Monday, 25 August 2014

Dunaff Head, Inishowen

 Living on the north west tip of the Inishowen Peninsula is the 230 meter high Dunaff Hill. This hill is hemmed in by Dunaff Bay to the south and by Rocktown Bay to the north, which in turn creates the Dunaff Headland. This headland has a 4 kilometer stretch of very exposed coast line running its circumference to a high point of 220 meters which overlooks the sea stack Bothanvarra.
 Bothanvarra is a 70m high chubby Matterhorn shaped sea stack which sits in the most remote, inescapable and atmospheric locations on the Inishowen coastline. It was until yesterday one of only two remaining unclimbed monster sea stacks on the Donegal coast.
 It was in 2010 when I first saw this stack but alas from this visit it did not look a viable proposition from the summit of Dunaff Hill in the rain and so it was buried in the to do list of epic proportions.

A successful ascent film Aug 2014

 Fast forward to 2013 and we were at Fanad Head to do a Failte Ireland film and abseil off the lighthouse. It was then that I saw the true nature of the beast and it was game on. A week later and a troop of four headed to have a wee look at gaining the stack from the summit of Dunaff Hill by gaining sea level and nautical passage from there. On this visit it was very apparent that this was a beast of a stack with major access and logistical problems but a lot was learned from this attempt and several cunning plans were formed.

An unsuccessful attempt film Oct 2013

 In October 2013 accompanied by a couple of troops (Sean O'Keefe and Julia) from London we descended the 200 meter high gully to the south of the stack to a monster storm beach at sea level. It was then a 300 meter sea passage to the base of the stack from here. On this occasion me made it on to the stack but alas the sun only arrived on the stack very late in the afternoon alas the entire stack was soaking wet and the climbing on the sea ward face looked very involved. We retreated and reascended the gully as evening began to approach.

Dunaff Sea Stack Oct 2013

Re-ascending the gully

 In May 2014 made a fourth attempt at the stack, this time with Louise O'Connor, with a slight change of plan we hammered in a stake and abseiled/scrambled down the steeper gully directly facing the northern tip of the stack. We descended this grotfest of a gully until about 20 meters above sea level alas with no sensible anchors and with 20 meters of steep slime covered slabs to the hideous boulder beach death drop below we retreated. Again from the position opposite the stack there did not look to be any easy way to the summit.
 And sho, with four attempts and having viewed all the approach strategies, a very cunning plan was hatched.
 It became very apparent from the previous attempts that this was an Uber stack of epic proportions, it was time to go it alone. 

A sea approach from Rocktown Harbour  

 It was now the 24th August 2014 and attempt five was underway, there was a 12 hour window of less than 1 meter swell and winds were blowing off shore for 24 hours. This time I was accompanied by Aiden McGinley as a clifftop photographer and a circumnavigation of Dunaff Head was the cunning plan. 
 We arrived at Rocktown Harbour and I set sail whilst Aidan headed of up to Dunaff Hill summit. The sea state was nice and relaxed as I paddled around the coast below the unescapable and extremely scary sea cliffs. After about 30 minutes and about 1.5 kilometers atmospheric paddling I landed on an offshore skerry approx 200 meters to the north of Bothanvarra.

View of north face from the stance

 From this sea level position the stack above looked like suicide and all round me in this very exposed wee stance the entrance to Hades became a very real doorway to the further. I decided to simply leave the stack summit to someone else as a rising tide of fear was beginning to dull the real world senses to a point where it was difficult to tell whether I was really there or simply in a dream after having drowned on the approach in the last 30 minutes.
Approaching the sea stack

 I got back in the boat and began paddling home through the channel between the stack and land. It was then with a lightening bolt of total recall, a crystal clear memory of a groove system running up the south face came to mind. I got into a position to view the south face, YES the groove system was there and it looked a very real proposition. Primal fear had been replaced with endorphins of the highest quality as I landed on the stack and hauled the boat and gear into a most excellent non-tidal stance.          

Climbing the sea stack

 The best way forwards from here was to simple freesolo the ground above until it became necessary to employ the inverted gri-gri climbing partner. The climbing was easy but very loose and just (and I do mean just) the right side of terrifying. I just continued climbing up through a huge hanging slab and bypassing monster roofs to my right, I found myself on the huge summit ridge. A quick glance at my feet and there was plenty of rock for abseil anchors, the sense of relief was overwhelming. It was now a scramble to the stacks highest point and I knew I could safely get off the summit, it was a bit like finding a hundred sets of lost car keys at once! :-)

Standing on Bothanvarra Summit 

 A swift scramble along the summit ridge on to the small very exposed summit. As with all wee adventures the summit only makes the half way point, but in the case of the unknown this summit marked the end of the uncertainty.
 With hindsight the uncertainty on the outward journey was the most intense I have ever experienced. Will I make the long unescapable sea passage? Will I be able to climb the stack? Can I then get back down off the stack's summit? These were three reference points of top end mental anguish which faded upon reaching this summit. :-)
 This stack is the second last of the unclimbed monster stacks in Donegal, with only one left and summer fading fast, looks like next year for a return match with fear. :-)

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