Words by: Will Gadd
Photos by: John Price
“Climbing is recreation, recreation is British, and we aren’t British!” That’s the beer-fuelled pub explanation I was cheerfully given for why so few of the epic sea stacks and fine lines along the west coast of the Republic of Ireland have been done.
But what’s the climbing like? Pick your favourite local crag, the one you can hit the quickest from wherever you are. Now imagine showing up at that crag, or a world-class one, where very few of the routes had been done and there were even multi-pitch sea stacks just waiting for a first ascent. Now add in endless pubs, good food, friendly locals, and a long history that helps explain why so little climbing has been done in a place that’s a member of the European Union and fully first world. This shot is from our first climb on day one on Ireland’s highest (until this picture) unclimbed sea stack. This 60m pitch started with some of the best rock I’ve ever climbed, and ended with my fingers dug as deep into some of Ireland’s green “turf” as I could claw. “Turf” implies dirt to me, but in Ireland it’s basically condensed shrubs, sheep droppings and enough moisture that somehow nothing really rots into dirt. You can dry the turf and actually burn it, which is the traditional way of heating houses in a rocky land with relatively few trees.
The turf on top of this unclimbed sea stack was missing the sheep deposits, but I couldn’t find a rock solid enough to belay my climbing partner, Iain, up. So, I stepped over the top, climbed down, dug my feet in and yelled, “On belay!” I use that tactic a lot while guiding and alpine climbing, but here I was relying on the friction of the turf to help me hold a fall; and, it worked as Iain took a short one when a block the size of a sheep pulled out and splashed into the sea far below. While the last 10m were among the worst choss I’ve ever climbed, the first 40+ were absolutely impeccable climbing in Ireland’s bright sun. Yeah, that’s right – there is sun in Ireland!Halfway up Chaos Stack, I couldn’t stop smiling. I’ve been putting up new routes on rock for more than 35 years, but this one was special. It began with a call from a Scottish climber I had never heard of (Iain) asking if I wanted to come climb some sea stacks off the coast of Ireland. The pictures weren’t the highest quality, but I love sea stacks. They are the flip side of desert towers, rock icebergs battling the elements. There’s just something cool about standing on top of icebergs, desert towers or sea stacks. I said yes to Iain’s email, but it still took another couple of years to get it going. I wish I’d gone sooner. This may be the most fun I’ve ever had on a 5.9. For the record, you can keep your feet on for the last pitch of this new route on Pyramid Stack but it’s a lot more fun to flip them all over the place above the crystal waters of Ireland’s coast. It just has to be done. John Price and I have worked together a lot over the last few years and developed a sort of telepathy about what’s going to make a good shot. This was on the FA, not set up beforehand. Normally on an FA you just get ‘er done and don’t pose. But shit, it was so much fun, and I knew by the sound of John’s shutter that he was digging it too. I’m a shutter click junkie, John’s the dealer, and the drug we share is climbing.Hmmm, maybe a guy could climb up that 5.11 finger crack, swing over onto that hand crack and be climbing an arch above the ocean…. and maybe stem that gap for a rest? We used kayaks for a lot of our approaches as it was an easy way to see a lot of rock quickly. Many of these routes wouldn’t be approachable without paddling. Yeah, it goes!! There’s about 10K of excellent cliffs along this one section of coast and about six routes. The pillar to looker’s right hasn’t been climbed, nor has anything else in this shot. Iain started to laugh when I would completely lose my marbles at the possibilities in just one area, paddling in circles like a dog that’s jumped into a lake after a stick that’s too large.Part of going on a trip to a new area with a photographer is working together to slay Instagram. I didn’t really need to climb back up the rope after rapping off, but it seemed like a fun thing to do and it would make a good shot, so off I went… and an epic shot was born.Headjam! A few years ago I decided that modern helmets were light enough and streamlined enough that I was going to wear one all the time when rock climbing. I’ve had enough close calls with rockfall, even at supposedly “clean” sport areas, that I just decided it made sense to wear a helmet. You can see it clipped off to the back of my harness here, because I couldn’t get the smooth plastic with the very expensive Red Bull paint job to grip the rock. It’s one of the only times I’ve found wearing a helmet to ever be an issue. Fom 5.13 sport redpoints to trad desert climbing, it just makes sense. Here, I broke my rule because I really wanted that rest! Maybe a helmet with sticky rubber on it next?When I was 16, I learned to climb granite cracks on the cliffs of New Hampshire and it’s been a love of mine ever since. I love the technical challenge of balancing getting good gear with getting pumped stupid, building solid placements rather than rushing it and walking the edge without falling out of control over it. This is a combat shot John took of an FA on a flaring overhanging crack that was somewhere around 5.11. Had it been in the Smoke Bluffs of Squamish or the Gunks of New York, there would have been a line at the base of it every weekend. But in Ireland? It was one of the best granite FAs I’ve ever had the pleasure of bleeding on. So good!I can tell by Iain’s body position that he’s ready to go if I fall off. You can look at it as either a negative in that he’s figuring I might fall or a positive in that he’s concerned I might fall and prepared to do something about it. In sport climbing, partners are a little more interchangeable than they are for harder trad climbing. You want someone on the rope who knows the game and will jump into the sea to shorten your own fall. Iain is an instructor for the Irish guiding association and rock solid as a partner. The tides are a big part of seaside climbing. Iain and I wanted to climb a new route on the steep side of this sea stack and timed it so we’d arrive roughly when the tide was low. The waves were big enough that the tendinous, barnacle-encrusted land bridge was still getting regularly swept by waves. You had to watch the breaking water in the distance in this image, then choose your timing to run across the exposed rock before the next set turned the same spot into a psycho washing machine of froth.At high tide, the ledge where Iain is belaying gets pounded. The tides along the coast are over 2m. I though this crack corner would be pretty hard when looking at it, but it went at about the best 5.8 or so I’ve ever climbed. Two pitches of stellar rock over a pounding sea – perfect!What is there to say about this other than Ireland has some epic climbing? So good!Desert towers… sea stacks… icebergs… summits… they’re all always good. Somehow, the more isolated they are, the cooler they are. The sporadic rock bridge we’d run across to access the sea stack was a deadly washing machine of raging water when it came time to get back to the mainland, so we swam it. We again had to time the sets, like surfers looking to avoid the waves and choose the spot where the water was the slackest. I fortunately brought a Mustang dry suit, which made the swim drier but still really freaky to me, the non-sea guy. I like rock, ice and rivers, but the sea seems a bit treacherous to me. Michael Reardon died soloing sea cliff routes when a large wave ran across a long flat rock ledge and dragged him into the sea. I thought of his bold soloing as we timed the waves; you can never beat the ocean, but you can get out of its way. We stayed out of the way before soloing out an easy and beautiful corner to a lighthouse. I’d brought my lightweight Gin glider to Ireland in hopes of flying the coast, though wasn’t overly optimistic given Ireland is supposed to be rainy. But, summers in Ireland do have long periods of dry weather and the granite dries incredibly fast with the sea breeze. We had day after day of sun (I actually got sunburned!) and it’s far enough north that the days last forever. On this evening, I pulled my glider out of the bag thinking I could maybe kite around a little by the cool old defensive keep. Instead, I wound up soaring for hours over the sheep, turf and even more excellent bouldering just waiting for someone’s chalky fingers. I’ve spent thousands of hours of my life “recreating” like this, and judging by the shouts of encouragement coming up from the cars that came by, recreation may yet take off in Ireland. I don’t regret one day I’ve ever spent climbing, flying or just exploring new places with great people. A huge thanks to Iain from Unique Ascents, John Price, Arc’teryx, Tourism Ireland, and Red Bull for making this trip a reality. I hope you get psyched to check out your own new routes and learn some history.