The county of Donegal sits on the north western tip of the Republic of Ireland and plays host to more rock than anyone could climb in several lifetimes. The diversity of Donegal’s Rock climbing venues cover every climbing medium found in all of Ireland. The mudstone roofs of Muckross Head, the golden sea battered granite on the islands of Cruit, Gola and Owey, and two major mountain ranges in the county contain some of Ireland’s oldest and longest rock climbs. There are over 2,800 recorded rock climbs in Donegal to play on.
It is along the coastline of western Donegal where Ireland’s most unusual climbing locations live. Along the Western freeboard of Donegal is a collection of nearly one hundred sea stacks. The main residence of these gothic leviathans is the little known coast line of An Port in one of Ireland’s most remote locations.
Very few people have stood on these summits. Of the hundred, I have selected seven of the most memorable places to climb while tied on to the end of a dynamic rope. Each one of these sea stacks represents all that is great about adventure climbing, and each represents a different set of logistical and nautical problems. The commitment required and the sense of primal fear that accompanies these journeys has to be experienced to be believed. As always, a bit of logistics and planning is the key to success and safety. The use of less orthodox climbing equipment is recommended, such as: 600 meters of 6mm polyprop, a lightweight Lidl dinghy, a single lightweight paddle, divers booties, a 20ft Cordette, a pair of Speedo’s, heavy duty dry bags, 20 meters of 12mm polyprop, an alpine hammer, a snow bar, a selection of pegs, a chest harness / inverted Gri-Gri combo, and a big grin!
While playing on the surf, some of the more memorable moments have been paddling with dolphins, bull selkies, and a massive basking shark, all within 15 feet of my tiny Lidl dinghy a kilometre away from land. Alas, a moment of mild concern was had while taking a 60-foot screamer, landing in the sea and realizing there was an angel standing at the base of the stack.
Tory island is Ireland’s most remote inhabited island. It sits out in the Atlantic Ocean, 14 km to the west of Donegal. The island is an unusual wedge shape with the entire south face at sea level. The land rises to form a wall of exposed sea cliffs running for 4 km along its north face. Living at the base of the north face is a chain of four, 45 m sea stacks and a 50 m tower, known locally as the Toes of Balor.
All five of Balor’s toes provide excellent climbing on immaculate, sea-washed granite. There are currently two routes ascending Centre Stack with the landward facing arête providing the best route to the summit with excellent exposed climbing, which at first glance appears much harder than it actually is.
The Lighthouse Stack
The Lighthouse sea stack sits immediately below the lighthouse at Rinrawros Point at the north west tip of Arranmore Island. The land ward ridge on this sea stack is climbed at the very amenable grade of Difficult and provides one of the best routes of its grade in Ireland. The rock is immaculate Quartzite for the 85 meters of climbing.
Access is by a super scary 50m abseil down the black slabs facing the centre of the south face of the stack. It leads to a wee recess just above the high water mark. From here it is a short sea passage to the huge sea level platforms at the base of the stack's south face.
The easiest route to the summit follows the stunning 85m land ward ridge. The higher you climb the thinner and steeper the ridge becomes, increasing the exposure to an outstanding level. Every hold on this ridge is an immaculate jug and there is gear on demand all the way to the pin-point summit. A truly great route on an outstanding sea stack in an atmospheric and extreme location.
Stac an Iolar
Sitting at the South West tip of Arranmore Island lives the iconic Stac an Iolar, or Stack of the Eagle.
This 35m sea stack sits in the centre of a truly outstanding location in a monster amphitheatre of nautical sculptured madness. It is a short coastal walk from the main (only) road around the island to the clifftops overlooking this immaculate sea stack. The amphitheatre that surrounds the stack is a very atmospheric place to be. All of its walls are vertical or overhanging for their full 70m height. This bay catches all the prevailing south west sea motion, making safe nautical access to the base of the stack very rare.
The only route on this stack follows the groove up the narrow sea ward face and pulls onto the west face at half height. Graded XS and falling; not really a realistic option.
Living 300m out to sea just to the north of Glenlough Bay. This 20m high sea stack is in one of the most beautiful and remote locations in Ireland. It sits 300m out to sea from the lonely bay to the north of Glenlough Bay. To the south you have the vast expanse of Glenlough Bay continuing along the West coast to Tormore Island, and to the east you have the north coast of the Slievetooey Peninsula. Its location attracts the conflicting tidal streams from both the south and north west, causing a colossal amount of white water violence in the bay surrounding the base of the stack.
Standing on the summit will leave you speechless, as it is truly an astounding place to be.
Cnoc na Mara
Living in the shadow of Tormore Island, Ireland’s highest sea stack, is the sea stack Cnoc na Mara. When I first saw this 100m high, unclimbed stack from the cliff tops, it inspired me to climb every one of the one hundred unclimbed sea stacks in Donegal. It is safe to say this stack represents all that is great about adventure climbing. Its soaring, 150m long landward arête provides one of the most rewarding and adventurous rock climbs in Ireland. It is easily an equal to the mighty Old Man of Hoy off the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland.
An ascent of Cnoc na Mara involves a very long day with a steep, grassy descent followed by a 50m abseil onto a storm beach at sea level. As you descend this steep slope, Cnoc na Mara grows with height, reaching epic proportions as you get closer to the beach. Gaining the beach is an adventurous undertaking in its own right and is an excellent taste of what is to come. From the storm beach it is a 120m sea passage to the base of the stack.
The Landward arete is climbed in four pitches, each pitch being much more atmospheric than the last. The fourth pitch is the money shot: a 58m ridge traverse with 100m of air on either side of you as you negotiate the short, steep sections along this outstanding ridge traverse.
Gaining the summit is like being reborn into a world where anything is possible. It truly is a surreal and magical place to be. The whole world falls away below and around you, as you stand on a summit far from anything else. The descent back to sea level is an involved affair including two abseils and great deal of care and guile.
This twin-headed sea stack called An Bhuideal (The Bottle) sits approximately 300m out to sea at the base of a 250m high sea cliff ridge. It is a bit of an icon and all three of its routes to the twin summits are excellent, exposed rock climbs.
Access to sea level is by a steep scramble down the huge ridge on the headland to the North of the stack followed by a 30m abseil to a superb storm beach facing the beast from the north. A 300m paddle from here along the landward edge of a series of outlaying skerries will take you to the base of the landward face of the stack.
The main tower is the taller, southern one and contains two Severe graded rock climbs up the landward face to its summit.
The slender North Tower, which looks like an old fashioned milk bottle from the sea, provides one of the most exposed and thrilling rock climbs in Ireland. At the amenable grade of VS, this route winds its way up the landward and north face to a tiny sloping summit. The summit feels like it sways slightly as you sit on it. The abseil off this summit is not for the fainthearted as it is incredibly exposed and relies on a summit cairn as the primary anchor.
An Port is quite simply the most beautiful place in Ireland. The road ends at the sea at the end of a 20 km, winding, single-track road. Stretching out along the coast on either side of An Port lives a collection of about 40 outstanding sea stacks.
An Staca, known locally as Bud an Diabhal (The Devil's Penis), is the most obvious sea stack when viewed from the An Port road end. It is the black phallus sitting approximately 500m directly out to sea from the road end. There is a route up both its landward and seaward face and both provide excellent bold climbing on immaculate basalt.
Standing on micro summits many, many kilometres from anywhere with the knowledge that you are truly alone is the true embodiment of being the owner of dynamic rope!
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Iain miller is a mountain instructor living, working, and playing in Donegal. Visit his two websites, both of which talk an awful lot about sea stacks. http://www.uniqueascent.ie/ and http://www.orkney-seastacks.co.uk/.