjoy the challenge of a day’s mountaineering. Do you need a written invitation?

Note: Access to the crag is through lands owned by the Bodkin family, who have been good friends to the IMC and to climbers generally over many years. The track now passes below the old farmstead and a new bungalow just built. We encountered no signs or restrictions. If you do go there, make sure to park carefully and make sure to show courtesy and friendliness. If you do, you will receive both in return.