Saturday, 26 June 2010

Ireland Trip Part 2

We woke up the next morning with surprisingly clear heads and a sense of purpose. After being delayed for an hour or so whilst Leo told us why the Irish economy was “fecked”, we drove South East for a few miles to Muckross Head. The crag here was totally different to the other local crags, being composed of horizontally layered sandstone and mudstone. The mudstone had eroded away to leave great overhangs of sandstone above a friendly rock platform, which luckily wasn't being washed by the sea when we arrived. There are a few easier routes weaving their way through the overhangs between all the big E-numbers, so I set off up a VS called Primula. The climbing somehow managed to avoid directly climbing any overhangs, whilst still passing through some very impressive terrain, and it was thoroughly ace. Oli then had a go at the other three star VS on the crag, called Headland, which traversed for miles across the lip of another huge cave before finishing up an unlikely looking crack. Again, the climbing was great, and the positions very unlikely, and I even saw a school of dolphins pass by whilst belaying. A word of warning for other interested parties though: the belay at the top is a concrete post about 30 metres away from the top of the crag. As the route was 30 metres long and we only had 50 metre ropes, this meant I had to start climbing with Oli sitting in a small hollow thinking heavy thoughts until there was enough slack to reach the post. Eek.

After a quick spot of lunch we raced Northwards and inland heading for our second crag of the day, a big granite mountain cliff called Bingorm. Conveniently there is a road which passes within 15 minutes of the bottom of the crag and so come mid-afternoon we were sitting at the bottom staring up at a 130 metre three star HS called Tarquins Groove. The guidebook described the first two pitches as easy scrambling up to the foot of the large corner, 50 metres. I baulked at the steep greenery and tried to climb some rock instead, which left me some distance off route after a bit of exciting slab climbing, but at least anchored to some rock. Oli boldly tackled the vertical jungle head on, and eventually reached the foot of the good climbing looking somewhat afraid. It came as a great relief to both of us that the remaining four pitches were excellent and entirely on actual rock, more than justifying our travails in getting to them. Our descent back to the car wasn't entirely uneventful as we both found out that steep boggy slopes and flip flops don't mix that well, but eventually we made it down, unscathed but slightly damp of foot, and drove over to Northern Ireland that evening. We settled on a campsite in the middle of the biggest static caravan park I've ever seen in Portrush, and then spent a good 20 minutes wandering around looking for the toilets. For some curious reason they were disguised as a static caravan, which was quite a good disguise in an endless sea of static caravans.


Wednesday arrived slightly overcast, so we stopped off at the Giant's Causeway en route to Fairhead. I have to admit we were both slightly underwhelmed, but then I suppose climbers see their fair share of amazing rock architecture, and we were probably a slightly harder sell than most. It was certainly pretty cool, but I'm not sure I'd have wanted to travel very far to see it if I hadn't been passing already. Fairhead was an altogether much more impressive sight. Even the few hundred metres of hulking cliff you can see from the Ballycastle descent gully are an amazing sight, and it boggled my mind to imagine another few miles of that stretching off round the corner. I'd heard that the VSs were all impossibly hard, and the HVSs harder still, so we found the easiest decent route we could to start off on. Chieftan at VS 4b, 4b, turned out to be rather good and pretty fair at the grade, so buoyed by this we set off up Girona, a “high in the grade” VS 4c, 4c. The first pitch was brilliant and sustained, following a line of cracks and grooves to belay behind a massive detached flake. Oli's second pitch chimneyed up behind the flake (trying not to think about how attached it was) and climbed the wall above by a series of awkward high steps/mantelshelves, which were luckily aided and abetted by a few bonus jugs along the way.

Our first two Fairhead routes had been excellent, well protected, and fair at their grades, so we decided to have a crack at Hell's Kitchen, a 70 metre long HVS 5a, 5a up an obvious groove at the right side of the incredible looking Wall Of Prey. I led the first pitch, which turned out to be ridiculously well protected (one of the biggest challenges was not placing gear every 6” and then running out of quickdraws) and totally brilliant sustained 4c/5a climbing all the way to the belay. The second pitch was more of the same, although there was a little bit of added interest where the groove steepened at the top, but luckily a hidden hold made it all OK. After six long pitches we were pretty tired, so we headed to Maguire's Strand campsite and slept the sleep of the dead.

Suitably rested, the next morning we made for the Grey Man's Path descent gully at the other end of the main crag, although not before stopping to peer over the edge of the White Lightning Amphitheatre, an enormous bowl of 100 metre high crags stretching into the distance. Impressive stuff. We geared up in the sun at the top of the descent and wandered down to the bottom of Burn Up, another classic HVS 5a, 5a following another 70 metre high groove line. Mine was the first pitch again, and it was another cracker, perhaps slightly trickier than Hell's Kitchen, but no less well protected, and soon enough I arrived at the belay, a magnificent throne just to one side of the main groove. Oli followed me up and set off up the last pitch, which was billed as 25 metres of increasing difficulty to a ledge, followed by some 5a laybacking, eek. Luckily it turned out that the laybacking could be jammed instead, and we were soon both basking in the sun at the top of the crag again.


Next we decided it was time to pay a visit to The Prow, a 30-40 metre high section of crag with a couple of VSs, and no end of three star E1 cracks. We abseiled down the line of an E3 which looked like very hard work indeed, and I started off up The Fence, a VS 4c which the guide describes as “a VS which thinks it's an HVS”. Sure enough it was pretty stout and covered some very improbable ground for the grade, but the gear was once again perfect. It was probably one of the best single pitches of VS climbing I've ever done, although I'm not sure Oli agreed given the amount of jamming involved. Oli then led the VS next door, The Black Thief, which was a slightly gentler proposition, although no less brilliant. Sitting at the top trying to psyche myself up for Fireball, one of the E1 cracks, we noticed that another pair of climbers had arrived and set up a separate abseil line. This came as a bit of a shock, as we'd managed not to see another climber since Dalkey 5 days earlier. It turned out they were locals just out for a little after work climb. It must be odd having Fairhead as your local crag, surely everywhere else you go turns out to be a bit of a let down?

I peered over the edge, half hoping that the other climbers would be on Fireball so that I could pansy out of it and we could go and get ice creams instead, but they were on Railroad, so I was all out of excuses not to get on with it. I racked up with a ludicrous amount of extra gear (well the pitch was nearly 40 metres long and I didn't want to run out) and set off down the abseil with no small amount of trepidation. The route follows a crack which runs the full height of the crag and the lower section is a proper old-fashioned offwidth thrash. No small amount of effort later I found myself at the point where the crack narrows to hand-jamming loveliness. There wasn't much in the way of footholds, so it was hard work, and I kept trying to place entirely the wrong size of cams in the crack, which didn't help, but soon enough some very welcome jugs appeared on the left wall, and the crack opened up into a grove in which you could get a proper hands-off rest, phew! The last 10 metres or so were lovely open groove climbing, with a capping roof at the top which looked like it might be horribly awkward, but actually felt surprisingly easy with a bit of jamming and a high step, and suddenly I was at the top. It definitely felt like a proper E-point worth of effort! Watching Oli, a sworn jamophobe, second the pitch was rather amusing, although he cheated a bit by bridging around the initial offwidth rather than getting involved with it.

After all of that hard work I felt we deserved a drink, so we drove into Ballycastle, ate some underwhelming fish and chips, and wandered into a pub on the main street. There were some old men playing folk music in the corner and it felt like a proper Irish pub. Hell, I even tried the obligatory pint of Guinness, and it really did taste better. We got chatting to some friendly locals and somehow ended up spending the evening in a karaoke bar over the road. Mercifully everybody who got up to sing was either hilariously tone deaf or actually very good, and, against all the odds, it was a great night out.

After a bit of a lie in the following morning we struck camp and drove South towards the Mourne mountains. Most of the crags there have horrifying walk ins, but one, Pigeon Rock Mountain, is essentially roadside, so we made a beeline for there. After a bit of heckling about his lack of E1 leading the day before, Oli found an E1 5b called Phantoms which was described as excellent, well protected and low in the grade, which sounded like a good combination, so we rocked up to the crag and off he set. I turned out that “well protected” in the Mournes was a whole different kettle of fish to “well protected” at Fairhead, and although the gear was always probably enough to keep you from hitting the ground, it was never terribly reassuring. Thankfully the climbing was never too tricky, but it was nonetheless an impressive lead and I was glad I hadn't jumped on it. Descent was by abseil from a tangled web of pegs and vintage tat, so we replaced as much of it as we could and lowered back to the ground. I had a hankering for some slightly easier thrills after all that excitement, so I romped up a lovely Severe called Class Distinction and then Oli led a really excellent HS called Falcon. Football watching was beckoning once again, so we drove down into the coastal town of Rostrevor, which was well equipped with pubs and a campsite. Alas the campsite was full, so we ended up cooking our tea in the local park (classy) and watching the match in an empty pub, before driving up the valley a few miles and camping in a picnic area which may or may not also have been a local dogging spot (classier).

Our final day in Ireland was another sunny one, but we didn't fancy any epic walking-in, so we drove back to Dublin and made for Dalkey Quarry again (we found it much more easily this time). The place was really busy with climbers, people out for a stroll and sunbathers soaking up some rays, which made for a great atmosphere again. I started off bambering up a lovely little VDiff called Eliminate A, and Oli then decided to have a go at the adjacent VS 4b, Eliminate A Dash, which didn't appear to have any gear in it, but we had just watched some children happily top-roping it. It turned out to be a bit hard, so a couple of judicious side-runners were employed in the VDiff. Next I lead Streetfighter, a much better protected VS, and Oli led Yorkshire Pudding, which was one of the softest HSs I've ever climbed. VDiff would have been nearer the mark, but it was a great route. I couldn't resist a nearby HVS, just for the name, and Stereo-Tentacles ended up being a funky little number with great gear where it mattered, and a couple of weird crux moves. It'd probably be a lot harder for the short though. After this we decided we needed some shade and headed for the West Valley again, where Oli led Charleston Direct, a short but sharp VS, and I led E Route, a VS 4b with plenty of holds and gear (and not a great deal of 4b). The top was a bit exciting, but that was shared with a Severe! On reaching the belay some friendly sunbathers gave us some barbecued sausages, win for us! Next on the agenda was Mahjjong, a very thin and not overly well protected VS 4c, and Paradise Lost, a brilliant juggy romp at VDiff. At this point it was really time to get a move on to make sure we didn't miss our ferry, but we'd done nine routes and it seemed rude not to get into double figures, so Oli raced up a HS with an exposed and spicy finish called F Route, and we ran back to the car. We were a little bit later than we'd planned, so we only had half an hour to get from Dalkey to Dublin Port. We would probably just have made it if I hadn't tried to follow some road signs and ended up taking a massive detour right through the city centre. In the end we reached the port 15 minutes late, but a friendly Stena Line worker took pity on us, and we just squeezed onto the ferry before it left.

We got in to Holyhead at 1am on Sunday morning, so just threw the tent up in the North Stack car park. We woke early as it was another baking hot day and hatched a sensible and totally achievable plan to do Dream Of White Horses in the morning and then drive to Chester to drop Oli off for the 2:30pm train. This plan was further improved by the realisation that we only had half a bowl of Alpen between us for breakfast, but some other climbers took pity on us and gave us half a pain au chocolat in the car park. Suitably fuelled we marched over to Wen Zawn and abseiled down to the ledges above the sea. Neither of us had ever climbed in the Zawn before, and the situation was very intimidating. We spent an age trying to pick the line of the last pitch out, but couldn't work out where on Earth it might go. Suitably scared we started off climbing. The first, short pitch was easy enough, and the second followed a line of holds which just kept on appearing when all looked lost. The third pitch followed an obvious flake line, with an excellent supply of holds and gear, before dropping down to a belay in the weird rubble of the Concrete Chimney. From here the final pitch still looked unlikely, but rather more possible, and the sun was shining on the second half of it as an added incentive. Oli made short work of what turned out to be fairly easy climbing in a totally crazy position, and we were soon back at the bags. We felt like we'd been fairly efficient, so it was a bit of a shock to find out that it was already 2:30. Another race ensued, but we lost this one, with Oli just missing the 4:30 train. My drive back over Snake Pass was civil enough, and the trip counter just ticked over onto 1000miles as I pulled into the bottom of my road. What a trip!

Ireland Trip Part 1

It was a warm Friday evening in June the year of our lord 2010. I sallied forth from Sheffield in my trusty steed, the Astra, and collected Oli from Chester station. As is to be expected he was late (he blamed the train), but as is also to be expected, so was I, so we arrived at exactly the same time. We immediately piled down the A55 to Conwy, where we visited the marvels of Tesco, and then continued to Anglesey. We were bound for the campsite at Rhoscolyn, but neither of us had been there before and it turns out that the map in the Gogarth North guide is a little bit less than amazing. So we spent some time driving around tiny country roads in the dark just before midnight before eventually locating the campsite more through blind luck than anything else. We pitched the tent and slept.

Saturday dawned bright and earlyish, so we struck camp and moseyed on down to the port at Holyhead, where our ferry awaited. The crossing passed without anything of note happening, and soon enough we were deposited in Dun Laoghaire on the outskirts of Dublin. Our aim for the day was Dalkey Quarry, Ireland's premier urban climbing venue, and a mere mile or two from the port. In fact we could see the crag, but again the guidebook (well, the printed out pages from the online wiki for the crag I'd elegantly bound together the day before using work's ink and stationary cupboard) lacked a little in the specifics of how to get there, so we drove all the way round the crag a few times before finding somewhere to park. The quarry is a rather pleasant spot, atop a hill with views over Dublin Bay, with quarried granite walls of between 10 and 30m high dotted around the greenery. We headed for the upper cliffs and asked some friendly local climbers for recommendations. They suggested Thrust as the 'must-do' HVS of the crag (although we spent some time looking for a route called Trust before we remembered how Irish pronunciation works), so we decided to warm up on a VS and then get on with it.

It was Oli's lead, so he set off up Helios, a three star VS in the White Walls area. The granite didn't give a great deal away in terms of gear, and he got mildly harassed at one point before reaching a peg and a cluster of other gear, but the climbing was nice and soon enough we were back at our bags and moving on towards Thrust. The route follows a nice crack line for the first pitch, so I had no gear lacking issues, and the crux even featured a crucial knee-wedge, which was a bonus. Oli's second pitch was totally brilliant, with well protected climbing on super holds up a fairly impregnable looking section of rock. This boded well. Flushed with success we moved down to the West Valley for a look at another three star VS 4c called Pilaster. On first inspection there didn't seem to be any gear, so we asked a nearby climber and they told us there was a crap microwire at half height, but it was basically a solo. That didn't sound very appealing (or fair at VS) so we moved on to an HVS called Superette which clearly had plenty of gear. It turned out to be quite nice and rather soft for the grade, marvellous. We then rounded the day off with a spicy little VS number called Tramp which took an innocuous looking corner to a finish round a mean looking overhang. It turned out that the corner was about 5b, but luckily the overhang was covered in jugs and had a stealthy knee bar in it to aid progress. So, our first experience of Irish climbing was pretty positive, although the grading seemed a little varied, particularly with respect to the gearfulness or otherwise of the routes.

After some disappointing football watching that evening we decided to head for Donegal for a few days, so we set off and were almost immediately confounded by a toll-booth free toll motorway. The signs informed us we had until 8pm the following day to pay our few Euro toll, and that this could be effected either by phone or online. Possessing neither an Irish phone or ready access to the internet, this seemed a rather cruel trick to spring, but eventually I imposed on Avril to pay it for us. The rest of the drive went uneventfully (except for some mild confusion when we crossed into Northern Ireland without realising, I was expecting a sign or something), but ended with a midnight mini-epic trying to find a campsite. We finally arrived on a massive caravan park on the shores of a massive lake near Enniskillen, which had, amongst its more redeeming features, a covers band playing Kaiser Chiefs songs very loudly indeed until the wee small hours. Luckily our pitch was at least 20 yards away from the building they were playing in so we had a pleasantly quiet night, ahem.

The following morning was midgy and rather showery, so we continued Donegalwards, then onwards through Killybegs to Malin Beg, a tiny village on the tip of the North side of Donegal Bay. We could see it raining on the other side of the bay, but it was dry at the crag, which was a pleasant looking selection of walls and bays, with convenient ledges running beneath much of the climbing. The rock was pretty intriguing, somewhat reminiscent of North Pembroke's sandstone although with more weird pockets and less small crimpy holds, but apparently it's actually some kind of Quartzite. It was my lead, so I started off up Bosun's Ladder, a short, but friendly Severe, before Oli led the equally pleasant VS 4b Hydrophobia just next to it. A tricky approach past an ominous looking green pool, and a comedy foot-next-to-face high step manouevre at half height were the cruxes of the next route, Splashdown, and then Oli led a fun little VS called Trident, which had some interest from a wobbly crux hold, and the biggest suicide bugs we'd ever seen in residence at the bottom (suicide bugs are these odd little creatures you get at sea cliffs which are kind of a cross between woodlice and earwigs, but have a tendency to jump off the cliff into your eyes at every possibly opportunity). By this point the sea had come in a little, and the nice platforms we'd been basking on earlier (the sun had come out by this stage) were suddenly looking a rather dicier prospect, so we soloed three easier routes at a slightly higher level and then hunger forced us to set up camp and cook tea. As it happened this coincided with a brief shower, so we settled in for the night, camped next to a lovely natural harbour, all of 5 minutes walk from the crag.

Malin Beg:

Monday morning was pretty sunny, so we wandered back up to the crag and decided to abseil in to one of the longer routes, a VS called Second Mate. It was very amenable and full of gear, but its companion VS, First Mate, looked like a much scarier proposition, as did the apparent classic of the crag, so we bottled those and Oli led a geartastic HS called Calvin's Corner. As lovely a crag as Malin Beg was, we decided it was time to get exploring, so we drove a few miles up the coast to the improbably named village of Glencolumbkille, where we had tea, soup and scones in a proper Father Ted tearoom before visiting the even more improbably named Skelpoonagh Bay. Again the guidebook map was useless, just showing a generic bend in an unspecified road, with Peter's House marked in big letters on the corner. Later investigations revealed that Peter did indeed still live in the house in question, but reluctant to start randomly knocking on doors we just picked a promising looking corner and set off coastwards.

Skelpoonagh Bay and Glencolumbkille:

Luckily we had chosen our bend wisely and soon arrived at the top of the crag, which consisted of four large zawns separated by jutting headlands. The principle object of our attentions was a VS called Paradise In The Picture-House, which there was a rather cool looking photo of in the guide, and which was described as “phantasmagoric”. The route takes a rising traverse across a hanging slab above the mouth of a yawning sea cave, leading to a huge quartz vein, up which the route finishes, with a crux roof at the very top. With the waves crashing below the situation was very atmospheric, with the roof proving well protected, but requiring some burly jamming to overcome it. Needless to say Oli particularly enjoyed following that bit. We both chickened out of an HVS which started in the same place before traversing into a hanging corner directly above the sea cave, the guidebook description “change your trousers here and then bring up your second before you change your mind” worried us both a bit, so Oli picked an interesting looking VS called New Beginnings, which followed a striking thin flake crack up an otherwise featureless wall. The climbing was pretty sustained, building to a tricky crux high up the route, but the gear was all small nuts behind thin flakes which hardly inspired confidence, and probably put the route at the scary end of HVS, a good lead by Mr Gray! This chastened us somewhat, so we decided to try and find the campsite the guidebook mentioned in the village, with good, but clearly never to be fulfilled, intentions to return to climb in the evening.

After a brief search we located Dooey Hostel (apparently the oldest independent hostel in Ireland) up on the hill above the tea shop, and found a wonderful campsite in a wooded glade with an incredible view across the bay. The proprietor of the hostel was an amazing chap called Leo, who lived up to my every stereotype of Irish hospitality and then some. He supplied us with tea and a lavish plate of biscuits upon arrival and insisted we avail ourselves of the kitchen, shower and common room in the hostel, which we duly did, and spent a fabulous evening in the company of a couple of friendly Germans who were also staying there, playing shithead and drinking whisky until the wee small hours.