A fortnight ago Ped and I went up to Donegal hoping to climb the famous sea stack Cnoc Na Mara. I have followed Iain Miller sea stack exploits with great interest for years but it’s was only recently when I started doing some trad that it become a possibility for me to have a go.
The Sunday Times were interested in an article about it so that sealed the deal and we set a date. I did as much research in advance studying photos and video and asking Iain plenty of questions partly because that’s the way I roll and partly because I was daunted by the scale of the undertaking.
I didn’t get as much trad climbing done as I would of liked this summer so I didn’t exactly feel like an old hand but I assumed that even though the route got VS that the climbing itself would be at the lower end of the scale with the grade reflecting the overall effort of getting to the top.
For those who don’t know much about Cnoc Na Mara it’s pretty remote. A long drive down tiny roads leads to An Port from their its a 30 minute walk to the top of the descent gully which doesn’t take too long to get to the bottom of (going up is a different story), then its a ab down to the beach, inflate your vessel and a short paddle leads to the base of the stack. From there it’s 4 pitches to the top.
The forecast was bad for the first day so we booked into the rather rustic Dooey Hostel in Glencolmcille. It was quiet so we asked for and got the group house to ourselves, it basically a kip but for €15 a head a night it’s good value.
So day 1 we walked in the pissing rain to check out the stack. It looked cool.
Day 2 the weather was pretty day sunny but with the odd shower. On the walk in you get a good view of the landward ridge of Cnoc, one section in particular looked very steep but we assumed it wasn’t that bad once you got there. We got down to the beach after some minor difficulty finding the abseil pegs. The grass gully is really steep, a few degrees steeper and it wouldn’t be possible to descend without a rope. I choose to slide down on my arse to save my legs, Ped kept his dignity and walked down.
Just as we where inflating the boat it started to piss so that was that. With the rock soaking we went for a quick paddle just to get a feel for it then tied the boat up and left. Iain uses a two person inflatable dingy but we brought my inflatable canoe which while a lot more robust and sea worthy weights a ton.
Day 3 started off rainy and we thought the jig was up. At this stage we where pretty sick of the will we won’t we situation but it cleared up and we set off. I was nervous about the whole thing. Not in a bad way just aware that there was a lot of variables.
It turned out to be a glorious day and we got back to the boat and get everything ready to launch. We had a decent rack and double ropes in two drybags. The sea seemed pretty calm but there was still a 2m swell and landing on the stack was a bit tricky but I don’t think we made a good fist of it. The sun was roasting and the sea felt warm so we weren’t bothered that we got wet to the waist. We tied the boat up and I set off up the first pitch.
The rock in the first few meters is beautiful but it goes downhill very quickly. I made my way up pretty easy ground with very little gear passing sea birds and lots of vegetation. The rock was very very loose. I think I was slightly off route and ended up on top of the ridge away from the first belay but the rope drag was too bad so I just took a firm stance and brought Ped up, shouting down “no falls”. A quick traverse led to the rope sling that is the proper first belay. Ped wasn’t leading so we swapped ends at each belay which was a small faff.
Second pitch was just a scramble along the ridge which I followed to where it got steep. There was a steep wall a ledge led left around the corner. I brought Ped up. The belay was pretty good, 3 decent nuts in pretty solid feeling rock but it’s hard to trust. The ledge has big blocks on it and overhung the south face. I really felt that the whole thing could collapse at any moment. I crawled along the ledge and after one tentative go got around the corner. Only now could I see ahead and it looked hard, nearly vertical on small holds for around 10m to where the arete went horizontal again, I was standing at the foot of the steep section we had seen in profile. I pretty instantly knew I wasn’t going up there. I placed a shitty nut but if I fell it was going to be on the belay, the rock didn’t look that bad but I couldn’t trust it. I went back had a rest and then went back out it didn’t feel any better so I went back to the ledge and told Ped I was done. He went around for a look and wasn’t impressed either.
It was an easy decision to retreat, I wasn’t torn. It was too much for me. I was disappointed and I knew that I would question the decision in the future. We sat on the ledge and enjoyed the views for a while, it’s really is a spectacular spot.
Getting back down was fine but there is plenty for potential for hassle. Our ropes pulled fine as much by luck as design and we didn’t kick any loose blocks on each other. I was expecting to shit it on the ab but it was grand maybe I just glad to be going home.
Launching the boat was tricky I ended up just jumping in. And the slog up the slope was savage, really gruelling. I hadn’t eaten enough all day and was starting to feel it. Ped very kindly gave me some of his water. Once at the top of the gully we strolled back to the car, pretty fucked tired. We got back at 7, it would of been dark at 9 so we would of ended up walking out in the dark if we had gone on. (We started lateish, maybe 11).
We meet Iain at the carpark and his commiserated with us and was very gracious.
Yesterday I was looking for photos on the web and stumbled across one of Iain’s that he shot looking down the third pitch and I realised that the rope ran up the ledges to the right of the arete rather than going around the corner like we attempted. I emailed Iain and sure enough we should of kept to the stepped ledge system to the right of the arete for another while before traversing around onto the south face. So we were off route.
On the descent I had looked up and noticed the ledge system and thought that it looked easy but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I guess I had my blinkers on as I made a beeline for the ridge and the least I should of done was consider my options before retreating but I suppose I wasn’t thinking very straight. In my defence the route description is pretty vague ” Pitch 2, 22m. Scramble up the slab to the base of the huge knife edge arete. Pitch 3, 35m. Climb the arete to a peg and block belay on the ledge at it’s top.“
Either way it was a great adventure but I would really would of liked to get to the top. Knowing now that the correct route mightn’t be as bad I think I would like to go back.
There are a few more photos on flickr.
EDIT download Iain Miller’s excellent sea stack guide from www.uniqueascent.com