Ever since my friend Sarah Hueniken took a trip to the East Coast of Canada to climb sea stacks off the coast of Newfoundland together with Will Gadd, I knew this was something I had to experience. I finally got my chance during our recent trip to Ireland with Columbia Sportswear and Failte Ireland at the end of June.
County Donegal in the northwest of Ireland features the most climbable rock in the country, offering a couple of mountain ranges and over 2800 recorded climbs in the area. Spanning many different grades, there is something here for everyone.
Sea stack climbing is a wholly unique adventure—most of these towering beasts precariously perch in inaccessible locations at the base of huge sea cliffs in the most remote corners of Ireland and require varying lengths of sea passage to access. Add to that the generally uncleaned routes where wildlife, crumbling granite, lichen and grass are common, and you have all the makings of an epic day out.
Iain Miller, guide and owner of Unique Ascent, has spent the past 8 years exploring the sea stacks that dot this section of Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast—so far he has climbed 60 previously unclimbed stacks and established 150 routes.
We met Iain and his team at An Port on the North Atlantic coast, at the very end of a tiny, non-sign posted, one lane (and I mean one lane) sheep covered road. As far as the eye could see, bright green hills dotted with grazing sheep dropped sharply to the swirling waters below, with over two dozen sea stacks lying just offshore.
Access to the stacks is by packraft across open ocean. Our objective for the day was Berg Stack—a relatively short distance away at low tide. We geared up on shore, then Iain paddled us over to the base one at a time. All the climbing is trad, so he and his team set two bomber natural pro anchors at the top and threw down two top ropes.
One route roughly followed Mayday Mayday (British 4b or 5.6), while the other stemmed up the unnamed left hand corner just to the right of the overhang. We all made sure to stand far right of any climber as it was not uncommon for huge chunks of rock to come off and crash loudly in the sea below—the sea stacks are slowly (sometimes quickly!) returning to the ocean rock by rock. Featuring endless vertical and horizontal crack systems and plenty of ledges, the climbing was fun and quick, with many bomber pro placements if you were to climb it on lead.
Arriving on the summit, some 40m or so above the ocean, hundreds of meters from shore and 20KM from the nearest main road was pretty magical. The backside of the Berg Stack slopes gently down to the water, so we could all hang out on top and explore a bit. I found a nest of baby seagulls—two fuzzy, black spotted siblings just hanging out and waiting for food.
The best part of the climb? Iain (with the help of Nancy!) had set up a monster Tyrolean traverse as our way back to shore—one of the longest I have seen. Hanging upside down, pulling yourself along the rope hand over hand, with seagulls above and crashing waves below, was an experience I shall never forget.
If you are a climber looking for a truly remote adventure, head to Donegal.
Resources: Iain has graciously dumped all his sea stack climbing beta into a selection of free PDF guidebooks. The guides are fully interactive, with links to relevant website sections and even YouTube films of each stack being climbed. Iain included numerous onshore crags dotted along the coast of Western Donegal if you find the seas are too rough for safe passage on any given day.