Sunday, 10 July 2016

Free Soloing on Tory Island

Tory Island Rock Climbing

   And Sho, as the summer wears on with its usual mix of tropical and not so tropical days, the current to do list was crying out for attention. Quite near to the top of the list was a rather cunning plan to free solo the landward face route on Centre Stack just off the north face of Tory Island. (Tory Island guidebook is HERE)   

Centre Stack Film

   Centre Stack (more detail HERE) was first climbed in 2009 by Phillip "Chuck" Stevens and Martin Boner, they climbed the full stack height arete running up the sea ward face in two pitches. The second ascent of the stack was in 2011 when Wolfgang Schueller and my good self climbed the slightly intimidating looking landward arete at Severe.  It was then, in 2011, that a first thought that this route would make a superb free solo began to manifest itself.

   Free soloing is quite simply climbing without any ropes or other protection, so for most part a fall will potentially be terminal. The moral of the story is you can not fall, which in turn focuses the mind onto the present in a way that very few other activities ever could. Of course, it is not without a bit of concern that you endeavour to play out in this manner.

Overlooking the stack from the clifftops

   Once the decision to free solo the stack was made it was simply a case of waiting for the weather, tides and sea state to all play ball and once the planets have aligned in a suitably calm manner then the games begin.
   On the Sunday in question I caught the 11am ferry from Magheroarty on mainland Donegal and travelled the 14km out to Tory Island, this meant I had to be back on the cliff tops on mainland Tory by 5pm latest to catch the ferry home. I have found that time is the key to gauging progress in all activities where concern can overwhelm. For me it is a mini internal relief valve as I always have a cunning timescale in which pretty much each stage is double the length it realistically needs to be, a bit like John Cleese in the film Clockwise. It is also a case of ticking as many unknowns as is possible before they become a problem. The case of a sea stack on Tory Island the greatest unknowns are sea state and weather, especially the amount of sea motion in the channel between the stack and mainland Tory. This 50m sea passage is prone to monster seas as it is open to west to north seas and off course being 14km west of Ireland in the Atlantic it is never easy to gauge from the mainland of Donegal.    

The short paddle out

   Arrived on Tory at about 11.30am and after an audience with The King and Moira ni Gallagher I headed across the island and at this point I was moving as quick as I could. Up to this point it was only an educated guess as to whether the sea channel to the stack would be crossable or whether there was too much west to north sea on. Once overlooking the stack from the clifftops it was game on, a bit of northerly ripple in the sea below but nothing to stop the mighty dingy on its voyage of foolishness. 

Looking up the route

   A swift rigging of the 50m single from the clifftops to the storm beach below and I abseiled to the Tory mainland exit point on the house sized boulders below. It is only once the process has began that the sense of equilibrium can be achieved as it is all to easy to say, no i'm too scared and simply stop and return to the Tory Hotel to drink coffee with Moira.
   I inflated the dingy and made the short calm crossing to the base of the stack. Once at the base of the stack I decided to only take one of the 6om half ropes as weight and the overhanging start of the route made me feel a bit uneasy. This would also mean finding a second abseil point on the stack as a single 60 was going to mean two abseils from the summit back to sea level. This was a minor cause for concern but was vastly overshadowed by the weight of the second rope and the ever spiraling thoughts of falling.   

Climbing the route

   And Sho, I began to climb, the first move of the ground is the hardest and makes you commit to a bit of a lunge for a flat hold. Once you reach the hold you bring your feet up to a small stance and begin to feel sick as you are now committed at 5 ft off the ground, 30 ft above the sea, 100ft from mainland Tory at the base of a 45m stack and below a 50m sea cliff surrounding you from the Tory side, which in turn is 14 km west of the Donegal mainland. You are, off course totally alone having told no one where you are or what you are doing except "heading out to Tory."
   It is now, once you are committed to the climb that real mind games begin.

Standing on the summit of Centre Stack

   I climbed a couple more moves onto a good big sloping ledge, where Wolfgang took a belay on the first ascent, 7 years previous. From here I followed the easier angled cracks to a bulging overlap at about 25m above the sea. Climbing through this overhang is by far the most exposed part of the route and a couple of big easy moves on jugs takes you to a stance above the nose. Standing here was the moment I knew everything was going to be good, as the climbing above was nice Severe ground and I also now knew I could abseil in two pitches from the summit on the doubled 60m.   

The Toes of Balor

   Sea stack climbing is an extremely foolish activity in which the consequence of getting it wrong can be death. Free soloing sea stacks is a mind bending game in which each and every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Alas the odds are also heavily stacked in the sea stacks favour with hundred of good reasons why this is a bad idea. The equal and opposite side of this is the overcoming of primal fear and loathing that comes from meeting and facing the inner you, your most tricky opponent.   


Sunday, 20 March 2016

Ireland's Highest Tyrolean Traverse

Tyrolean Traverse

   "A Tyrolean Traverse is a method of crossing through free space between two high points on a rope without a hanging cart. This is used in a wide range of mountaineering activities: rock climbing, technical tree climbing, caving, water crossings and mountain rescue." Wikipedia

   Over the years I've rigged a number of these traverses and have ensured the safety of approx 500 happy troopers at the step of the edge of a cliff moment to haul themselves along the thin semi-static above the void to the other side of many chasms.

   The most public of these traverses was a couple of years ago on Berg Stack in south west Donegal, when a team of 12 international bloggers and journalists took a step off the edge. This was the first of the "wonder what is possible" traverses and opened the possibility some very scary locations.

Berg Stack Traverse

   And Sho, to the present day in an ever present quest I've been on the constant lookout for suitably outrageous traverse locations. The higher, longer and the more remote the better the location. There are currently 11 on a list in a descending order of foolishness. The first on the list is the highest location I have found in Donegal and required a day of uber sun and a willing team of gear carrying sherpas. :-)

   Derryveagh Mountains

   Alas by their geological make up, the mountains of Donegal have very few suitable traverse locations as there are very few deep and steep sided gullies. An exception to this general rule is The Rocky Gap which sits at 590 metres above sea level on the west facing slopes of Drumnaliffernin Mountain at Grid Reference B933155. This huge and spectacular is home to outstanding grade 1 winter climbing, when off course winter visits Ireland. 

Tyrolean Traverse Film

   And so, with the continued tropical sunshine a team of four set off on 16th March 2016 to rig a traverse across this high and lonely gully. In the house were Conall Ó Fiannachta, Conor Ó Braonáin, David Lee and off course my good self.
   We parked as close as we possibly could on the Doocharry to Churchill road which reduced the walkin to a 2 km uphill pathless amble up the granite slabs and heather. For a traverse of this span (70 meters) we were carrying a 200 meter semi-static rope, 32 HMS lockable carabiners, a full multi pitch rack and each of our personal climbing gear. The youngest two in our merry band of uphill plodders took it in turns to carry the 200m static rope which quickly became known as "the pig."

Summers day walk in

 An hour or so later, we arrived a bit redder in the face at our intended launch point and began rigging the doubled 200 meter static across the void. This part of the rigging process takes by far the most amount of time. Rigging the static involved finding and placing 6 anchors at each side of the gully and equalising them to two independent points. 

Rigging the Traverse

Rigging complete

 A couple of hours later and with the rigging, tensioning, checking and re-checking completed all that was left to do was to step off the edge. Alas as this was my idea for a day out, I was first up to test the rig.
 There is nothing quite like stepping off a cliff with nothing but a couple of very thin strands of rope spanning a huge void in front of you. Once you are air borne and all the dynamic and static parts of the system are loaded it is simply a case of lowering your heart rate and hauling across the open air with massive amounts of exposure all round you.  

Leaving the exit point

From Below

Gully View

 To date this was the highest and longest tyrolean traverse rigged in Ireland and it has opened the door to the next potential traverse across a much longer span above the ocean. 

Air Time

Head of the Gully

Walking Home

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Dunaff Head Inishowen

The First Ascent of Bothanvarra

 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 huge Dunaff Headland. This headland has a 4 kilometre stretch of very exposed and very high sea cliffs running along its western circumference to a high point of 220 meters at which it overlooks the sea stack Bothanvarra and Dunaff Head.

Bothanvarra Film

 Bothanvarra is a 70 meter high chubby Matterhorn shaped sea stack which sits in the most remote, inescapable and atmospheric location on the Inishowen coastline. It sits equidistant from the bays north and south and is effectively guarded by 4 kilometres of loose, decaying and unclimbable sea cliffs.

 It was until the 24th August 2014 one of only two remaining unclimbed monster sea stacks on the Donegal coast.

 It was in 2010 when I first paid a visit to the summit of Dunaff Hill and caught a first glimpse of Bothanvarra. Alas this was on a day of lashing rain and with a pounding ocean and so it was buried in a todo list of epic proportions.

Inishowen Rock Climbing

 Fast forward to 2013 and we were at Fanad Head to do a shoot Failte Ireland film and abseil off the lighthouse. It was then that I saw the true nature of the beast from a totally different perspective from across the bay and so it was game on. A week later and as a troop of four we headed to have a wee look at gaining the stack from the summit of Dunaff Hill by descending to sea level and a 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.

 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 we made it on to the base of the stack but alas the sun only arrived on the stack very late in the afternoon and alas the entire stack was soaking wet and the climbing on the sea ward face looked very involved. We retreated and re-ascended the gully as evening and rain began to approach.

At the base of 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 us we retreated. Again from this position just above sea level directly opposite the stack there did not look to be any easy way to the summit, which gave a mild note of concern.

 And sho, after four attempts and having viewed all the available approach strategies, a very cunning plan was hatched. 

Climbing Bothanvarra

 It had by this time become very apparent from the previous attempts that this was an Uber stack of epic proportions and it was now time to go it alone. This is not as foolhardy as it may first appear as logistically and practically being along on such an endeavour, as it reduces potential collateral mishap but alas increases the commitment and fear factor to epic proportions.

 It was now the 24th August 2014 and attempt five was underway, there was a 12 hour window of less than 1 meter swell from the south west and winds were blowing off shore for 24 hours. This time I was accompanied by Aidan McGinley as a cliff top photographer and the cunning plan was a circumnavigation of Dunaff Head by small inflatable dingy to access the base of the stack and solo climb to the summit. 

 We arrived at Rocktown Harbour, the bay to the north of Dunaff and I immediately inflated the mighty vessel and set sail whilst Aidan headed off up to Dunaff Hill summit. The sea state was nice and relaxed as I paddled around the coast below the unescapable and extremely scary ever growing sea cliffs looming above me. After about 30 minutes and about 1 and a half kilometres of atmospheric paddling I landed on an offshore skerry approximately 200 meters to the north of Bothanvarra. From this sea level position the stack towering above me looked very much like suicide as all round me on 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 having already drowned on the sea approach in the last 30 minutes.

Standing on the summit

 I returned to 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 paddled into a position approximately 150 meters to the south of the stack to view the south face, YES the groove system was there and it looked a very real proposition. Primal fear had now been replaced with endorphins of the highest quality as I landed on the stack and hauled the boat and gear onto a most excellent non-tidal stance.          

 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 to create abseil anchors, the sense of relief was overwhelming. It was now a scramble to the stacks highest point and I now knew I could safely get off the summit, it was a bit like finding a hundred sets of lost car keys at once! :-)

 A swift scramble along the summit ridge on to the small very exposed summit. The summit ridge of Bothanvarra is an excellent 50 meter ridge scramble along a true knife edge with an ever growing sense of exposure as the death drop either side of you increases to a 70 meter crescendo at the pin point summit. As with all mountaineering objectives the summit usually only marks the halfway 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 the fear.