Wednesday 18 October 2017

Daredevil climber is first to scale iconic Mayo sea stack in over 25 years

'Falling wasn't an option'

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

"Falling wasn't an option," says the first climber to have scaled Mayo's most iconic sea stack in a quarter of a century.

It wasn't the first time Iain Miller tried to climb Dún Briste.

Nor was it the second. When Miller pitched up with his inflatable dinghy and climbing gear at Downpatrick Head this August, it was his third attempt on the stack.

In Irish, Dún Briste means 'broken fort'.

It could have broken Miller too. Soaring 50m out of the ocean near Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, this is a sea stack so storied and dramatic it has become a Discovery Point on the Wild Atlantic Way. It's also an extremely dangerous expedition.

Last week, however, Miller and his climbing partner Paulina Kaniszewska attempted the summit, a feat they believe has not been achieved since 1990.

Iain Miller (right) on top of Dún Briste. Photo: Aidan McGinley
Iain Miller (right) on top of Dún Briste. Photo: Aidan McGinley
Iain Miller's 2016 ascent of Dún Briste. Photo: Aidan McGinley
Iain Miller and Paulina Kaniszewska prep for their ascent of Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Approaching Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Landing on Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Iain Miller on Dún Briste. Marion Galt

"I know of around 30 climbers who have toyed with the idea of an ascent, but the logistics have overwhelmed them," Miller, who runs adventure and climbing company Unique Ascent (uniqueascent.ie) in Donegal, told Independent.ie Travel.

The stack has been climbed only once, he says - when UK climbers Mick Fowler, Nikki Duggan and Steve Sustad successfully summited in 1990.

Mountaineering Ireland (climbing.ie) confirms this and Miller's as the only ascents, but says it is "open to correction" if a record of another can be produced.

One of Dún Briste's main challenges is the Atlantic, Miller says.

"The sea around Downpatrick Head plays by its own rules and is notoriously difficult to predict. This involved a huge amount of research prior to and during each visit and our unsuccessful attempts. The next challenge was landing on the stack."

On the day, calm conditions made this part of the climb relatively straightforward - with ledges accessible at sea level. But the ascent was only beginning.

Iain Miller and Paulina Kaniszewska prep for their ascent of Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Iain Miller and Paulina Kaniszewska prep for their ascent of Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Approaching Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Iain Miller's 2016 ascent of Dún Briste. Photo: Aidan McGinley
Landing on Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Iain Miller on Dún Briste. Marion Galt
Iain Miller (right) on top of Dún Briste. Photo: Aidan McGinley

"The climbing was hard, scary and for a section approximately 40 metres above sea level, falling wasn't an option," he recalls.

Dún Briste is said to have broken away from the mainland in 1393, with locals rescued from the stack with the help of ships' ropes. Prior to that, St. Patrick is believed to have founded a church on the headland - once a popular pilgrimage site.

In the 1980s, a small team of scientists was deposited onto the stack by helicopter, on a mission to investigate ruins still visible from the mainland.

As well as its rich history, Dún Briste attracts birdwatchers to view species that nest in its stratified ledges (Miller says he always takes care to avoid interactions with nesting birds, and encountered none on his climb).

As they progressed, Miller and Kaniszewska were cheered from Downpatrick Head by a small band of locals from Ballycastle. They watched as Miller summited - though a subsequent rainfall meant his partner did not get more than 20m up the stack.

"Watching them was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Marie Tighe, a nurse from Ballycastle. "I've lived down here for years and I never thought anyone would be able to do it from the ground."

After the summit, Miller's overwhelming feeling was one of relief.

Approaching Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt
Approaching Dún Briste. Photo: Marion Galt

"But the summit is the halfway point," he says. "There is no celebration or time to ponder your surroundings as you are already mentally on the descent."

Getting down was "by far the scariest part of the climb, as you create an anchor to abseil from, lean back over a 50m drop and abseil down the stack."

"It was nearly more frightening watching him going down," Tighe concurs.

"It's only when you are both safely back at sea level with a calm sea passage between you and the car that the first wave of euphoria hits you," Miller adds.

"It's like a bomb going off in your head."

When the climbers returned, locals were waiting with hot dinners, and a surprise treat - chocolate-covered queen cakes baked by nine-year-old Naoise O'Sullivan. 

"To climbers, a summit that has been stood on less times than the moon is always going to be an interesting, and hopefully viable, proposition," Miller says.

NB: The activities described in this article were undertaken by pro climbers at their own risk. Climbing can be extremely dangerous, and should never be undertaken without suitable levels of expertise or fully qualified guides.

Miller and Kaniszewska wish to acknowledge the support of the local community, cameraman Aidan McGinley, photographer Marion Galt, and fellow climbers Fionnuala Donnelly, John Mallon and Denise O' Doherty.

Online Editors

Editors Choice

Also in Life