Thursday 22 February 2018

Rock Opera: 'More people have stood on the moon than these Donegal sea stacks'

Donegal's Final Frontier

On top of the world in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan,
On top of the world in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan,
Slieve League, Donegal, Ireland
Abseiling in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan
'Blade', off Owey Island, Co. Donegal. Photo: Iain Miller
Donegal, with climbers in foreground. Photo: Iain Miller
Rock-climbing in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan
Man v. nature in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan
Edge of the earth: climbing in Donegal. Photo: Iain Miller
Dongal, summit of Tormore. Photo: Iain Miller
Climbing in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Some choose to go to the moon. Others take a closer option, rock-climbing in the remotest corners of Co. Donegal.

Home to some of the craggiest nooks and crannies on the Wild Atlantic Way, the county boasts over 100 sea stacks, some of which have been climbed by only a handful people.

That’s according to local climber, Iain Miller of Unique Ascent (, who has been scaling sea stacks off Ireland, Wales and England for 20 years.

“Standing on a pinpoint summit up to 500m from mainland Donegal and 100m above the Atlantic Ocean is an experience than will remain in your happy thoughts forever,” he says.

“You are surrounded by a little known world of Artic skua, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, basking shark and even the odd Killer whale - all of which come within touching distance in their natural enviroment.”

"Donegal offers the greatest diversity of rock-climbing of any county on the island of Ireland," adds Bren Whelan of Wild Atlantic Way Climbing (

Donegal, Dawsons-Abseil1, Bren.jpg
Abseiling in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan

Abseiling in Donegal. Photo: Bren Whelan

Climbing on Malin Head, Ireland's most northerly point, Whelan says he can see "the oldest rocks in Ireland, which are here for almost two billion years. These rise from the Atlantic waves to form Inishtrahull island."

Sea stacks are shards of rock standing dramatically offshore.

They are formed when coastal erosion conspires to carve or collapse the cliffs around them, with famous examples including Dún Briste off Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, and An Branán Mór off the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare.

Climbing such formations can be highly dangerous, requiring a combination of fitness, navigational skills, maritime travel (stacks are often reached by kayak or inflatable dinghy), technical rock-climbing abilities and good old-fashioned cajones.

Here's some footage of Miller scaling a stack known as 'Blade' on Owey Island.

Hailing from Orkney Island, Miller has been climbing in Donegal since 2005, and established his hill-walking and rock-climbing business in 2011. It specialises in taking customers to some of Ireland’s most remote locations.

"Nine out of ten people I take to the Donegal summits have never climbed before, so their experience of gaining one is pretty outrageous," the 42-year-old says.

Whelen, 41, works as a rock climbing guide, mountaineering instructor and adventure landscape photographer. He has spent almost 30 years climbing around the world.

"I've climbed from big European Alpine peaks to the high mountains in New Zealand, Russia and South America. I’ve climbed beautiful limestone pillars in China, and scaled amazing sandstone in Australia, but for me there's no place like Malin Head."

Donegal’s rugged coastal landscape is well-known (it forms a key stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way), but its rock climbing and sea stacks remain off-radar to most casual adventurers.

There's a good reason for that, as it transpires.

“Gaining the summits of Donegal's sea stacks involves walking to the most remote points on the Irish mainland, descending up to 1,000ft down sea cliffs to arrive on very isolated and remote storm beaches at their bases," Miller explains.

“From here, we inflate a wee dingy to get to the base of our chosen stack. Technical rock climbing is used to gain nautical summits up to 148m high, and we abseil back to sea level.”

NB: Needless to say, the adventure activities described in this article can be extremely dangerous and were carried out by fully professional rock-climbing instructors. Rock climbing should never be undertaken without suitable levels of expertise or fully qualified guides.

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