Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Donegal Rock Climbing. Gull Island

 Living at the base of Slievtooey's north coast in one of Ireland's most remote and isolated locations, there lives a 100 m high flat topped island. The island sits approximately 6 KM from Maghera caves to the east, 8 km from An Port road end to the West and 4.5 KM from the nearest place to park the car to the south. Whichever way you approach Gull Island it is a long way across open, unpathed and rarely visited uplands.
 Access to the raised shingle storm beach which separated the island from mainland Donegal is by a 100 m steep grass / loose rock down climb and scramble.
 This marathon walk in and careful descent of the surrounding slopes takes you to an outrageous location as you stand on a huge horseshoe shaped raised shingle storm beach surrounded by a majestic back drop of the 300 m high sea cliffs of Slievetooey.  
 But it is what stands out to sea in front you that instills your first rushes of primal fear. The landward face of gull Island is quite simply an enormous 150m aréte of near biblical proportions. Standing at the base of this aréte tying into your rope and preparing to climb is where your internal battle with your inner demons begins. Inversely it is also what makes this type of adventurous rock climbing in potentially very serious locations one of the most foolish and rewarding activities it is possible to participate in.

Gull island Rock Climbing film

  It was in April 2009 that I made the first of many visits to this island, in attendance on this first visit was Martin Bonner and Andy Mcinroy. At this time both Gull Island and stack behind it were unclimbed. Our intent on this first visit was to climb the 80 m high twin summited sea stack off the seaward face of Gull Island but alas due to Neptunes rage and us being scared we opted for the "less chance of drowning "option of the landward aréte of Gull Island.
 Martin and myself climbed this monsterous aréte in three very dangerous feeling pitches. We used three pegs at the top of the first unprotected 45m pitch and placed an abseil stake on the summit and backed it up with a cairn. All in all an excellent and mildy terrifying day at the end of a rope.
 The original route description I gave Gull Island kind of speaks volumes of the type of climbing ans situations involved.

Gull Island   XS 5a   145m
 Pitch 1: 50m 4a To the left of landward aréte climb the soaring corner crack until the grassy rake. Traverse upwards and right to gain the aréte proper. Two good gear placements in 50m, fall and you will die)
 Pitch 2: 50m Climb the aréte by a very atmospheric scramble and up the jenga tower to the perched boulder at it's summit.
 Pitch 3: 45m Crimp left and up superb rock and continue to the summit by your easiest convenience.     Iain Miller, Martin Bonner 24/04/09

 Many thanks to our cliff top voyeur Andy Mcinroy, Andy's Photographic site is HERE.

Gull island, Donegal

 And sho, with these rather worrying memories lurking in my head it became time for a return visit to Gull Island and it's landward aréte. In attendance on this occasion were Aidan Mc Ginley and Louise O'Connor, both Aidan and Louise have been doing work experience with Unique Ascent over the summer as part of their FAS outdoor instructor course. And what better way to finish a work placement than a visit deep into the Realms of Chaos.

Storm Beach at the base of Gull island

Pitch 1

 And Sho, Gull Island round 2. We left our homes at an unsociably early hour in the morning and had a clandestine meet up and car share in Ardara to our real world exit point on the south face of Slievetooey. It was a misty, wet and pretty miserable two and a half hour walk over Slievetooey to the cliff tops overlooking Gull island and Satan.
 A swift abseil over the 100 m high edge and we pulled the Ab rope and scrambled / down climbed onto the huge storm beach. It was indeed the scary place that I had stored on the back shelves of memory as we racked up and prepared to climb. Louise and myself were to climb whilst Aidan was our photographer.

Pitch 1

 I led pitch one very carefully digging about for any meaningful gear placements and with a modicum of relief reach the tri-peg anchor at the top of the 45 m pitch. In total seven gear placement alas only three of them would have held even the smallest of falls and up came Louise.
 At the top of this pitch, 45 m above the storm beach we crouched on the 10 cm mud ledge as a passing shower paid a brief visit.

Pitch 3

 On pitch 2 due to the instability of the 15 m jenga tower, I built another peg belay on solid terra firma and Louise joined me for tea and tiffin.
 Pitch 3 is the beast in the back garden as you edge your way higher and higher above excellent gear amidst a sea of uncertainties. This pitch has a vast selection of unpleasant charactaristics which include a crimpy slab and an overhung jug haul to the salvation of a huge flat topped summit and it is a most outstanding sumit.
 Louise and myself had a wee wander around this football pitch pitch sized summit and all too quickly we began the descent.

Crux Moves on Pitch 3

 The descent from the summit of Gull Island involves two 50 meter abseils and a wee bit of guile and rope trickery in the middle section and we were back on the beach.
 with the addition of the peg belay at the top of pitch 2 and the digging about for gear placement I have altered the route description to allow for a more up to date idea of what an ascent of this stack involves.

Gull Island   E1 5a   125m
 Pitch 1: 50m, 3a. To the west of the landward aréte climb the huge corner crack until it terminates. traverse right and ascend the ramp to gain the aréte and a tri-peg belay. (3 good gear placements in 50m, fall & you will die)
 Pitch 2, 25m. Continue up the aréte by a very atmospheric scramble to the big block overhang at the base of the boulder field. (2 peg belay)
 Pitch 3, 50m, 5a. Climb the stack boulder field to the two big boulders perched on top. Crimp left and ascend to the summit through the two rock bands

The summit of Gull Island

Rock Climbing is not a spectator sport?

Gull island Panoramic

 Fear is not a negative emotion, fear is an understanding we have nothing to fear.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Tormore Island, Ireland's highest sea stack

 There are few places on Earth that can compare to the surreal nature of the coastal architecture that surrounds Tormore Island. This island sits at the southern end of Glenlough Bay at the far western tip of the Slievetooey coastline in South West Donegal.
 Living approximately 300 meters out to sea from the storm beach at the Entrance to Shambhala, resides this huge island/sea stack. At about 160 meters high Tormore Island is Ireland's highest sea stack and it stands guard over a truly outstanding collection of sea stacks and towers in this very inaccessible and mildly scary location. Surrounding the sea approaches to Tormore are the 100 meters high Cnoc na Mara, Lurking Fear, Hidden Stack and the 100 meters high Cobbler's Tower.
 This really is a surreal place of giants, the routes to the summits of the giants are all in the Donegal Sea Stack Guide and this guide only really scrapes the surface of the climbing potential of the Donegal coastline.

A paddle around Tormore Island

 Access to the base of the Tormore involves a 3 kilometer clifftop walk from the An Port road end and a 250 meter scramble down to one of two storm beaches at sea level. It is possible to access sea level from both The Entrance to Shambhala storm beach and An Chlochán Mór storm beach below Glenlough Bay. Each of those exit points for the sea crossing present it's own set of potential marine difficulties and both are very dependent on a specific set of nautical conditions and tide phases. Each of these two sea passages are of course equally emotional.
 From sea level it is then a 300 meter sea passage to the narrow channel separating Tormore Island from Cobbler's Tower. Cobblers Towers is Donegal's highest free standing tower and is connected to mainland Donegal by a series of suicidally loose ridges and collapsing minor towers. What this essentially means is the approach and possible escape from the labyrinth surrounding Tormore is by sea passage with no sane over land entry/exit points.

 Commitment to the task in hand is the key. :-)  

  Tormore Island (South View)

 The channel separating Tormore from Mainland Donegal is a nautical labyrinth comprising 4 major sea stacks and the Cobbler's tower massif. These five major land masses work well in conjunction with the myriad of smaller outlaying tidal skerries to produce a stretch of very difficult to predict tidal conflictions which unfortunately produce a great deal of white water violence.  

Tormore Island (North View)

 It was in August 2008 aboard a 240 HP driven R.i.B. four troopers left Burton Port bound for Tormore. On the R.i.B. was Alan Tees, Peter Copper Pete McConnel and Myself and off course captain Paul Bathgate. The short story of that day out and the First Ascent of Tormore Island is below.

The First Ascent of Tormore Island.

 It was in the midst of a monsoon at 7am on a wet and dark Sunday morning that four troopers gathered on Burtonport Pier. In attendance were noble brothers Peter Cooper, Alan Tees, Pete Copper and myself, we all sat in the impending gloom as the dark vertical rods of rain from the blackened sky rained down on our cars.
 The object of our collective desires was the summit of the 160 meter previously unclimbed Tormore Island, Ireland's highest sea stack. Alan and Myself had made several attempts at taming this beast in the past, so by default the approach of choice today was to be by R.I.B. Our noble stead was being Captained by Paul Bathgate, a veteran of nautical misadventures along the Donegal coastline. Our noble stead it's self was a 76 mph monster of a R.I.B. and we were on our way.
 Now I'm not sure if my fellow cohorts knew what to expect when I mentioned using this type of vessel for an attempt, but upon setting sail and Captain Bathgate opening the throttle a tad, the white knuckles and blank expressions from the troopers spoke volumes.
 It was indeed excellent to see that after 30 seconds of this adventure that we were already mildly terrified.
 Ten minutes later we rounded Torneady Point at the Northern tip of Arranmore Island and into very atmospheric seas and for the next 40 minutes we got a bit of a nautical kicking as we pounded up, over and through 20 foot walls of white nautical rage. Words can't describe our journey from Arranmore to Tormore Island suffice to say it was very emotional indeed.
 As we arrived at Tormore Island it was under siege by the legions of the damned and they were riding monster white horses, Neptune was in attendance and was furious. Our fearless and mildly insane Captain navigated the channel separating the stack from Cobbler's Tower, sensory overload had already been well and truly reached and breached as we entered the cauldron of angry white sea in the pits of hate. After 10 minutes of pretty amazing boat handling skills four wide eyed fools were left on a non-tidal ledge at the bottom of the landward face of Tormore Island.
 With a "See you at Four" our boat and Captain screamed out of the channel and into the maelstrom. 
 And Sho, as ordered the rain stopped and the Sun came out. 
 "Lets cane the beast" we all cried in unison.
 The first 45 meter pitch was an excellent affair of V. Diff climbing up superb quartz and growing atmosphere to an excellent block belay at the very edge of the abyss.
 We were climbing caterpillar stylee, which means as three troops met on a stance, the next pitch is led while the fourth trooper is ascending the previous pitch. 
 Anyways, as Peter Cooper came up pitch one, Alan Tees led off up pitch two of slabby mixed ground to a lofty perch below the monsterous roofs which loomed above us in the middle distance.
 Pitch three bypassed the roofs on the left and had a modicum of exposure and atmosphere as further mixed ground took us to a huge ledge and superb tri-peg belay stance. Thankfully the discovery of this belay meant we could now definitely abseil off this stack, a minor point of concern I had been giving due consideration all morning.
 Pete McConnel hoovered up pitch 4, it being a vertical celebration of mud, grass and grot with 2 useless runners in the first 30 meters, it was a rude awakening to stack world for Noble Brother McConnel. The summit ridge was reached and a solitary block belay in a huge ocean of green was found. One by One we scrambled the last 20 meter grass ridge a spectacular summit at about 160 meters above sea level. 
 Photos were taken and evidence of previous visitors sought, we found no evidence of any previous visitors.
 We made an abseil descent of our route, 4 X 45 meter abseils using the now insitu peg belays, took us to our non tidal ledge to await our lift home.
 Being last to abseil, I arrived at the ledge to a very ominous silence. The seas were now crashing either side off the channel and every forth wave threw thousands of tons of green on to Hidden Stack about 40 meters away opposite us. This was absolutely outstanding to stand and watch but alas it was not so good for our travel arrangements as we had no sleeping bags.
 "What do you think?" Asked Brother Tees
 "Aw, it'll be fine." came my confident reply. Internally I considered us to be in a spot of mild peril.
 And so, for the next half hour we sat in quiet contemplation, and with a bang, into the channel of rage came our noble stead listing at 50 degrees to Port and riding a monster Greeny, full astern and Captain Bathgate and Crewman Mike Crowe got thrashed about in an astounding display of seamanship, our mighty vessel was getting an almighty nautical kicking. Several passes of our ledge and with the luggage was safely stowed on board, our noble stead spent the next 10 minutes in the center of the cauldron riding the chaotic seas.
 "RIGHT, I'M COMING IN AGAIN, I CAN'T SAY IN HERE ANY LONGER, GET IN!" came our orders from our now slightly manic Captain Bathgate and in he came and a single nano second later we were all in the boat.
 "THANK F*CK FOR THAT!" our nautical maestro roared as we crashed through the green to exit the channel and out onto the high seas.
 Now that, Ladies and Gentlemen was a high end emotional exit from a sea stack.
 The journey back to Burtonport was bumpy, but in full daylight and sunshine it was excellent sport. Half an hour of wave bouncing later saw us into sheltered water between Arranmore Island and Burtonport harbour, it was at this point Captain Bathgate gave the beast full throttle and 60 mph + we arrived in Burtonport Harbour, a bit like flying on a very very low flying Plane.
 Tormore Island Route

 Tormore Island   VS   220m
 Grid Reference G556908. At 160m high is Irelands highest sea stack and is the daddy of Donegal's sea stacks, it can be seen from Dungloe, approx 40 KM to the North East. 
 This route climbs the very obvious landward arete at the eastern end of the island. This feature can be clearly seen from any position along this coast overlooking the stack. Access to the stack is an involved affair and a boat approach is recommended.
 Descent is by 4 50m abseils down the route using the block and peg belays described.
 Pitch 1. 45m Starting on the non tidal ledge in the centre of the landward face, directly opposite Hidden Stack. Climb the blunt arete to the right of the basalt vein, follow the corners and ledges on superb quartz to a large block belay.
 Pitch 2, 40m Continue up the blunt arete on slabby mixed ground to a large ledge below the huge capping roof. (Peg Belay)
 Pitch 3. 45m Climb direct to the left end of the huge roofs on excellent rock, with an increased awareness of your surroundings. Pass the roof on their left and continue up the huge shallow gully on mixed ground to a large ledge. (Peg Belay)
 Pitch 4. 45m Climb direct up the vertical grass to the exposed summit ridge, scramble along the ridge for 15m to a large block belay.
 Pitch 5. 20m scramble the grassy ridge to the summit.
 I. Miller, P. McConnel, A. Tees, P. Cooper 10/08/08

Glenlough Bay Approach

 There are/were two sea stack along the Donegal coast that on their first ascents the bases of the stacks were accessed by the use of a R.i.B. and an outboard engine, these two stacks were Tormore Island and the 120 meter high Giants Reek Stack off Aranmore Island. I always thought this was a tad unsporting and just lately Aiden McGinley and myself made an unmotorized landing on Tormore island, alas we only climbed the first two pitches (100 meters) and abseiled back to sea level due to oncoming wind and rain. We are currently awaiting a suitable day with Neptune in a good mood to return to Tormore and make a full unmotorized ascent of the stack. 

Landing on Tormore

Climbers on Pitch 2

climbers on pitch 2

Top of Pitch 3

Summit of Tormore Island

Hidden Stack & Cobbler's Tower from Tormore

Cnoc na Mara & Tormore from Cobbler's Tower 


Thursday, 1 August 2013

The most remote location in Ireland.

 Sitting off the north coast of the south west corner of County Donegal in one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of Ireland lives a collection of sea stacks and mini islands. This archipelago is collectively known as the Enchanted Islands and living at the base of the 300 meter high north face of Slievetooey and at a shade over 300 meters out to sea, these islands reside in one of the most remote, unspoilt and beautiful locations in Ireland.

Pyramid Stack Film 2013

 It was on the 29th of June 2010 I went for my first wee visit to this remote outcrop as I had a very strong suspicion that the highest point of this archipelago was still at that time unclimbed. As it was a very early morning start on a mid week day I could not persuade anyone to join me on this wee adventure into the then unknown. This was a successful ascent of the largest sea stack's highest point but not without a moment of mild concern as the wee dingy was visited by a family of intrigued bull seals.

Pyramid Stack   Severe   160m
 Grid reference G583920 This twin headed stack was first climbed as an East to West traverse(& return) Access is by a 5 KM cliff top walk from An Port, followed by a 300 meter steep grass descent and a 300 meter paddle around the grassy island which sits between the highest stack and mainland Donegal. It's location is mind blowing and is prone to massive seas. This is a very serious stack.
I. Miller 29/06/10

Slievetooey North Face

View from the clifftops

Looking from "The Unforgiving" Sea Stack

 Fast forward three years and a return visit to Pyramid Stack was made on 26th June 2013 with Andy Cronin during a spell of outrageously hot sunny weather and flat calm seas. We descended to sea level and paddled out from the same launch point as was used in 2010. We were joined by the same family of seals on the paddle to and from the stack. There was no sign of the great Skua which lived in the descent gully in 2010 and also gone were the dozen or so Fulmar nesting pairs on the west end of the main island. It may be my imagination but there seems to be a great deal less sea birds living on the western freeboard of Ireland than 5 years ago.

 When the sun shines there are few places on earth that can compare to the natural unaltered beauty found on this stretch of coastline in South West Donegal. What this coastline provides for the perhaps more adventurous rock climber is the largest collection of adventure climbs and sea stack routes in such a small geographical area on earth. With Cnoc na Mara and An Bhuideal as equals in their adventurous status as the better known Scottish Cousins, The Old Man of Hoy and Stoer.  

View from the summit of Pyramid Stack