At 6am on the first day of my summer holidays I woke up in Hotel Santa Fé and groggily turned over to snooze a bit more. I used to jump at the first alarm call on climbing days but I get lazier as I get older. Sometimes I wonder if it means I’m starting to care less but Denis didn’t stir much either. We weren’t going to rush. Summer days are long and the forecast was decent.
The morning was still and overcast and we were breakfast for the midges; we racked gear and filled packs while pacing, trying desperately to avoid the slow moving plague. “I hope the wind picks up,” I muttered through my head net. Give me cold over midges any day.
The walk in seemed tough. My bag felt a lot heavier than I expected it would be and I was short of breath after the shortest rises. We stopped plenty of times, both for breathers and to try to pick out our route. After awhile the “Milk Bottle” pitch came into view, a bottle shaped slab recessed in the cliff roughly half way up.
Denis ran the first three guidebook pitches together in a 60m stretch. It was perfect warm-up climbing and a good way to get used to rock I’d never been on before. “This is great climbing!” I called up, and with that, the great climbing ended and the steep greenery started. I tried to keep my rock shoes clean but there was no avoiding the little hummocks of grass that squeezed out brown sludge when stepped on. For the next few hours the soles of my shoes were rarely dry.
On my first lead I backed off a small overhang left of the belay, drawing a loud sigh of relief from Denis. Instead I went right on his suggestion. This was not a good move. I clawed up steep vegetation, bewildered that my weight wasn’t pulling off sods of earth and grass. After 12m without gear I saw the next belay, less than 10m to my left but guarded by a grassy traverse. The greenery was really freaking me out. It was wet and insecure and I couldn’t afford to fall. I dug out a crack behind the short bit of rock I was on and got in a suspect cam which safeguarded the downclimb to where I could traverse back on route. This wasn’t fun. I was unnerved by all the grass. The short green traverse looked desperate and I seriously questioned whether I could do it. I was frustrated and freaked out and we’d only just started.
It felt like I didn’t know how to climb. And then, as usually happens when my mind shuts down, my body took over and in two moves I was back on rock again and making my way up in the right direction. It was a piece of piss (I’d been holding in a piss that I eventually had to relieve mid-pitch – no wonder I was stressed!) but I was nervous and very glad to reach the belay. Denis had little bother with the higher traverse from the suspect cam. He seemed way more secure on the vertical greenery than me. Maybe it’s a Kerry thing. I was feeling quite flustered by the whole situation and was glad of a decent looking belay.
The next pitch was cleaner and nicely exposed too. Still, the wet rock shoes were spooking me. As I watched Denis’s feet move away from the belay I expected each step to slip randomly and send him down onto me. But he cruised on up.
Pitch four started without gear. I moved on, the ground steeper now. I found a peg 5m up but clipping it offered little assurance. I got a small sideways brassie in beside it. Hhmmmm… “This is fuckin’ go-ey!” Denis laughed it off but we both knew that me falling would probably be quite serious. I edged up nervously, crammed in a dodgy cam and shook out. “I’m pumped!”
I’d heard all the pitches apart from the Milk Bottle were easy, just run-out. Mentally, I’d been caught off guard. I knew the climbing was simple for me but the thought of something going wrong clouded my concentration and curtailed my confidence. With anxious movements I inched upwards and found the belay, marked by a piton so old it looked like a piece of corrugated cardboard.
Someone mentioned rain, probably as a joke, but the sky was clouded over and a shower wasn’t an impossibility. Quartzite is slippery when wet. Abseiling off now would be tricky business. Neither of us said it but by now we were nervous, quiet and less jovial. I wanted to be cragging, falling safely from E2s in the sunshine, having a laugh.
“That might protect the belay a bit at least.” Denis didn’t look too confident. I looked down at my anchor; a 50+ year old rotten peg, my smallest offset wire (good but relatively weak) and my second smallest cam, which seemed solid but wasn’t in the most parallel of cracks. Each step Denis made sounded sketchy. I kept my head down. “Am I still having fun?” I didn’t want to say no but it was hard to say yes. Denis disappeared up above. The rope fed out slowly. He can’t fall. I thought of the look he gave after clipping that first nut and I felt committed. This was definitely Type II Fun.
“SAAAAAFE!” I was happy to hear it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that disintegrating peg I was clipped to. My legs and feet were stiffening up at every belay and I was cold by now and glad to be moving again. The first nut was better than I expected but still doubtful. From there another few crap pieces led the way up a steep, exposed slab. A 10m run-out marked the meat of the pitch, with a view to the bottom below and between my feet. “Good lead Denis! This is fucking run-out!” “Ya, I got a piece in further up but it’s fairly crap.” Said piece was lying on a small ledge well below where it had been placed. I wouldn’t have liked to do anything more than lower off any of the gear Denis used on that pitch. It’s likely he was supposed to be in the gully on the right but a steep grassy gully is far less appealing to us modern, gym-bred climbers in delicate rubber slippers (maybe I should speak for myself).
We were starving by now and stopped to grab a snack on the ledge below the Milk Bottle, supposedly the crux of the route. My lead and though I usually jump at taking the hardest pitches I was wondering if I really wanted this one.
Ten metres out from my first piece I glanced down at the empty ropes curving away. An hour earlier I would have been scared but the climbing was easy and by now I was in touch with what to expect. A few moves later I got a great cam in and continued on up the best quality climbing so far, getting gear by the metre before a comfortable belay. The tension was broken and I relaxed again, having fun again and taking what the mountain offered instead of fighting what I came up against.
We were six hours in by now, an hour per pitch, and it had seemed from below that the Milk Bottle was only about half way up. We were too slow so Denis strung the next two pitches together and I followed quickly, more confident now.
I ran the ropes out over the next two pitches, three bits of gear in 60m but the climbing was getting easier. I had to stop for rope drag, having gone around a corner and up onto the great ramp, an impressive feature surrounded by steeper walls and striking rock architecture. I didn’t have enough rope to reach the usual stance. “ON BELAAAAY! DON’T FALL!” He didn’t.
A lot of better looking lines offered exit from the ramp but for the sake of completeness I said nothing about finishing off up a different way. The wind had picked up by now and strong gusts blasted us, causing pause while moving and making belays cold. At least there were no midges. “Take us to the top Denis.”
A small flat area above the cliffs offered a well deserved place to relax. It was nice to sit comfortably, out of the wind, feet free from rock shoes, worries blown away with the breeze and deep satisfaction sinking in. It was a full experience offering a full spectrum of emotions; fun, frustration, fear and doubt and back to fun.
After a rest we made the slog up Bencollaghduff and back down to the valley via Maumina, getting back to the cars 14 hours after setting out. A fulfilling mountain day.
We both admitted to feeling pretty committed (i.e. going up seemed a bit scary yet retreating wasn’t an option so we had to continue up into the fear) mid way through the route, and both agreed the Milk Bottle wasn’t the crux, maybe technically but defiantly not mentally. The previous pitch had been an impressive lead by Denis, especially as I’d always found him nervous to run things out when we’d climbed single pitch together. I felt I would have found it fairly nerve-wracking that day. About 80% of the leading was in “no fall” situations and wet rock shoes and unavoidable vegetation made random slipping seem a lot more likely, for me at least.
As horrible and dangerous as it all sounds it’s a fantastic day out. We encountered very little loose rock. The gear is spaced on most pitches but none of the climbing is harder than British 4b. That’s not to suggest a VS crag climber would find it easy. The level of commitment is high for the grade (I’d say VS 4b overall) and screwing up could get quite serious quite fast. Retreating is probably possible if you’re willing to leave gear behind but things would want to be quite bad before you decide to try and abseil off – it’s not a guaranteed way off the cliff. Route finding is generally easy enough but many of the pitons mentioned in the online guide aren’t there anymore (we found only two). Just keep a cool head, don’t go out in the rain and bring a sense of humour.
I made a short (and fairly shite) video of the day which can be seen below: