It’s a brave new world!
The below is a recounting of an article I wrote for the Irish Mountaineering Club in 2016 regarding a foray into the world of sea stacks of the coast of Donegal. Over the years a few people mentioned reading it and laughing hard at our experience. I hope you enjoy.
As the evening drew to a close at Muckross Head we checked the forecast for Sunday 15th of May. The forecast was for another gorgeous day of wall-to-wall sunshine, barely a breath of wind and a flat Atlanic Ocean.
On a whim we decided we would chance our arm and head up to my friend Iain, to see if we could ‘borrow’ a dingy for an attempt on the ridge line of Cnoc na Mara sea stack.
I had been on Cnoc na Mara before in 2011 when Iain dropped myself and Wolfgang Schuessler off via dingy to the Seaward western face of the stack. We climbed an adventurous new 4 pitch route in a wild situation and named it Eurotrash. The highlight of that particular day was the downclimb of the VS ridge completing the first traverse of the stack. It was also a memorable day as on top of the stack we met our frineds Iain, Piaras, Colum and Barry. We also met Ricky and a few of his mates coming up the ridge as we downclimbed. It was a wild and magical day.
A knowing smile!
On Saturday evening I contacted Iain to see if we could blag a dingy for the day. We were informed to come ahead on Sunday morning as a dingy was available.
On Sunday morning we hung out in Caoimhe’s kitchen, drinking tea and recounting the days climbing we had the previous day at Muckross Head. As Iain was preparing to head out to meet ‘troops’ for a days play somewhere on the coast and we were under time-pressure, we loaded the trusty dingy up and thanked Iain. He smiled and then laughed, he knew what was about to happen! He knew there was a high probability our trusty steed would be set free onto the plains never to return.
We parted company and made our way to the beautiful and wild An Port.
An Port is in a wild isolated situation that feels real, raw and full of energy.
We arrived, packed a small rack, ropes, abseil rope and dingy then trudged up the steep hill that leads one on a magical journey along the coast. The walk along this coast line is worth the journey alone, as with each view over the sea cliff edge a new grouping of sea stacks comes into view, each more impressive than the previous.
The hike into the start of the descent towards the storm beach took us about 50mins.
We crossed the fence and started down the steep grassy approach slope. This leads onto the main steeper grassy approach slope and the opportunity to build an abseil anchor part way down the slope. We set up the abseil and abbed into the storm beach. It’s quite something to move down the grassy approach slope and then abseil into the storm beach as the two dominant stacks just loom bigger and bigger, Cnoc na Mar directly ahead and Tormore Stack to the right.
We busied ourselves inflating the dingy and sorting out the gear for the 110m journey towards the South East docking point.
Fulmars and Soloing.
As we reached the small ledge that I recalled from the 2011 trip Jason hopped off the dingy and created an anchor for us to tether the dingy and an intermediate spot to sort our equipment before setting off. As the swell was minimal it was quite straight forward to hop off and tether our compliant steed.
I had picked out the route from memory while on the storm beach which involves a climb from the ledge up and trending leftwards, onto another ledge and then a traverse leftwards towards the arete proper. Considering the climbing was DViff (ish) we decided to solo the first pitch which was where our real adventure was to begin!
While the climbing was not difficult there was clearly no room for a tumble therefore we moved focused and cautiously upwards. At halfway point on this wee adventure we both realised the rock quality was a little less reliable then the previous days solid Muckross Head sedimentary affair! With that knowledge we moved slowly upwards.
Nearing the top before the ledge I made what I thought was the final moves only to come face to face with a fulmar! I’d encountered fulmars before on various trips and knew the warning signs, the studied eye contact, the focused expression and the head cocked slightly back. Fulmar projectile vomit is a powerful defensive strategy which leaves a putrid smell that can never truly be removed from clothing!
Holding our breath we slowly downclimbed several moves, traversed slightly to the left and climbed past the fulmar, phew! Falling into the sea covered in fulmar vomit would have been quite exciting.
As we built the belay we chatted about the suspect rock, the solo and both our head spaces. Did we want to continue?
We also chatted about the sea and our situation on a sea stack in a remote corner of the country.
We decided to traverse to the next belay stance at the start of the arete proper and then make a decision if we commit to the arete or retreat. We pitched the traverse but the rope was an illusory safety support, as any fall would have been worrisome. We both arrived at the arete and made a decision to back off the route as once on the arete we would be committed.
The headspace between us differed and the decision was easy to make. We would retreat.
We tentatively reversed the traverse and then created an abseil back down our original solo, trying to avoid the fulmar, towards our trusty steed. On completion of rigging an abseil I set off down the stack and arrived without incident at the dingy ledge. I freed up the abseil rope and shouted ‘rope free.’ Jay started his abseil.
As Jay was abseiling I was relieved to see the dingy was in one piece as Iain had warned me about the stacks shredding the various chambers. But we had been careful and it paid off, phew no need to swim back!
Woosh…….. bumb…. glup!
Jay had dislodged a sizable bit of choss on the repel and it had smashed into the dingy, followed by an audible hiss.
I watched as it hit the dingy and sank to the depths, while the dingy slowly deflate and the genuine immediate reaction was to burst out laughing. Man, I laughed so hard.
As Jay came into sight I asked him was he serious about his lack of swimming ability, to which he responded ‘why?’
‘You just knocked a block off and it hit the dingy, we may need to swim!’
He responded, ‘F**k off.’
I cried with the laughter…. to this day it still cracks me up.
When Jay arrived at the ledge he looked at our trusty steed and witnessed it’s less than optimal condition. It was a sorry sight and we laughed hard.
After the laughing fit passed we assessed the situation and understood why Iain, who happens to be an expert when it comes to climbing sea stacks off the coast of Donegal, had chosen this dingy specifically. Our suboptimal steed had three chambers of air, floor, upper outer and main lower chamber. Thankfully we had burst the main lower chamber meaning our dingy was limply afloat via two chambers of air.
The decision was made to try to use the dingy to get to the storm beach. If the dingy was weighted and failed I would swim across with our two ropes, a single dry bag with kit and tether the rope to the shore.
But first we would test our suboptimal vessel and see if it would say afloat. Jay jumped in first fully expecting it to sink, but it didn’t. We then placed the equipment in the dingy, again fully expecting it to sink but it held it’s breath. Finally, I tentatively came on board and the dingy just about stayed afloat.
The sea was flat, the sun shone brightly and the only noise was our paddle moving through the silky water as we edged closer to the shore. Each movement towards the shore the ocean was caressing the top of the dingy as we we held our breaths. If our suboptimal steed decided to visit the bottom of the ocean we could certainly swim to shore but we’d loose all our climbing kit. Our twin-chamber Orca (vessel from Jaws) stayed afloat just long enough for us to get to the shore. As we stepped onto the storm beach we both had to laugh hard.
It’s never over till it’s over!
On regaining our composure, we sorted the dingy, climbing kit and rope into their respective bags then started the painfully long slog up the approach slope. The exit on this slope is a nightmare after a long day. We ascended the abseil rope we left in place, deconstructed the anchor, sucked in a deep breath and started up the slope.
On arriving at the top of the cliff we both had another good laugh as all the hardship was over and we could reflect upon our wee adventure. What a day! Neither of us cared a damn about having backed off or not reached the top of the stack, it was totally irrelevant.
We made our way back Southwards along the cliff towards Jay’s van parked at An Port.
On arriving at the van we were shattered but still buzzing from the days adventure.
We checked Google maps from An Port to Dublin would take us four hours, so we set off.
When is a grass verge not a grass verge?
The journey had just started, we moved about 4oom, when a car was coming towards us. The roads to and from An Port are single vehicle with the odd place to let a vehicle by. As the car approached us Jay pulled our new trusty steed in just slightly to let the car pass.
Then very slowly like a scene from the Matrix movies, the van toppled gently toward the passenger side and stopped with my window just about the ground! What the hell! We were both perplexed.
Turns-out the grass verge that looked stable was a ditch waiting to swallow the van. Again we burst out laughing, this was too much. We both hopped out of the drivers door and examined the scene, the van was practically on it’s side!!
What to do?
We decided I would stay with the van in case someone came along that may be able to help and Jay would go to a near by farm and seek assistance.
My Tractor is bigger than your Tractor!
So, there we were. We were having an epic day of adventure and it didn’t look like it was ending anytime soon. But as we both had a lot of experience of unexpected situations occurring during an adventure, it’s just another problem to solve and you get on with it.
About 50mins later Jay arrived back with and elderly farmer sitting on a tractor and son in tow. As is necessary, farmers are practical people and get to the point without faff or hyperbole. They assessed the situation, had a chat between themselves and informed us they would pull the van out.
They attached a tow-rope to the back of the van and readied themselves. The tractor slowly reversed and started applying pressure but it would not budge. They applied more force and the wheels of the tractor started to jump and shuffle a little.
After the initial efforts and swearing they switched seats with the son in the hot seat and the father giving directions. Again they applied force in reverse, but nothing, it would not budge. The father started shouting at the son and they applied more force in a final attempt. The situation was getting out of control and dangerous with tempers flaring, when finally the van shunted out of the ditch but in doing so the tractor shot across the road and ended up in the opposite ditch.
You could not make this up, I swear!
Now we had the van out but the tractor was firmly stuck in a deep ditch on the opposite side of the road.
Are you kidding me?
A few moments later a car approaches us and a local young farmer with his partner in their Sunday best hop out of their car and quickly assess the situation. The young farmer hops on the tractor and tries to get it out of the ditch but to no avail. He returns to his car and drive back up the road only to appear about 20mins later in a larger tractor just small enough to fit on the road. He had to remove an outer wheel on each side to just to use the road.
He attached a tow-rope to tractor number one and pulled it effortlessly out of the ditch.
Phew, it was finally over! We profusely thanked the three farmers and were blown away by the effort they were prepared to offer without a moments hesitation. We felt like complete tools for all the hassle but there was no judgement, just a practical offer of help and thoughtful effort.
Who needs an Epilogue!
Thankfully the rest of the journey was uneventful, but what a day.
On the Monday morning I rang Iain and informed him that indeed his trusty steed had been put to pasture.
He burst out laughing. He knew it would be highly unlikely that he would ever see his dingy again but he gave it to us nonetheless.
Over the course of one day we had an amazing adventure full of laughter. We also experienced the generosity of people that will enable and help without judgement. In these times of ‘dome and gloom’ be mindful that there are lots of generous and helpful people in your community.