I drove through a kaleidoscope as I left Dublin behind for Donegal. A bruised and brooding sky, erupting into gold and violet as the sun tipped away over the edge of the world. Heavy storm clouds ripped apart by a heart-shaped slash of brilliant blue sky, the precise colour of the starburst vaulted ceiling in Rome’s Sistine Chapel, but even more heartachingly beautiful.
It was a promising start to my Sea Stack Climbing adventure with Iain Miller and Unique Ascent, although looking at all the seasons sweeping across the sky there was little chance of guessing the odds on the weather for the next day. I have learned that you don’t wait for a perfect day to ‘do stuff’ in Ireland; you just get out there, get wet and happy, and if the sun shines it’s a bonus. I was climbing Irish mountains for two years before I got a view from the top of Carrauntoohil and my world stopped when I realised with unexpected pleasure that this hiking lark had rewards that I had not even anticipated. Embrace Ireland’s weather and you learn to love the smell of rain kissed grass and dew kissed roses.
So if you’re going to fall off a cliff… make sure you do it with an expert on the other end of the rope! Thanks Iain Miller for keeping me safe and teaching me; and getting my butt in order and sharing one of the beautiful places of the earth with me…
The stunning Donegal sunset had slowed my progress because I kept stopping the car to try and photograph it and it was after 10pm when I arrived into the charming heritage town of Ardara, near Glenties, where I had decided to base myself. I booked into Woodhill House, intrigued by it’s history, with the site dating back to the 17th century and formerly the country home of the Nesbitts, Ireland’s last commercial whaling family. I found a warm welcome, fine dining, a turf fire and stories about the past, the present and the future, that brought me into the early hours before I remembered that I had an early start.
Waking up in my ‘garden room’ I pulled the drapes to find a patio leading into an ancient walled garden, and I couldn’t resist stepping out among the roses for a pre-breakfast stroll along secret pathways through well-kept flower beds, statues and copses; breathing in fresh rain-drenched air, in bright sunshine. Donegal had delivered. The rainclouds had done their worst overnight but now the paths and stone walls were drying quickly, in what your soul told you was going to be the perfect day.
I drove south through Ardara to meet Iain Miller, and felt excitement mixed with a little apprehension as my thoughts turned to cliffs and sea stacks and crashing surf and the thought of climbing among some of the highest sea cliffs or ‘stacks’ in Europe. Iain got embraced in a massive Teena hug when we met, partly because I was nervous and partly because although we had never met, I felt I knew him after following his exploits on YouTube. A sea stack is a sea cliff that is completely surrounded by water. Climbing one involves paddling out among the cliffs and waves,with your rope over your shoulder and a watchful eye on the tides and the weather. It’s a pretty extreme pursuit and our rugged Donegal coastline, unexplored for so long, is now gaining a reputation among international rock climbers who follow Iain’s intrepid adventures online, intrigued by some of the most beautiful, remote and atmospheric adventure locations in Europe.
Our beautiful sunny day brought us to Port Bay and Berg Stack which, given sea tides, winds and my lack of experience, Iain had chosen as my introduction. Some introduction, it looked enormous and very vertical and was that an overhang? I felt some reasons come to mind about why this wasn’t such a good idea. I’m nearly fifty, I’m overweight and I’m scared of heights. I have spent the last couple of years hanging off ropes and climbing mountains though, so I knew none of those excuses counted. I began tentatively suggesting to Iain that perhaps I might take too long to climb this heap of rock that was looking increasingly like Neptune’s church, but he smiled, assuring me that it would take ‘as long as it takes’.
We set off across fields to walk about a half a mile to the cliffs that we would scramble down to reach the sea passage to Berg Stack. As a hiker, I am used to avoiding cliff edges, so my apprehension built as we hopped over the edge and started down, but Iain’s calm demeanour helped reassure me. We were chatting easily and I was enthralled with everything around us; the sweeping vistas, the gulls screaming their alerts, the blue of the sea, the crash of the waves. I was constantly grinning with sheer delight. I was aware that although we were chatting away, I was being observed and studied and judged by a seasoned professional who was already making judgement calls about what route to take and what my ability and nerve were likely to be when we got on the rock. I knew instinctively that I was in safe and experienced hands. Confidence building, we reached sea-level and I watched as Iain rolled out an inflatable boat, paddle and pump that he’d been carrying under one arm as we scrambled down the cliff. I was amused at how effortless it all appeared as he got busy making ready for our sea crossing. We made two crossings, one to carry the gear and one to carry me, and then we were ready to start.
My mind went somewhat blank as I stood at the foot of ‘Berg’ and I had to snap myself back to reality to tie a figure of 8 in the rope and start concentrating on how to belay. We checked each other’s harness and I took the rope as Iain began to lead climb, placing metal protection into the cliff along the way, which I would later remove as I followed his ascent. He danced up the cliff with tiny movements of hands and feet, smooth and confident. I knew it was unlikely he would make an error, but I measured out the rope and stood my ground, fresh from the briefing where he’d cautioned that it’s sometimes when climbers are confident that accidents can happen. Reaching the top he shouted clear and pulled in the slack, ready to take my weight as I began to climb.
The rock was warmed from the sun, powdery and slightly abrasive to the touch as my fingers reached up to find their first grip. Toes finding steps in the rock as I began to follow the route up. The sun was warm on my shoulders, the waves crashed against the base of the stack, and I was totally alone, just me and the rock. It’s a unique experience and it is pretty immediate as soon as your feet leave the ground. I felt like I was following a puzzle for adults, feeling for grips, looking for toe-holds and moving steadily upwards. I was breathing a little heavy and I wasn’t sure if that was from lack of fitness or exhilaration, but I wasn’t under any pressure, I felt my confidence growing. When you climb, or scramble, you learn to keep three points of contact; two feet and a hand, or two hands and one foot. Basically you maintain contact with the rock while you reach for your new position. I learned a valuable lesson, as I climbed. Three points of contact doesn’t mean 2.5 or one and a bit. As I reached my left hand high for a new grip, the chunk of rock I was holding with my right, detached from the cliff and fell nosily to the sea below. I started, lost my foothold and fell, momentarily, before the rope held and I quickly regained purchase on the cliff. “Are you being dramatic Teena?” the accented drawl curled down the rope from above, and I smiled as I shouted back that ‘yes I suppose I was’. The slip didn’t affect my confidence, in fact it emboldened me, my fellow climber was minding me and all I had to do was climb. Iain gave me some instruction as I climbed towards the narrow tip; about keeping my centre of gravity neat, my bum tight to the rock, and climbing with my feet and legs rather than my arms. I learned lots, and when I pulled up over the top, I felt like I had earned lots too. The view from the top of the world is stunning and the sense of achievement made me feel invincible.
We hung there a while, basking in the sunlight, avoiding the occasional low-swooping attack from nesting gulls, talking easily and enjoying the simplicity of loving living. All too soon we left, and I felt that I back-climbed like a dancer on tiny points, to the surf below. I loved this, I didn’t want to leave, and I know I will be back. Unique Ascent says I can come back too, especially if I return again with sunshine.
Heading back to Ardara, I swung out to Loughros Point, marvelling at the beauty of Maghera Strand. Moving on a little further on the advice of locals, I took a swim at a little cobh called Trabane Beach, famous for rounded sea-stones that no one could tell me how to spell; but phonetically, Downing Rocks or Darling Rocks, depending on whose accent you were listening to. I heard tales of a fort in a lake with underwater standing stones that I could row to, a waterfall that floods at high tide, walks tripping with megalithic tombs and stones, reminiscences of a brief holiday by the sea-loving poet Dylan Thomas, a seashore wetlands nature reserve, seal colonies, caves, horse riding on the beach…. I have no more time here and as I leave I wonder if this is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets? I certainly accept that I have lots of work and fun ahead, because I have already decided to come back and Discover Donegal.