Realm of the Senses
A story about sea stack climbing in Donegal’s wild Atlantic Waters.
“I’ll meet you in An Port at ten o’ clock,” said Iain, nearing the end of the conversation. “Nah, better make it eleven, you’ll want to stop and take pictures.” I went to bed thinking he’d made it all sound so playful, like splashing on the beach or climbing to the first branch of a tree.
Iain Miller is a mountaineer, and not just any old mountaineer. Hailing from the Orkneys, he came to Donegal and fell in love with the virgin sea stacks and rugged coast. With 60 first ascents of sea stacks and 350 first ascents in Donegal under his belt, Iain turned his passion into a business and set up Unique Ascents. “We will take you to places that have been visited fewer times than the moon,” he said, with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eyes.
Cycling out of Glencolmcille, past standing stones and mass rocks, I kept my eyes fixed on a hilltop radio mast, our landmark.
The landscape was wild and untamed, like a lost world where time had stood still for millennia.
“Ten miles from the nearest human being…and as lonely as Christ,” he wrote.
He produced six poems during his stay, including the famous ‘I, in my intricate image’ and ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ published in Twenty Five Poems in October 1936. A city lover, he found the isolation too much, his only companion an echo in the hills. You can be sure he didn’t think about sea stack climbing.
I swapped my cycling helmet for a mountaineering one and hitched a climbing harness around my crotch. Dan harnessed up quickly. Thirty summers ago, I’d abseiled in a glen with some teenage buddies. Twelve years ago, I got half way up a climbing wall in Belfast. I was no climber.
Pointing to a sea stack Iain said, “That’s where we’re going to play today.”
I looked at him. My face paled. He chuckled.
Iain gave instructions. I listened, nodded and heard nothing as I battled with the voices in my head.
Oscar the dog bounded playfully ahead, while I walked as fast as I could up the hill. I looked over the side of the cliff gasping with wonder and breathlessness.
“Grab hold of whatever you can, trust nothing.” I clambered down a mound of rock and scree, my arms shaking and my legs wobbling. Dan followed.
“Look for a foothold.” Iain said, shouting so I could hear above the wind and waves.
I looked down and saw Oscar waiting patiently atop a rock on the other side of what appeared to be a deep chasm. My heart drummed against my ribs. My foot dangled over a precipice.
“Lower your legs,” called Iain, “It’s a ledge. Sit down and wait for me.”
Then it was Dan’s turn. My breathing returned to normal as Iain arrived and guided us to the storm beach below.
The soles of my hiking boots offered little grip on wet boulders, I discovered as I attempted to step cross to the stack.
“Barnacles are your friend.” Iain advised.
Searching for the rocks covered in minute white cones, I stepped across the foaming sea to the vertical face of the stack. I looked up and felt small against its towering magnificence. With rope adjustments and new knots made Iain climbed with ease and sent the order, “Climb.”Climb? The wall seemed to lean towards me. Doubt filled me, then a surge of determination. I climbed slowly, my fingers feeling for grip, my feet scraping for footholds. Tension in the rope my only lifeline.
Scrambling over the ledge, I sat down and looked around while Iain climbed the next stage, a steep slope. The waves got bigger and sea spray reached higher. Tufts of thrift, not yet in flower and splashes of golden lichen decorated the stack which appeared so barren from afar. Gulls swooped and squawked overhead and the air smelt fresh. I licked the salt from my lips.
This time, I scrambled up the rocky ramp with the speed and agility of a gecko, adrenaline coursing through me and my spirits exhilarated. Iain moved to the top of the 50m stack with ease. Once again, I waited.
“You know what you’re doing now,” said Iain, with a reassuring lilt. “Climb.”
Nooks, crannies, tufts and clumps appeared as if by magic. I felt confident as I scrambled to the summit, the half way point. I hugged Iain, grateful for his encouragement and patience. I looked back at where we’d cycled, remembering the feelings on seeing this place for the first time.
“Is there a name for this stack?” I asked.
“Aye, there are local names, but I named it Realm of the Senses.”
Circling slowly, I exhaled, smiling at the appropriateness of the name in the wildest remotest part of Ireland.
“We need to go,” said Iain. “Time and tide wait for no man.”
Iain sat down and explained the descent. He sat between my legs as if we were about to do the Rock-the-boat dance. I shuffled on my bottom behind him. Thankfully, his body blocked my view of the drop and we reached the vertical section quickly.
The waves splashed over the route I’d ascended. He led me to another route. I called for slack as I stretched my leg to a tiny outcrop in the rock face.
“Give me slack.” I roared, my voice drowned out by wind and surf. “Is she on the ground yet?” Iain shouted to Dan. “More slack.” I yelled.
Above image – Copyright of Iain Miller
The sea poured in from right and left as I touched the ground and waited for Iain.
I knew the boulders were more slippery than before. There was no time to wimp out. I trusted Iain to help me across the foaming frothy water. Oscar’s tail wagged as I stepped onto the mainland. He was warm and soft when I petted him. Dan was cold and had a wet foot.
We climbed back the way we had come. Iain’s partner Caoimhe had come to take photos. After quick introductions, we huddled behind the car to devour the lunch we’d brought.
“Are you going to cycle on to Annagry or do you want a lift?”
I looked at Dan. “We’ll take a lift please.” I said, my eyes pleading for agreement. I’d played. I’d had fun. And Dan had splashed in the water. I had experienced a very unique ascent.
You may also like the following posts from the Irish trip
The start -Getting to Donegal
Killybegs Carpets and Fishing
Part 1 – Poets Musicians and Saints
Part 2 – Slieve League – The Pilgrim’s Path
Part 4 -Annagry to Dunfanaghy