Diarmuid first took me to Rusheen on a blue sky October day in 2010. I wasn’t long out of college and climbing was more interesting to me than finding a job. I didn’t see much past getting on cliffs, and even though I was shit I was enthusiastic.
The valley was remote and wild, all the more beautiful for the weather on that autumn day. An eagle rose from the glen “coil over coil” on a thermal. At the crag we uncoiled ropes and got to work. Duggan had a line in mind and I got on top rope to suss it out. It was too hard for a warm up with a low, bouldery, blind crux and another desperate throw to finish. I abseiled in and cleared away the flaky crusts of black sandstone on route. I remember tugging a thick rug of dry turf from a ledge at the top of the line, the environmentalist in me horrified at myself.
Over the next few hours I learned what bolting involved and began to appreciate why all those climbers on the continent are so strong. Find where the bolt is needed (somewhere near a good hold), check the rock is sound (bang with a Petzl hammer), pick a bolt (homemade U shaped lengths of stainless steel), mark the size (often getting it wrong), drill two holes (sweating in too many layers with too much gear hanging off me, scrabbling in hiking boots for purchase on steep rock to get my weight and meagre strength behind a dead-weight Hilti), blow out the dust (enjoy your lunch later), see if the bolt fits (sometimes it didn’t), fill the holes with glue (but not too much), hammer the bolt home (if it fits), seal the holes with glue (wiping the ever dripping excess on the ‘wank rag’) and repeat (without letting the white hot drill bit or the industrial glue touch the rope or the leads coming from the generator at the base of the crag). Diarmuid nearly burst himself laughing when I finally touched ground again, white as a mime with rock dust. Tick Attack was born, a short bouldery route that was sandbagged at 6c. I was proud of myself. Over the next few months we made shit of drill bits and ruined clothes on a regular basis. During that really hard winter we drove down, crawling on verglassed roads to place just a handful of bolts before the night came on again. On my first day of actually climbing there, two weeks later, it was -11 Celsius, totally still and white with snow. If we’d had to fumble with trad gear we couldn’t have climbed.
In fairness to Diarmuid it wasn’t a cowboy operation. At least not from a safety point of view anyway. You could have hung trucks from those bolts. We did it right, and I, the bumbling eager-beaver was glad to be part of it. Not many people knew about Rusheen and return visits to this hidden gem strengthened the feeling of the secret club. Familiarity grew to a fondness for the place. For somebody just out of college with endless free hours and nothing but climbing in mind it was an exciting time and a brilliant training ground.
It’s easy to get a lot done when sport climbing and we certainly didn’t waste the days. The routes were mostly long (almost 30m), plenty steep and with most grades in the mid and upper sixes it was a good place to get fit for me then. I learned each route almost by heart, having spent enough time on them between bolting and climbing. I dreamed of doing all the routes in a day with no falls. I got close one day but it was getting late and I didn’t want my friends waiting there just for me. The height of the activity was in those early days of summer, pet days in April and May before the midges come out and when you know the winter is finally over. The valley became familiar and the place kept offering more of itself, changing with the seasons and each different day.
The attraction wasn’t just the novelty of sport climbing in Ireland – the routes were good. Alba was a terrific steep slab on tiny edges with a steeper juggy finish. Out On A Limb and Mental Mantle were fun, long and sustained pitches. Pocket Money, one of the last additions, was a fantastic technical 6b and its neighbour, Pockets of Gold climbed a black wall on perfect pockets that would rival similar features anywhere else on the planet. There was no shortage of bouldery routes and 10-10-20 was the best route of that grade in the world, but of a different style – sustained technical slab climbing to big throws for good edges on the leaning headwall. It was fantastic!
Sadly it all had to come to an end. The landowner, who didn’t have any problems with anything at first, wasn’t too keen on the increase in numbers when the place became popular and asked that the bolts be removed (a horrific job on account of how well the whole thing was done in the first place). I don’t blame the guy; to an outsider this whole climbing thing must seem like a terribly dangerous activity. And you don’t need to lose a lawsuit for it to be a stressful, expensive ordeal. Not that I think there would ever have been one; I don’t think I know a climber who doesn’t enjoy taking responsibility for themselves. I’m grateful that we got as much time there as we did.
These days, with sore shoulders blunting my hunger for rock, it appears like a time of great energy, enthusiasm and excitement and I miss it.
Late last year Brian called over and steered the conversation towards winter climbing in the Pyrenees, firing off the names of peaks and ridges and routes in the manner of a well informed professor of such things. The seed was planted and a few weeks later we booked flights to Toulouse with the aim of spending a week under the north face of the Vignemale to try a few routes.
Fast forward a couple of months and I’m standing over a small hill of gear, an hour before our airport bus departs, wondering why I can’t get all this stuff to fit in my biggest bags and weigh less than the 30kg flight allowance. I’m also freaking out internally because the forecast is for snow, snow and more snow and when I’m not imagining the misery of trudging through waist deep powder with a knee crushing pack I’m convincing myself I’m probably going to be killed in an avalanche.
Come forward another 24 hours and Brian and I are pulled up at a bend in the road just in time to get a good first view of the towers of Riglos in the precious few minutes before sunset. There’s no snow to be seen, the axes are still in Cork, the crampons and screws have been replaced with rock shoes and quickdraws and my avalanche worries have ended. Don’t be afraid to change plan.
Though we were a bit gutted to be passing over the Pyrenees earlier that day, leaving the sunny white slopes behind as we dropped into Spain, the rest of week wasn’t meant to be so nice. Maybe if we were real men we’d have soldiered on with the plan, suffered the cold and constant avalanche risk and digging out of the tent and pissing in a bottle in the middle of the night because it’s too freezing to leave the comfort of the sleeping bag. But I just wanted to enjoy myself.
We got some route information in the Refugio and after a good night’s rest packed for our first day; it all amounted to a small bag between us. And the walk in took about 10 minutes. And it was pleasantly warm without being too hot. And I forgot that I ever wanted to go winter mountaineering.
Brian hadn’t been rock climbing for quite a while (he’s one of those real men mountaineering types) so I took the first pitch. It made me feel like I hadn’t been rock climbing in ages either. Between all the rock looking like it was going to crumble at my first touch and it bulging out in steep little overhangs every few metres I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be doing Fiesta de los Biceps by the end of the week. Nonetheless we had a great time, soaking up the pleasant sun and enjoying the exposure such a consistently steep wall of rock offers. Vultures glided above and around us all day, frighteningly big. As we climbed on we grew more accustomed to the weird rock and we topped out a few hours later, well pleased with the first day. Less than 2 days ago Riglos wasn’t even a destination I thought I’d ever see soon yet here we were, enjoying the surprise of being somewhere we hadn’t ever thought much about. When you don’t plan a trip there’s a lot more satisfaction from learning about it as you go. When you’ve read up all you can about an area there’s always a weight of expectation. We were just taking it as it came and that was cool.
The walk back to town was very nice, through low scrubby woodland between the towers, all aromatic continental smells and quiet. Riglos itself is fairly small and doesn’t seem to have much going on at the end of February. We saw just 2 other climbers during the day and the village streets were all but empty. A wood fire burned in one of the houses, reminding me of the villages I’d passed through in Nepal. We found a small campsite below the town and I put the tent together as Brian cooked dinner. Cloud had come in during the afternoon but shortly before sunset things got golden.
It’s hard to make out in the picture above but on the left side of the biggest face on the left there’s a detached pillar about 50m tall, half way up the cliff. This is known as El Puro (the cigar) and it was the last summit in the area to be attained. The bar in Riglos is named after it. No better objective for the two langers from Cork!
The original start was occupied so we walked around to the base of the direct route to the gap between the pillar and the main wall. Brian led off on a superb line, following an obvious overhanging corner on massive holds. By the time he reached the first belay he must have been 4-5m out from the start of the pitch, not bad in 25m of relatively easy climbing. I carried on up the groove for another pitch of superb quality. If you brought gear they’d be two world class pitches of HVS. It felt good to be following a feature rather than just linking a series of bolts on a less-than-obvious path as we had been the previous day.
A few more pitches had us at the gap. It was windy now that we were on the exposed side of the cliff and things got steep again. I led up the first pitch of the tower proper and suddenly all the air in northern Spain seemed to be around me, blowing as windy exposure as I creeped my way up overhanging steps, clipping old 6mm bolts and bits of tat in rock that looked like it was as ready to give up to gravity as easily as I felt I might soon. Had this been a pitch in the safety of a climbing wall, or even a single pitch venture from ground level I’d have felt much differently but for the first time in a long long time the fact that I was quite high up started to creep into my thoughts and make me doubt myself. All the same, it was brilliant fun and though I don’t like to fall into the Red Bull view of climbing being an xtreme-adrenaline-junky-danger-is-cool sport the buzz was brilliant!
At the belay I noticed how the tower seemed to be made up of stacks of limestone in between which were waisted pillars of conglomerate that looked like the type of peddle-dashed sandy cliffs you see on some chossy parts of the Irish coast. The two bolts I was clipped to were plugged into this horrible looking rubbish and the weight of the wider block of tower above started to seem awfully heavy in comparison to the likely breaking strain of the waisted supporting crap. Hurry up Brian…
Brian climbed through to the next belay over more overhanging rock. You couldn’t design it much better! I was up for the crux pitch next and got straight to it lest the fear get the better of me. A few minutes later I was hanging off chains below the top taking in the ropes for Brian. We topped out onto an area about the size of a car’s roof with much whooping and hollering.
A few abseils later we were back on flat ground, the sun came out and we strutted happily back to the car.
We needed food so we drove to Aguero to find somewhere to buy some. This part of Spain is gorgeous, like a drier version of quiet Irish countryside. We wandered through another deserted little town (it’s amazing how the architecture in these places blends beautifully with the landscape) before finding the shop. A friendly woman in her 60s let us into the small room, stocked with bare essentials. We had no Spanish, she had no English. Brian tried explaining we needed food for the morning by saying breakfast in an accent a Spanish person might use when saying breakfast and making a gesture like a stereotypical Italian chef might make when explaining the richness of his pasta sauce. I was laughing about that for the rest of the week. Though we shared no language we got by with smiles and pointing and she sent us off with a free biscuit cake each. It can be daunting coming to somebody else’s country without their language but she made us feel totally at home.
With one day of dry weather left we made the short walk to the base of Mosquito , the only obvious line through the steepest of the towers, La Visera. This was the route I wanted to do most during the week and it lived up to all my hopes. The first two long pitches brought us to a comfy ledge after some terrific climbing.
A few more pitches later (all of good quality) and it was my turn to lead through a traverse before the crux. The more I climbed the more the wall seemed to fall away below my toes. The climbing flowed, sustained and interesting the whole way and getting more and more and more exposed. All the trickery in the book couldn’t stop me from having to lean out into all that air on some of the moves. The empty space below seemed like a vacuum sucking me down towards the ground but the holds were huge and the climbing straightforward, even if it was overhanging. That feeling of being high up, in a ridiculous situation was superb. I remember it from when I started climbing and experience has dulled that sense of height a bit. It was nice to feel the thrill of it again. This is what it’s all about!
Brian got the crux pitch, and after following him up it and feeling that exposure trying to pull me off the wall and eventually falling near the top, I’m glad he did. Maybe if I’d been leading I’d have climbed better but it was a hard pitch for the grade and it was tricky not to let that big drop below interrupt your climbing. Brian did well for a man who hadn’t done any serious rock climbing for awhile. Two pitches later and we were on top again, tired and extremely happy.
We packed up camp and checked into the Refugio for the rest of the week to avoid the rain showers. That night we talked with the owner for about 2 hours, despite a near total language barrier. Everybody we met was extremely welcoming.
We walked for the last two days as the weather was more mixed. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around and after the higher intensity start to the week it was a good way to wind down. We saw a weather warning in a bar the day before leaving that suggested the Pyrenees might be impassable so we left early the next day to give ourselves plenty of time to cross them. There was no trouble anywhere so we ended up having a 17 hour stay at the airport. At least they let us sleep there.
* * *
If you’re looking to go sport climbing with a difference then go to Riglos. It’s cheap, the crags are more or less roadside, the locals are super friendly and welcoming, the weather is reliable, there’s a good spread of grades and on top of all that the climbing is SUPERB! It’s not your typical sport climbing destination; there’s way more of a feeling of adventure about the place and I doubt there are many cliffs in the world where you can climb low grade stuff through such steep, exposed, exciting terrain. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Thanks to everyone who lent me winter gear for the mountaineering trip that never happened. And thanks to Brian for helping make a great trip. At the end of it all the people you’re with matter more than the place you’re in. Thankfully we got lucky with both this time.
This week’s weather was close to perfect. There have been a few nice days here and there this year so far but that first spell of settled weather in the spring is something that leaves me in a blissful dream state. Who needs heroin when you’re that taken by the weather?! Winter’s worst is over by now and energy is starting to seep into the cracks left by the previous few dark months.
Brian and I headed out to Barry’s Head early on Monday morning for the first traddage of the year. It’s not the best climbing in the world but the sun was out and the sea was calm. An otter we spied seemed to be having more fun than the two of us put together, swimming in excited circles and dives in the murky turquoise below the cliffs. We had four routes done before midday, including a direct line up Cúinne Corner/Hangover Overhang I’d never done before. Steep, juggy, gear-eating climbing. It was worth climbing slowly, hanging around to soak up the atmosphere, the sun and the air.
I met Pat in the Gap the following day, where we climbed a few routes up at Faill Ceoil. I hadn’t been up that way in ages so it was nice to get back to it. Meltdown is one of the best of its grade in the country. More steep ground, with buckets for holds and more cracks than you could own gear for. Bosch is quality too. There was as much sitting in the sun as climbing. It was great to just be there, alive in that weather.
We finished up pretty early so I drove home through the Black Valley and Moll’s Gap, all empty skies and hazy sun. I saw some boulders on the way that looked good. I don’t know of any record of climbing on them, which is surprising given their proximity to the more popular bouldering venues just up the road. I carried on towards Lough Brin and there are thousands of boulders lying on the hillsides north of the road. I’m sure there’s plenty of good bits for somebody to climb along that stretch of road.
I thought I’d have to head to Dublin later in the week but it turned out not to be so. Without a partner around I went to Kerry to have a look at those boulders by the road. It’s always tricky to make an interesting video when you’re filming yourself. There’s a limited amount you can do with a camera while up on a rock. At least the sun was out. If nothing else, this little clip shows what a beautiful place the Black Valley can be.
Yesterday I went to check out some boulders I’d seen earlier in the year. I’d stumbled on one great looking line by accident and found a few other big rocks worthy of further inspection that day too. For the first time I got quite excited about bouldering; having this proud new line to climb and dedicate myself to was a nice thought. Maybe it would be the makings of the climber in me.
It was a fairly nice day yesterday. I went to the nearest boulder to the car to ‘warm up’ before looking at the big project. It was tricky enough, a small bit dirty and the end was quite wet. Nonetheless I got it done in 4 or 5 goes after some cleaning/drying/trying. I felt I’d climbed it quite poorly so I went at it again with perfection in mind. By now I was climbing shirtless such was the warmth in the sun. The first day of spring for me. It took me about as many goes to top-out a second time. I blame having no proper warm up (or patience to wait long enough between attempts). It’s a decent problem, quite like Broken in Doolin but a bit easier maybe. 6A+? I really don’t know much about bouldering grades.
Before reaching the project boulder I stopped at a smaller one beside a stream. I saw 2 or 3 lines on this the first time I was here. The one I thought I might do easily enough will be nails actually, at least from sitting. The stand start will be much easier. Another line is too short and hard for me to bother with, a low compression roof thing. Might get somebody else excited. I played around on another line for awhile, a short enough one but with plenty of climbing to do given the boulder isn’t much more than 3m tall. I felt I’d need to leave it for another day so I carried on up to the main event.
In my head I was going to train for this one a bit and make it the project for the spring. It looked hard but feasible with a bit of effort (6C-7A maybe?) and it’s quite an aesthetic line, which I always like. It’s usually much more appealing to climb a feature rather than a series of holds on an otherwise nondescript piece of rock. I left the mat under the last problem, knowing I was too tired now for a proper go. Instead I touched up some of the holds, brushed away some lichen and tried to imagine how best to climb it. The line can be topped out shortly before its ‘natural’ finish, that extension actually being a bit eliminate. It’ll be a cool problem regardless of how you finish it. There’s a sea view, a beautiful setting and a fairly short walk in. All that said I don’t think I’ll bother keeping it to myself much longer. There are only a certain number of free days to get out in and I don’t think I’m bothered enough to keep heading to this one rock multiple times, using up that precious time on the one goal. Is that short sighted? There’s too much else I want to do. Maybe I’d be more dedicated with a route. I might come back once more by myself, or leave it as a long term project if I don’t do it the first day of trying. I much prefer the idea of heading out with some friends and enjoying it all together though.
On my way back to the car I jumped on the previous problem one last time. I climbed it well and topped out relatively easily. I expected to fall off the first move. That’s often how it goes when you’ve no expectations. If only that mindset was easier to get into… It’s quite good. Maybe 6B or so. I tried to do it a second time for the camera but that was me done for the day.
I was going to stick up a screen-grab of the first problem but that would give it up (I’m presuming I’m the first to have gone bouldering here by the way. I may be wrong but I strongly doubt it.) I know you’re probably on the edge of your seat at this stage but you’ll have to wait awhile yet to find out where all these neo-classics can be found!
We were all very giddy in the car park. It was the full moon. No, not in a bullshit astrology kind of way! All for the fact that we were about to head into a moonlit Hag’s Glen, the hills glowing steely blue-white with the snow on them. Snow that reports from the day just gone had us believing there might be some good climbing to be had. Warmer, wet weather was on the way. In about 12 hours the front would probably be wrapped around the Reeks, weakening any good snow/ice bonds that weren’t likely to be very strong to begin with (the SW of Ireland is MILD!). The coming night may have been the last good re-freeze for awhile. The Eastern Reeks were all shadows and silver light. Orion was splayed out above Corrán Tuathail. My mouth was hurting from a fixed smile.
It’s a privilege to have friends willing to head out at such an unorthodox hour. “But it’s DARK?!” “Ye’ll be frozen!!” Headtorches and insulated jackets were invented for more than DIY jobs and smoking breaks. No harm to think outside the box sometimes. This was our weather window. Sure it wasn’t even that cold anyway – I had no need for gloves til we left the Heavenly Gates. And the moon was bright enough to see by. Headlights stayed in bags until the base of Collins’ Gully. Ah yes, this was the right idea!
“For a minute there I thought it was good” (the snow). Cully man-handled his way through a step of soft white powder. By the time I got to it the newly revealed waterfall was more of a feature than the snow. Shortly afterwards another step sent us skirting the side of Howling Ridge. We dropped back into the gully where we could. Between the angle steepening and the altitude increasing the snow got firmer. I tried to pretend I was Ueli Steck by stabbing my way up as fast as I could, feet and axe-clad fists punching through the firm snow. I had to stop after about 20m. We whooped and howled. I especially enjoyed looking down to see the concave line of steps leading down the giant snow slide we were in, closed in by the walls either side, the rest of the Reeks ridge still in strong moonlight.
We traversed below the summit on perfect hard snow. How I’d love to have seen a bird’s eye view of the four dots scuttling across the moonlit summit slope, lost in the scale of it all. Then speedily down to the bottom of The Lick, all heavily banked out. The bottom of the route had a nice bowl to relax in. Brian brewed coffee. Gear was got out. I’ve wanted to climb this route for years. I didn’t imagine it would be climbable this day. Earlier on it wasn’t even an option in my mind and all of a sudden we were here. Piaras and Cully went away ahead of us, moving together. Brian gave me the lead. It didn’t really matter who went first since gear wasn’t much of an option anywhere but it was a kind gesture. Binn Caorach was gleaming behind us. I felt perfectly alive and yet somewhat separated from the entire situation. It was night time. I may as well have been dreaming. The rhythm was hypnotic, only broken now and then by a steeper section or a softer patch of snow. Looking down into the darkening exposure was superb, life affirming in a backwards kind of way. Auto-pilot kicked in. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware of all that was going on and enjoying it immensely.
We weren’t rushing but we weren’t slow either. Sometime between 4 and 5am a lack of sleep and the past 5 hours of moving started taking their toll. Tiredness was weighing on me. A block of ice from above nearly peeled me off on one of the steepest parts of the route, giving me a decent punch in the shoulder. Auto-pilot registered it, suppressed a fright and moved on. Those fat bastards above us should be more gentle! I, the relative newcomer, was faring pretty well at keeping all the route on the mountain! On and up, rhythmically floating up through/on this weird medium. My calves started aching on steeper sections. Don’t rush! We carried on up ground Brian didn’t recognise. I handed over the “lead”, tiring with every step. The last 30m or so was through a steep rimed groove – amazing! This is like pictures you’d see from Scotland! We topped out not 20m below the summit for man hugs and handshakes and a sense of gratefulness to have been here now.
Tired, sleepy, getting cold. I ate some food, finished my tea. Buzzing but running on empty now. The craic raged on. We had hoped to climb Curved Ridge to finish the hat trick but the idea was quickly put to bed. Bed… God I’d love a bed now. Thoughts circulated out loud about whatever we were craving. A pint. A hot whiskey. A fry. I could forego all food and drink; all I wanted was to be curled up next to some beautiful girl in a sheepskin rug in front of a fire. We stopped to cook up some soup. I was cold in the wind but too whacked to take my bag off for another layer. “Oh Godddd! I’ve never been so FUCKED!” For the first time I can think of I imagined how things could get serious if I got stuck up here now. Brian served us oxtail soup. Not my favourite but the warmth was life-giving. More laughter. I was appalled at the thought of sleeping up here, cold in my damp clothes, waking to do it all again tomorrow. I’ll never make a decent alpinist. Would much rather the fireside girl and sheepskin rug…
We trudged down the Devil’s Ladder. Out of the wind finally! Deep snow gave way to super-soaked bog. Darkness lightened to navy grey. It started to rain. I found some energy in the daylight and level ground. We all stopped every now and then to look up at the misty mountain, the route we’d just climbed melting slowly away somewhere beneath the cloud. Probably anyway. It’s hard to call conditions in Ireland. It makes it all the better when it comes good. Catherine cooked us breakfast (the saint!). There was no hot whiskey or pints or girl by the fireside but all in all I don’t think we did too badly!
Had my first touch of rock this year at The Scalp last Thursday. It may not be world class but I had a great time; just enough problems at my level to make for a good day of bouldering. I find it quite hard to pace myself when I’m on my own but I was trying to get some video of the day so that occupied me between attempts. It was a very dull day so the footage isn’t that pretty. I gave it a bright soundtrack to balance things out…
I’m coming to appreciate more and more that bouldering is probably the best form of climbing for learning how to climb. Easy bouldering gets boring fast so it’s not too hard to jump on things that take awhile. When you’re trying stuff that keeps spitting you off you really have to think about every detail if you want to succeed. I’ve never been much of a boulderer (weak fingers, easily upset shoulders) but I’m slowly coming round to it. When it’s fun it’s really fun. I even got myself some aggressive shoes. I’m not sure if it’s really them or the mindset I adopt when I squeeze my feet into them (“better get to the top fast so I can get these things off my toes”) but the first time I tried Gully’s and Hollytree with Dragons on I got them first go. I must spend more than a day trying something. If both those problems took me little more than half an hour then I could surely scrape my way up something approaching the 7th grade with a bit of effort???
Enough about me. If you haven’t seen this already then download it: Emerald Allsorts. Fair play to Danny for gathering together all those bits of information and presenting them so nicely. I’m already looking forward to the next issue.
The bouldering section of Awesome Walls Cork opened yesterday (the rest of it isn’t built yet) to host the third round of the IBL. As you can see from the pic above it was packed. The problems were fun and the buzz was great. It was the best attended round of the league so far this season and I think the majority of climbers were Cork based for once, all out to see this great new development. It’s going to be amazing!
Climbing in Cork has been fairly stale for the past while, for me at least. The Mardyke is a rubbish venue, the co-op is great but not for everyone and Midleton is a bit far from the city for most climbers here. Having a modern wall, run by climbers and set by people who know their stuff is going to be great in its own right and the excitement it should bring about will be even better. It’s easy to get caught up in the energy of a load of psyched climbers. Though Cork city lacks any local outdoor climbing venues this will at least help keep fitness levels up and generate a pool of climbers keen to get out on real rocks.
Irish climbing has come a long way in the past 3-4 years, with the new walls being a very positive influence. It’ll be another few weeks before AW Cork is finished and open and I’m counting down the days. I think yesterday showed a taste of how good it’s going to be. For the first time in a long long time I’m excited about climbing inside. The future is bright!