Spillikin Ridge

(by Peter Kenny, from the IMC Journal 1953-56)
First ascent of Spillikin Ridge, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Twin Buttress at Glendalough was first discovered in 1950. The Club had not been long in existence–it was founded in 1948–and there was an intense spirit of enthusiasm among, a few young rock climbers who were largely unaware of their own standards but then some were eager to “win their spurs” by making new ascents on every possible crag.

By the end of 1953, there were over 16 routes on Twin Buttress–from v. diff. to x.s. The face to the right of Quartz Gully had been ascended by several routes but the right hand bounding edge of this face was still unclimbed. The truth was–no one had ever seriously considered it as a likely route–it looked impossible. Steepening slabs swept up from the ground for 140 ft. to a great splinter of rock some 20 ft. in height which was named the Spillikin. Above it, the rock soared up for another 100 ft. or so in successive overhangs, the angle easing back only about 15 ft. from the top.

It was possible to reach the Spillikin without going up the steep face beneath it. A side approach was possible from round the corner by an awkward, inelegant route and from the top of the great splinter the view upwards was quite inspiring. A shallow crack ran up for 10 ft. to the first overhang and continued above this for another 10 ft. to a bigger overhang. What happened above this was anyone’s guess. In September, 1953, Brendan Moss and I examined the upper section from above. There seemed to be a minute stance (of the one- foot-only type) above the second overhang, but the suggestion of a resting place somewhere between the Spillikin and the top was immensely exciting. We thereupon decided that this was to be a climb , and christened it Spillikin Ridge. Little was done, however, until the following spring, for Brendan had meantime left the country, and his enthusiasm had been of the rare variety.

An examination of the upper part on a top-rope had only served to convince some of the impossibility of ever leading the climb, for everyone who reached the overhangs came off. I believe that there are some climbs which cannot be “top-roped” (no climb, of course, should be) –it only serves to weaken one’s efforts, and when attempting a first ascent one may be able to lead a pitch which one could not honestly climb on a rope from above.

On this philosophy, several attempts were made to affect the ascent directly.

One sunny morning in June, 1954, Frank Winder, Paul Hill, Sean Rothery and I assembled for another attempt. The first pitch began with a short steep crack leading to a severe mantleshelf at 15 ft., then some v. diff. climbing to a ledge about 60 ft. above the ground. Frank dealt effectively with this section. The next pitch was a beauty. We had previously both led it and top-roped it, but it lost none of its toughness on this account. A steep wall to the -right of our ledge was climbed on small finger holds. The dry granite was beautifully solid and the moves of an elegant “balancy” type alternating with hard fingerpulls. Despite previous acquaintance, I was not sufficiently steady to manage this without the use of two pitons for running belays and graded it hard v.s. A nice chimney between the Spillikin and the face led one to the end of the pitch after about 60 ft. Frank followed. When he had belayed round the top of the Spillikin I took off from its point into the shallow quartzy crack above. It was strenuous semi-layback and wedging to the bad position below the first overhang at 10 ft.

Here we had a piton for a running belav at hip level. It wasn’t possible to pause for long. It was necessary to reach above the overhang to the crack above and layback up into it. This was the crux, but it yielded quickly. There were two pitons above this–relics of an earlier attempt which had been defeated by rain–but it was decided not to use them. I began to hammar out the upper one, below the great overhang, but. the vibration caused was so alarming that I felt it would be better removed by someone with the protection of a top rope. Where the upper crack met the great overhang it was necessary to traverse or swing left on to some quartz knobs. This was a-long stretch and quite a move. After it, a comparatively easy groove led up to the tiny stance above the great overhang. It took over an hour to get in a suitably solid piton here, but when it was ready, Frank lost no time in joining me. This position was quite unique. On the crest of the ridge we were “open on three sides”, and here Frank had to climb up on my shoulders and also, use a stirrup to surmount the final overhang. After much hammering to ensure that our belay was sound, Frank tackled the last obstacle. For more than half an hour he went up and down on it, using everything–even the friction of the palm of his hand against my bristly face which he confessed afterwards, considerably assisted his balance. Then he took off. There was no coming back now; a fierce mantleshelf followed by a most delicate piece of stepping up and then the rope ran out smoothly. In a few more moves he reached the easy section of the ridge, while we roared ourselves horse in congratulation. I joined him shortly and we shouted to our friends who had gone to sleep down at the base of the Spillikin chimney.

It was a beautiful climb, 250 ft., four pitches, severe, v.s., x.s. and v.s., and the sound of Paul and Sean gasping up the last two of them was most satisfying. The name Spillikin Ridge is a euphemism. In reality the main route lies up a narrow flangy corner with some overhangs which raise it from the face. As a climb, however, it is among the finest of its class for those who can appreciate such things.