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Review of Fairhead Bouldering Guide

Husband and wife team, Rob and Veronica Hunter, have gone and done what most climbers only day dream about. In August they quit their jobs, spending the last four months, climbing by day and writing and researching a bouldering guide in the evenings. Living the dream you might say.

The fruit of their labours has just emerged blinking into the daylight, a beautiful and very elegant Fair Head bouldering guidebook. For those who don’t know, Fair Head is on the North East tip of the island of Ireland, in County Antrim not far from the Giant’s Causeway, a short journey across the Irish Sea from Scotland.

Fair Head consist of over three miles of predominantly north facing dolerite cliffs up to 100m tall. For decades Irish climbers have been climbing trad routes up the corners and cracks of this massive crag, and word is slowly spreading, with some going so far as to call it the best crag in Britain and Ireland. Over 350 routes have been climbed on the cliff but between the foot of the crag and the water’s edge lies a carpet of massive boulders stretching from one end of the crag to the other.
It’s this expanse of grey dolerite boulders that captivated Rob and Veronica. Rob has been bouldering in Fair Head for over 15 years and knows the boulders better than anyone. When I was researching my Irish bouldering guidebook it was Rob who guided me through the boulders, pointing out problems, giving names and grades. Veronica is a more recent convert but no less devout.

I never thought that any bouldering area in Ireland could merit its own guidebook but Rob and Veronica have set me straight and done a great job.

As with any book, the first thing to strike you is the cover. In this case rather than a pseudo landscape shot or hardcore action photo it’s a macro study of a piece of beautifully lichened dolerite. Some cover shots are designed to encourage the casual browser to buy, but that’s the beauty of self publishing in such a specialist field. If someone wants the guide, they want the guide, and this gives great freedom to the guidebook writer.

The guide contains details of over 440 problems. To put this in context, the Peak District Bouldering guidebook describes 370 problems in Burbage Valley. Even after the last few months of gap filling by the authors there are still 80 unclimbed problems in the guide (these are included in the total problem count). There are, however, whole areas also awaiting development, all you need to do is put in the effort probing deeper in the scree.

The boulders in Fair Head were all, at one point, part of the cliffs above. As such they lie in a massive jumble giving problems of all angles. The rock is rough but not abrasive and problems tend to be mostly on edges with a lot of slopers as well. It’s hard to generalise the climbing style but the typical problem at the Head is steep, crimpy and powerful. This is probably more a function of the preferences of the first ascentist than the rock itself. I think it’s only right to note that some of the landings at the Head can be bad, most problems require a minimum of two pads and some a whole lot more.

Even thought there is a photo topo for every problem the content still has plenty of space to breath among the 206 pages. The scree in a three dimensional maze with few landmarks and walking (scrambling really) through it, especially when carrying a pad, is hard work and it’s inevitable that there will be some wandering around, feeling lost. The proliferation of photos will help visitors orientate themselves, but the reality is that it takes a few visits before you moving directly and confidently from problem to problem.

The book’s design is modern and unobtrusive. I can’t help but notice some parallels in style between this guide and my book but this is inevitable considering the authors and I shared a muse in the form of the clean, crisp minimalism of the 7+8s Font guide.

There are a huge number of photos, action and landscape, giving the book a relaxed coffee table feel. Undoubtedly the page count could have been reduced if some of the photos were omitted, I counted over thirty double page spreads, but the book is still a reasonable size and I think the photos add value.

As well as covering the main areas at Murlough Bay and The Ballycastle end, the guide includes details of two smaller areas, The Miner’s House and Promontory, both of which have better landings and lower grades than the main areas so they are ideal for climbers still getting to grips with bouldering.

There are probably two groups of visitors who will be interested in this guides. Climbers who come to the Head to climb routes but come up against some changeable weather or just fancy a bit of bouldering and visiting wads who want to check out a new area with hard, modern style problems and potential for first ascents.

For the last decade or so the popularity of bouldering at Fair Head was limited by the lack of information. This guide should both inspire and inform, opening Fair Head bouldering to a much to a wider audience.
Three Rock Books