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!