It was 8am on a stormy wet Saturday morning, the 60 knot South West winds were screaming through the ether as we pounded up over and through the 20 foot white horses. We were a nautical mile West of Aranmore island off the western freeboard of Donegal travelling at 40 knots in a 250 horse power rib our destination was the unclimbed Tormore Island, Ireland’s highest sea stack. As we rounded the south west tip of Aranmore I caught a fleeting glimpse of a striking anomaly in the distant sea cliff architecture, it was a perfect straight line standing proud against the rocky backdrop and with another almighty crash into Neptune’s rage we were semi submerged and it was gone.
Several months later I paid a visit to Aranmore Island to investigate my sighting, it was now, standing on the cliff tops overlooking the anomaly that I realised the full extent of what I had previously glimpsed and so a cunning plan was hatched.
Stac an Iolar (The Eagles Stack) is an immaculate 40 meter sea stack sitting in the centre of an amphitheatre of outrageous 70 to 100 meter sea cliffs. The amphitheatre faces South West and catches all the prevailing South West sea motion funnelling it into a kaleidoscope of white watered nautical rage which surrounds the approach and the base of the stack. This was my first visit of many to the cliff tops overlooking the stack and every visit confirmed what I already knew, an ascent of this bad boy was going to be emotional.
Over the next 18 months I patiently waited for the planets to align to allow the correct nautical conditions and to find suitably adventurous and foolhardy cohorts for an ascent of this outstanding sea stack. The prior planning to an undertaking of this nature involves an almost fanatical amount of research into the topography of the seabed surrounding the area, this involved visiting the amphitheatre at all tide states in all sea conditions. This research allowed a map of the predicted channels of black water to be mapped thus ensuring a maximum factor of safety and allowing a most excellent adventure to commence.
And so, the planets aligned and I made the call in the form of a text which simply said “The Icon is on, can you play?” and once more I found myself standing on the sea cliffs overlooking Stac an Iolar. In the house were noble brothers Steven “Jock” Read and Paul Brennan, our cliff top voyeurs were noble sister Caoimhe Gleeson and Oscar the dog. The sky was blue and the sea was calm, conditions were perfect and the sense of anticipation was being heightened by full body rushes of endorphins, seasoned with a healthy smattering of primal fear.
Our descent to sea level involved a rocky scramble down “The Gully of the Gods,” an outstandingly beautiful and atmospheric fissure running the full 100 meter cliff height at the back of the amphitheatre surrounding the stack. We carefully descended the gully each carrying a monster load of climbing equipment and our nautical transport, the ever faithful Lidl inflatable dingy. At the base of the gully a short vertical section was down climbed and we arrived on the storm beach at the entrance to Shambala. Our situation was quite surreal, surrounded by the outrageous overhanging 100 metre sea cliffs, clear blue skies, flat calm sea and an almost overpowering sense of being truly alive.
We inflated the mighty vessel and made several journeys out to the stack transporting ourselves and all our toys onto the large tidal platform at its base. Once we were established on the stack Jock and Paul arranged our climbing equipment whilst I paddled out to sea to view our proposed route on the seaward face, it looked hard and mildly terrifying.
“How does it look?” Came the cry from the stack.
“Suitably tetchy.” Was the only answer I could muster?
A short sea level traverse from our platform was made to gain the base of the sea ward face, a belay constructed and Jock led off up the gently overhanging groove above. Paul and myself stood in silence as Jock inched his way up the rock above us. After 30 minutes of steep strenuous climbing Jock pulled out of the overhanging groove onto a terrifyingly exposed ledge approximately 20 metres above us.
“Looks easy from here up!” came the cry from our vertical hero above.
Jock then made a move out of sight of us as he continued to inch his way to the summit. For the next hour we paid the rope out inch by inch as rocks rained down into the sea from our climber above. After an hour and we had not paid out any rope for almost 20 minutes and there was a tug on the rope and an almighty scream, Jock was on the summit. Caoimhe our cliff top photographer cheered, Oscar barked and Jock rigged a summit belay. At this juncture Paul and I pondered Brother Read’s perhaps ill chosen words “Looks easy from here,” as the ropes were taken in and Paul commenced climbing up the groove and out of sight. This left me alone at the base of the stack and for what seemed like another eternity until there was another shout from the summit and cheer from the cliff tops, Paul was on the summit. My rope went tight and I began to climb, as I commenced up the initial overhanging groove the sense of commitment and exposure grew as I wobbled up the steep rock above me. At the top of the groove an excellent jug and finger jam allowed me to pull onto the exposed ledge at the half way point of the route. From this lofty perch it became very apparent that the vertical rock above had the geological make up of broken eggshells which led to an overhanging body jamming crack to the summit. As I climbed up the eggshells I was extremely thankful for the rope to Jock on the summit, the protection Jock had placed on his lead on this section was at best illusionary and a fall by Jock at this point would have huge and almost certainly fatal, an outstanding lead deep into the realms of chaos by Brother Read. At the top of the eggshells a very exposed and precarious move allowed me to jam myself almost inside the overhung off width crack leading to the summit. The final 3 metres of the route follows an overhanging 10 inch wide crack with a truly sickening sense of exposure as there is nothing around but big air. I managed to climb this wide crack as if I was riding a galloping donkey, not pretty to watch but highly effective.
Pulling on to the skinny exposed summit of this previously unclimbed Iconic sea stack was a truly surreal moment, all round us was the outstandingly beautiful sea battered landscape, a shimmering blue sea and a clear blue Caribbean sky. The sheer vertical walls of the amphitheatre surrounding us now revealing many more possibilities for further vertical pleasure in a truly mind blowing location.
Whilst I had been climbing, Paul had rigged an abseil, so one by one we abseiled the forty metre vertical wall of the East face of Stac an lolar back down to our awaiting vessel. All that was now left to do was to paddle back to our storm beach, ascend The Gully of the Gods to the cliff tops and allow the après climbing festivities to commence.
This Sea stack is one of a shade under 100 sea stacks found around the coast of Donegal, download free Donegal Sea Stack Guidebook.
The film of this ascent Donegal sea stack Climbing Film