The poem "When Erin first rose" is a beautiful homage to Ireland by the famed poet William Drennan. In its words , Ireland is the Emerald of Europe, "with the sparkle and shine of the most precious stone". In his exuberant tone you can sense the pride spilling out of the verses, making the small island stand proud of its affable people, lush landscapes and untamed sea. And I agree with William Brennan, Ireland is a gem. But it comes to climbing, I think it's still a hidden gem. The quality of its climbing has been in the public domain for a long time, but relatively few people from outside the island venture out to search for its magic. And there's magic to be found for those who try.
Our trip started brewing up last October, when Rob Greenwood and I started making plans for Ireland and Owey Island in specific. Having been there once before and trying unsuccessfully to get to Owey Island due to the weather, I knew the crux would be getting the right weather window. Other teams that have visited before seemed to have had no problem with the weather, but having been buffeted before, I wasn't going to be turned away this time. So to that effect, I spend most of the week prior to departure glued to my computer screen checking Atlantic pressure charts, which is what you really need to predict long term weather patterns for Ireland. And it wasn't looking good. I even packed guidebooks for Orco and the Alps, as the weather across the UK looked unconducive for climbing. But on the Friday before departure I saw this two magnificent high pressure systems making their way to Ireland. This was our chance to strike. But first, we had to endure three days of rain. Except, if you looked closely, Pembroke was getting some sunshine. There's always space in our hearts for Pembroke. So we quickly made use of our flexi ticket on Stena Lines and change our ferry to depart three days later. Our psyches were mutually amped as Pembroke holds a very special place in both our hearts.
The three days spend in Pembroke where a whirlwind of activity, as we climbed ourselves into oblivion just in case the weather turned bad. But the weather never turned bad, of course, and I was left trying to keep up with Mr. Greenwood legendary stamina. My only request to him was a warm up day since I hadn't done any trad for the best part of half a year. That thought quickly went out of the window when I found myself contemplating a factor 2 fall onto a free-hanging belay above the sea on the second pitch of "In One Door" (E5 6a, 6a) at Mowing Word. All that for a warm up. A few ups and downs later, I finally settled for climbing up, putting some OK gear and lower to the belay in yo-yo style. I did send that 6a pitch eventually despite the poor style, but it certainly was a rude awakening and it seemed to set the tone for the rest of the trip. I had a feeling I was going to be inelegantly dragged up a few routes on this trip. The next couple of days I spent basically failing to get up any E5's I tried to lead or second (All at sea, Class of 86, 1984 and Beat Surrender) but there was a glimmer of hope when I managed to drag my sorry ass up the impossibly steep "Punks in the tearoom" (E5 6a) at Bosherston Head. And with that, after a tummy full of the St. Govan's Inn goodness, we set off on was going to be my only rest day in a while, the drive from Pembroke to the west coast of Ireland.
Our arrival to Donegal was relatively smooth other than we almost royally fucked up. Upon calling Dan Gallagher, the boatman who does the crossing between Cruit and Owey Island, revealed that he had retired from doing that job and Charlie, his replacement, was on holidays. Rob worked his best magic for Dan end up saying he didn't want to see anyone in "a spot of bother", so he came out of retirement to get us both across to pursue our all-consuming obsession. According to my carefully laid-out plans, we should have a wonderful weather window for 2.5 days. And what a weather window it was, bloody roasting it was just standing at basecamp. That first day we chilled for a bit and then went down to the Donkey's Pelvis zawn to check out Rainshadow (E4) or The Itchy Nose (E6). After loosing the best part of 40mts out of our 100mts ab rope, we realized that most of the routes were gopping wet, despite this zawn having some jaw-dropping unclimbed lines, we settled for the classic HVS Donkey's Pelvis with the E2 finale.
After the nice appetizer, I thought it would be beer time and prepare mentally for next days challenge at the Holy Jeasus wall. But I could just see the twinkle in Rob's eye before him saying "What do you think if we go a do Immaculata now?". The psyche was pouring out of his being, it was impossible to say no. And in fairness, you have to strike while the iron is hot and it was a beautiful summer's evening in a magical location. So I run down back to camp to get my good rock shoes and before I knew it was at the bottom of Holy Jeasus wall. It must have been around 8pm and the sky was burning the orange granite of the towering wall above us and I just couldn't help myself being stunted with awe. Seconding Rob on the first 6a pitch I just knew things weren't going to go well. I felt tired and the drive rest day hadn't been enough to replenish my withered arms. Regardless, with a bit of a rush as the setting sun threaten a drop in temps, I racked up and set off woefully underprepared up the main pitch of "Immaculata" (E5 6a). I only made it up about ten meters up the wall when I basically my hands opened up and just grabbed onto a piece of gear. Boom, there you go, I blew it. All that for dreaming about this route for the best part of a year. Anyhow, that shouldn't ruin the ascent for both of us so I quickly reassured Rob that at least one of us should get a clean ascent. We re-geared and Rob set off questing upwards as the sun was setting and my torrid attempt turned into a shivering belay. Whilst attentively paying out rope, the usual thoughts of failure kept revolving around my head like a washing machine. "Why am i so shit at climbing? Why did I start climbing so late in life? Why I wasted my youth raving in the Barcelona?... and on, and on... Rob, as expected, applied very effectively to the granite his well-practised Gogarth pinch that got me so pumped and got to the top despite some harrowing moments. As I topped out, seeing his ear-to-ear grin, I realized that this climbing malarky is more than just numbers and ego, but about good times with good people, making memories for the tomorrow. On the walk back to camp the thoughts of failure quickly disappeared and got replaced by a sense of bliss and feeling incredibly privileged to just be standing there, looking at the shimmering water on the last light of dusk, witnessing the beauty of that remote island. I guess years of being humbled by experiences has tamed my ego. The rat needs feeding, but the soul does too.
We woke up second day to the sweltering heat of overcooked tents. It was only 7am. After the coffee pleasantries, we heard Dan approaching our camp on his quad bike gibbering something in unintelligible Irish. But I could see he was handing us three beautifully beefy lobsters together with a disposable BBQ. And then I understood, he said "O brought ya breakfast!" My god, we do we even start with this. Rob is a strict vegetarian (not that we told Dan), and so I sheepishly ask Dan how the hell I'm supposed to cooked this beasts. He explained in a blasse manner. We thought about taking them back to the sea, but then thought of Dan seeing us, or finding the lobsters half dead laying on the beach, would be a sign of disrespect after all he had done for us. But none the wiser about the whole debacle, we left them in the shade for further deliberation and set to pack for another day of sensory overload.
It was a hot day. A really hot day. I just about managed to lead an E2 called "Pride of Kincasslagh" in the heat, but we quickly retreated back to came to cool down by swimming and chilling. The granite was hot to the touch. So at about 7pm we made the abseil back down the Holy Jeasus wall again. This time I lead the first pitch, knowing that the top main pitch goes at around E6 and the chances of me onsighting that were nil. Rob again put an sterling effort and dispatch the pitch and only at the top I saw him struggling a little to stay attached to the rock. I enjoyed seconding the route as I was getting into the swing of that style of climbing, but still, had to hang on the rope. So suitably pleased, dehydrated and tired, I put my thoughts about this wall behind me, perhaps one days I'll return for a match. But for now, we had some lobsters to deal with and cold beer to crack open.
The following day, according to my plan, we had a half a day of amazing weather and then the low pressure system would make its way south dumping on Owey. Rob being suitable sated and me picking up the pieces of my ego and nursing aching arms, we decided to call up the man Dan for a ride back to Cruit Island. I had a glorious morning in my wetsuit exploring the waters of Owey whilst waiting the distant hum of Dan's engine.
We made our way south with no clear plan other than to go in the opposite direction of the low pressure system. The crags that we were interested on were south anyways, them being Ailladie and Black Walls of Kerry. But as we drove south with intermittent showers, Rob suggested we might stop at Muckross head to check it. Having been there once before and found it impossible to climb on due to seepage, I was keen a a second rematch. Upon arrival it soon became apparent that my dreams of having a rest day would soon vanish as the sun would boldly follow our footsteps. And so with that, we geared under the rudely steep "Stormy Petrel", and outrageous E4 sticking out of the sandstone headland. I went up first, and by now I was very psyched, so I tackled the roof with all my jamming skills and brute force. My arm jam came unstuck and off I went downwards. I lowered off and Rob had a go with the same fate but he managed to put some more gear. I did second go and so did Rob. I enjoyed so much that I climbed a third time to second Rob and strip the gear. Next we had another giggle on "Elvis", an E3 that would be more at home in Rodellar that in Ireland, again, a roof but this time littered with the biggest holds imaginable. After this nice "rest" activity we retreated to the van to watch the bad weather come in.
The next two options were to either hit Ailladie or try and go questing in the cliffs of Kerry following a tip-off. Once I checked the forecast for Ailladie I realised we were in for a treat on the Mirror Wall since it was wall-to-wall sunshine, with mild wind and no swell. I disclosed the news to Rob and he suddenly lit up and proceeded to furiusly thumb the guidebook. As we approached the crag in good time (it's a 5hrs drive) it became apparent that my vague thought of potentially sneaking in a rest day in wasn't going to happen. We parked the van on the characteristic limestone pavement of The Burren to be greeted with the most encouraging weather, a mild breeze, positively warm and scorching sunshine.
Without saying a word we started to pack the bags to head down the crag. As a leisurely start, we headed to the Aran wall and pointed Rob to "Kleptomaniac", the classic E3 of the crag. I could see in Rob's manic grin that he was liking the crag. My only agenda for this wall was "Blockhead", an E5 6b that I saw on my last visit and looked every bit exciting. Since I knew the forecast was going to be good, I figured, despite being my arms in tatters, that this was going to be freshest I'd be and my best chance to get this done on this trip. So without further ado, I got racked up and involved in the slick overhanging limestone. Luckily for me the crux was powerful and at the start and managed to find enough RP's to suggest I ought to try hard for once. Which I did, and got to the top in good style. I sat at the top savouring my modest success watching the sunset. As Rob topped out with his now characteristic manic smile I knew he wanted more, and I lowered him off to save time and to told him to go and have a look at "Ice Queen" (E5 6a). As I approached the base of the route I found Rob geared-up and looking at me like a greyhound before the gate on race day, gagging to go. I warned him of the bold start and pointed at the crucial peg he had to aimed for and he was off. He seemed to relish in the discovery of hidden RP's and the lack of any other substantial gear. After his quick ascent was finally time for a rest in one of my favourite van spots just a few hundred meters down the down from the crag.
The day dawned like I expected, totally primo for the Mirror Wall. We started with one of the easiest propositions with "Virtual Image". Despite having the reputation of being a soft E4, I learned not to take things for granted in Ireland and so I got prepared for a battle. I was pleasantly surprised to find the route really straight-forward with a ton of gear and massive holds to take a breather and take in the amazing situation of the Mirror Wall. Once I blew off the intimidation of this magnificent wall I certainly felt more at ease. Next one up was another amazing E4, "The Cutter", which was certainly a notch up in difficulty. The quality of the route was equally match by the amount of superlatives coming out of Rob's mouth. After these two mega pitches I was pretty worked and handed the baton to Rob, who chose "Refraction" (E5) as the next target. After abseiling in the wrong spot he chose to go for "Through the looking glass"(E3) instead, as a nice easy way to get out of the wall and climb another classic. We made our way through the boulder beach to the bottom of the route and to a comfy starting ledge. As soon as Rob departed from the starting groove it became obvious he had to actually try a little and superlatives turned into expletives. I had a chuckle to myself and felt relieved that even his stamina had a limit, that he finally was feeling tired. Maybe now I had the chance to slow that pace a little and maybe even dream of a rest day. As soon as I stared climbing it became apparent this wasn't your ordinary E3. The climbing was savage! I kept inching my way up the wall but had to take a rest on the rope at some point. Topping out we looked at each other wide-eyed, Rob was in slight shock how hard he found the "easiest" route up the Mirror Wall. But I just had this nagging feeling that this just could not be right. And true enough, a quick glance at the guidebook revealed that he had just casually onsighted "On Reflection", a meaty E6 6a. The wide-eyes turned into the standard manic grin and all was good in the world. I think his beer tasted better than mine that evening, deservedly so.
The third day awoke with yet another arm-blasting forecast, but my arms were far from blasting anything. I related the news to Rob, but his seemingly endless energy was just too much to sit idle. So I agreed to belay duties, in which he made light work of the outrageous "Wall of Fossels" (E5), sampled the delights of "Gallows Pole) (E2) and had a mildly concerned look on his face on "Desolation Row" (E4).
On our fourth day we decided to lower the volume, so we settled on me doing "Quicksilver" (E5 6a) and Rob doing "Refraction" (E5 6a). Both routes were in my ticklist but I liked the look of Quicksilver better as the cracks looked less crozzly and appeared to have an intense but short-lived section. We had very leisurely morning at camp to let the sun do its thing burning the morning smeg off the cliff and to steal a few hours of recovery. By the the afternoon we were at the bottom of the far right end of the Mirror Wall and looking up at Quicksilver. A bit giddy with excitement I set off and found the route fairly straight forward, very much my style, a short sections of hard moves with great gear and bomber finger locks. Glad with a neat ascent we moved over to "Refraction" which turned out to be a whole different beast. I had a total power out at the crux and slumped on the rope. Glad I chose the easier of the two routes. In fairness to my "sack of spuds" performance, it did look like some good holds were missing on the hard part.
My tank had been on empty for a while, but on the fifth day I hit the bottom and I could only muster an epic ascent of "Through the looking glass". Only an amenable E3, but I had to fight all the way, my forearms felt they were bleeding inside. I don't think I've ever power-screamed on an E3 in my life, let alone all the way up the route. At the top I realized that was it, I had nothing left to give. I went over to belay Rob on the amazing-looking "Sharkbait" (E5 6b) but decided to jumar up to strip the route rather than second. I was done. I suggested to Rob to head back home earlier and he sounded positive. Seeing the sated look on his face I think he had overdosed on high-quality, world-class, hard climbing, and was ready for the come down.
The party had been good.
This trip to Ireland has made a big impact on me and the talented Mr. Greenwood. You can read more about Rob's more professional and complete write up here