Yesterday Piaras and I went to a “new” top-secret crag he’d found a few weeks ago in the depths of Kerry. It’s not much to look at but I hadn’t tied onto a rope in ages and it was nice to be out. We did a good groove first, only about 9m tall but packing a punch for it’s length. It was a small bit damp too, and between that and my lack of practice of late it felt fairly tough. My calves were aching on small edges while I hesitated over easy enough moves. We had a good laugh at the state of ourselves.
Next Piaras tried a rising traverse of another section of the crag. It’s over 20m of climbing, not bad for a crag that doesn’t top 10m at any point. He had to step off after a very pumpy initial section (it’s never more than 8m off the ground and you can step down or top out at different points). I had a go next and got a bit further but had to bail over the top after a few false attempts through a very steep section. It’s a bit of an eliminate (re-read the brackets above) but the climbing is great fun and we had a good time faffing around getting totally pumped. The whole thing will be a cool route, just high enough to warrant a rope and with a bad enough landing to discount putting pads under it.
My lack of practice showed up big time. Between nerves and a lack of fitness I wasn’t climbing very well but it was nice to be out. I miss being half-decent at climbing. Not that I was ever very good but I’ve been in a lot better shape than I am now. I’ve moved around a fair bit in the past 2 years so getting into a regular climbing routine has been difficult. Cork is a useless base as a climber too, at least for a climber like me who likes real rock and a good crowd of psyched friends around to get out and play with. I don’t know many of the climbers in Cork at the moment. I look on at friends in Dublin who are making the most of the apparently great scene happening up there with a small touch of jealousy. I’m delighted for them, there’s seems to be a lot of people getting quite good up there. I’m enjoying my mountain biking, photography, whale watching, filming work… There’s more to life than climbing. I’d love to feel fit again though. Feeling overweight and under practiced yesterday didn’t really take from the day but I hope I’ll find the conditions to get into a good run of climbing form again soon. There’s so much joy to be had from clambering up bits of stone!
We were treated to a superb sunset on the walk back to the car. Clare has moved up in my estimations as my favorite place in the world after the summer but Kerry ain’t bad in fairness.
John Healy reckons he’s climbed where we were in years past after a quick look at some Facebook photos. I don’t know another Cork man with such an intimate knowledge of Kerry.
In other news myself and Denis went kayaking on Lough Leane today. It was quite pleasant. Something I must do more of. The calendars are still for sale too. Treat yourself or a loved one for Christmas! (shameless plug, I know… I apologise).
Happy climbing/whatever else you’re at!
I spent a lot of the earlier part of this year focused on getting good climbing images from around Ireland. While I’m quite happy to go out and make photographs for the sake it I had a use in mind for these images; a calendar of Irish climbing for 2014. I love climbing and I love photography and I wanted to portray some of the best of Irish rock in pictures in the hopes of encouraging people to get up and out and be excited about Irish climbing. It also gave me a goal to aim for, which always improves one’s understanding of whatever it is you’re at and keeps you pushing for better.
There are all sorts of things to try and capture in a climbing photograph; facial expressions, a sense of movement, of exposure, the surroundings, the weather, the line… It’s hard to get them all in one image. As well as that there are different disciplines within the climbing world and I wanted to show off some of that too. In Ireland we have a decent mix; trad and bouldering, mountain crags and sea cliffs, long routes in the bigger hills and shorter, roadside venues too. In trying to produce a set of 12 images that give some kind of overall idea of what climbing is like in Ireland I wanted to portray all the different styles and destinations we have. I also included dates of climbing competitions (I hope these don’t change!) to remind people of the many events on during the year.
From a photography point of view climbing can be tricky. Firstly, I decided I wanted the calendar in landscape format. Climbing being almost always a vertical pursuit means the best images of it generally also tend to be vertical. For the most part it’s harder to make a good climbing photograph when you’re shooting horizontally, but that was a challenge I enjoyed. Secondly, it can be hard to get the right mix of conditions. I wanted pictures of people climbing in good light, on great routes, and with bright clothing! Rock coloured layers are far too common in the climbing community! A good image requires the climber to stand out and be seen, not to blend in like some drab, camouflaged moth. I may approach Mountaineering Ireland about initiating some kind of Ban Black Clothing campaign in the future…
I couldn’t have done this without the help of friends. A lot of the images in the calendar are the result of me asking somebody to try a particular route, at a particular time of day. Organising a shoot felt a bit selfish at times. As nice as I tried to be about it I couldn’t help feeling like I was telling people what to do, on their days off when they probably had their own ideas. Suggestions like “How about we get up before sunrise to be there in time for the best light?! Hey, how about trying that route instead? Can you stay there for a second, the sun’s gone behind a cloud! No, no, no, that colour won’t work! Here, put this on instead! Nah, that didn’t turn out right, shouldn’t have bothered…” probably sounded a bit too common to my climbing friends this spring and summer. Sorry! I hope I wasn’t too demanding.
I also have to give a HUGE thanks to the 12 sponsors who helped get the whole idea off the ground. I couldn’t have done it without their great generosity. I can’t imagine something as obscure as sponsorship for a calendar of Irish climbing is a very high priority when trying to run a business so I owe a massive thank you to all those kind enough to back it up. Gear shops, guides and all the other relevant companies are part of our climbing community. We need them as places and people to train us, organise events, provide funding and supply gear. Without these services the climbing community in Ireland would be flattened. PLEASE go out and support those who’ve helped me next time you need something. It’s good will like that that keeps things going around.
Kerry Outdoor Sports – Gear shop based in Killarney
Gravity – Climbing centre in Inchicore, Dublin
Simply Mountains – Guiding by John Healy
Edelrid – Great outdoor gear
Unique Ascent – Guiding by Iain Miller
Kerry Climbing – Guiding by Piaras Kelly
Hillwalkers – Gear shop based in Cork
West Coast Climbing and Adventure - Guiding by Carl Maddox
Great Outdoors – Gear shop based in Dublin
Awesome Walls – Climbing centre near Finglas, Dublin
Mountaineering Ireland – Ireland’s NGB for climbers
Alpine Sports – Online gear shop
If you’d like to buy a calendar (€10 + €2.50 p&p in Ireland) go to the shop. This being the first thing I’ve sold through the website, I apologise in advance for any teething problems. I’ll also be selling at some of the upcoming climbing competitions.
I’d like to do this again next year. If you’ve a route in mind that you think deserves being photographed feel free to get in touch.
I took myself off to Kerry last Thursday for a walk I’ve wanted to do for years; the traverse of the Iveragh Peninsula over the mountain tops, from Kate Kearney’s Cottage to the western end of the Ring of Kerry. I’d done the maths on distance and height gain years ago but more or less forgotten the finer details in the time between. I didn’t really want to know before setting out. It would take me as long as it was going to take and anyway, I wasn’t interested in numbers or destinations. The journey was the whole reason for setting out, not the destination (I should write the inspirational messages in greeting cards!)
We left in the afternoon, Piaras and Orlaith accompanying me to the top of the bog road on Strickeen. Orlaith insisted on going to the summit (fair play to her; she’s only five) but I had no interest in ticking off tops for the sake of it, especially not any that were out of my way. We said our goodbyes and I started west, blinded by the lowering sun, my bag feeling light, my legs feeling fit, my mind excited by time and space ahead of me.
I had an easy evening before me, only planning on going as far as Cruach Mhór. I picked my way through the bog carefully, not wanting to soak my old, leaky boots on day one. The weather was uplifting and since half the reason I was coming up here was in the hope of making some nice photographs I was fairly excited by the prospect of glorious conditions during the golden hours of the coming days. The sun set as I was picking my way up towards the summit of Cruach Mhór. At 932m I was expecting a cold night under the clear sky. It had been awhile since I’d slept out in the open so I wasn’t sure of how good or bad it was going to be but I wasn’t worried.
I found a good spot to lay my head for the night on the eastern side of the summit and slowly set about sorting through my things, grabbing a bite to eat, practicing a few whistle tunes and roughly planning the days ahead. There’s no point in rushing when you’ve 12 hours of darkness to get through. Piaras and I flashed torches at each other. It was comforting to have some bit of contact with the world below before settling down for the night. I didn’t expect to see anybody for the next few days.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many stars as I did that night. The moon was setting to my west and straight above the Milky Way stretched north-south in a black, silver studded sky. I must have slept alright as when I woke again the stars had moved (well, the earth had really but I’m only being pedantic…). Apart from the starlight the sky was totally black. It was 6am. I got up, knowing full well that sleep was unlikely at this hour, especially in a damp bag. The wind had turned easterly overnight so I brought my things up to the sheltered side of the grotto and hung out with the blessed virgin for awhile. She wasn’t much craic. So I played some tunes on the whistle instead. Ever since I started listening to Kíla I’ve loved the mellow sound of the low whistle. Then, much to my delight, I ended up working for a very handy whistle player for the summer. I was inspired enough to take up the tin whistle my sister got me a few years ago and make an effort at learning. I can’t justify buying myself a low whistle if I don’t have the dedication to learn in the first place so I’ve been practicing. What better place than a mountain top in the dark of the night with nobody around to hear my painful, shrill mistakes? For a moment I wondered if I should stop in case someone down in the Black Valley thought they heard an S.O.S. but as bad as I am I hoped it sounded more melodic than a distress signal. And anyway, Piaras knew where I was and being one of the first to get wind of a call out would be able to explain.
I read a bit by a flickering headtorch, made tea and got the camera gear set up for the sunrise. I had wanted to photograph the Cruach Mhór to Cnoc na Péiste Ridge at sunrise for awhile and I was excited to see if it was going to be as good as I thought in my head. It certainly wasn’t bad!
From a purely photographic point of view the morning was relatively boring. Strict landscape photographers like cloud; not too much but not too little either. Cloud gives texture to the sky and fills in the otherwise blank space above the ground. And indeed some cloud wrapped around the flanks of the mountains in the image above would probably make it look better, provided the light was still the same. But I wasn’t complaining. It was a glorious morning to be up high. The river Laune had misted over during the night and I could follow its course through the frosted patchwork fields in the fog that hung above its waters. The hills of Corca Dhuibhne glowed a rosy pink and the Upper Lake lay beneath a bank of overnight cloud. This is what it’s all about!
My sleeping bag had frozen a bit after I got out of it so I draped it over a boulder in the hopes that the morning sun would dry it out a bit. I was glad to see it had frozen over for if it was properly wet I imagine it wouldn’t have. I didn’t fancy spending the next night in a damp cocoon, especially not given how tough the day to come was likely to be. By 9am I was off, a late start given how short the days are at the moment but there was no real rush. Caherdaniel was a distant though, more a convenient place to stop than an end-goal.
The Big Gun ridge was a pleasure as usual and by the time I had it behind me it was warm and windless enough to lose all my upper layers. The Hag’s Glen was still deep in shadow and the Black Valley too. I turned off for the saddle between Brassel and Cnoc an Chuilinn shortly, dropping almost 900m in good time. Two hours after setting out I was in the Black Valley after following the course of a lovely mountain stream from the col. I wanted to do the walk from east to west because it seemed more natural to me to walk sun-wise. Whatever about the hippyish notions that kind of attitude implies, going in the opposite direction would mean facing an uphill struggle of the descent I just did after two long days of walking. There’s not many places in the country one can do an almost uninterrupted 900m steep slog and going by Brian, Ellen and Denis’s account of it, it sounds like hell.
The Black Valley is beautiful on a blue sky day. I’m sure there are more than enough miserable days in that deep glen but to be there last Friday was a total pleasure. I walked on, feeling fresh, invigorated by the sunshine and the surroundings. The bulk of the height gain was ahead of me today. I’d just lost a lot of altitude and had another good rise before me, after which was another long descent and steep march back up to higher ground. So I stopped for a drink above Lough Reagh. I was surprised to see the waterfall in the shade; I thought it would still get light at this stage of the year but apparently not. Winter is coming.
Up then again, to the col west of Bruach na Binne. The rock around here is very interesting. There are plenty of boulders perched on other outcrops and weird textures and patterns along the ridge up above Lough Dubh. I had my eye out for sea eagles, having seen them before in this area and hearing reports of the same from others. None so far but I had seen a kestrel and a grey crow skirmishing lower down the valley. At Stumpa Dúloigh I stopped for lunch. I was fairly hungry by now and an easterly was blowing. There was great drying out!
I took a leisurely lunch, keen to get my sleeping kit dry. After the break the day changed a bit. My pace slowed and my surroundings changed. I was leaving behind the familiar ground of the Reeks to enter a much less trodden range of hills, right in the depths of Iveragh. I was conscious of the need to find water. As I was staying up near the peaks for most of the walk I was far from any streams a lot of the time. While I seem to be able to go quite a way without the need for much water I’d never done hard days in the hills like this back to back so I made sure to take advantage of any flowing (and even sometimes still) water I passed.
After picking my way down to the road at Beallach Béime I got stuck straight into the steep rise ahead. It was steep enough to force a slow approach so thankfully it didn’t leave me totally out of breath. Cloud had built up a bit and my energy was fading. At the plateau above the steep gap in the hills I looked down at the second and last road crossing of the walk and took a breather. I waited about 20 minutes for the light to make a photograph that looked promising but it never came. Usually I wouldn’t have the patience to wait that long for the flat light of the afternoon. I think I was happy to take the rest.
In my mind I had the worst of the day done when I passed Mullach an Aitinn. As I slogged up its eastern flank I spotted an eagle turning circles overhead. They’re HUUUUUGE! It’s such a pleasure to see these animals in Ireland. Though I was only looking at a black silhouette against the sky it was a beautiful thing to watch. Such a sight adds hugely to a walk in the hills.
After contouring around the summit of Mullach (I was shamelessly avoiding most of the summits – like I said, I wasn’t there to tick off peaks) my heart dropped a bit when I saw the ground ahead. My thoughts about the worst being over were wrong; a substantial rise lay ahead of me. I hadn’t been looking at any maps. In fact I’d only decided the morning of the day before that I was going to start the walk, and between packing my bag and driving to Kerry I had little time to make plans. It didn’t matter of course, I had food, water, warm clothes and a good weather window. I could stop where I pleased and be in no danger of death. It just broke my spirit just a bit to see that I had a tougher job ahead of me than I’d imagined for the past few hours.
I stopped frequently in the next couple of hours, snacking lots, waiting for light, and above all, resting. No part of me was particularly sore but I had an overall desire for the walking to be done, or nearly done, and rest to come. As sunset approached I started to think about where I was going. Up to now I’d just been walking but in my tired state I needed a goal to focus on to keep me going. No easy water until Cnoc na gCainte. It was still over 5km away but I figured I may as well be walking at night. Whiling away the dark hours in my sleeping bag had its limits in entertainment value.
The sun set while I was deep in a steep col. When I was on the next ridge it had sunk below the horizon. I marched on. Somewhere east of Finnararagh I took out my torch. It had been flickering early that morning (“god, this morning seems so far away…”) and I’d opted to leave spare batteries behind in a tactical weight saving decision. I left it off until coming to some broken ground where dusk had darkened. I pressed the button. Nothing. Ah well…
Some time later…
Half of me was delighted to be walking by moonlight over remote high ground. I really felt out in the wilds now. Which was the whole point of coming and doing such a long, arduous walk. But another, more cynical and tired half of me just wanted to be helicoptered out to a hotel. Maybe the balance wasn’t 50:50. I’m not sure which side had the greater half of my thoughts though. A grouse exploded from the heather beside me. My heart skipped a beat.
I was lucky to have a moon above me. Even half covered it cast a shadow behind me. I must have great eyes because I was actually seeing quite well, or at least enough to keep a decent pace and have a minimum of stumbles. If it had been cloudy I think I’d have had a long, hungry night waiting for morning. I needed water to drink and cook. Though my situation wasn’t ideal it was still reasonable as long as I didn’t go over on my ankle. The thought of noodles and tea kept me going.
“Is that Cnoc na gCainte? Doesn’t look like it…” Having checked the map by the light of my phone I noticed another summit I’d missed in a crease in the map. “Better carry on then.”
It was nice up high with the stars and blank spaces around me. Eventually I was on the rim of the great coum east of my destination. I could hear the sweet sound of a flowing river below. The ground around this area is wonderfully craggy, though wonderful might be a strong word at night without artificial light. I slowly picked my way down the rocky slope, half walking, half controlled-sliding down slabs of sandstone. The river wasn’t where I expected it. I carried on downhill towards the lower lake, crossing bouldery ground in search of the stream. It was tucked quite close to the famous ridge off the summit. The moon hung close to the outline of the big shoulder shaped cliff. If I hadn’t been so tired I’d have taken a photo.
When I reached the river bank the moon was blocked by the mountain. The darkness out of the moon was significant. I moved downstream. Finally! I was quite impressed with the low number of stumbles I’d achieved since darkness had fallen.
In the next half hour or so I had a frustrating attempt at cooking in near darkness on less than level boulders with a wind that baffled the flame of my stove in every direction but up. My quick-dinner of Koka noodles took ages and when I finally had them boiled my eagerness to eat was flattened by a feeling of nausea. I was too tired to be eating this quickly, and anyway, this shit is disgusting at the best of times! That was a turning point…
It clouded over during the night. I woke with my sleeping mat on top of me. I was too hot but as soon as I’d got into the sleeping bag the night before I wasn’t getting out again. I crawled out and considered my options.
I was quite fed up with my surroundings by now. Though I didn’t feel physically very bad I had lost a big mental battle the night before. I had no money with me, no head torch, no desire to spend another night out in the open and still some distance to go. I didn’t quite know how far it was (as you can see my preparation was second to none) but a quick glance at the map showed that in my current state I had another day of walking ahead of me. Though I had broken the back of the hard work yesterday there was plenty of rough ground and mileage to go yet. I texted around, looking to voice my silly complaints. A problem shared and all that. A partner would have been nice for encouragement. Giorraíon beirt bóthar.
I played the whistle a bit and decided on nothing. I wasn’t in any rush. I was more than likely walking to the road head north of Sneem and hitching back to Killarney. Brian Boland offered to pick me up. What a saint! There was no way I was having him drive the bones of 3 hours from Cork just to save me some discomfort though. Denis also offered a lift. He had less distance to travel. If I cut my walk short a bit I could be down by nightfall and maybe even be back in my own bed that night. Both Piaras and Brian texted with messages that summed things up nicely, the gist being “you hardly though it was going to be easy did you?”
I packed up and set off at 10am. My legs felt surprisingly good. The tripod and camera gear started feeling heavy but I had plenty left in me. The day was grey and cloud covered some of the higher peaks in the distance but my way was clear and the promise of a lift gave me a goal to aim for. Funny how one day can change things. I’d gone from a pleasant ramble across the hills, “let it take as long as it takes!”, the end is not the goal kind of attitude to a must-finish-this-tonight-or-I’ll-have-a-miserable-time kind of approach in less than 24 hours. I love the mountains. I love being up there on clear days, in the quiet and space letting their size and scale leave me feeling small and unimportant. But at the end of the day I’m not one of these hardcore, put up with anything types. I like my bed. I like the comfort of the indoors too. Mountains are ultimately hostile places for people to exist in (hostile is probably a bit much when talking about the hills of south-west Kerry on a mild, dry day in October but bear with me) and I’m just not tough enough to be bothered prolonging my stay beyond what I want for the sake of… something.
I made superb time. This was unknown ground to me and it was slow and rough. There was no huge rises or falls but plenty of little ones in the form of cliffs and lakes. Walking in a straight line was hard but nonetheless I was eating road (or bog) and enjoying how fast it felt. It’s beautiful territory. Very wild and seldom visited. It seemed a pity to be rushing through but it looked like the cloud might close in at times and the weather wasn’t such as would inspire me to potter about aimlessly anyway.
I looked at the map. I’m… not on this map anymore! I took out number 84 and placed myself further than I’d expected. Woohoo!
I skirted around the back of Coomcallee. This would have been my turning point had I kept to the original plan. From here an obvious line brings one SW to Windy Gap and Eagles Hill, Cahernageeha and eventually the sea. It’s an obvious end point where the ridge lets up to sea level. But it was longer and tougher than I was willing for. Though a bit disappointed in myself I quickly got over it and kept west, aiming for An Bheann Mhór, the last great effort of the day.
I stopped for lunch before a final 200m slog. I had made brilliant time and knew the end was in sight. To my left my original route teased me. The skyline was a natural continuation of this great range of hills and while my chosen finish was still aesthetically pleasing it wasn’t bringing me as west as I’d planned.
After a final uphill effort to a broad flat top before 675m I saw a flock of 8 ravens. Then it became 13, then 17, then 20. I always imagined ravens as solitary pairs, maybe hanging out in groups of 3 or 4 occasionally. But 20 soaring, black fingered ravens flew above and around me, pairs twisting and diving in aerial somersaults. It was a nice distraction.
By now I was stopping every 20-30 minutes. With my destination in view there was no rush and whatever adrenaline or sugar or desire to avoid another bivvy that had filled me earlier was gone. I stumbled down the final slopes and onto the Kerry Way. The final 5km took me almost as long as the previous twelve. Under a still, grey autumn sky I landed on a road again.
I sat on a style for a bit, quite tired. A hawthorn on the other side of the road was bending with berries on its branches so I went and had a feast. I found some late blackberries and enjoyed them as much as any before. I was thirsty and a bit warm with my jacket on but taking off my bag seemed too painful so I walked awhile, thumbing a lift to town. My knee was a bit sore on the hard road so I feigned a limp to up my chances of being picked up. A kind pair shortened the road for me a bit and I carried on into Waterville. I found a euro in the pocket of my jacket and looked forward to a chocolate bar. After awhile I realised I had been walking away from Waterville for some time, having come off a smaller road a bit north of the town itself. No chocolate for me then. It was darkening and I had no light or footpath anymore so I stopped, sat on a wall and waited for my saviour to arrive.
I worked out the numbers after getting home. It’s roughly 50km with 3,500m height gain. I thought it was longer. It certainly felt it!
Míle míle buíochas to Piaras, Catherine, Brian and Denis. I literally wouldn’t have done it without ye!
About a month ago Piaras and I went to Chamonix. I’d never been to the Alps, despite saying every year since I started spending time in the mountains that I’d go. Piaras had a few trips under his belt so I was more than happy to piggyback on his experience and hopefully not be a total alpine bumbly on my first trip.
Having spent the summer in west Clare, where there are no mountains of any description, I was wondering how fit I was going to be. Life in Clare wasn’t focused around climbing; during the time I’d spent there it was taking more and more of a back seat in my life. With poor fitness and questionable motivation I was a little apprehensive. We arrived in a dull and rainy Chamonix. To be totally honest I wasn’t that impressed. I don’t know what I’d been expecting. I had done no research into the trip whatsoever, having been too occupied with all the wonders of Loop Head for the summer. Part of me didn’t even want to leave my mobile home at the mouth of the Shannon. Life in Clare was close to perfection; what could this rainy village offer me when I wanted for nothing in Kilcredaun?
Losing my Alpine Virginity
A few hours after rising on day one we were walking out of the Midi station. The engineering of the Midi cable car is mind blowing. For the first half of the week I was nearly more impressed with the fact that people had managed to build the lift up to the Aiguille du Midi than with the mountains themselves. It’s totally bizarre that anybody can just be transported up to over 3,700m in about 20 minutes and walk around gift shops sipping a cappuccino and taking pictures on their iPhone. It’s a place of contrasts; safety and danger, warmth and cold, comfort and effort. Nowhere is the contrast more evident than at the tunnel to the south-east ridge of the mountain. Climbers rack up in the midst of elderly couples from suburbia and in one step you go from the shelter and relative safety of a cable car station to an alpine ridge that wouldn’t forgive many falls. There’s no warm up; it’s one extreme to another and the transition is an introduction that smacks you in the face and demands attention to your surroundings. It’s class!
We made our way towards Pointe Lachenal, me still totally bewildered by the access and the suddenness and scale of my new surroundings. I apologised in advance to Piaras for being crap at alpine climbing. Our plan was to traverse the peaks of Pointe Lachenal and see where that left us. It went down without any bother. A nice steepish ice slope to gain the ridge, some easy scrambling, a short abseil, a nice pitched traverse and a longer pitch to the high point of the route. We were caught behind a slower party so we took our time so as not to be too close to the member of their trio who was sending rock down towards us between whimpers of effort (or maybe fear).
Route in the bag, we headed back towards the Midi. Near the base of the Arete des Cosmiques we had about 2 hours before the last cable car. I was tired by now but Piaras reckoned we could race up it. I wasn’t sure but I wanted to climb and tomorrow’s forecast wasn’t great so we unstrapped our crampons, took a few more coils and started climbing, and fast! We sprinted (as much as you can do on rock) up to the first abseil making great time. The interruption broke our momentum a bit but by the time we were done with the second abseil we were still making good time. And then it all went pear shaped.
I don’t quite remember how many dead-ends we hit but it was at least two. The popularity of the route means there are plenty of worn sections and unfortunately most of them lead to impassable ends. Time was ticking and stress levels were building. After climbing a chimney that turned out to be another cul-de-sac I looked at my watch. The last cable car was gone. Time to stop rushing. There was no point in trying to save time now.
After eventually accepting we had few other options but to try the obviously worn crack we’d been avoiding all this time we were on our way again. Piaras led it; I was too convinced it looked harder than the grade of the route – I was totally wrong. The weather was starting to deteriorate as evening crept closer. We started pitching things again, both tired and just wanting the route to be done by now. I shrugged off the stress of earlier until I thought I heard thunder in the distance while belaying Piaras on what was surely the last pitch. We couldn’t hear each other and there was nothing happening with the rope. After some unmeasurable amount of time I started climbing, presuming the rope had gotten stuck somewhere. It had; wrapping itself perfectly around a spike of rock til I came to it. Eventually I was taking in the rope on one of the station’s viewing platforms as Piaras climbed a wobbly ladder from the ridge. We hugged and got inside, expecting a cold, uncomfortable night.
“Is there heating on in here?!”
There was. Score!
A group was spending the night in the station to study the affects of altitude on the brain.
“Come in and eat with us.”
I didn’t need to be asked twice. Free dinner, tea and a blanket to lie on. I lay down on a bench and watched the storm outside, very glad to be on the dry side of the window.
Later a member of the mountain rescue appeared with the news that the cable would be running to bring down two climbers who’d been rescued from the Frendo Spur. Though I was enjoying my weird night I found it hard to say no to the bed I’d booked in Chamonix. We strolled into town around 11pm, got chips and went to bed. It was a great first alpine day.
Most of the next few days was less fun. The weather was mixed and we had a few false starts in the high hills. We wanted to do the Midi-Plan traverse but it just wasn’t happening. We even set out on it one morning but the snow was crap. We dug a pit where it started getting steep and big slabs of it came away instantly. It didn’t seem like a bad weather day later on when the sun came out in force but the snow limited what we could do and we ended up leaving the mountains after fighting our way back up the ridge to the Midi station. It’s not technically difficult but the crowds make it a bit nervy. If anybody fell I could imagine a lot of others being taken out.
Forecasts were changing and Chamonix was draining our limited finances. We were staying in the Vagabond. I don’t recommend it. Go camping if you can squeeze the camping gear into your bag. We had two trips up to the Midi that were unproductive. Given the price of the lift it started feeling like having to pay to go climbing. Bolt clipping was fun but it wasn’t satisfying our appetites. It looked like there wouldn’t be a whole lot done between now and going home except lose more money. Looking back a month later, it was a few days that I’m happy to forget, apart from the two Welsh lads we met.
We were too obsessed with the Midi-Plan; it just wasn’t working out. Piaras did some research and we changed goals. The weather changed yet again so we forked out for one last lift ticket and headed up to do the SW ridge of the Aiguille d’Entreves. Worries melted away into the crisp blue and white of a perfect alpine day.
The walk in was superb. Gorgeous granite towers surrounded us as we weaved our way through the maze of crevasses on the Glacier du Geant. It was a long slog in to the base of our route but the scenery more than made up for any physical hardship. The ridge traverse was brilliant. We had amazing views and there was little or no wind. The rock was superb and as we neared the summit block the ridge narrowed with great exposure on both sides.
Another route in the bag and the frustration of the previous days was calmed. We had a long slog back to the Cosmiques hut but it only made dinner sweeter.
It was a mixed trip. I was shocked by how expensive everything in Chamonix was. Between that and the weather things were quite stressful at times. It was hard to make decisions with iffy forecasts given how expensive a fruitless trip up to the higher hills could be. I didn’t like Chamonix itself; there’s an upper class vibe about the place that didn’t sit well with me. Plenty of money but no modesty. Maybe it’s just me.
All that said it was a great trip and certainly not a bad introduction to alpine climbing. Though we didn’t get as much climbing done as we’d hoped (when does anybody ever?) the routes we did were brilliant. It being my first trip I hadn’t given much thought to it but now that I have some idea of how things go I have a bit of a tick list for the next time. The granite there is amazing looking. I’d love to do a trip focused purely on high rock climbing. The Rebuffat Route on the south pillar of the Midi looks phenomenal. The Grand Capucin is another superb looking tower of rock. The setting would be hard to match on those kinds of routes. Icy winter couloirs would be fun too. I’ve no grand plans but hopefully I can get back out there some time soon.
Seeing as this started as a climbing blog I suppose I should write a bit about the clambering about on rocks I did this summer. In roughly chronological order;
After packing in the day job at the end of May I headed north east with the Fair Head meet in mind. I climbed with Vicki at Lower Cove a few days before the meet. It has to be one of the best crags in the country. We had a superb day. Among others I climbed Overdue and Meat Grinder, both great but the latter was especially good for me. A few weeks previously I’d had a bit of a mental breakdown in the Gap while on Demasiado. I had to lower off near the top despite having done all the hardest climbing and having good gear. I’d got a bit freaked out at the crux and couldn’t recover mentally afterwards. That’s the first time it’s happened me in six years of climbing. It was nice to climb stuff I found tough at Lower Cove a few weeks later then. I thought I might have lost my head.
The following day we bouldered at Cloghoge. It’s very scenic but not really a superb bouldering venue. I was working on a nice problem for awhile but in general it was a hot and lazy day. I had no partner lined up for Fair Head and with an iffy forecast for there, and only there, I almost didn’t go. Thankfully I saw sense in the end.
On Friday I climbed with Rónán from the Queen’s club. It was a bit of a dodgy weather day (I’d spent the morning in my rain-hammered tent wondering why I’d bothered to come up) so we went to the Prow. Another great day, and it cleared up nicely in the evening. Midnight Cruiser is world class!
I didn’t have a partner for Saturday so I floated around the crag taking pictures and talking. I got to watch Andy Marshall climb The Complete Scream, which was fairly impressive. Every now and then I’d take my eye out of the camera’s viewfinder and realise how serious a route he was on. It was cool to see something being done at that level. Nick Bullock’s talk was very entertaining that evening too. More speakers should use table bouldering as a prop, even non-climbers.
Next day dawned rainy yet again. I decided to head home that evening. First I climbed Equinox though. Another stunner! The weather cleared up really nicely by then so I cancelled my earlier plan and found Howard near the Prow for another route. That evening a bunch of us hung out in and around a convoy of campervans. We were even privileged to some unexpected female company, keeping the gender balance tilted at least a bit towards even.
Howard and I climbed The Hustler next morning – is there a bad pitch at Fair Head? I haven’t done one yet. We got on Primal Scream afterwards. It was getting plenty of attention at the meet and I think H-bomb (Damien’s name, not mine) wanted to prove that even the eldery can climb hard. Would it be wrong to take the glow from his very impressive lead by saying it’s my hardest belay to date? Probably not. I even managed to onsight second it. You can send fan mail to the email address above.
Joking aside it was a superb climbing experience. It’s great to watch people in the upper levels of climbing on harder routes, and even better to be on the same ropes. It was very cool to feel the higher end of the climbing spectrum, even from the blunt end of the rope. My reluctance to train or headpoint things means I rarely live beyond the lower E numbers. If I can grow bigger balls I might try and lead Primal Scream some day. I love that kind of climbing that’s hard without requiring much power.
Fair Head is undoubtedly the best crag I’ve ever been to. The lines are big, steep and safe (for the most part) and whatever it is about the climbing it seems to suit my style. I can warm up on E2s there yet that’s as hard as I’ve ever onsighted at any other crag. As routes generally tend to be better at higher grades (would anybody disagree?) this makes the place pretty fun for me.
Later in June I spent a couple of days in around Dublin with Brian and Vicki to get some images. I wasn’t too pushed about climbing so I mostly took pictures on day one, which took us to Glendalough after Dalkey turned out wet. Later I joined in for a Spillikin/Fanfare/Nighmare/Spéirbhean link up which was great. I headed straight up from Nighmare ledge to the base of Spéirbhean, finishing up that. It’s a nice way to top out the crag. Those are some of the best pitches in the valley at that grade, each with their own character.
Next day was a Dalkey day. Once again I swanned around with my eyes behind a lens. Brian climbed Maricon for me, even taking a bit of a victory whip for the camera’s sake. Vicki cruised up Tower Ridge Direct. I scraped my way through Blazing Saddles and climbed Maricon too. I warmed down on Paul’s Edge, opting to solo it as I don’t know if the gear is much use anyway. It felt fairly hairy near the top…
I moved to the Loop Head peninsula at the end of June. While I could ramble on about life there for a long long time I’ll restrict myself to climbing talk for now. You’re probably wishing this was over by now anyway…
Shortly after moving I went to climb some of the routes around Ross. Unless you’re planning on staying for awhile don’t bother; they’re short, loose and generally a bit shit. In July my fellow crewman on the Draíocht arrived. I totally lucked out having Will here for the summer; among other things he’s a climber. Armed with stakes, a sledge and 100m of static rope we quested out to the south side of Loop Head at various stages during July and August. If there were natural anchors at the top of the crags here all the routes would have been done before I was born. Before we arrived there were two recorded on the main slab. We added another six, and there’s room for more still.
Those were fun days; watching dolphins rounding the headland, hearing seals’ howls echoing in the caves around us, watching scraps of sea foam blown up from the zawns twist away into the sky on windy days… The climbing isn’t the best in the world but it is quite nice (every climber should get a few stakes). Perhaps my memories of those days are so fond because my life at the time was as full as it’s ever been. Disregarding my bias I think most people would enjoy it there; thin slabby cracks, decent gear, great surroundings. Go!
On the north side of Loop Head, about a kilometer east of the tip, is a very smooth slab. Most of it looks totally unclimbable but about a third of the way up there’s a horizontal crack that marks the upper limit of a steepening on the cliff. It starts and ends nowhere. It’s climbable but it would be a very involved excursion. An abseil would have to be rigged (with stakes, in shallow looking ground) to get to the start of the crack and make a hanging belay. Then you’d have to climb to the end, make another hanging belay, lower from there to the sea ledge at the bottom afterwards, walk back to below the first belay (where you’ve made sure the ab rope touches bottom), climb back up the rope, re-rig the abseil above the second belay, abseil in, strip it, climb back up… And if either leader or second fell the easiest thing might be to lower to the sea ledge, climb the abseil rope and start again… And from above it looks like anything from V. Diff to E6. It’ll either be easy or very hard, depending on how good or bad the footholds are. Maybe next year…
I also climbed at Steve’s Slab, one hazy afternoon on my own. Easy angled is an understatement. I’m not sure if I’ve ever climbed something so slabby. Cracks become puddles at that angle. It’s pleasant. I didn’t find it hugely exciting though. Maybe others would. The surroundings are very nice. While hammering in the stakes up top I managed to smash one of my fingers a bit. I’m quite careful about avoiding climbing finger injuries so it felt fairly stupid to hit my index with a 10lb sledge.
Actually, no. That’s another blog entirely…
* * *
Compared to most of the past few years I didn’t climb a huge amount this summer but there was so much else going on that it didn’t bother me much. And in fairness, I still got a good bit done. I’d like to put in a bit of work at the wall this coming winter to be fighting fit for the spring (my favourite time to climb in Ireland). A bit of good bouldering in the winter would be nice too. It’s about time I did a few days in Glendalough. I might go to Spain for part of January too. Maybe Scotland in February… I’m not sure where getting a job fits in between all these pipe dreams… And it’s not as if there’s really a climbing season in Ireland anyway so I’ll try and steer the last few lines of this post away from any overall suggestion that there’ll be nothing much else done for the rest of the year. Having just returned to the city and logged onto Facebook again I’m excited by all these pictures I’m seeing of indoor climbing competitions…
Piaras and I climbed Primroses yesterday, as training for our upcoming trip to the Alps, though just as much for its own sake too. Having spent most of the past 3 months far from the hills I was worried I’d be more of a liability than an asset in Chamonix so this was a bit of an acid test for me.
Myself and Denis tried Primroses last year but retreated after about 50m at a steep, green dead-end. I was surprised to find myself at the same first belay we took last year, having probably sworn I’d never be back. But slightly below and left was a clean looking slab that I let Piaras take (he had rock shoes while I’d opted to use my walking boots). It was a brilliant pitch with some lovely rock (as well as some shitty rock but that’s mountaineering).
Pitch 4 was the crux and I wish I’d brought my pocket camera up with me as it was fairly photogenic, even for a bum shot from the belay. Good exposure and some climbing up above which would probably warrant HVS 5a at a roadside crag. A good lead by Piaras. The stance above that pitch was fairly small with a big drop straight below and a steep wall above. I enjoyed the exposure and that tingly feeling of being up high that got me hooked on climbing in the first place. I met a goat near the end of that rope length (you think you’re doing something kind of hardcore until you meet a goat). The sun was scorching and every stance seemed a sun trap so I unsuccessfully tried to smear mud on my cheeks as some kind of Bear Grylls style mudblock. I was pretty thristy too but I draw the line at drinking my own piss.
We were on the ridge proper now and I was delighted it was my turn to lead for the double roof pitch. The second overhang feels fairly wild, looking down at the sparkling lakes on the valley floor from a pretty steep position pulling through the roof. Huge holds, nice exposure, good gear; quality! After a few more pitches, mostly dangerous choss but in some nice positions, we were above the Droichead. We put the gear away here and soloed up the final familiar ground of Howling Ridge.
Piaras had to head for home from here but I carried on to the top and headed over to Binn Chaorach and along Screig Mhór to descend the hydro road. Just short of 12 hours in the hills (Primroses took us five) and I didn’t feel too bad. Hopefully I’ll be in good shape for the Alps and the altitude won’t knock me.
I can see why Primroses gets so few ascents. The route finding isn’t the easiest near the bottom, it’s got plenty of green sections and no shortage of frightening loose pitches. But there’s plenty of quality rock bits with interesting and often exposed climbing. The whole mountaineering thing in Ireland is fairly limited in its scope so we have to take what we can get. I don’t mind putting up with looseness and greenery so much on long mountain routes as the whole experience is more the sum of its parts than the individual sections themselves.
Here’s a very rough route description of what we did to get interested parties started (pitch lengths very approximate);
1. (40m) Start at a section of wavy, brittle-looking rock about 30m above from the small stone wall. Climb up along the easiest line for about 40m to a boulder belay in a small alcove with a clean looking slab slightly below and left.
2. (40m, HS/VS 4b) Step down and left to the ledge at the bottom of the slab and step around the corner and up along decent rock. Continue up a dirty looking obvious corner and belay on the next stretch of level ground.
3. (40m) Head up along the R hand edge of the ridge from here to a boulder belay with some green tape wrapped around it (back it up).
4. (30m, HVS 5a) Head up the obvious corner R of the belay, stepping out to the arete to bypass a green ledge. Move back left and climb through a steep groove and up and left to an exciting, exposed stance.
5. (40m, HS 4b) Climb steeply up from the belay heading left past some big, unstable blocks on green ledges. Climb the cleaner wall above via a L-trending groove on its L side and belay above. The ridge proper is reached by now.
6. (40m) Follow ridge…
7. (50m, VS 4c) Climb the wall above passing the overhang, avoiding sitting blocks. Climb the wall above and move L under the roof until it’s possible to traverse R to the notch in the overhang. Pull through this in a stunning position on huge holds and carry on up to the next leveling in the ridge.
From here there’s not much need for a route description. Just follow the line of least resistance through some choss sections. About 3 more rope lengths brings you to the top of the Droichead. Finish up Howling.
We climbed it after a few days of dry weather and it made it a lot more pleasant/safe. Piaras used rock shoes for the whole thing, I used my HanWag walking boots. If I was doing it again I’d use the boots again. The harder pitches wouldn’t have felt a whole lot easier to me in rock shoes and boots are more comfortable for a long day. I was glad I didn’t have my stiff boots on; it was nice to be able to smear a bit. It took us five hours. It’s a sizeable route.
“An unexpected wee jewel… The rock architecture along the S side will, some day, provide magnificent rock climbing. This will be of high calibre on good red sandstone, ‘clean as a whistle’, and of all grades… This is the best ‘secret crag’ this writer has seen in many years.”
So wrote David Walsh in his excellent book Oileáin, an exceptionally informative and interesting account of over 300 of Ireland’s islands. Being a self proclaimed ex-rock climber he regularly mentions areas with potential for new ascents. I know of no other source of information that covers these rarely visited worlds so comprehensively. It’s an amazing reference book and a must have for anybody interested in Ireland’s coast, be they rock climbers or not. As far as I know it’s out of print so if you ever come across one don’t pass it up! My copy is worth its weight in gold to me.
I texted John Healy the lines quoted above.
The reply was positive:
“Do i need to iron my togs ?”
Because neither of us owns a boat and the island is only 50m from the mainland we planned on swimming out to it. As we walked along the coast towards this little “wee jewel” John started going on about lifejackets and cold water and currents and I began to wonder if my simple plan was going to be the makings of an epic. I was also conscious of the fact that the cliffs might have been rubbish; one man’s heaven is another’s limbo. For instance, I didn’t think Cruit Island a very good rock climbing destination; there may be ~204,000 routes but they’re mostly 8m V.Diffs. It didn’t really float my boat. Speaking of floating, I was by now starting to worry whether my dry bag would stay above water or just pull me under as I desperately tried to rescue my sinking gear.
As I’d expected it all went swimmingly (pun unfortunately intended).
“This is living!”
Our temporary offshore home was indeed beautiful. There was an abundance of wildlflowers blooming under the warm sun; bird’s foot trefoil, sea campion, kidney vetch and sea pink all in profusion. Plenty of soft grassy hollows for sleeping in, fine views and a sense of isolation I didn’t expect so close to the mainland. The only sign of habitation was an otter spraint on the summit. There’s something nice about going places people rarely visit. We did a quick tour of the island to see how reality lived up to the hype and we certainly found climbing. Magnificent might be a bit generous; it’s not Dún Séanna or Ailladie but half the fun of this trip was just getting to the place and the excitement of the unknown.
We climbed on the smaller walls first, quickly putting away the first ascents of obvious lines; a short corner, some slabby cracks and a very enjoyable rising traverse using huge jugs on a little steep crag. They were short climbs but a good warm up for the bigger walls.
After lunch we explored a little more, finding a seemingly very impressive wall that we couldn’t get a proper look at. It had a colossal roof at the top, clean and jutting proud like a widened diving board. I should have taken a picture. Then we went searching for a way into the bigger crag we’d first seen. John’s pragmatic nature made sure we ironed out any potential problems before they happened; nobody knew where we were (and nobody would have guessed), we had a relatively small rack of gear, no helmets, little idea of what the cliff was like and only one rope that might get stuck when we tried to pull it down after us. Still keen, I descended first for a look at the line and was happy to call John down after me, all other unknowns aside. We were committed now but provided neither of us was seriously hurt there was nothing a short swim wouldn’t solve…
I climbed up the initial chimney and past some wedged blocks to the base of the exit groove. It felt about 45 degrees overhanging at the bottom. It was probably only half that. Which still feels steep outside. After a few false starts I climbed high enough to bridge the void and was able to stop to look down at a whole lot of air between John and I before topping out. Not a bad route! The top groove reminded me of Saddleback Sow at Ailladie. A bit thuggish but good use of your toes will keep your arms happy.
That was about the end of it in terms of climbing. The swim back was a bit colder as the sun had been clouded over and we ended up with about 50 ticks between us after walking back through a fern forest in the hope of finding a more direct route to the car. I ended up getting back in the sea but I’m not sure if that makes them fall off or just cling on tighter…
Though the rock is that slightly brittle, hard-to-love south coast sandstone I’ll be back out for a few more routes. An overnight trip would be nice. A kayak would be good to get more gear out there too. I’ll swap the use of some boats for a lift down. Any takers?
Topo is here.