This is no Dalkey: Part II (Fairhead 2024)

This is no Dalkey: Part II (Fairhead 2024)

(Part I: Here)

We were both, still, tired. 

That morning we had dispatched The Black Thief

“Welcome to Fairhead” the guidebook said. There was some mischief in that. The route had swallowed one of our cams during the ascent. A welcome consistent with our experiences at the head so far.

Standing again at the base of The Prow, we began our next route. 

Contractions? Contortions? We’re not sure, but a quick look at the guidebook, a browse on UKC later, and the climbing began.

Watch me on blue!” he shouted after clipping the green rope high in the next crack. I knew what he meant. He’d sussed out the next moves two or three times before deciding a piece, any piece, was going into the wall. 

I got you!” I shouted back up the short few meters between us; calls we’ve made many times. Your friend’s on the end of the rope, and luck is all that remains in any room left by error. It’s possible that this was the 5a move, but neither of us knows.

The climbing started: a high left hand, followed by a heel hook to the right, a rockover into a right hand gaston then no!…wrong sequence. 

TAKE!” he shouts as his hand slips from the crack before him. He falls for barely a moment before a cam, clipped high to the green rope, explodes out from the wall. He’s now hurtling down directly towards me, with the last gear on the blue rope a few meters up the route. The silhouette of a climber falling, a cam framed cartoonishly by fragments of dirt and rock in the air above them, is seared into my mind.  

“I can’t watch this” I think to myself, although everything is happening far too quickly for conscious thought. I drop to my knees, and my body slams into the wall in front of me. The rough Fairhead dolerite (the perfect rock) shreds my knuckles, and blood now trickles down my fingers. Both hands on the break strands, I close my eyes and look away.

I pause for a moment. 

I open my eyes.

And as I turn my head, I see him, hanging head first, six inches off the ground. 

That was close.

I was there man, holding onto this thing, like a fridge, thinking; “what the h*ll am I doing here?”

– JC, Midnight Cruiser, E1 5b

The next day we were back down the descent gully, trying the next route over. There were three of us now, and we’d already attempted the first pitch; but slowly worn from the weekend’s climbing (and harrowed by our near miss), we began to back off.

“Feeling good lads” he said earlier on, swallowing two Panadol with a swig of morning coffee. I said to come up anyway, “forget about your back“, there’ll be some fun at the campsite. After agreeing that seconding would probably be OK, I didn’t expect to hear what I heard next:

“Put me on lead”

“No, I’ll do it” I said.

“No, I’m serious, put me on, I’m feeling good”

I hesitated for a moment. What sort of madness is this? I thought, but that thought was soon forgotten. A climber develops a complex relationship with risk and fear: where we sometimes honor the ever present part of ourselves that’s screaming for us to stop, and sometimes ignore it completely.

Besides, what sort of madness is all this anyway?

Moments later, our highpoint was broken. A move, a move, then gear. A move, a move, then gear; then the first pitch itself was completely swallowed. He’d done it. Thought’s of lying down at the grassy top-out began to grow in my mind, and it came after a slow half-shuffle up a somehow technical series of jugs. 

Shattered physically, and emotionally spent, our climbing was done. “We’ll see how we’re feeling Monday” we joked in the car on our way up, but we didn’t even make it that far. From Ballycastle, later that evening, we saw a mist descend on the head; and arriving back at the campsite, the latter part of the meet began.

A charcuterie board of cheap wine, and packaged ham. Rain bearing down on our tent from outside, while we relaxed, and laughed by the soft red camp light. Talks of lighting the barbecue began and, eventually, brewed flames. The weather broke. We grilled under the stars. 

We burned down the last of the weekends’ fire in a pit outside the barn; the focal point of this peculiar festival. Music from inside, and laughter, and dancing, slowly drawing to a close.

We arrived at Fairhead intimidated, we left Fairhead humbled and awed; but also inspired.

This is no Dalkey: ferocious winds around The Prow, huge columns of basaltic dolerite rising steeply, hundreds of meters above the sea; climbers dancing impossibly up the Rathlin Wall, dwarfed by it’s almost featureless scale; beautiful views, stomach churning abseils, late nights dancing in the barn, and the moments in between. The north tip of the north coast has it all.

Thank you to the Dal Riada climbing club for organising the annual meet, the McBride family for ‘getting us’ (even if they don’t ‘get it’ themselves!), and to everyone at either end of the rope.

Someday we’ll be back. Climbing is ultimately pointless, but somehow more important than anything. “Core memories are being made” said a voice from around the campfire, and core memories they truly are.

Until then, don’t be an anecdote.