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Rock Climbing in Donegal, by Iain Miller

The county of Donegal on the North West tip of Ireland can easily be said to contain more rock climbing venues, routes and both climbed and unclimbed rock than the rest of Ireland combined.

With over 3,000 recorded rock climbs on over 170 cliffs including Irelands highest sea stack, Irelands longest rock climb, the largest mountain cliff in Ireland and Irelands longest recorded ice climb as well as many more standard single and multi-pitch venues above the sea, by the road, on the islands and in the mountains. County Donegal currently plays host to several lifetimes of world class rock climbing in some of the most beautiful, remote and unspoilt locations in Ireland. Donegal plays host to many adventurous locations for the exploratory expert rock climber and beginner alike.

The online guide (http://uniqueascent.ie/undiscovered_donegal) is ideally used in conjunction with the printed select guidebook to Donegal, Rock Climbing in Donegal guidebook 2015. Incorporated within this on line guide are 26 free downloadable PDF guidebooks covering the entire county. These free PDFs correspond to the chapters within the printed guidebook and provide a more definitive guide to the rock climbing available at each location.

County Donegal plays host to a lifetime of world class rock climbing in some of the most beautiful, remote and unspoilt locations in Ireland.

Beautiful, remote and unspoilt rock climbing in Donegal

The Mountains of Donegal

The mountains of Donegal stretch across the entire county and provide an enormous amount of climbing with some of the longest mountain routes in Ireland in the Poisoned Glen. The two of the largest ranges are in the centre of the county and comprise of solid weathered mountain granite. The rest of the Donegal Mountains are quartz and are at a slightly lower altitude and closer to the sea and its prevailing south west trade winds.

The Glenveagh national park is a beautiful and impressive place to climb; its main face dominates this huge U shaped valley. It is also Donegal's busiest tourist attraction with a large visitor centre, restaurant and an excellent refurbished Glenveagh Castle. This very busy end of the glen provides the most obvious access to the climbing available in the glen. Simply park and follow the crowds around the visitor attractions, once at the cafe in the castle, continue out along towards the huge loch. From here follow the lochside road for approximately an hour to a small bothy on your left.  Cross the stream by the stepping stones outside the bothy and make a km long rising traverse to the base of the cliff. 

An alternative approach and one which is a lot less crowded, from the R254 Doocharry to Churchill road, there is a small roadside parking place at Grid Ref B972158. From here simply follow the path down in the stunning Glenveagh, after approximately 1km the path becomes an untarred road which takes you the full length of the Glen to the Castle and visitor centre. As you descend into the Glen the huge main cliff looms over you on your left. From here cross the stream and make the same km long raising traverse to the base of the cliff. This huge mountain crag suffers a wee bit from lack of traffic and if the effort was put in for a crag clean this location would provide some of the best mountain crag routes in the country.

The Poisoned Glen is one of the original climbing venues in Ireland with routes dating back to the 1950's and 1960's. The glen also plays host to Ireland largest continual rock face (The Bearnas Buttress) and Ireland longest Ice climb. Most of the faces in the glen face North to North West and as such get very little sunlight; a prolonged dry spell is required to catch the main faces in a dry climbable condition.

The highest crag is also the fastest drying, Ballaghageeha Buttress sits at an altitude of 400m and provides excellent single and multi-pitch climbing. It has in recent years seen a lot of attention from local climbers and as such most of the routes are freshly cleaned. Access to the Glen is by foot from either Dunlewey or the Lough Barra road side, both approaches take approximately an hour to reach most crags and the ground underfoot is very boggy and pathless.

The Poison Glen catches all the moisture brought into Donegal by the North Atlantic Drift and it can be a very wet place indeed. If the glen is wet a few alternative places to climb are The Bingorms, Glenveagh or Muckish Mountain. BUT these locations are prone to the same climatic downpours as the Poison Glen. If is raining in the Derryveagh Mountains then head to the coast and into the Donegal rain shadow the best two places to visit are Crohy Head or Cruit Island.

The West Coast of Donegal

Stretching the length of Western Donegal is An Ghaeltacht, an area of outstanding natural beauty, a place where the rugged granite mountains meet the untamed Eastern Atlantic Ocean. Scattered along this coastline in some of the most beautiful and remote locations in Ireland live a collection of truly awesome sea cliffs and Sea Stacks.

Of particular note is An Port, one of the most remote, beautiful and unspoilt places in Ireland. This lonely rugged coast stretches from Glencolmcille in the south to Maghera in the East of the county. The gentle rolling untamed hillsides of Slievetooey provide the backdrop for this 30 km stretch of 200m high quartz sea cliffs. This stretch of coast is home to 30 of the most inaccessible and outrageous sea stacks it is possible to imagine.

At the most remote tip of the Slievetooey peninsula in Ireland’s most remote location, sits the End’s of the Earth crag, a perfect 40m hanging slab of quartz. There are currently 14 routes up to HVS, with all the routes being worth at least 2 stars and a very real feeling of being totally and utterly alone. This crag is best visited during an angry south west sea as there is a perfectly located blowhole at the high water mark which creates large explosions of salt spray as the big sets roll in.
To the south of An Port sits the Sturrall Headland - the mother of all ridges. The Sturrall Headland is an extremely inaccessible and foreboding place to visit. Access is by a steep scary scramble and a wee 300m sea passage deep into the realms of chaos. The ridge itself is approximately 800m long starting at the sea ward tip and travelling landward over the summit and along the ridge to where the headland joins the mainland.  

By far the biggest development in Donegal has been on its sea stacks, there are over 100 sea stacks dotted along its coastline providing over 150 recorded climbs to their summits. Many of the stacks found along this coast will require you to use considerable nautical, vertical and spiritual guile, to reach the summit of these beasts. An adventurous spirit and a sense of humour are essential components of a day in the company of Neptune, Gaia and the forces of nature.

The rock is mixture of quartzite and Granite, and running the entire coast is a band of basalt, which features heavily on many of the sea stacks. Many of the stacks have access issues in the form of 200m loose sea cliffs overlooking and guarding access to them, followed by varying length of sea passage across truly atmospheric seas. Prior planning is essential including a forensic study of the previous week’s wind and swell forecasts.

For truly awesome climbing in a mind blowing location Cnoc Na Mara and the twin summits of An Bhuideal just to the North of An Port are both of superb quality. Cnoc na Mara is an iconic and truly outstanding sea stack, when I first saw this 100m sea stack from the overlooking clifftops it was the inspiration to make the first ascents of all 100 of Donegal’s unclimbed sea stacks. It is safe to say this stack represents all that is great about adventure climbing. Its impressive soaring 150m long landward arete provides one of the most rewarding and adventurous rock climbs in Ireland. It is easily an equal to the mighty Old Man of Hoy off the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland.
  
Access is by a monstrous steep grassy descent followed by a 20m abseil to a storm beach at the entrance to Shambala. As you descent this steep slope sitting out to sea Cnoc na Mara grows with height as you descend reaching epic proportions as you get closer to the beach. Gaining the beach alone is an adventurous undertaking in its own right and is an excellent taster off what is to come. From the beach you then have to paddle out for about 120m to the base of the stack.
  
The Landward arête is climbed in four pitches each pitch being much more atmospheric than the last. The fourth pitch is the money shot, a 58m ridge traverse with 100m of air either side of you as you negotiate the short steep sections along this outstanding ridge traverse. Gaining the summit is like being reborn into a world where anything is possible it truly is a surreal and magical place to be. The whole world falls away below and around you, as you are perched on a summit far from anything else. The descent back to sea level is an involved affair and involves two abseils and great deal of care and guile.  This sea stack requires a great deal of care and attention to detail as the potential for epics are huge but the rewards are even greater.

An Bhuideal sits approximately 1.5km north of An Port and is quite simply an iconic sea stack. Its twin summits provide three rock climbs that have few equals in the country. It is easily an equal to the much better known Old Man of Stoer off the north west of Scotland. Access is by a steep exposed scramble down the huge ridge on the headland to the north of the stack followed by a 30m abseil onto a superb storm beach facing the beast from the north. A 300m sea passage from here along the land ward edge of a series of outlaying skerries will take you to the base of the land ward face of the stack.

The main tower is the thicker Southern one and contains two excellent Severe rock climbs to its summit. There is a quad rigged belay station on its summit allowing an abseil down the centre of the land ward face.  The slender North tower, which looks like an old fashioned milk Bottle from the sea, provides one of the most exposed and scary rock climbs in Ireland. At the amenable grade of VS this route winds its way up the landward and north faces to a tiny sloping summit. The summit feels like it sways slightly as you sit on it. The abseil off this summit is not for the faint hearted as it is incredibly exposed and relies on a summit cairn as the primary anchor. All three routes provide a truly outstanding adventurous day out.

The Islands of Donegal

The granite sea cliffs of Gola IslandThe Islands of Cruit, Arranmore, Gola, Umphin, Owey and Tory provide many lifetimes worth of outstanding sea cliff climbing and between them are home to a further 20 or so, superb Granite sea stacks. These islands are a step back in time with an idyllic setting, unchanged in many ways as the rest of civilisation marches with modern pace.

Gola Island in western Donegal is the epicentre of the Donegal climbing scene with well over 200 single pitch routes from Diff to E5 on the Granite sea cliffs and inland outcrops scattered throughout the island. In the main the rock is immaculate sea washed granite with only some of the sheltered zawns containing sections of loose rock. What Gola Island provides is outstanding rock climbing in a wild, remote and truly beautiful setting. The island sits far out in Co Donegal's rain shadow and it is not unusual to be climbing on the island in bright sunshine and blue skies whilst the rest of the county is under a deluge of heavy rain.
  
By far the best place to stay on the island is to wild camp between the Loch and the sandy beach at the head of the huge sea inlet on the western side of the island, this campsite allows an easy 10 minute walk to all of the islands climbing locations and provides an outstanding place to wake up on a summers morning. Pretty much all of the sea cliff climbing on Gola Island requires a calm sea to safely climb on them. If the sea is bouncing from the South West then the Binatok Bay and the North West Zawn offer sheltered climbing. If the sea is bouncing from the west then there are the two inland crags which both offer non tidal climbing on immaculate rock.

Cruit Island, in the heart of the Rosses, provides over 300 rock climbs on its many immaculate granite sea cliffs and separating these sea cliffs are some of the most beautiful sandy beaches it is possible to imagine. All the crags on Cruit are less than 5 minutes walk from the car and provide excellent single pitches routes mostly in the VDiff to HVS grade range.

Owey Island sits off the Northern tip of Cruit Island and is only accessible by a short passenger ferry crossing. The ferry runs from the far northern end of Cruit Island from the pier below the golf course club house and berths at the South East tip of Owey Island. This superb natural harour on Owey provides lee from 90% of sea states alas it does not cope very well with large North to North East motion as the harbour entrance can be closed by violent white water.

The climbing on Owey can be easily subdivided into two distinct sections, the Western End and the Eastern End. These two climbing areas at opposite end of the island each provide lee from the predominant South West and North West sea motions. With carful observation of the current and predicted sea states climbing on the island can be achieved in all but the most extreme nautical rage. The climbing on Owey is very similar to the much better known Gola Island, in terms of atmosphere and setting. Many of the cliffs require a slightly more adventurous approach with most of the routes having only ever been climbed once.
  
There are a couple of accommodation options for an overnight stay on the island, Owey Home Stay provide both self-catering and Bed & Breakfast accommodation in their newly renovated cottage in the centre of the island. There are very limited facilities on the island with wild camping as the only alternative option for an overnight stay. The area of flat ground around the harbour is the ideal campsite with the old stone walls providing excellent shelter. The only source of fresh water is the stream that runs through the village on the island, during periods of dry weather this stream can get a wee bit low and brown in colour.    

The South West of Donegal

In the south west of the county the rock turns to quartz, and there is an incredible amount of rock in this huge coast area.

Malinbeg sits on the south West tip of Donegal it is a long standing rock climbing venue in the county and provides good clean rock with easy access. Like many of the sea cliffs on the west coast of the county it sits well within the rain shadow of the mountain ranges and avoids most of the wet weather as an added bonus the sea breezes mean the chance of midge’s is very low. It is possible to climb here all year round, but prior checking with winds, tides and swell must be made as in a large south West motion the sea will crash green over the tops of the crags especially at the Northern end of the area.

Sail Rock is an 80 meter high Quartz sea cliff which forms the East facing wall of a huge scooped out amphitheatre. There are currently eight recorded rock climbs on the wall from a very amenable "Roaring Forties" at VS 4c to a very hard "Castaway" at E6 6b. All the routes on the wall are excellent and well worth doing but it is the route called "Main Mast" at E2 5b/c which climbs the central fault of the wall which sees the most ascents by far and is regularly called "The best route in Ireland."

Donegal rock climbing guidebookMuckross Head is a very unusual crag composed of horizontally bedded sandstone interspersed with thin bands of mudstone that have been eroded faster and have produced the characteristic overhangs that make the rock climbing here excellent. The climbing is in the main steep and strenuous and although the rock is generally excellent, the last meter for so along the top of the crag does require a wee bit of care. The grade range of the routes is from Diff to E7, with the vast majority of the routes above E1, so bring strong arms with you. At high tide with a heavy South West sea rolling in, the platforms at the base of the crag can become submerged very quickly.

This article was written by Donegal local expert Iain Miller, who also wrote the rock climbing in Donegal guidebook that covers a selection of the best 1,000 routes in Donegal.

For further information on rock climbing guiding, instruction and holidays in Donegal visit the Unique Ascent website.

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Donegal rock climbing guidebook

The rock climbing in Donegal guidebook covers a selection of the best 1,000 routes in Donegal. The variety of rock climbing found in Donegal is huge, with everything from sea cliffs, and sea stacks, to islands and the mountains.

Buy the rock climbing in Donegal guidebook from our shop.


Are you a budding travel writer? 

Climb Europe are looking for exciting destination articles about various rock climbing areas around the world. 

Earn money from your travels by sending your articles to Climb Europe.  Contact Us directly.