This is no Dalkey: Part I (Fairhead 2024)

This is no Dalkey: Part I (Fairhead 2024)

(Part II: Here)

I just lead both pitches of Girona, I am ******* elated” I read out from WhatsApp. “They’re already having a good day”

What’s Girona?”

“Two pitches, VS, 5a”

“Sounds good”

We were both tired, a long drive has a way of doing that. A field off the McBride family farm doubled as a campsite and car park for the weekend, vans and tents of various descriptions dotted throughout. A scene not unlike that of a music festival, but distinct.

We packed our gear: two ropes, a double set of cams, all the nuts and quickdraws we thought we needed, and we marched on.

Is it down here?” 

“I have no idea” 

We started studying the guidebook atop a steep gully; one of the few natural descent points in an otherwise impenetrable cliff face. While trying to discern exactly where we were on the featureless guidebook map, a van appeared behind us. We’d met Ricky earlier while leaving the campsite, and enquiring about an abseil rope on The Prow.

Ricky welcomed us to Fairhead, and said he was on his way to set up the rope, before promising to follow us over, and dipping away to chat with two figures who’d come walking down the track. 

Bundled up in their jackets, hats, and gloves, you’d hardly believe it was practically June. We overheard talk of vicious winds on The Prow; then we were introduced to Calvin and Clare, who needed no introduction. Staple names in every Irish climbing guidebook since Irish climbing guidebooks (nearly) began, both smiled as they waved hello. We were in the palace of Irish climbing royalty, and the pressure was high.

“Ah ye’re doing Girona now?” said Ricky. “Aye it’s down that way, fantastic route lads, ye’ll have a great time”

And so we began our descent, gingerly picking our way down a jumble of loose rocks; wet from the stream water knitting them together. The walls towering beside us gave way to a breathtaking view along the north coast, and making our way down the steep escarpment below the eastern face of the gully, the Rathlin Wall first came into view.

There are moments in climbing when your blood turns cold. When the calm that you so tenderly try to foster, leaves your body with your breath entirely. The steep, featureless face of the Rathlin Wall, looming high above us, stole this calm away; briefly transporting us to a place of pure terror.

Little we know at the time, the Rathlin Wall was far from the only place in Fairhead with this power.

How could anybody climb that?

But they do, and shortly after that thought had occurred, somebody did.

We gathered ourselves, and meandered to the base of our route. It was my lead, and another party was already on the first pitch. 

We watched the climber above us make delicate moves through a bulging roof. Before slowly, impressively, working his way up a blank corner system on a series of improbable smears and laybacks. 

That looks tough, I thought; and he looks quite good.

Doubt began to build.

I racked up.

Pushing grades in the weeks before, I was meant to have the margin for this climb. My partner was unsure about the meet to begin with, but I’d cajoled him to come. I can do the leading, I thought, but Fairhead (as we would begin to understand) had different plans. 

The climbing started steady, and I eventually met with the roof. My first attempts at overcoming this were desperate. 

The climbing feels hard

I don’t know about this

****!

My last piece was a bit below me by the time I managed to mantle out onto the face; out onto a blank wall. 

Then the pump arrived.

My calves were shaking and simultaneously seized with fear. My hips were rigid, and my hands desperately flailed out left for something, anything, to grab onto.

This is not going to plan.

I struggled with what to do next, images of my own mangled body invading my mind’s eye, before deciding the weekend was long; and life would be longer still. Managing one last down climb, I retreated to safety beneath the roof. Today would not be my day.

Holding my breath, I surrendered my weight to the gear above me, then slowly lowered to the relatively safety of the ground; if the steep escarpment we were belaying from could be called that.

“Will I give it a go?”

Thank God, I thought. 

My partner racked up, and switching positions, I now watched him overcome the roof. Next was the face, then the laybacks, then, slowly, stealing meters from the route, he disappeared out of sight. 

I’m safe!” he eventually called down.

Thank God, I thought.

We might get some climbing done here yet.