A MAJOR search and rescue operation was underway off the Co Kerry coast last night after a world-famous rock climber fell from a cliff and plunged into the sea.
Michael Reardon, an American in his early 30s, is considered to be one of the leading free solo climbers in the world.
Such extreme climbers shun equipment such as ropes and crampons and instead use only their hands and boots to scale rock faces hundreds of feet high.
He arrived in the country around two weeks ago as part of a tourism promotion and is understood to have been helping promote adventure holidays in Ireland to American and European tourists.
He had been staying in Killarney and was visiting Valentia Island with two friends when the accident occurred shortly after 5pm yesterday.
Mr Reardon had been walking along the top of a cliff at Dohilla when he slipped on some heavy kelp and was unable to regain his footing. He plunged some 75ft into the sea below. The alarm was raised by his fellow climbers.
A large air and sea search was quickly underway with three local fishing vessels assisting the Valentia lifeboat and Knightstown Coastguard. The Shannon-based Sea King Coastguard helicopter, which is equipped with infra-red cameras, was also scrambled to scan the coastline.
On land, members of the Kerry Mountain Rescue and local hill-walking clubs scanned the shore assisted by around 20 local people.
However, by late last night, there was still no sign of the talented climber. Rescuers said visibility was good and they were due to continue the search until the light faded late last night. The spot where Mr Reardon fell is located just underneath the Valentia Coastguard station and is popular with climbing enthusiasts.
Just two months ago in the United States, Mr Reardon completed some of the most difficult climbs in The Rockies. He has also done some of the most challenging descents around the world. Fellow rock climbers said last night that "his whole life revolves around climbing".
His face has featured on the front covers of more American and European climbing magazines than any other climber since Chris Bonnington, the English mountaineer and Everest climber.